Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi is renowned as a pharmacist and founder of Julie Pharmacy, one of the most popular drug outlets in the country. But not many people know that he holds a private pilot’s license and also trained as a lawyer and practiced at the reputable Rotimi Williams Chambers. A man of many parts, he also had a stint in government as the Minister of Health during the military regime of the late Gen. Sani Abacha. Yet, the soft-spoken businessman and lawyer grew up as an activist. In this interview with The Nation, he speaks about his childhood, his exploits as a student union activist on the global stage, his experience as the first pharmacist to be appointed as health minister and his family life, among other issues.
Congratulations on your 80th birthday. How do you feel attaining this age?
I have learnt to be grateful to God in all circumstances. I have learnt to have a sense of contentment. I have learnt to be humble and prayerful in all circumstances. Gratitude to God, contentment, simplicity, prayerfulness and humility summarise the lessons I have learnt in life.
So much information about your academic and professional life is in the public domain, but not so about your background. Could you let us into your family background—who your parents were; whether you were born with silver spoon; the challenges you faced growing up and all that?
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; to always strive to care for the underdog.
My mother was a very creative person, and I think that it was from her that I may have got my creative traits. She was artistic and very good in music and dancing. Cleanliness, fighting for one’s rights, identifying with the underdog, 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.
How was life with the reverend fathers? Did you feel particularly inspired by them?
The person that has influenced me the most is Rev. Monsignor Anthony Oguntuyi. He is the one who was instrumental to my being taken to live in the Catholic mission in the first place. In the mission, orderliness is very important, cleanliness is very important, simplicity is very important and you must not really be influenced by the rush for material accumulation.
You are brought up to have attention for details and that whatsoever that is worth doing is worth doing well. You are told that it is better to be a person of character than a person of wealth. You are taught that income is not the same thing as happiness. He is the only one I would like to mention in the catholic mission that influenced my life.
Your gentlemanly looks contradict that of a unionist you were while in school. What led a fragile looking person like you into student unionism?
I wanted to be a voice for my constituency, the students and young people.
You spent time living abroad as a scribe of the global Students Union organisation in the 1960s, the era of intense civil rights agitations and activities in the US, apartheid in South Africa and to a great extent the collapse of colonial governments in many African countries.
What was the position of the global students’ movement on the issue of race and racial equality for instance? As a black man serving in a minority position among an apparently white-dominated organisation, would you say that you were in any way able to influence the organisation’s attitudes and perceptions towards race? In what other ways do you think you may have influenced the students’ movement?
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.
So, naturally, 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 – Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries.
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?” So in that era, students were very pivotal to the development of thought. They were what you would call a moral compass for society.
But a lot has changed now in Nigeria. The mood of people in my generation was different from the mood of the people in today’s generation. Now the economic circumstances are such that for many young people, it is about basic survival. The young man or woman whose most important challenge is where the next meal will come from is not likely to be very concerned about changing the world.
You started Juli Pharmacy at a tender age. What was in your mind when you took this decision and were there discouragements or tempting job offers from anywhere?
I was young when we set out, and very determined to accomplish my dreams of having a model and modern pharmaceutical chain across Nigeria and possibly the West Africa sub-region. My target was to have 500 branches actually, although we succeeded in having 22 in total.
We invested heavily in logistics. We had a fleet of Peugeot station wagons for distribution to ensure that no branch was ever out of stock of any medicine. We invested in our people too. As I said earlier, we did everything possible to ensure that our people found the job fulfilling.
Juli Pharmacy was about reliability. You got whatever you wanted, promptly. That is 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 professional or human resource professional or finance professional or even as logistics and marketing professionals.
Yours was the first indigenous company to be quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. How did you achieve this and what was the reaction of expatriates who dominated the scene?
We went to the stock exchange primarily because we wanted to raise additional capital to enable us expand further, because, as I said, 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 that we could do here. As at the time I went to the Nigerian Stock Exchange, it 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 fund through the NSE was not as far-fetched as it might have seemed. If Juli could do it, then, they could too.
You became the first pharmacist to be appointed minister of health in 1993 and, if am not mistaken, the only pharmacist to have occupied that position till date. What magic wand helped you to break the jinx?
I don’t know if there was a magic wand (laughs). But I had seen first-hand the level of suffering by millions of people across our country. I had seen poor health worsened by poverty.
Our health indices even at that time were very poor, but I don’t think statistics can sufficiently capture the gravity of our situation. You need to travel round the country to see and appreciate the health challenges we face. Maternal morbidity was unacceptably high and lots of infants and children were dying from childhood diseases at the time.
I found it difficult to accept that Nigerians were still being afflicted with schistosomiasis, guinea worm and other such diseases that ought to have been long eradicated. The public hospitals had also continued to deteriorate on every benchmark. Then, of course, there were the problems with drug distribution, with medicines including prescription medicines being freely sold by all manner of persons even in market places and bus-stops.
Now, having been PSN president, I was aware that quite a lot of work had been done and was still ongoing in our universities, especially in our faculties of pharmacy and the research institutes with regard to proffering solutions to some of these conditions.
These pharmaceutical and medical scientists needed proper direction, management and, most importantly, encouragement. There was also a need to have them collaborate as they all appeared to be working in silos.
I thought to myself that the health sector needed a radical overhaul. It needed to be better managed. There was a need for more accountability in the system. The professionals in the sector needed to be guided, better motivated and better managed to deliver at their optimum.
I felt the health professionals often tended to work at cross purposes and that there was a need to drum it into every one that at the end of the day, what really mattered was the health of our people. So fostering team work among the health professions was going to be key for me.
I believed that we could aggressively but systematically begin to redress the problem in a holistic manner and by means of our results, encourage both the government and governed to better appreciate that health is wealth.
We would enhance public information and education, re-organise public health institutions to become more efficient, encourage research, motivate our health professionals and all that. I had a master plan for the sector.
I believe that studying a multi-disciplinary course like pharmacy actually gives you a managerial edge over others, which perhaps, is one reason that you find pharmacists doing exceedingly well when they venture into other sectors.
Unfortunately, we haven’t had any other pharmacist as health minister since that time. I say this not out of self-interest, but I know the value of training that pharmacy schools bequeath on pharmacy graduates and believe that Nigeria can actually get more from pharmacists than it is currently getting. And it is the people of Nigeria who will benefit in the long run from the improvements in healthcare.
Nigeria does not seem to have prioritised pharmaceutical research. Although there are so many universities now with faculties of pharmacy, there are hardly any drug discoveries emanating from these institutions. How can we get our country to prioritise pharmaceutical research, especially given the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and before it, the Ebola epidemic?
There is a combination of factors why we still do not prioritise research in our country. I think that the powers that be have not been able to fully understand and appreciate the connection between research and the everyday problems we face.
They don’t understand that the only way by which society gets better is through the efforts and diligence of scientists in whatever field. So we have a situation where research is so badly under-funded that many scientists are frustrated.
That is why you find many scientists migrating to developed countries. I know lots of pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists, medical doctors and scientists who left our country in frustration but are now doing very well abroad.
Even when these scientists choose to stay behind and work, the environment is very challenging. Imagine how difficult it is to carry out research without regular power supply for instance, or having to buy mineral water from your pocket every day because clean, running water is not available.
So, it is not surprising that breakthroughs are not happening here frequently. Our operating environment does not support productivity in research.
But we are not resting on our oars as scientists. In fact, when we formed the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy some years ago, one of our major objectives was to accelerate advocacy towards prioritising pharmaceutical research and scientific research in general.
We have been on this for a number of years and continue to strategically engage our policy makers and other critical stakeholders on the need to prioritise research and development.
We are also striving to re-orientate young pharmacists and scientists and get them to appreciate that scientific research is a major pillar of the pharmacy profession. Now this is a task that is very broad-based and for which different sectors need to play a role, including pharmacy schools in particular.
We must begin to look differently at our forests and lakes and rivers and soil. We must ask ourselves what remedies lie in these natural resources with which God has so blessed us. And on the back of our training as scientists, we must commit to researching these potential remedies and identifying and isolating those elements that show promise. We must research new ways of administering medicines to our people.
So we all have a lot of work to do. The government needs to encourage research better than it has done so far. It needs to fund research and encourage researchers. Researchers also need to be better focused and collaborate more.
What informed your decision to study Law and how have you been able to combine legal practice with Pharmacy all these years?
Why did I study Law? Well, the law profession is a liberating profession. A lawyer is generally called “learned” and I had always wanted to know what these learned people were learning.
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 and an even 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 and the 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 is called pro bono publico – that is, for the good of the public. It is 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 and I have learnt a lot. 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.
There are pharmacists who studied Law and emerged later as great jurists. Did you ever harbour any plans to perhaps become a Supreme Court Judge at some point in life?
No, I didn’t harbor it. I must say, though, that while I worked in the chambers of FRA Williams, he did pose the question to me at some point, as to whether I wanted to become a judge. We chewed over the prospect and agreed that the lifestyle of a judge is much too regimented. Even if I were inclined to becoming a judge, which I was not, the lifestyle was not one that would suit my disposition as a person.
Have you ever been tempted to practice law on a paid basis? Have other lawyers extended invitations to you while dealing with specific cases for instance?
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 monetized.
What is your view of the legal profession in Nigeria? Does it still possess the same allure that it had in the 1980s when you studied it?
Of course, it no longer has the same allure. The image of the law profession can do with some laundering (laughs). 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. Would you like to talk about what many say is the deteriorating situation with Nigeria’s legal system in general? And would you like to proffer solutions for a way forward? How can Nigeria truly optimise the value of the judiciary and the legal profession in general as the last hope of the common man?
I believe that ethics need to be pushed to the forefront in 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 school you are taught to be exceedingly ethical because an error of judgment can lead to the loss of lives of batches of people. I think that the law 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.
You were never involved in partisan politics. Are you averse to it? Why?
As a student, I had actually planned that I would go into politics upon graduation. In fact it was one of my considerations when I became a scribe of the World Student’s Organisation.
I thought it would help me to prepare for leadership back home. It was while I was at the organisation in Holland that the democratic leadership was overthrown and the first coup took place. Then before you knew it, the civil war broke out. It was all so devastating.
What was becoming of our beloved country? Why was the country at war after a mere seven years of independence? This was a question I put to General Gowon when I led a delegation to visit him during the civil war.
Those developments affected me very badly and I lost every inclination to go into politics. In any case, by the time my sojourn in Holland was over, the military had taken over control and partisan politics had been banned.
I was never really able to summon much interest in politics after that. I channeled all my energy into building Juli Pharmacy and the organizations with which I was associated, including the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, my local church which is Saint Leo’s Catholic Church, Ikeja, Rotary Club, the Lions movement, Boys’ Scouts and others.
But isn’t this a contradiction coming from someone who encourages professionals to go into politics?
My answer to this is that you don’t have to be a swimmer to know the temperature of the water. But a good number of former student leaders did go into politics in those days, I remember. In fact, Olof Palme, who later became Prime Minister of Sweden, was the leader of the Swedish National Union of Students in the 1950s.
In fact, when he visited Nigeria on a state visit, quite a few people were surprised when he asked to see me and the late Ambassador Olu Adeniji came looking for me at Juli Pharmacy.
In any case, the circumstances have changed. While I could have afforded to ignore politics in my time, I think there is now a much stronger imperative for young professionals and professionals in general, to join politics because our country is in need urgent need of a rescue.
Given your level of involvement in different spheres in the Catholic Church, one would imagine that by now, you should have been vested with a Knighthood. Perhaps the knighthood does not interest you. If so, why?
It is the sole prerogative of the Pope to confer knighthood on anybody. But you must remember that the hood does not make the monk.
There is a proliferation of churches in Nigeria. But this does not seem to have had any impact on the moral direction of the society, at least on the basis of the regular news reports which continue to be dominated by crime, fraud and all manner of vices. What is the real problem? Are the churches getting it wrong?
What is happening in Nigeria is ongoing elsewhere too. There is proliferation in the Christian, Muslim and the Hindu worlds and elsewhere. What I usually say is that because of the state of the nation, people are running helter-skelter for spiritual shelter.
It is easier to call a pastor a man of God, but many others are God of men. And the consequences are exploitation and willful misinterpretation of the Gospel. The scripture is simple, but we make it complicated for self-serving reasons.
You’ve been married to the same woman for almost 50 years. What is the secret of the longevity of your marriage?
It is the grace of God. The truth is that I am a very fortunate person and I can’t explain it. I don’t deserve it. Lucky is the man who finds a good wife. You see, this thing called marriage is like a lucky dip. Meeting my wife, Julia, is perhaps the best thing that has happened to my life.
My family has played and is still playing very vital roles in my life. No other role has been more important to me than the role they have played.
They are individually and jointly a blessing to me. When you see a man going around looking calm, it is because there is a wife there for him that genuinely loves and cares for him, and I have got all that. It is not me but by the grace of God. That is why I said in the beginning that I learnt prayerful humility.
God is using us to do certain things, in spite of us. So I thank God who has given me the best possible family that I could have had in marriage. The kids therefore, being products of love, sharing and mutual support, have grown to be a pride to us. That is why everybody in the family is called Juli. My name is Julius, my wife is Juliana, my first daughter is Julita; our first son is Julian; the next one is Julia and the last one is Julius. So everyone is Juli.
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 do I deserve all this? So it’s all about the grace of God.
Culled from The Nation