Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi is the Founder of Juli Plc, Chairman of the Board of MTN Foundation, and a former Minister of Health. The pharmacist and lawyer shares his childhood and career experiences with ALEXANDER OKERE
As a child, you won a scholarship to attend Government College, Ibadan, but had to settle for St Thomas Aquinas College, Akure, which is a Catholic college. Why did you prefer to attend the Catholic school?
When I was in Standard Five in primary school at St George’s Catholic School, Ado-Ekiti, some of us were selected to write an entrance examination into some colleges or secondary schools. By accident, I was the only one that passed and I was offered a scholarship to Government College, Ibadan. In those days, the inter-religious interface was not as it is now. The priests could not imagine their son going to a non-Catholic school. It caused a lot of brouhaha and my headmaster was upset with me and visited me with transferred aggression. But, in any case, I couldn’t go to Government College, Ibadan. The priests had their way. They packaged me to Aquinas College in Akure on a scholarship..
How was it like, growing up with your parents?
As a child, I was what you’d probably call a delicate person. So, I didn’t go to the farm, for instance, or do any of the more tasking physical activities. But I did enjoy living with my parents. Was I influenced by my parents? I would say yes and to a considerable extent. My mother, for instance, influenced me in many ways and taught me many lessons. One of these lessons was: “know your rights and fight for them. Do not let anyone bully you.” Another lesson from my mother was that of compassion for my fellow man. She always taught me that whatever may be my situation in life, I owed it a duty to consider the plight of my fellow man and strive to be of some help to him.
My mother was a very creative person and I think that it was from her that I got my creative traits. She was artistic and very good in music and dancing. Cleanliness, fighting for one’s rights, identifying with the underdog and having a creative disposition were all from my mother. My father influenced me in quite a few ways, too. Unfortunately, I was only 12 when he passed on, so I can’t claim to have known him as much as I would have loved to. But he taught me the virtue of calmness in every situation – keeping one’s composure, regardless of the situation. And then he would never jump into a conversation unless invited. He taught me the virtue of circumspection, carefully analysing all sides before speaking.
As a young man, you also lived with Catholic clerics in Ekiti for many years. How did this shape your life?
The person that influenced me the most was Reverend Monsignor Anthony Oguntuyi. He taught me orderliness, simplicity, cleanliness and discipline. He taught me that not to be unduly influenced by the rush for material accumulation is very important – simplicity is very important. I was taught to pay attention to details and to realise that whatsoever is worth doing at all is worth doing well. He also taught me that it is better to be a person of character, a person of service than to be a person of wealth.
One would imagine that given the strong influence of catholic priests in your life, you would perhaps have become a priest today. Why did you not become a Catholic priest?
No, I wasn’t inclined to becoming a priest. I had been an altar boy or mass server from a very early age. I had been saying the prayers in Latin all the while as well, and do so till this day. So that was not a novelty to me either. But there I was at the catholic mission, in the midst of white and black priests. And the white priests tended to exhibit an attitude that was discriminatory to their black counterparts and this never sat well with me at all. There were many instances of discrimination. Sometimes, you could see the sneer on the faces of the white priests when for instance a black priest requested some pounded yam, while they were requesting potatoes or something like that. I wasn’t encouraged by it. In fact, looking back now, one could even describe it as some form of racism. Of course, as a priest, there is a strict order of seniority and you are taught to obey the last order. So, I don’t think there was very much that the black priests could do in those circumstances even if they were unhappy with the discrimination.
Pharmacy was not a very popular profession in the 1960s when you studied it at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Why did you opt for Pharmacy at the time you had the option of studying Medicine or, given your skills in other disciplines, something in the humanities or social sciences?
When I finished studying at secondary school, I was a bit too young, at 17, and I had wanted to go straight to the University of Ibadan. But they didn’t allow people who were 17 to go into the university because of age restrictions. So, I took the time off to teach at St Michael’s Catholic Secondary School in Ibadan, where at least 80 per cent of the students were older than I was. Then I went on to work at the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service. I was a television newscaster and participated in many programmes, including vox pop. I was going out to interview individuals at events. I came across a gentleman who mentioned to me that if one chose to study science-based courses, like Pharmacy, instead of the arts subjects I was pursuing, I had better chances of having scholarships. So, I went back to brush up my knowledge of the sciences. I was lucky to get double scholarships to study at the University of Ife.
However, I didn’t feel I had the most tasking agenda and that was what led me to student politics. I became a student union leader. I was in the House of Representatives and I was writing songs, plays and teaching dance in my spare time. So, Pharmacy was challenging but not sufficiently so. It was a difficult course – almost over-preparing you for the future and in the process keeping you along narrow channels of self-expression. I think going to the University of Ife was good and that was where I got the challenge that pharmacy must be better. It was a good experience at the university. It was challenging, so challenging that one was determined to make a difference.
You were also a scribe for the World Students’ Organisation at the international level. How would you compare the student activism of your day with what exists in Nigeria today?
The student movement is typically an idealistic one. Students are young people and young people are always in a hurry to change the world. You can’t want to change the world and tolerate racism or apartheid, for instance. So, in those days, students protested very vehemently against racial discrimination. The global student’s movement was very pro-change. I may have been black but once I demonstrated capacity, I was well-respected within the organisation.
I helped to create national student unions around the world in Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries. And I either led or was part of demonstrations in different countries. And these demonstrations were often around civil liberties and human rights. I remember leading a demonstration of students in Athens. I think at the time we were clamouring for democracy and all that in different parts of the world. I was in front, leading a predominantly white group of student demonstrators and this caught the attention of the press in Athens. The next day, they had headlines like: “What is a black man coming to teach us about democracy?”
After your stint with the World Students’ Organisation in Holland, you joined Pfizer in Nigeria, but left a few years later to set up Juli Pharmacy. Was it lack of job fulfilment or the entrepreneurial drive?
Everything became routine too quickly. There was also undue rivalry among the employees. I couldn’t really understand this. Some people were not quite happy with my position as a sort of heir apparent. I say ‘heir apparent’ because I was head-hunted as an assistant general manager and my letter of appointment did actually state that I would become the GM in five years, other things being equal. I also did something which was not very smart. Occasionally, I would call those of us who were black to a meeting and tell them we needed to cooperate and work collectively to take over the industry from the white bosses who were really neither better qualified nor more experienced than ourselves. But you know some of these same colleagues of mine would go behind my back to report all that had transpired to the white bosses. Then one day, one of the white men called me and said I was bright but stupid and he relayed to me the proceedings of a meeting we held the previous day, as reported to him by one of the attendees. Of course, there had been a lot of exaggeration. But the routine was the biggest problem. I was almost getting bored.
Juli Pharmacy grew very fast and soon became a chain store with more than 20 outlets all over the country. How did you manage to achieve this?
Juli Pharmacy was about reliability. You got whatever you wanted, promptly. That’s why our tagline was ‘the sign of service.’ We’ve always striven to epitomise great service delivery. People still come to Juli Pharmacy from as far as Kano and other distant places in search of genuine drugs. I should add that Juli was also a great training ground for pharmacists, especially those who would eventually go into the retail side of the business. We’ve always tried to provide a workplace where employees would not only learn and improve both as pharmacists and as managers but, in addition, have fun and be fulfilled as professionals, whether as health professionals, human resource professionals, finance professionals or even as logistics and marketing professionals.
Beyond raising additional funds, what was Juli Pharmacy’s motivation for going public?
Raising capital was important because the goal was to take us to 500 branches. I also needed to show that these things were possible and that, as black people, we could do them. I had seen the role that capital markets had played elsewhere in the world in helping businesses to transcend the ‘start-up’ status and gradually move into the big league. I thought it was something we could do here. As of the time Juli went to the Nigerian Stock Exchange, it (NSE) was basically an exchange for multinational companies. We were the first indigenously promoted firm to go there, and I’m sure that doing so helped to open the eyes of many local businesses to the fact that raising funds through the NSE was not as far-fetched as it might have seemed. It was a possibility. If Juli could do it, then, they could too.
Looking back, would you say going public was a good decision?
In principle, it was very good, especially, as I said earlier, we helped to demystify the exchange and encourage others to take the needed step. In practical terms, however, our experience was bitter-sweet especially as a result of the economic turmoil and the instability that defined those days immediately following our listing.
Nigeria is one of the few countries in the world, where you can get any medicine you want, over the counter at any pharmacy or even patent medicine store without a prescription. In fact, you can even buy your medicines from hawkers on the street or on a bus. In South Africa and many other African countries, this is not the case; why is our case different and how do you think this affects our healthcare system generally?
Why does Nigeria continue to import drugs from all over the world, even though we have been producing pharmacists for many decades and have plants and herbs in abundance?
Thanks very much for this question. I think the issue you are raising boils down to the value which we place on research as a country. And as many health professionals know, it is very low. The government does not seem to understand or appreciate that without research, no society ever makes real progress. That is why countries, even organisations continue to place a huge premium on research and development, including heavy annual funding.
I am regularly appealing to my colleagues in academia, in universities, to stay back in the country so that Nigeria can benefit from their knowledge and their research work. But even I know how difficult this is. I know how frustrated many of our researchers are. I cannot begin to describe the terrible conditions under which they are forced to work. In laboratories abroad, every convenience imaginable is provided for you when you’re doing research. Even if in the middle of your brainstorming in the laboratory, you feel a need to quickly take a nap, there’s provision for that. Of course, you don’t worry about your pay. You’re paid very generously. So, pharmacists, pharmaceutical and medical scientists find that the environment abroad is very conducive to research and they migrate in droves abroad.
The Nigerian Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development was set up many years ago for precisely the reasons you mentioned, but the institute faces the same funding challenges that universities face, the same funding challenges that other research institutes face. But I’m happy that despite the challenges, they were able to come up with a drug for sickle-cell anaemia some years ago. The drug is Niprisan. I think they are at the stage of commercialising the drug now, which will make it widely available globally. A few weeks ago, their Director General informed me that they had also come up with an immune booster called Niprimmune. This is in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
You have a licence to fly aircraft. Why did you decide to obtain one?
I thought flying a plane would enable me to commute more conveniently across Nigeria. At that time, planes were not very expensive. And then, the freedom of moving in the air is so comforting; it makes you feel so independent. Imagine flying from place to place without worrying about traffic jams or bad roads or bandits. But insurance in Nigeria was not particularly good at the time. Flying has its risks actually and I didn’t think that insurance in Nigeria made the exercise worthwhile. At some point, I had to discontinue.
Were you never scared that a plane you were flying could suddenly crash?
No. A pilot is never scared. He is busy. If you have your passion for something, fear disappears. When you harbour no doubt that you will do the job well, fear disappears. You’re taught so many things in the times of emergency and nobody is better trained than the pilot.
Do you provide counsel to the aviation industry or the Nigerian government on aviation matters from time-to-time?
No; not to the government directly. I’m a patron of the Aviation Roundtable. We hold seminars regularly and try to provide thought leadership for the aviation industry. So it is the Aviation Roundtable that interfaces with policymakers and carries out necessary advocacy from time to time.
Would you have joined the Nigerian Air Force, given your love for flying?
I was just a pilot for pleasure. I could never have been in the military. I am wired to take care of the underprivileged. So, war and all that are not in my DNA.
You worked with the late Chief Rotimi Williams for some time after law school. Did you at any point combine law practice with pharmacy practice?
After law school, I was fortunate to be invited by the late Chief Rotimi Williams when I qualified as a lawyer. Chief F.R.A. Williams at that time was the most respected legal practitioner. He had a formidable personality. He had a more formidable track record. I travelled around with him in his car and he treated me fondly like a son. We went to court at various levels, from the High Court, Appeal Court to the Supreme Court. It became a dilemma to me at a point, as I wondered whether I should abandon Pharmacy to look for the fame that the legal profession brought with it at that time. But something kept whispering to me that my desire since I was in school had always been to make the pharmacy profession a better one.
So, I left and remained in Pharmacy. But I do pro bono legal practice. It’s called pro bono publico – that is, for the good of the public. It’s something I do without making a noise. It involves getting people in the prisons freed, especially those who have been there for 10 years and longer and who have not had any opportunity of legal representation. They probably have not had court attendance for those 10 years. That gives me humility and makes me give gratitude to God to be able to help in such a small way. If you see humanity suffer so needlessly at that level, then who are you to say, “God, I asked for this and you didn’t give me that”? Those people suffering are also part of humanity.
Have you ever been tempted to practice law on a paid basis?
Legal drafting is one of my strong points. It comes naturally to me. I have helped some of my friends in this regard. But not everything needs to be monetised.
Do you think the legal profession in Nigeria still possesses the same allure it had in the 1980s when you studied Law?
Of course, it no longer has the same allure. The image of the law profession can do with some laundering. The Nigerian Bar Association has its work cut out for it in this regard.
Many international legal authorities and institutions say they no longer study Nigerian law cases, as legal outcomes in Nigeria often turn out to be confounding to common sense and natural justice. What are your thoughts about that?
I believe that ethics need to be pushed to the forefront of the law profession. Ethics need to become more central to operations in the bar and on the bench. Ethics are very central to the health professions – Pharmacy and Medicine – obviously because when these professionals err, the effect can be very visibly seen and can be calamitous in scope. You know, in Pharmacy at school, you are taught to be exceedingly ethical because an error of judgement can lead to the loss of lives of batches of people. I think that the legal profession needs to increasingly imbibe such a mentality because of what our society – I mean the larger Nigerian society – loses on the back of a legal profession that is being rapidly eroded by ethical malfeasance. And in doing this, we need to employ multi-faceted approaches. We need to highlight ethics a lot more in the curriculum for lawyers in training. People who err, whether on the bar or the bench, also need to be sanctioned. Erring lawyers and judges must not only be sanctioned; they must also be seen to be sanctioned.
Do you still play golf?
I first joined the golf club in 1969 and came back to golf about 40 years later. I play golf for exercise, really and not competitively. So, I’m not really keen on trophies. My handicap at the best of times was 17.
How would you like to be remembered; if a sentence were to be inscribed on your tombstone, what would you like it to read?
As a man who was grateful to God. I have had to live a very complicated life, not because I’m clever. I sit here and wonder why I deserve all this? So, it’s all about the grace of God.
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