• Agric, medical, water, soil institutes paralysed
• Absence of NAFDAC at port spells doom for food, and drug safety
• Port congestion worsens, products approval delayed
Nigerians have raised the alarm over the safety of food and drugs as the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) fully joined other research institutes and associated institutions in their eight-month-old strike action.
This implies that the agency would practically be unable to carry out its mandate of controlling and ascertaining the safety and wholesomeness of food imported through the seaports, airports and land borders.
Experts say this poses danger to public health and safety as unscrupulous importers might exploit the lacuna to wreak havoc on public health through the importation of unwholesome food items and drugs.
The Guardian investigation revealed that three major unions in all the research institutes in Nigeria have embarked on indefinite strikes since October 13, 2021, and the Federal Government has failed to grant their demands or make meaningful efforts in resolving the industrial crisis.
The three unions in the institutes are the Academic Staff Union of Research Institute (ASURI), the Senior Staff Association of University Teaching Hospitals, Research Institutes & Associated Institutions (SSAUTHRA) and the Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU).
President of SSAUTHRA, Dr. Benjamin Akintola, while responding to enquiries from The Guardian and giving insight into the genesis of the crisis, said like the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), research institutes concluded an agreement with the Federal Government in 2011 to prevent migration from institutes to universities.
He said: “Before then, we were paid equally with ASUU, but the 2009 agreement was exclusively for ASUU. That necessitated our agitation and in 2011, our agreement was 53.3 percentage increment and they owed us one-year arrears for 2010.”
Akintola explained that the government paid only three of all the institutes involved.
Between 2011 and 2018, he disclosed, the unions held 33 meetings with the Federal Government, but to date, there is no positive response from the government.
He said: “They promised to pay during the Goodluck Jonathan administration and when President Muhammadu Buhari came into power, we gave the government a chance.
“Part of the agitation is the salary arrears for 2010; conditions of service should not be less compared with universities; attached to conditions of service is that the 65-year service age should be extended to research institutes and we are asking the government for a national research institute committed to supervise and coordinate the institutes because research institutes are scattered in 14 ministries.”
He said before 1998, there were six research councils covering education, medical, agricultural, engineering and industrial institutes, which were repealed by degrees.
“Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN) came back, and that is where all agricultural research institutes are coordinated. The ARCN law says agricultural institutes will enjoy the same conditions of service as universities, but other research institutes are excluded,” he said.
Part of the agitation, Akintola said, is that TETFUND should extend financial assistance to research institutes to enhance productivity, conducive research environment, and engender development through applied research.
“The Education Trust Funds (ETF), which became TETFUND, covered research institutes while it lasted, but TETFUND refuses to finance research institutes, stating that we are monotechnics,” he said.
Director of Research, National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT), Ibadan, Dr Lawrence Olajide-Taiwo, said the generation of new food production technologies is hampered and extension of the existing ones is disrupted as the strike continues into the wet season of agricultural production.
He explained that researchers, technologists and extension workers in research institutes work hand-in-hand with farmers, but such a gown-and-town relationship between food productivity and production has been affected.
Hence, he warned that food shortage might be imminent if the Federal Government does not intervene to resolve the crisis.
Inadequate and indiscriminate application of agrochemicals also poses food safety concerns as chemical residues following inappropriate use could cause food poisoning, morbidity and fatality, apart from environmental damage, he said.
A tree crop breeder at the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN), Dr Olufemi Ibiremo, lamented the paralysis of research activities, saying: “We cannot continue to run our institutes and institutions the way we run them now if we want to progress in this country.”
Head of Biotechnology, Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO), Dr Adekunle Lawal, said in the past six months, the strike had paralysed research, development and extension activities of FIIRO.
“As research activities and research-industrial interactions are hampered, productivity in agriculture, small and medium-scale industries, and entrepreneurial activities have been disrupted, compounding the lingering effects of COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
He said huge resources had been lost in terms of man-hours, productivity, broken research and inability to link up with industrial players for knowledge sharing.
The Director of Public Relations, the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Yakubu Dodo, lamented the negative effect of the current strike by research institutes on the country’s food production capacity and agro-industrial activities.
According to IAR, the country should also expect a shortage of food production early next year unless the Federal Government takes immediate steps to resolve the current strike by the agricultural research institute.
“For us as a research institute, we always say that farmers don’t go on strike. If they go on strike, that is a recipe for hunger.”
According to him, “in terms of crop production, we will be losing between N20 and N50 billion this year.”
MEANWHILE, members of the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), NAFDAC branch, have threatened to continue their over two-week industrial action until their demands are met.
The union had embarked on an indefinite strike penultimate Wednesday over unpaid allowances, among others.
A statement signed by the secretary, MHWUN, NAFDAC branch, Mr. Ayodeji Adetoboye, explained that NAFDAC had recorded progress economically without reflecting on the welfare packages of its workers.
The statement noted: “The challenge remains that the main issues addressing the economic power of the members of staff have not been addressed.
“The diligence and competence of staff members are not in doubt, as this is evident in the staff achieving the ISO 9001:2015 Quality Management System certification and very recently, the World Health Organisation Global Benchmarking Maturity level 3 status, both of which have strengthened our regulatory systems, thereby enabling increased access to quality products, encouraging trade and placing NAFDAC on a high pedestal among regulatory authorities world over.
“The question that is left for management is how to have these achievements impacted the economic power of staff members who are working day and night to safeguard the health of two hundred million Nigerians?”
Adetoboye told journalists that the government and management had yet to intervene in the crisis since the strike started.
“We had a meeting with the management on Friday (last week) and there was no meaningful solution; a meeting is to be arranged with the Federal Government representatives this week,” he said.
Adetoboye said the union would resist any action of the government, which would not address their demands.
According to the statement, the requests are “immediate approval of additional allowances for members of staff, full payment of 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 promotion arrears, appropriate allocation and payment of staff for Good Manufacturing Practice inspection.
“They also include the training of all regulatory officers on the basis of GMP inspection, immediate legitimate approval of condition of service, immediate reversal to status quo on skipping, immediate conduct of the Long Service Award and expansion of available vacancies.
“The agency is top-heavy; the rumoured ongoing recruitment of higher cadre officers must be resisted.”
A visit to NAFDAC’s headquarters in Abuja and the Head Office in Isolo, Lagos, yesterday, showed that the ever-busy complexes were deserted, the workers stayed away and nobody was allowed inside the premises.
A NAFDAC worker who preferred anonymity told The Guardian: “I blame the situation on the leadership style of the Director-General, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye. She does not carry the workers along. Since she came along, so many things have changed for the worst. She is busy chasing things that do not benefit the staff.”
NAFDAC’s Resident Media Consultant, Mr Sayo Akintola, had promised that the management would give an update.
The Guardian investigation revealed that the strike action has led to congestion at the ports and delays in the approval of products by the agency.
A visit to Apapa Port in Lagos showed that NAFDAC workers were not on the ground for mandatory inspection of imports.
Consequently, the imports, including chemicals, foods and food products, could not be passed for approval by society.
Sources at NAFDAC headquarters in Abuja told The Guardian that attempts by the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH), Mahmuda Mamman, to resolve the impasse on Monday hit the rocks.
“The workers were angered by statements of the permanent secretary. He was high-handed in his disposition and the talks broke down. The workers walked out on him. They even threatened to block everyone from gaining access to their offices,” he said.
Director, Public Relations, NAFDAC, Jimoh Abubakar, said though the strike has depleted the available number of workers, automation at the ports has come to the rescue. He said NAFDAC had adopted automation of the check processes before the strike began, in tandem with international standards.
Besides, he said some senior staff members were at their duty posts to check and approve foods and drugs imported into the country.