Director-General of National Agency for Foods and Drugs Administration and Control, Dr. Paul Orhii, spoke with FRIDAY OLOKOR on the allegations levelled against him by the embattled former Director of Finance and Administration of the agency. Excerpts:
There have been allegations of financial recklessness and frivolous awards of contracts against you. Why did you embark on such adventures?
The allegations are false; we did not award frivolous contracts. We have not indulged in reckless spending as claimed. Take a look at the person making the allegations, the former director of finance and administration. He is the person who has been making the payments for the past three to four years. Then suddenly when he was reassigned, he woke up to discover that there were irregularities. But all the paper works are there to show that contract awards followed due process. All the allegations of financial recklessness are false.
Of course, it is very easy to find out when someone says that I award contracts to my own companies, it is very easy to go to the Corporate Affairs Commission. Luckily, he provided the name of the companies, so you can go and look through it and see if there is any relative of mine in any of the companies that were mentioned. Look at the Board of Directors, signatures and names to see if any of my relatives or I have anything to do with any of these companies.
In a petition that is online, it was alleged that the cost of furniture installation in Isolo office of the agency was inflated to N270m from less than N180m, how did that happen?
That contact followed due process and two external auditors evaluated the worth of the contract and they submitted their report to the Ministry of Health because the contract was above the approval limit of NAFDAC’s tenders board. It was approved by the ministerial tender board before it was awarded and this same director coordinated that event only to turn around to say that it was inflated. So if he inflated it, then, he is the one that knows best how to explain it. But to the best of my knowledge, that contract went through all due process before it was awarded.
It was also alleged that a sum of N400m was removed from the purse of the agency between March 2013 and December 2014, how true is that?
He said it was for the purchase of chemicals; if purchase of chemicals is illegal, well I don’t know. I am not also aware of any illegal withdrawal. He was the one who was actually paying the funds. If he knew that these were illegal withdrawals, why didn’t he talk about it or draw my attention to it?
Sometimes, when we have emergencies, we have to pay to get chemicals. It is not totally strange for NAFDAC to buy chemicals because it is from our laboratory that we get most of our income. Usually, we buy chemicals, and laboratory analysis of our products is a major source of income to NAFDAC.
The former finance director also claimed that the sum of N4bn was fraudulently withdrawn from NAFDAC’s coffers in the last four years for fictitious advertisements, are you saying this is not true as well?
Advertisements are not fictitious. We are present on four television channels. For “NAFDAC and your Health” programme, I don’t believe that there is any Nigerian that does not know about it because it runs on four television stations. Since I came to NAFDAC, we have been airing at prime periods on AIT, NTA, CHANNELS TV and BEN TV in Europe. The payments we made to these channels are verifiable.
Realising that TV may not be accessible to everybody, we have “NAFDAC and your Health” on radio that is aired in all the states across the country. I do not think that is waste of public funds or frivolous withdrawals because this is how we reach members of the public. We carry out public awareness campaigns, we work with members of the National Youth Service Corps, we have a youth corps members CDS that particularly targets NAFDAC’s activities and we have to print T-Shirts, lecture materials to give to these people. We have NAFDAC year book, we have the annual report on NAFDAC, we have NAFDAC news that we print and sometimes, we are featured in magazines. Sometimes we advertise some of our activities on TV and magazines. For example, the popular text and scratch method to tell Nigerians how to authenticate their drugs, the programme itself costs us nothing but you have to educate the people on how to be able to authenticate medicines. We have our messages running on buses. We have our messages in newspapers. If you open most magazines in Nigeria, we take the prime space, sometimes it is cover page, sometimes middle page to advertise these and they are not free, neither do I believe these are waste of public funds.
The difference between regulation in developing countries like Nigeria and developed countries like America is the fact that most people here are largely ignorant. They do not know even the right thing. In a developed country, they look at the product, the expiry date and even the company before they buy. Here, if you do not use the media to educate the masses, people sometimes even believe that the counterfeiter is the one helping them to get drugs at a cheaper rate, they do not know that taking a counterfeit product can be more expensive and might even cost them their lives. We had to engage traditional rulers, the entertainers and right now, Tu Face Idibia is our NAFDAC ambassador and all these things are not free.
The director in question has been there over the past four years. He has been the one approving and actually making all the payments. So for him to wake up one day and become an overnight whistle blower when he was redeployed to a different directorate because of his incompetence and corrupt tendencies speaks volume.
Could all what you have enumerated here be the reason why the debt profile of NAFDAC has hit about N5bn?
We have that level of debt profile because of our prudent management of resources. NAFDAC regulates a population of 170 million people and we are one of the top 20 medicine regulatory agencies in the world. The US Foods and Drugs Administration in 2012 generated $2bn; the Congress appropriated additional sum of about $2.36bn that was released. At the end of the year, they had another supplementary $150m. If you look at that together, it comes to more than $4.5bn. If you convert that at the current exchange rate, it is more than N1trn. If you extrapolate and believe that the life of a Nigerian is as good as the life of an American, if you believe that our life is not supposed to be substandard comparable to the life of an American, if we say, we want to be like the USFDA and we are 170 million Nigerians which is more than half of the population of America, you will see that if we extrapolate that kind of income, we needed about N400bn to run NAFDAC.
In contrast, during that period, we got about N6bn, we had to pay back 25 per cent as Internally Generated Revenue into the federation account and another five per cent as VAT. So we were left with about N4bn to run the agency compared to the USFDA’s $400bn.
If you take it further, the USFDA does not have to deal with counterfeit drugs; that is the business of the FDI. We have more than N4bn left which has to go to fighting counterfeit pharmaceutical products. We spend more than N500m every year just on legal fees prosecuting counterfeiters.
Before I came to NAFDAC, no single conviction of counterfeiters was secured but now, we have secured more than 10 major convictions. A 14-year sentence was handed down to the manufacturer of My Pikin mixture, three years for somebody who manufactured counterfeit insecticide and other convictions. You can see where our money is going. That is prosecution alone; people are suing us and we are suing people; this takes more than N500m a year.
We also carry out destruction exercises of large volumes of counterfeit drugs worth billions of naira every year.
It was alleged that the land given to the agency by the immediate past governor of Benue State has been cornered by you; yet the agency paid N30m for its documentation?
The then Governor, Gabriel Suswam, allocated the piece of land to NAFDAC in Makurdi and said he would pay the fees. While we were processing the land, we needed to pay some fees but there was encroachment on that land, people even went ahead to institute legal action against us and then money was approved to fence the land. All our efforts came to nothing, we went to council and reported the incident to NAFDAC governing board and the board authorised the DG to look for any suitable land in Benue State and acquire it because we had already planned to build a NAFDAC training institute there. We found a six-hectare piece of land and sought for permission to transfer everything that we needed to do on that land that the governor had allocated back to that land. That land is worth more than N30m; it has been fully fenced, we have taken electricity to that land, there is a borehole standing there right now. We have even sunk a community borehole because the residents were demanding for one.
I don’t know why he said the land does not exist and has been converted to personal use but the land is there, it is verifiable, it can be visited.
What is your relationship with former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoakaa who is alleged to be on NAFDAC’s pay roll?
That is the allegation of Saharareporters. When I was appointed, Saharareporters went on air that Aondoakaa was my cousin and that I had been awarded $10m to keep in trust for Aondoakaa in the Pfizer case. That was very funny because the Pfizer case was a very difficult case for the Federal Government.
Pfizer came in 1996 and conducted a clinical trial in Kano when people were suffering from acute epidemic meningitis with 200 kids; 11 died during the trial and Pfizer folded up and left. Later in 2001 when that same drug, Trofan, affected people in the United States, some of them died of liver failure. In fact, Pfizer came here to seek for approval for use in epidemic meningitis cases that the drug had been approved in the US and was being used.
When people died and Kano State discovered this was the same drug that was used on their children, they sued Pfizer in New York, the case was dismissed, so they came back and sued Pfizer in Kano State. That was before Aondoakaa became the AGF. I was studying the case, I looked at the approval process of that drug in the United States and I found that the intravenous form of that drug needed to be given over a 60 minute period, otherwise the child would die on the table of hypertension. I wrote to the Ministry of Justice then before Aondoakaa came, only the gift of prophecy would have made me to know that Aondoakaa would be made the AGF in the future. I sent a memo to the ministry that I could help them solve the case, I didn’t get a response.
When Aondoakaa was appointed AGF, I came up with the proposal again that I could help them solve the case as a pharmaceutical litigation expert. I had my own law firm in Houston and I am sought after by countries as a pharmaceutical litigation expert. I am a medical doctor, I have my PhD in chrononeuro-cycopharmacology, I am a researcher, I worked in the University of Texas Health Science Center as a biomedical research scientist before I studied law and got called to the Texas Bar. So what Nigerian lawyers could not understand about that case, I understood it. In the US, I am sought after for because of my unique expertise.
Any case that involves medical and legal and biomedical research issues, I am the person sought after. I would have taken $2m and be on the side of Pfizer but I decided to come home and take up the case for Nigeria for which I am being insulted today. Imagine myself as a medical doctor, biomedical scientist and as a lawyer, if I stay back and just being an expert witness for murder, I will be making huge sums of money but I came and did this case for free for Nigeria for which we won $75m for the victims and in return, I get insults from Saharareporters every day and their cohorts. That was why I sued Saharareporters when they lied against me.
I am not distancing myself from Aondoakaa but we are not related by blood, we are sufficiently close, he is my friend and I consider him as my brother. I was at least one year ahead of him in primary school and have remained friends up till today. We grew up in the same village and I will never ever distance myself from him but accusing me of anything just because I am Aondoakaa’s brother, I don’t see any sense in it.
Following these accusations, do you regret coming back home to serve Nigeria?
Oh no, serving Nigeria is a difficult process, there is no one who has served Nigeria that has not been insulted. You hear people insulting the president every day.
I served under late President Umaru Yar ‘Adua, he was the one who invited me. When he was sick, you could hear the insults against him, then I served under ex-President Goodluck Jonathan. The insults that the man received are more than I have ever heard. Now I am serving under Buhari already, there are some people insulting him.
It is not peculiar to Nigeria, Nigerians are just like the Israelites. Jesus came to save the world, they spat on his face, beat and nailed him to the cross. It was later people began to say he came to save the world. Anybody who has decided to serve the people with candour has suffered. If anybody is naïve enough to think that when you are serving your people you will not be insulted, the person is deceiving himself. I came to Nigeria, Nigeria honoured me, I had been away all my life and within three years, I have got national honours, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). That means so much to me, your country appreciates you to a point where in three years of service, they see what you bring to the table and they give you a national honour, I take that very seriously; so why shouldn’t I take insults along with it? The fact that you are doing a good job today means that you are hurting other people.
Why was the ex director transferred to Kaduna?
There are so many reasons behind that especially after too many accusations. When staff entitlements are not paid to people who deserve them, when you have staff entitlements and somebody says you must come and see me and possibly bribe me before I pay you your entitlement (that is what the staff say), I feel that is unfortunate and I feel guilty because I was the one who made this guy a Director of Finance, so I had to solve the problem.
You give a widow a contract of N500, 000 to get maybe N50, 000 and then the widow goes and borrows money from a money lender who is charging her 100 per cent for the return because she cannot access funds from the bank and the widow completes the supplies. Instead of paying her, you sit and place your legs on the table and say there is no money. When the widow asks you ‘when should I come back’?, you tell her I don’t know, go and pray. I believe that this is unfortunate. I believe that I created the problem and I should solve it.
Why didn’t you reprimand him all this while or was there any warning to that effect?
Both staff and contractors were afraid; he was a god. They believed that if they reported to me, they would be victimised. After a while, I became worried because people were coming to me for their payments. I said no, look at my files sometimes I’d take them home and make approvals in the night. I don’t know whose file it is or which contractor it is that I approved. I said people should stop coming to me for payment when I had forwarded approval for payment to the DFA. I expected the payments to be made and not for people coming back to me again begging for payments.
When I had to go and beg for a widow to be paid over and over again, because from the N500, 000, she had nothing to offer back, I was pained and I felt that I had created a monster, I had to move him.
Do you intend to go to court over these accusations?
I have asked my lawyers to look into all the accusations. I might go to court.
If a probe panel is set up to investigate all these and peradventure you are found guilty, what will you do?
Is it my prerogative to decide whether I am stepping aside or not? They will ask me to move away immediately, and why not? If Nigeria decides that they do not want me today, whether over the allegations or not, I will move. Is it my own agency? I have so many other things I can be doing somewhere else. If Nigeria does not need my services, I can go elsewhere and provide services.
The point is not whether I am going to step aside or not, who told you someone who is innocent cannot be convicted and even sentenced to death? In my profession as a lawyer even in the US, they have executed so many people and after DNA they say oh, we have executed the wrong guy. If Nigerians decide they don’t need me at any point in time, I won’t stay a minute longer, I will willingly leave.
I am proud of the height to which I have taken the agency, I will support whoever they bring as the next person as much as possible to build further. But I am willing to serve the country for as much as it needs me because I believe this is where the real challenge is. Based on my impact, when I meet Nigerians who are my superiors coming to say ‘well done’, it keeps me going and no amount of money can buy that.
Why did you replace an ICAN certified accountant with a statistician who used to head a planning, research and statistics department?
To me, I needed more planning in that directorate because there was no plan on when money is going to be paid. Even the budget was not well planned, no plan on how to allocate our staff resources; which area should we buy more and how much should we allocate to statutory payment. We have been buying diesel over the years, we should know how much we need for diesel, we should allocate a particular percentage of our payment proportion to the amount of diesel that we consume and diesel is very critical in our operations.
All over the country, we have seven laboratories that need to be run, it is the laboratories that generate our income. If we don’t have diesel, if we don’t pay the diesel people, there will be no diesel, no electricity, no laboratory working and no money coming in.
We have to allocate resources, and plan for chemicals, a situation where equipment are down at different locations because the people who were to service the equipment are not paid, I can’t run an agency like that. I need somebody who can plan and say this is approximately how much it would cost us to service the equipment, this is approximately how much we need for chemicals and plan ahead to make them available, this is how much it would cost for diesel, we plan ahead and make it available. There are many policemen we engage because we don’t carry guns, we need police to help us do our services and this is how much we need to pay them, this is the number of consultants we engage; this is how much we need to pay them.
I put in somebody who can plan and tell me ahead that based on our experience over the years, this is how much we should set aside every month for these categories and then these are staff claims. I need somebody who can plan and within a week get results.
The new man has been there for only a few days and we are getting great results already. That is why I put a planner there. No regrets for my action.