How Nigeria lost intellectuals to brain drain — Nuclear Scientist

Qancy Salako
Qancy Salako

In this interview with Qansy Salako, a Nuclear Scientist, and an Executive Director of Regulatory Affairs in the US Pharmaceutical Industry, he speaks on how/why Nigeria continues to lose its best hands to brain drain despite its huge resources. He also delves into the largely untapped terrain of nuclear research. Excerpts:

PT: Where were you born?

Salako: My family is a huge one in Otta (Ogun State) and Isale Eko in Lagos. I grew up in both places but I was born In Badagry. I attended Ansar-Ud-Deen Primary School in Otta, and Iganmode Grammar School in Otta as well. I finished in 1973. Then I went to the University of Ibadan to study Chemistry and finished in 1979. I did my 1979/80 Youth Service in Federal Advanced Teacher’s College (FATC), Dutsin-Ma, then in Kaduna State, now in Katsina State.

PT: What was your experience there?

Salako: I had a great time. I taught chemistry to Years 1-3 student teachers, many of whom had been career Grade II teachers for several years before coming for NCE. Dutsin-Ma was the head of Dutsin-Ma LG. It was a big village with no electricity back then. FATC had electric generator that was turned on daily from 6 pm to midnight.

The NYSC is quite a good idea for national integration. I don’t believe I would have ever been to a place like Dutsin-Ma if it wasn’t for NYSC. One life experience will never leave me. It was during our 6-week Community Development (CD) around April 1980 involving all the Corpers (about 30) in Dutsin-Ma LG. Our project was to construct a culvert across a valley on a main rural road. The road got flooded perennially during the raining seasons, shutting off interior villages from bringing in their produce to Dutsin-Ma on market days. On the opening day of the CD, the local people came out from all associated villages and welcomed us with songs and music made from bamboo pipes and animal skin drums.

They called us “Bature Hayan” (white man of the road) in their songs. They also brought food made of tuwo (rice) and free flowing soup with no meat, all contained in large calabashes. We were all having a good time dancing, laboring on the Hausa songs and struggling to play some of the instruments. Then it happened.

One of us from the North told us they were wondering why we were not eating the food they brought for us. We all looked at each other as if to run away. There was no way we would eat such a meal all from nutritional, hygienic and class standpoints. The villagers saw it all. So they informed our Corper translator who told us: “Ladies and guys, they said this food is among their best meals, and each village made contributions (more like levies) to the fund used in preparing this food for us.” We were all stunned.

Thoroughly humbled, I was among the first to start eating the food. It was like drinking cow urine for us. But it made us cognisant and thankful for our privileges in life as well as appreciate the enormity of the task ahead of Nigeria to emancipate its citizens.

PT: From Ibadan, you traveled abroad to study. Why?

Salako: I went to study for my doctorate in Nuclear Pharmacy in Chelsea College, University of London, UK, now King’s College (KQC), University of London, UK. When I finished my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Ibadan, I felt ‘uneducated’ because I couldn’t invent anything, I just memorised and passed exams through the program. I needed more education. I wanted to study Applied Chemistry. I applied to the University of London for M.Sc. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for M.Sc. in Chemical Engineering, but University of London gave me admission first. Until I got to London in November 1980, I didn’t know how blessed I was intellectually.

On seeing my references from my professors at U.I. who said I was the best in my UI graduating class of 101 chemistry students , I was admitted straight for M.Phil instead of the M.Sc. that I applied for. Then, all incoming postgraduate students from the Commonwealth countries into U. of London had to take and pass qualifying course works during the first year before starting on their actual program in the second year. I was wondering what to do my research on when my professor suggested Nuclear Pharmacy. It is a specialty area of Nuclear Medicine, a science field that grew after WWII based on the UN resolution to find a peaceful use of radiation. I told him we didn’t have nuclear reactor in Nigeria but he said it was the way of the future. Then I came tops in the exams at mid-session.

The admission professor, William Hunter, was so passionate about my performance. He told me: “Boy, what you’ve done, you’ve done for your country.” Then he decided to start me on my research under Professor Anthony E. Theobald in the Pharmacy Dept. who was in collaboration with Professor John Thornback in Chemistry Dept. The goal was to discover radiolabeled tracers for diagnosis and therapy in nuclear medicine.

Tracers could be biomolecule (proteins, antibodies, etc), natural products or plain chemical compound. For example, if the heart is damaged, one can physically evaluate the damage by administering a radiolabeled molecule that has affinity for the heart. Such a molecule will take its radiation tag to the heart and you can visualise the heart structure with all its chambers and vessels using the X-ray-like image that is generated by the radiation emission from the radionuclide on the molecule. Imperfections in the image of the heart will reveal what part of the myocardial structure that is diseased. Beautiful science!

I did a lot of research during my my Ph.D. I performed organic syntheses to generate a series of chemical compounds, radiolabeled each compound with Tc-99m, then injected them into animals to find where they go in vivo (i.e. distribution in living cells/tissues or biodistribution). In the middle of my second year, my professor handed over his Radiopharmacy labs class to me to teach The class was taken by both Bacherlor’s and Master’s degree students. I was shocked. I was an Assistant Lecturer. An African! I took over his class, three hours lab, and one hour lecture. This is how a good country develops its citizens. I was his first Ph.D. student in this brand new field at the University of London.

In late 1982, the British Nuclear Medicine Society called for papers for their 11th annual international conference on advances in nuclear medicine to be held in 1983. I had done so much research and my professor said we should send an abstract. I worked up a draft abstract with him and we submitted it. In January 1983, our abstract was accepted. My professor was ecstatic. Surprisingly, he told me I would be the presenter of the paper. I was reticent and nervous but I prepared very well. We did about 50 slides. I practiced for my talk every day after leaving the lab.

The conference took place in April, 1983 at Imperial College (University of London), UK. I was quite comfortable in my skin, unaware of the huge implications of these developments. Our paper was at 11.15 a.m., so I practiced again that morning. My professor and the lab assistant were already at the venue. In fact, they got there around 8 a.m. and were waiting for me. When I appeared, it was clear my professor was very nervous from the way he was smoking his pipe. When our time came to present, I went to the stage and made my presentation. The hall was full of hundreds of scientists. I delivered my paper, almost flawless. Shockingly, the whole audience in the hall stood up in unison to clap. I thought, why did they have to stand up to clap? The emotion of that event did not hit me until about ten years later. It was a standing ovation for Africa in the new field of nuclear medicine. They were standing, clapping and acknowledging Africa.

By May 1983, my professor said I should start writing up my PhD thesis. In the British system back then, the PhD determination is simply between your advisor and an external examiner. In three months, I had finished writing up my thesis. My advisor, Professor Theobald didn’t know what to make of it – whether the thesis was good to go because it was actually good or whether it was good because he was tired of reviewing it. So he set up a few practice oral defences for me with his colleagues, all of whom wondered at the end of each session why I needed a practice defence. The last one was the head of Department of Pharmacy.

In just 30 minutes into my oral exam, the external examiner got up and shook my hands vigorously and said “Good luck to you.” In all, I spent thirty-five months obtaining my PhD from arrival in London in November 1980 to thesis defense with the external examiner in October 1983.

The following day, my professor told me the external examiner gave me a job for nineteen thousand pounds a year in his labs in Hammersmith Hospital, West London. I told my professor I was going home to contribute to the development of my country. He remonstrated with me not to go, but I went back to Nigeria, I didn’t even have a job waiting for me!

In those days, you finished your studies abroad, you returned home. That was the spirit in those days. Within three months though, I got a job. I started in January 1984 as Lecturer II in the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry in the then new School of Pharmacy, College of Medicine of the University of Lagos (CMUL). But within six months, I was calling my professor to facilitate my return back to London.

PT: Why did you want to go back?

Salako: Look, Nigeria lost a whole nation of intellectuals to the brain drain, far more than it would ever know. In the 80s, CMUL had a lot of brilliant young medical academics. The new school of pharmacy (started in 1982) added more to this pool of trained talents, widening the population median age. I was 29. There were many of us across the many schools/institutes that made up CMUL, freshly minted from top schools abroad. Young, vibrant and forward looking.

But like slavery, academic job in Nigeria back then was a dead end job. I am sure still is. In the 70s, we saw professors living comfortably. But by our time, the leadership/political class had crashed the system. Conditions of public service and the standard of living had deteriorated. All Nigeria has ever was primordial tribal instincts, endless cycles of worthless national appointments and thoughtless political administrative systems. No working public institutions, no operational blueprint for nation building or national orientation, and no synergy between the university curricula and private sector, especially in science and technology.

Like many of my contemporaries, I came with so much pure hope as if to single handedly save Nigeria. I came home with a research idea to radio-label natural products isolated from herbs ( agbo). The thinking was that a herb used for high blood pressure should contain a chemical compound that would have affinity for the heart. So if I could isolate and radiolabel such a molecule, I could discover a terrific myocardial radiotracer magic bullet. This required setting up an interdepartmental research team comprising of experts in the departments of Pharmaceutical Chemistry (myself), Pharmacognosy, Pharmacology and Radiodiagnosis/Radiology.

This, I attempted to set up and proceeded to work with a few herbalists (babalawos) and actually succeeded in obtaining some very promising herbs. But no research grant to do much, no radionuclide source, and no tools like radiation counters, etc. The whole idea died a natural death when it came to choosing between spending my meager salary on research or going hungry.

Fortunately, I was able to prove my theory right, when I had the opportunity to take a natural product isolated from a herb (courtesy of another master research program from Ghana) used to treat gonorrhea to Loughborough U. Science & Technology, UK (courtesy, Prof. John Thornback sponsored) for radiolabeling and animal distribution works. The radiolabeled product glowed through the renal tracts of mouse.

Meanwhile, imported finished drug and articles needed approval of the Nigerian Food and Drug Administration (FDA, now NAFDAC) before they could be introduced into market circulation. FDA needed to analyse and issue certificates for all such drugs, but could not because the workload was beyond its staff and equipment capability.

At some point, Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti became the Minister of Health and gave many of us in Pharmacy Schools/Colleges with pharmaceutical analysis expertise public analysts’ certificates to clear FDA’s backlog of imported pharmaceuticals. I changed the direction of my research and started doing pharmaceutical analysis within the University of Lagos Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) Unilag Consult framework.

A lot of the revenue was generated for the university under this scheme, leaving miserable percentage of the original charge on each consultation service to the academic staff who actually did the work. You taught your full academic load all day and sweated through drug analysis all night, sometime in the middle of broken down equipment and you still ended with extra income that was not enough to replace the tie rod of your old car.

Living and teaching conditions were unbefittingly hard. Getting to work was war when your car broke down. There were no chemicals to teach students in the lab, no up-to-date journals in the library and students were more motivated by the potential income they’d make post-graduation (even if four years away) than by acquisition of life changing knowledge . Meanwhile, the bumbling leadership at the helms of the nation kept running the country into a futureless landscape in enormous ignorance, deceit and base instincts for power, wealth and vanities.

Sometime, in 1986, (military ruler) Babangida made an announcement that his government would implement Petrochemical Phase II program in which Nigeria would produce basic organic solvents/chemicals such as benzene, phenols, plastic copolymers used to manufacture battery casings, and so on. The volume of local demand for organic solvents alone could amount to a huge GDP income for Nigeria because these are used for teaching chemistry (and other related science) in thousands of secondary and tertiary institutions across the country and are being imported into Nigeria for the same purpose, even till date.

Besides, the solvents and basic chemicals are useful precursors in the synthesis/manufacture of pharmaceuticals, if only Babangida knew the import of what he was talking about on the TV. I decided to get ready for Babangida’s shenanigans anyway by designing a simple experiment to synthesise paracetamol in my lab using simple bench teaching chemicals like the ones he was rolling out. A drug substance (DS) is the active ingredient that causes the pharmacologic/physiologic response in the body.

DS is often in the pure chemical form and is unstable and/or unsafe to administer directly as drugs. So DS is usually formulated into a form (injection, tablets, capsule, power, suspension, cream, etc), called drug product (DP). DP is typically more stable in patient user-face and can be safely administered. Almost all pharmaceutical establishments in Nigeria bring in DS from their parent companies into Nigeria to make the DP that is sold to Nigerians.

As procuring DS from outside Nigeria can be made to represent whatever portion of their production cost they want, making tableting, powdering, dissolving in solutions and packaging/labeling activities to produce DP in Nigeria is the right business model for foreign multinationals. This is because it is among their major drivers that allows them the maximum of amount of capital flights out of the country.

Regardless of the number of multinationals (for pharmaceuticals, car, road construction, etc) present in NIgeria, the local productivity sector may never amount to anything in terms of significant contribution to the Nigerian economy. This is as long as Nigeria remains unable to generate raw materials for making finished products. Now, paracetamol is a well known analgesic (reduces aches) and antipyretic (reduces fever).

Next to the antimalarials, paracetamol is among the most heavily dispensed drug in the sub-Saharan Africa due to the headaches from hot weather, manual labor, daily stress just to stay alive, and fever from mosquitoes and other sources. It is a very old molecule, so is its chemistry (synthesis, testing, reactions, etc) old, simple and well documented. In fact, in a working Nigeria, each teaching hospital can make its own paracetamol.

So I gave the project out as a final B.Pharm project. The student ended with a crude paracetamol and I purified it afterwards and got pure white crystals. I needed to read the work at an academic pharmacists’ conference at Abuja back then, to show that it was possible to make paracetamol from scratch in Nigeria. Couldn’t even get funding to go to Abuja – only N200 was my research grant! At any rate, Babangida’s initial announcement of the Petrochemical Phase II was the last anyone heard of the program. So much for a public policy. We are jokers in Nigeria.

Intellectual decay sets in when you begin to repeat the same lecture notes verbatim year on year. I worked so hard for my students and I challenged them to work hard in return. I tried to vary my teaching materials wherever I could. For the pharmaceutical chemistry labs (drug synthesis and drug analysis), I ran every experiment first on my own, wrote the manuals, varied specifics of each experiment to allow me utilise minimal number of students per group, then took roll calls in the beginning, middle and end of each lab class.

In my practical classes, you’ve got to know why you are adding sodium hydroxide to acetanilide during synthesis, particular during analysis requires non-aqueous titration and not back titration, etc. But my students didn’t really appreciate all of the extra efforts trying to grow them into well-educated Nigerians. Not until after graduation.

I became quite active in ASUU to find answers to the culture of national stupidity that I saw but couldn’t understand. I was the 2nd Vice Chairman of ASUU Unilag and the Chairman ASUU for CMUL, Idi-Araba, 1987-1989. I thought social activism would improve the primitive system of funding universities that gave Nigeria no sense of research and no future in science and technology.

I found that there was complete disconnect between the country’s leadership and the people they purportedly lead.

(To be continued)


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