Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, a Fellow Chemistry Society of Nigeria (FCSN) and Member Royal Society of Chemistry, United Kingdom (MRSC), is the Director General/Chief Executive Officer (DG/CEO) of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).
The Professor of Chemistry was a senior lecturer at the Kano State University of Science and Technology and Federal University Dutse, Jigawa State, where he left in November 2020 to assume office as the substantive DG/CEO of NABDA following President Muhammadu Buhari’s approval of his appointment.
Equally a Member Institute of Chartered Chemists of Nigeria (MICCON), the NABDA helmsman has been widely commended for his pragmatic and visionary leadership that appear to have brought about positive changes in the operations of the agency.
In this interview, the DG/CEO dwells on the significance of biotechnology to national development and the growth of the country’s economy. He disabused the minds of those who are tautly opposed to biotechnology and called on them to embrace its application in their own interest and for the benefit of the country.
In the next two months or thereabout from now you would have spent two years in office. How have you pushed on as the Director General of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA)?
Thank you very much. I think I would have loved to say I’m not the one to make the assessment. This is because I am the person that is doing the job. Some people within the agency are supposed to see what I’m doing and make their remarks. And that would even give me the courage to do more. But if I’m the one to blow the trumpet I don’t know how it will look like. Having said that, I will start by saying that to be honest with you I came into the agency when there were so many problems. As it is now I believe I have solved most of the problems. You know it is not the building that makes the agency, it is the people (workers). If the people are not happy, then there will be no agency. So my focus has been on doing things that will benefit the people and make them happy. Before my coming to the agency there was no light. Almost every time that you come to the agency, no light, no internet, no water and so many things like that. And you can’t live in a research environment without these fundamental things. But as you can see now we have constant light, except if there is a problem. And we will put on Gen. If you go round you will see that there is water running. There were staff that were not cleared for study fellowship before I came. And you cannot make progress in a research agency where people are not updating themselves. We have less number of Phd holders. So I pushed quite a lot of people for Phd and we have a significant number now that are undergoing studies in various fields of research interest in the agency. That is an achievement. If you build manpower it means building the future of that agency and there will be more research output. So the bedrock of the building block of the agency is what I push for. Besides that there are many that I have done in the area of human capital development and comfortability. And if you look at it, this is an agency that was established since 2001 with executive fiat. There has been no enabling Act backing its establishment. So if at all you build the capacity, you make the place, laboratory and what have you comfortable and the researches begin to spring up, then, what about the establishment of the agency? Without an enabling Act so many things will be lacking in the building block of the agency. You may not get enough money for the conduct of research and what you are not even clearly defined. So I took it upon myself and made it a priority and pushed for it. And as God will have it He made it possible that now we have an enabling Act establishing the agency which means legally the agency is now standing on its feet.
How do you feel that the NABDA Establishment Bill was signed into law during your time as the head of the agency about 21 years after it has been in operation? And what significant difference will this bring in the operational activities of the agency?
To be honest with you, I’m very much happy in the sense that if the agency has no enabling Act at any time it can be scrapped and people will be dispersed and some may lose their job. But now that the federal government has recognised the agency with an enabling Act, it means a lot for the agency. We can now write for research grants within and outside the country. We are pushing for special grant to be given to the agency so we can conduct research of interest to the country. There are some researches that are of interest. Without an enabling law you can’t push and make a case for the grant that is of national interest. It is as a result of this enabling Act that we have liberty to request for all those things. These researches are what informed the creation of the agency. The interest of the federal government to form the agency is to solve the issues that the agency is now focusing on – like in the area of vaccine development, agriculture, environment, industry and many more. It is going to be a milestone in the whole country using Biotechnology to solve these problems. The Act has given the agency a straight focus. The agency can now strategize to pursue the national core interest in the area of biotechnology. We have already started. We are into many things now with the enabling Act giving us the courage and the push to see that we have achieved something. I’ve told you of the vaccines. I’ve told you of the fingerprinting of the crude oil that we have. A lot of theft that is going on in the crude oil sector, if we fingerprinted the crude oil, it is not no longer going to be easy for people to steal the crude oil. People come and steal the crude oil and nothing happens because the moment it leaves the shores of Nigeria you cannot prove that the oil is from Nigeria. But when this research is concluded it means that wherever you find the oil you can deep your apparatus and make analysis and say this oil is from Nigeria, how did you get it? Even in the sea or these pirates you can stop them and just check and say did you get this oil? So, this is something that the enabling law has given us the courage to do and then we are working on that and we have gone far. And apart from that, we are working on the research on the oil spillage to clean the environment which is also of national interest. We don’t just wait until we call people from outside to come and solve our problem. We are working now to see that we get the micro-organism that will degrade the oil within the shortest possible time and this micro-organism is indigenous. It is from the country.
So the enabling Act has expanded your scope of activities and empowered NABDA the more to do what is expected of it as a research agency in line with your mandate?
Definitely, that is what I’m saying. I’m saying that we have already started as a result of the signing of the law. And that is why we are happy at the agency. So with my coming this now has put NABDA in the frontline of research institutes that are in the country trying to solve all these problems that are scientifically based and using biotechnology you know is something that will fast track this development.
Recently you set a committee on restructuring in the agency. What nature of the restructuring is expected of the committee?
I told you that we have so many things in the pipeline. Thank you for reminding me. When I came there were issues of stagnation of staff and then staff are finding it difficult to move from one position to another. There is no clear distinction on how promotion is supposed to be and how this officer is supposed to move from one level to another. There were cries here and there. I told you if you solve the problems of staff, the staff will be happy and they will be encouraged to work harder to see to the actualization of the agency’s mandate. That is the purpose of setting up the committee to come up with a clear-cut instruction on the guidelines for promotions and appointments. If you go through them you will see that everything is smooth. It is something that will now clear the backlog of problems that were here in NABDA before. So the high-powered committee with representatives from all sections was set up to see that all these problems are solved. And now they have sat and come up with concrete suggestions. They are still sitting at the moment to see that they have cleared all these backlog of problems that we inherited in NABDA.
Where would you say Nigeria stands in the comity of nations as far biotechnology development is concerned? What future does biotechnology hold for the country?
To be honest with you it is something that I’m happy about. With my coming now we have hosted people from different countries in Africa. They are coming to Nigeria to learn how our biotechnology works. Just in the recent past we received people from Ghana. They came in numbers with policy makers, decision makers and lawmakers. They came in here to learn what we are doing in biotechnology and they are happy to take home what they found here in National Biotechnology Development Agency. I have just received people from the United State Department for Agriculture (USDA) and then I received people from Ethiopia and Mozambique. They all came to see and copy some of the things that we have been doing in NABDA and take back home what we have been doing. And then if there are areas of collaborations then they collaborate with us. People from the United States of America came in to see how to strengthen the collaboration that we have with them, having seen that NABDA now has a future, hope and something to offer by signing of the enabling law. They came to see how they can further strengthen the relationship between NABDA and the USDA. So this is something that I’m happy to tell you about and this is something that has given us light at the end of the tunnel.
At a recent public hearing organised by the Senate Committee on Environment, you boldly and vehemently opposed the attempt by the National Assembly to amend the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act 2015. What does NABDA have to lose from the proposed amendment of NBMA Act that you have to put up such a stiff opposition?
It is something that we have to enlighten people about. There are some group of people that are not scientists that are thinking that biotechnology is not a research that people should embrace for development. And this Biosafety is the agency that regulates what we do here. If the agency (NBMA) is restricted not to allow the release of the results of what we (NABDA) have done in biotechnology, then it is like indirectly truncating all these developments that biotechnology is bringing to the nation. You remember that we have released cowpea. We have released cotton. And these are making economic impact in this country. We are about releasing corn, that is maize. We are about releasing Soyabeans and many more that are coming in the pipeline to turn around the agricultural sector, to improve the seedling because if you don’t have quality seed in your farming you are bound to lose everything. If you have challenges like drought challenge, insect attack and many more you are bound to lose as a farmer. And if the farmer loses in that area, the yield is drastically reduced. And if the farmer is not making profit you are bound to abandon the farming. So NABDA is doing all it can with biotechnology, using all these techniques to find solutions to all these problems. And we have proffered the solutions and provided them to the farmers and farmers are using it. So these people that don’t know science, I don’t know maybe they have ulterior motive or something hidden. They said no, you should not be releasing all these sorts of scientific findings to the people. You should remain in the status quo. If they say the status quo should remain, it means they want farmers not to farm in the country. They want us to rely on importation of food crops and other crops. They want our industries not to come back. They want everything to remain as it is so that they benefit. They want us to be importing chemicals all the way from other countries to spray for insects not to attack our crops, instead of them to be happy that we are saving billions of dollars for not importing crops and foodstuffs, for not importing chemicals due to all these our scientific findings. But they are not happy because probably they are trying to see how they can pave way for them to continue to enslave our people. So this is why we came out to tell the committee that we are not in support of making changes to the Biosafety law. If they make changes to the Biosafety law it means there will be no biotechnology science in the country. Remember that this biotechnology is not only here in NABDA. Across all our Nigerian universities there are researchers, professors that are conducting research in the area of biotechnology. There is the Department of Biotechnology in most of our universities. So you are saying that all these departments should close. You are saying that all these things that we are doing in the country we should fold our arms and wait for biotechnologists in other countries to do their research and then just bring it down and dump it in our country. That is what they are saying. And shall we remain like that? No! That was why we went out there to tell the Senate those behind the proposed amendment don’t understand what they are calling for. Unfortunately they did not appear at the public hearing. Assuming they appeared we could have heard what they have to say. But they ran away. The Senate due to their own wisdom asked them to come and express themselves. They didn’t come. We came and talked. And we made our point clearly.
How would you advise those that are against the application of modern biotechnology in the country?
I think they probably need some training. They need more enlightenment. They need to read more about the science and the technology. I always say that if you don’t know something, you don’t know it. They will come to reality when they get to understand that this thing is something that promotes their interest not only the country. Because when you are food secured, you are not angry, there is going to be a lot of peace in the country and money will circulate. And for the fact that they are part of the system they are going to benefit from it. So I’m calling them to read more, to understand more, to see the benefits more of what is coming out of biotechnology. If they don’t open their eyes and hearts they will not see it. I’m therefore calling on them to open their eyes and hearts to look at things on their merit. That is my call on them. And I hope that one day they will understand and they will come for us to work together to see the development of our nation, to see the development of our economy using biotechnology as a tool.