Nigeria’s Biosafety Agency Funding Challenge

294 views | Michael Jegede | February 3, 2021

The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), an agency under the Federal Ministry of Environment, was established in 2015 with the mandate to provide regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanism for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria, thereby preventing any adverse effect on human health, animals, plants, and environment.

According to the Act establishing NBMA, the objectives of the Agency are to: (a) establish and strengthen the institutional arrangement on biosafety matters in Nigeria; (b) safeguard human health, biodiversity and the environment from any potential adverse effect of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) including food safety; (c) ensure safety in the use of modern biotechnology and provide holistic approach to the regulation of genetically modified organisms; (d) provide measures for the case-by-case assessment of genetically modified organisms and management of risk in order to ensure safety in the use of genetically modified organisms to human health and the environment; (e) provide measures for effective public participation, public awareness and access to information in the use and application of modern biotechnology and genetically modified organisms; and (f) ensure that the use of the genetically modified organisms does not have adverse impact on socio-economic and cultural interests either at the community or national level.

Some of the agency’s regulatory functions and powers include: to propose, for the approval of the Board, the overall policy guidelines on issues of biosafety in Nigeria; to implement the provisions of the conventions and the Protocols on matters relating to genetically modified organisms; to develop measures, requirements and criteria for risk assessment, peer review and decision making; to carry out actions necessary to monitor and enforce compliance with the legal obligations set out in the Establishment Act; to carry out capacity building activities; to partner with other relevant local and international agencies for the speedy realization of the Agency’s mandate.

Upon the establishment of NBMA in 2015, Dr Rufus Ebegba, an agriculturist, environmental biologist and expert on Biodiversity, was appointed the pioneer Director General/Chief Executive Officer (DG/CEO) of the Biosafety Agency. He was reappointed in 2019 for a second term at the expiration of his first tenure.

Since he first assumed office in 2015, Ebegba has been working round the clock to see to the actualization of the mandate of the NBMA. With about 354 fully dedicated staff in various capacities and discipline, the agency has through its range of activities developed manifold guidelines for biosafety management in Nigeria, come up with different regulations and reviewed the first biosafety policy to be in tandem with the Act establishing the agency. The first policy predated the Act but it has now been made to be in alignment with the Act.

Dr Ebegba has always expressed gratitude to the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government for creating an enabling environment for NBMA to thrive and make some visible and tangible progress that has enhanced the Nigerian economy. However, he has never shied away from revealing that funding remains a major challenge confronting the agency. The DG has consistently stressed the need for more funds to be made available to the agency.

At the 2020 End of Year Media Chat organized by the Biosafety Agency, Dr Ebegba had hammered on the funding challenge facing the NBMA. Poor funding was one of the main problems he identified as bedeviling the smooth running of the activities of the agency which is doing all it can to perform despite the lean resources available to it. The funding challenge has apparently been the reason the agency has been unable to secure a befitting office accommodation that will afford the staff enough space to carry out their operations with greater efficiency. NBMA is currently squatting at the National Park Headquarters located along Umaru Musa Yar’adua Expressway, Airport Road, FCT Abuja.

In the PowerPoint presentation by Dr Ebegba, captioned “Biosafety, Stimulus for Bio-economy”, he said the management and entire workforce of NBMA would never cease to strive hard to achieve the purpose for which the agency was set up while they continue to seek for increased funding. He cited the establishment of a GMO Detection and Analysis Laboratory with world-class equipment as one of the numerous accomplishments of the biosafety agency. To ensure compliance with the Biosafety Act 2015, the DG disclosed that the Agency in a nationwide survey/surveillance carried out Tracing and Profiling of GMOs, Inspection of Farms, Companies, Research Institutes, Retails Superstores and other GM, Facilities Screening samples for presence of GMOs.

He further noted that in the year under review, NBMA conducted the First National Stakeholders Meeting on Biosecurity, engaged in media enlightenment on Biosecurity, participated at the Technical Committee for Containment and Management of Covid-19 in Nigeria, organized a national online survey to ascertain public views on the management of COVID 19 in Nigeria, drafted the National Biosecurity Policy and presented same to stakeholders, conducted several risk assessment of applications for biosafety permits.

Dr. Ebegba said with the activities of NBMA, Nigeria is benefiting from safe modern biotechnology under a legal framework for economic growth, improved agriculture, job and wealth creation, industrial growth and sustainable environment as operators now have confidence in the sector; Risks to human health from modern biotechnology practice and the use of GMOs are at their barest minimum; Dumping of unauthorized GMOs into Nigeria is now at its barest minimum; Avenue is being provided to confirm and harness the potentials of modern Biotechnology; Socio-economic concerns  of GMOs are being guarded against; Confidence is being built in the practice of modern biotechnology, use and handling of GMOs and GM products; Other African Countries look up to Nigeria for leadership in Biosafety Issues.

Some of the administrative steps the agency intends to take going forward, as highlighted by the DG are: Intensify sourcing of befitting Corporate office Complex to serve as the Agency’s Headquarters; Intensify sourcing for Land in FCT for the development of a befitting Biosafety office complex; Strengthen the zonal biosafety offices that are in place; Canvass for Better budgetary allocation; Enhance opportunities for staff welfare for higher productivity; Imbibe sense of professional pride in the staff and Develop funding Projects for Development Partners support strengthening.

Technical steps to be taken, according to him, include; Biocontainment and bio-banking of harmful biologicals; Development of National Biosecurity Framework; Management and containment of dangerous plant pests, animal pests and diseases, and zoonosis; Management of dangerous invasive alien species and genotypes; National coordination and enforcement mechanism for response and control of dangerous pests and pathogens and Procedures to improve automated inventory management of harmful biological materials.

The agency is also looking forward to the Acquisitions and installation of Walk-Through testing booths; Establishment of a National Biosecurity Information Management Systems; Establishment of containment and confinement facilities for controlled organisms that may pose threat to human health, biodiversity and the environment; Establishment of National Biosecurity Centre; Establishment of Biosafety and Biosecurity Coordination Offices Nationwide; Establishment of Biosecurity Database; Establishment of Food Safety Laboratory and Zonal Detection laboratories; Establishment of GMO retention centre for confiscated GMOs and Upgrading of the ICT facility to facilitate e-governance.

The Head of Media in the agency, Mrs. Gloria Ogbaki, said though funding is a major challenge, the DG/CEO has continued to efficiently manage the affairs of the agency. According to her, “I can tell you that in spite of the funding challenge that we are confronted with in the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), our DG, Dr. Rufus Ebegba has ensured the judicious utilization and effective management of the little resources at the agency’s disposal. As the pioneer Director General of NBMA, he has shown a very high level of rectitude, transparency and accountability in the running of the agency. The entire staff of NBMA are indeed pleased with his leadership style that has kept the agency going despite our funding constraint. We are confident that if the agency is provided with better funding, greater feats will be achieved under Dr. Ebegba. It is obvious that the DG has the political will to take the agency to an enviably greater height, but funding has invariably been a major setback, which is however affecting other sectors of our economy.”

The NBMA has received commendation from different quarters for considerably carrying out its responsibility by ensuring that the activities of modern biotechnology and its products are properly regulated, notwithstanding the challenge of shortage of funds.

In November 2018, when the Senate Committee on Environment led then by Senator Oluremi Tinubu visited the agency as part of its oversight function, encomium was poured on the DG for what they saw on ground. Senator Tinubu had wondered that within such a short time, the agency was able to achieve a lot in terms of equipment, personnel management and performance.

As made known by the DG/CEO during the Senate Committee visit, in 2017, about N243,734,400 was allocated to the agency, while about N170,806,235 was released and expended. For 2018, about N258,069,920 was appropriated, only N25,860,992 had been released at the time of the visit.

When the House Committee on Environment and Habitat led then by Hon. Obinna Chidoka also went to the agency on oversight assignment in April 2019, it applauded NMBA for being a regional leader in the entrenchment of a strong biosafety system. The House Committee gave the agency a clean bill of health in its operation and noted that it was becoming an exemplar for other countries adopting modern biotechnology to emulate.

In the same vein, during a working visit to the biosafety agency in August 2020, the current Minister of State for Environment, Mrs. Sharon Ikeazor, commended the management and staff for their impressive record of achievements. According to her, NBMA’s remarkable feats can be seen in the appropriate measures it has put in place to protect human health and the environment from the potential harmful impact of modern biotechnology products. She maintained that the agency is playing significant role in the efforts of the Federal Government to ensure sustainable development in the country.

In the words of the minister, “The world we live now demands an agency like the NBMA as transboundary movement of organisms need to be checked to nip in the bud any threat of bioterrorism. I think the agency is doing a great job for all of us. I am quite impressed by what I see today, your trained staff and the state-of-the-art detection and analysis laboratory are pointers that Nigeria is going in the right direction in terms of regulation of modern biotechnology.”

Michael Jegede, a media professional writes from Abuja

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