By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye
Mazi Sam Ohunabuwa, renowned pharmacist and businessman of over three decades, is several things rolled into one; a manager, leader, author, social worker, lay minister, and more. In this interview, he spoke on why the COVID-19 vaccines recently discovered is God’s intervention to save humanity. He says the clergymen going against vaccination are putting their congregations, and Nigerians at large in danger. Ohunabuwa, also spoke on why Igbo president come 2023 will show that they are truly part of Nigeria.
As a known name in the pharmaceutical industry, what’s your reaction to the number of vaccines so far produced against coronavirus?
Well, I think we need to thank God for going ahead of us because, if God didn’t go ahead of us we would have been in worse trouble globally. The speed with which these vaccines have been produced is record, it’s never been known in the history of medicine. Traditional vaccines take four to five years or more to produce some even up to 15 years to develop. So to have vaccines under one year, a couple of months is absolutely breathtaking and I say it is God going ahead of us. Because the technology, the mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccine therapy that Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, that a few companies have developed were ahead of the time. This is the first time of the major application of that technology in vaccine development. So I am excited because today we have a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Moderna vaccine, Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine from the UK, there is also the vaccine from Russia and elsewhere. So we are excited that the development is quite sharp and rapid and we thank God for the revelation, for providing us with this knowledge to be able to utilize them to relieve the suffering of man. Because, without these vaccines the disruptions on lifestyle, economy would have been much more extensive and global economic downturns and sufferings of humanity would have been worse. So we are grateful to God and to scientists.
How do you then respond to messages from some church leaders and others in Nigeria asking people to shun the vaccines when they get to the country?
I believe it’s wrong headed, I believe it’s lack of understanding of global developments or reading the wrongful interpretation of the Bible or God’s words of what will happen in the future. The truth of the matter is that I do not think that these vaccines have any deleterious intention, spiritual connotations beyond trying to provide arsenals to help the body build anti-bodies and defence mechanism to fight off the coronavirus. I think it is absolutely misguided and I will advise that people do not over philosophise or over spiritualise too many things. When television came, some church leaders said we should not be watching television that it is instrument of the devil. You see, God that created us is revealing His creation to us day by day. That is the mystery of those days, what you do not know you fear and you look for some ways to explain it. I think that this is not right, they are going to be exposing people to unnecessary danger if people listen to them. This proposition even in the United States where I am, I’m shocked to hear people say the same thing, all kinds of conspiracy theories, 666, 777, some say it is to sterilize, put marks on you. I think those are mere conjectures and they do not represent the God that I serve.
Finally, I have always believed that God’s purpose will happen anyway. So if God has said something will happen, if you like fight it, you cannot stop God’s will from happening. So either way, I believe God has given us the knowledge of vaccination to help to protect and prevent disease. We have used it to fight polio, whooping cough, chicken pox and all kinds of diseases in the past. Maybe if we did not have vaccines we would still be having chicken pox and all those ancient diseases today. So I do not believe them and I encourage every Christian to take the vaccine because, I know when you have the spirit of God in you no man can implant anything because the blood and the spirit in you will counter every force even if it is true that a man is planning to do such a thing. So, all Christians need to do is get closer to God, strengthen themselves spiritually then they can face any obstacle; man made or otherwise.
What are your thoughts on the second wave of COVID-19, especially with some Nigerians referring to it as a scam?
Well, my people used to say the man who cannot hear, when the war comes he will see with his eyes. When you see people dropping, blood gushing out of people’s bodies you will know that there is war. So I understand in Nigeria especially in Africa where God has been gracious to us, He has not allowed us to see it with the same intensity like the people in America, UK and other parts of the world have seen it. So I understand their level of doubt or cynicism because they look around they don’t see many people afflicted. I mean it is very embarrassing that you walk into a community, a church, a burial ceremony and you find out that you are the only one wearing a mask and nothing happens. But that is what we call taking God’s grace for granted. They are taking God’s grace for granted and God does not like it. God helps you, you are expected to do the minimum. God says obey authorities, the authorities that are advising us are those God says we should obey, it’s in the Bible. I’m sure it’s in the Koran and other religious books as well, obey your leaders, those appointed to oversee you and pray for them. So if you disobey them you are disobeying God because, they have authority to ask you to do what is right. If they ask you to do things that challenge the existence of God or against your religious belief, I will refuse. But this is to help me live, the Bible says I should go to the physician, the Bible says where is the Balm of Gilead, it tells me to run, it says it is the foolish man who sees danger coming and keeps standing, it says a wise person runs away or dodges danger. That is the word of God.
So I encourage Nigerians don’t allow yourself to be a victim, even if it is one person that should die, is it you that should die? Why should you die when it is not your time? So it’s something that is preventable and the prevention is not complicated. Wear mask, use hand sanitizer, maintain social distancing, don’t congregate especially with people you are not living with, even if you are living with your family, it’s difficult to say separate from them especially if any of them has symptoms. But when you are in the public, you don’t know who has it, maybe it’s at incubating stage, at infectious stage, he doesn’t have the symptoms. Many people have fallen sick of this virus but we may not recognize that part of it maybe early symptoms of COVID, we have taken it in our stride.
So, I want to encourage Nigerians to obey government, there is nothing government has said that it is too difficult to obey, don’t use yourself as an example, do not at the end of the day say if I had known. I have seen people who said if they had known, especially in a place like America where they were being deceived by divided government views. In Nigeria, we are lucky that our government has been consistent in pursuing, mitigating and preventive measures. There has been no ambiguity, no confusion. I can understand the Americans where the President is saying one thing, the scientists are saying another, but in Nigeria everybody is saying the same thing. So I encourage every Nigerian not to take this matter lying low because if you die, sorry.
Considering the fact that a Nigerian was instrumental to the vaccine developed by Pfizer, which coincidentally has some links to you, why has it been impossible for the Nigerian pharmaceuticals to develop our own home grown vaccines?
The Bible says whatever a man sows, that is what he will reap, if you don’t sow, how are you going to reap? Vaccines are not harvested on the trees, you cannot get it from oil wells, you have to set up laboratories, you have to deploy scientists who have appropriate laboratories, instruments, equipment and who are properly motivated to work. Producing vaccines is not an impossible task because, you will recall that we used to produce yellow fever vaccines in our country. In Yaba, we had a lab way back in the 70s, 80s, so it’s not as if it is something we could never do. But go and check out the Yaba laboratory and see whether it is functioning or not. You know, we got to a point in our country where we just forgot the basic things, we find it easy to import everything including things we have the technology know how and competence for, we abandoned it because of excess oil money. We followed the line of what is called least resistance, which is order and then you receive. So we move away from value addition and so there is no way, we can’t just go and harvest vaccines.
If Nigeria wants to make vaccines then it has to build the appropriate laboratories, employ scientists, deploy equipment, give them the proper incentives and vaccines will be produced. But I don’t think Nigeria is in that mood, why? Because we are in a recession, secondly, our philosophy and national focus is not in that area. You won’t believe that for many years the several research institutes that Nigeria built were producing nothing, they were not being properly funded, if you go into their premises they were run down, even the big buildings were physically run down. The laboratories do not have modern equipment, those that have equipment do not have reagent. All the money they get is to pay salaries and a little overhead. They don’t even have enough money to buy diesel to power their generator where they have them. So it’s a lack of national orientation, we have not focused on developing our national competences, we have not been focused on producing locally, we have been content taking what others have developed, importing what others developed, we have just been following blindly, we have never thought it wise to lead in the area of science.
But I thank God that COVID-19 seems to have jerked us up to the reality that we cannot depend on the world for everything, especially important things like medicines and food. You know, when the country was shutdown, China shutdown, India shutdown by COVID, it was a major problem for Nigeria. We thank God it didn’t last too long, if it lasted for too long, by now, we would have had scarcity of medicines especially essential medicines because.
So I am hoping and praying that our government will take the bull by the horn and ensure that if another virus comes next year or the year after or in five years time that we will have our own vaccines, medications and therapy, these things are doable. Because, outside the country those that are doing them are blacks, they are Nigerians. It’s just that we don’t have the right environment, equipment and motivation.
Away from COVID vaccines, what’s your thoughts on Igbo presidency come 2023 and what criteria should Nigerians consider when choosing the next President?
Well, what I am naturally conversant with is dealing with competence. I grew up in a sector, the pharmaceutical industry, where what we focus on is competence, capacity and capability. I rose from being pharmaceutical sales rep to being chairman/CEO of the company not because I was Igbo or from the south. It happens that God gave me the competence and I was able to use those competences to distinguish myself among my colleagues. And I showed leadership, character that allows them to entrust responsibility on me. That is the way it happens. However, it is not translatable same way to our political environment because, nobody is dealing with competence here as much, the considerations are slightly different. Since democracy as you know is by numbers and as you know, we are still a people that are not very much united, we don’t have common goals, people are always resorting to their ethnic background, state of origin, state of birth. I mean, I was born in Rivers State but Nigerians insist that each time I fill a form I must say I am from Abia State, where my parents came from. I can’t understand it. In America, a child that is born in this country by Nigerian parents becomes an American, if he was born in the UK he becomes a British citizen. We leant all these things from them but I don’t know how we are so retrogressive and so backward that we cannot even allow many of these things we enjoy…I mean we send our wives to give birth here and our children become Americans, get American passports and do all kinds of things and yet the people in Nigeria won’t even allow a man who was born in a state to say he is from that state and enjoy the privileges of that state. I don’t understand it, only God can explain it to me because human beings can’t sufficiently make me understand why they are doing it. They have done it perpetually from one generation, one government to another. Nobody is enlightened enough to say let’s jettison this very archaic method, if we want to build a nation let’s break down this wall. So since they are raising these rigid walls, it’s therefore natural that a people from a section of the country to say, you have had it, these people have had it, we need to have our own turn. That is why that call for Igbo presidency has currency and has support from me because, left to the Nigerian leadership as they are constituted, they may not allow somebody from that area, just as they would probably not allow minorities to have power. Some are telling us this is by population, yes it’s by population but you are only going to chose those you like, those you know. I think we need to build our nation to a point where we will breakdown these walls of rigidity, ethnicity, tribalism, all these mundane, moribund things the progressive world has no more space for. Man being man, there will always be biases and group interest but it’s not as brazen as it is in our country.
So given all these vicissitudes that the Igbo have suffered from the war which they did not cause, Igbo did not cause any war, war was visited on them because they were living in a country that belongs to them, where they went around doing businesses, working in places where they believe is their home. Because that is the Igbo mentality, everywhere we go we build homes, marry, give birth, do our businesses. That is how it is everywhere in the world, everywhere in the country. There is no single Nigerian group that loves Nigeria more than the Igbo but once in a while they become the butt of reprisals because one Igbo man sat somewhere and said something, they take vengeance on Igbo people somewhere else. Take the issue of EndSARS that someone living in Europe said something and then people in Obingwa became victims.
So my belief is that this Igbo presidency will do many things; first, it will show that the Igbo are truly part of Nigeria because they feel alienated, that is the truth. Everyday you keep asking yourself, is this a forced relationship, you don’t want to accept us, okay let us go you won’t let us go, what sort of a situation is this? So our desire is that with the Igbo presidency project, it will be clear that we are bonafide citizens with equal rights and privileges. And who knows, maybe the Igbo who understands the importance of true unity…I hear people say Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable but all the things that they are doing negates that. They just do things that negates unity I don’t understand that incongruent but maybe the Igbo man that understands the beauty of peace will need to create that enabling environment to move around the country and do their businesses. If you move to the farthest part of Borno State, Sokoto, Zamfara, you see the Igbo doing their business. They want a healthy, quiet, peaceful environment to do business and create wealth. Today, even the natives can’t move anywhere not to talk of visitors or residents. I think we need a unifying force and I think the Igbo provide that unifying force, that unites our country. We need people who understand how to build societies, relationships, who know how to deal with differences without allowing them boil over and cause disruptions in the environment. These are the kinds of things that help me to support the Igbo presidency or president of Igbo extraction or president from the south East.
Talking of competence, you are competent. Will it be wrong to ask, if asked to run, will you consider it?
Why wouldn’t I run? I mean you can’t be desiring a change and you are not willing to make that change, you cannot be desiring sacrifice and you are not willing to make that sacrifice. I mean God has given me great opportunities in the past to lead. I have lead the Nigerian Economic Summit Group; President of Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association; Chairman of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, Ikeja; Chairman, Nigeria, America Chambers of Commerce. I have led several pan-Nigeria organisations and groups and today I am President, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria. These are pan-Nigerian organizations and God has given me the opportunity to do things to help build these organizations and institutions. So, if the mantle falls on me, I am not going to run away because that will mean not being serious. They said you walk according to your talk and I am saying we need to get this country working, united, liberated, teach Nigerians to soar, teach ourselves to take care of this nation, create a nation we will be proud of. We are tired of being a third world, we want to be a first world and it is doable. And so if we are called to contribute or show how that can be done, why will we run away from it?
How do you combine your business schedule with family demands and your religious obligations?
Well, we have 24 hours in a day and I try to make sure that I give account of every hour. I try to get six to seven hours of sleep, the remaining 17, 18 hours I spend doing one thing or the other. I spend either doing business, going to church, speaking as a lay minister when I find the opportunity to minister, participate in community activities because I am a community person. I have always believed that God created you into a community and gave you a responsibility, so in my little community where I come from I still play roles. I use to be Secretary General of my community, President General, I am a patron of a community union, Arochukwu. I am active both in my local church in Lagos and in my village and in the Full Gospel Business Fellowship where I am a Director and Full Gospel as National Coordinator, Strategic Operations, Member of the National Executive Committee, National Director. And in national discourse and national development, you already know my background in that area. Today, I still serve on many boards either as chair or member of the board both for profit and not for profit.
So, I give account of every time. The major thing I do is that I am very well organised, I keep to my diary, I keep to my schedules, I’m self motivated and so I give time to everything.
How do you relax, what’s your favorite sport, do you have a favorite food and where’s your favourite holiday destination?
As far as relaxation is concerned, what I do is that I build relaxation into my daily schedule. I use to play golf in my early days as CEO but I got too busy. In fact, one of my younger brothers had to come and carry my golf bag so I am hoping that one day I will get it back from him or he will buy me a new one because I will get to that point where I must respond to golf. The activities I go through in a day are mixed from the mundane to those that are very serious. There are those that task my brain and there are those that are relaxing. I mean if I work all day I might end up in a full gospel meeting, I am singing to God and I am dancing, I can’t find a better way to relax. I mean in the presence of God there is fullness of joy, your guards are low, you are not thinking of business but focusing on God, that in itself is refreshing. From there I get home and I meet my wife and children and we just buddy, bandy together and have fun. I attend events, if you invite me I will come. I socialize, I am a social animal, I mix very frequently, I enjoy healthy conversations and of course I try to do little physical exercise in my house in my little gym. Every morning I do 20 to 30 minutes in the gym and sometimes I take a walk, I do those things because I am a healthcare person and I know the danger of living a sedentary life or all the time work. I build relaxation. One of my favorite places in the airport is the boarding gate, while waiting for flight to be announced I walk there and back to my seat. Instead of using the lift I utilize the staircase except it is more than five storey to compensate for lack of time for exercise.
I love Nigerian food, to be honest any day I don’t swallow eba or pounded yam I will dream about it. I do my best not to eat too much but I must eat Nigerian made food. I love stock fish, it is my best protein.
My holiday spot is the United States, that is where I am now. This country intrigues me. In the midst of COVID-19 people say, why are you coming to the US? I haven’t found a place like America despite the trouble with Trump in recent times, America is still a beautiful place, where you go from one place or the other as if you are in the same place. Because, they have a common infrastructure development so everywhere looks the same. There is a basic status, everybody can buy a house it doesn’t matter what your level, at your lowest level you can buy a house, you can get a car lease. On the road you don’t know the carpenter, the plumber, the professor. Everybody is living the minimum quality of life, that is what I desire for Nigeria, that is what we should bring to our country. We should have a minimum quality of life that will make every Nigerian feel like a Nigerian. An American citizen was kidnapped in Nigeria, America sent armed men and women to retrieve him. Are we not ashamed that they are kidnapping our people everyday and we are doing nothing?
So I like America and their method of doing things and that is why I worked for an American company Pfizer for many years. So, I’m America centric and I believe I love America and there is much we can do for our country.