From Jacob Edi, Abuja.
Established in 1993, the Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO), a multi-disciplinary research and development outfit, has remained moribund almost since creation. When it was established, the complex, equipped with laboratories bio-technology, chemistry, physics and a nuclear technology centre with gamma irradiation plant, was supposed to be a research hub for the development of drugs for sickle-cell anaemia, malaria, and cancer, among other functions.
Remarkably, three renowned scientists have served as directors-general of the organiaation without the centre achieving its goals: Prof. Emmanuel Emovon, Dr. Ayodele Coker and Mr. Ugha Soro. A director from the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology had served for three months in an acting capacity. The current director-general, Prof. Sunday Thomas, has one more term to go.
Staff of the organisation told Daily Sun that the complex has only successfully developed an urea-biomass fertilizer and an anti-sickle cell drug discovered by Prof. Charles Wambebe of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development in 2006.
Both projects were said to have been abandoned in controversial circumstances.
Some people have blamed the development on alleged misapplication of funds. Staff in the organisation who did not want their name in print claimed that one of the managers had to answer some questions at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on account of some petitions written against him.
Further investigations showed that development of the anti-sickle cell drug hit the rocks when the then management of SHESTCO allegedly could not account for the N100 million it got from the Federal Government through NEXIM Bank at the time.
It was also alleged that XECHEM, an American drug manufacturing company, which bought the patent for the commercial production of the anti-sickle cell drug and was ready to go into partnership with SHESTCO to mass produce the medicine, got cold feet because the authorities of SHESTCO were no longer transparent in the disbursement of the money. The American company has since pulled out of the project, which has stalled the progress of the life-changing drug.
There were also allegations that over N10 million given to the agency by the Bayelsa State government during the administration of the late DSP Alamieyeseigha grew wings and disappeared with no traces. Some staff claimed that the Bayelsa State government had given the centre the money for the pilot project of the banana/plantain multiplication project. The fate of the banana/plantain project also affected the research for other agricultural multiplication proposals like tissue plant, mahogany, obeche and acacia. This development was said to have adversely affected government’s efforts to curb deforestation, especially in the northern part of the country.
“It is sad that since inception this gigantic project has been abandoned. What our scientists do is to recycle journals of other scientists and publish in other journals just to get promotion from the ministry. No new chemical has been purchased neither has any effort been made to upgrade the lab. In fact, it looks like the Federal Government has abandoned the place. I can’t remember when last they got funds,” a source told Daily Sun in Abuja.
A visit to the complex showed a huge site overgrown with weeds that spread all over the vast expanse of land that was supposed to be used as a demonstration farm. It was gathered that the land is currently being used as grazing pasture by Fulani herdsmen and other petty farmers.
Staff morale was low as most of them wore long faces speaking of despair and hopelessness when this reporter visited the complex. Apart from their monthly salaries, no form of allowance gets to the workers to carry out routine official assignments. It was gathered that the workers only come to sign the attendance register and stay till closing hours before leaving, as lack of funds has almost brought activities in the science complex to a halt. The scientists within the complex are not faring any better. There has not been any research work in the last four years, sources said. Most of the structures in the complex are also in a dilapidated condition while some of the machines are rusty and obsolete.
The 419 square kilometres of land also houses 34 unit of flats meant for the scientists, while the place now used as offices was supposed to be laboratory and engineering rooms. Sources said the 23-year-old agency has not been able to build a befitting administrative office in spite of money allocated for the purpose in 2004.
Spread around the make-shift administrative block are 32 and 18-seater buses that have been abandoned, while the entire road network is in a state of disrepair.
The gamma irradiation facility (GIF) procured at over N200 million and inaugurated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo on June 6, 2006, has been left unused. The equipment, it was learnt, is meant for applications in food preservation to curb post-harvest losses, thereby ensuring food security all year round in Nigeria, but no Nigerian farmer has had access to the facility. The fuel source called cobalt-60 has almost fully decayed at the time of this report.
To compound matters, Daily Sun learnt that even the GIF, a component of the Nuclear Technology Centre at SHESTCO, is currently a subject of contention for control with the Nigerian Atomic Energy Commission (NAEC), its regulatory agency, and the situation has the capability of leading to a nuclear accident, which could exterminate mankind.
The Science Museum building on the premises is now occupied by dangerous reptiles, with grass taking over the whole exterior. The museum was said to have cost a N82 million when it was built in 2000 during Obasanjo’s administration, just as some state-of-the-art research equipment at the time of purchase have become obsolete and useless. These include machines for development activities in the natural sciences such as biotechnology and genetic engineering, chemistry, physics and electro-mechanical engineering.
When contacted, the Director-General of SHESTCO, Prof. Asuquo Thomas, confirmed that “there are challenges.”
“Just like any other government parastatal, we lack funds. It is not peculiar to us,” he said, apparently trying to justify the situation in the science complex.
While also confirming that the production of the anti-sickle cell drug ran into troubled waters, Thomas also noted he wasn’t the head of the organisation when the drug production crisis hit SHESTCO. He, however, disclosed that XECHEM went bankrupt and had its license withdrawn by NIPRD, which now produces the drug.
He dismissed insinuations that the agency was moribund, “but we are hampered by lack of funding.”
Asked what the organisation has done in 23 years besides the inconclusive fertilizer and anti sickle cell drug he said a company is developing another anti-sickle cell drug, that will be simpler and cheaper to produce than what NIPRD did 10 years ago.
Thomas further disclosed that the agency found another way of producing anti-cancer drugs, particularly breast cancer, “which will also be cheaper than what we have now.” He said the clinical test was done in Princeton University, New Jersey, USA.
Other work he claimed are going on now in the agency include work on anti-epilepsy medicine which works best in children while in the area of agriculture he said the organisation has been able to mass produce some seedlings using what he called temporary-emersion-bio-reactor, which can produce seedlings for food crop and desertification as well as erosion control. “We also have seedlings that can improve sugar production. We got some of this things through foreign aid,” he informed even though he did not disclose the amount involved.
The DG however admitted there is problem with the Gama Irradiation faculty. He however said this occurred because the facility was transferred to another atomic agency, the National Atomic Energy Commission.