Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, a former Minister of Health and Social Services, who is also the founder and Chairman of Juli Plc, the first indigenously promoted company quoted on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, turned 80 yesterday. The octogenarian, in this interview with Sulaimon Olanrewaju, speaks about life, business, science, research and state of the nation.
CONGRATULATIONS on your 80th birthday sir. What was growing up like for you?
I was born in Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State on August 2nd 1940. I am the last of the children of my parents. In fact, I was not expected because my parents thought they had put an end to childbearing, but I came anyway.
I wasn’t as strong as my other siblings. I came rather light-skinned and was called ‘oyibo’. In fact, some people still call me ‘abayibo’ any time I travel home. My mum had tough time giving birth to me. She started labour on July 31, but I wasn’t born until August. After delivery, my mum passed out and could not see me for several months after.
I was never allowed to go to farm like my siblings because I was rather delicate. As life would have it, while I was playing with other children, one man of God, Reverend Monsignor Anthony Oguntuyi, came visiting the house, one thing led to another and by the time I was five years, I was taken to the Catholic mission in Ado Ekiti to live with the missionaries along with a few other young people who had been brought into the mission.
It also happened that I was the only one that lasted long in the mission house. I lived in the mission house from age five till about 25, when I finished university.
You trained as a pharmacist. What informed that choice?
When I finished at the 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 to work at Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service (WNBS). I was a television newscaster and carried out many programmes including “Vox Pop” interviews. I was going out to interview individual at events. I came across a gentle man who mentioned to me that if I 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 sciences. I was lucky to get double scholarship to study at the University of Ife.
However, I didn’t feel I had the most tasking agenda and that 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 dances at 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.
Let me also add that I was an editor on campus. I had my own newspaper called Spitfire where my crew and I were actually spiting fire. It was a much feared newspaper. So, I was very fully occupied; but the expectations of what a pharmacist should be were not met and I said to God that if I qualified, I was going to make sure that the environment of practice for pharmacists was better.
What was your experience like as a student activist, what impact did that experience have on your life and how do you see student activism these days?
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; 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?”
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 people in today’s generation. Now the economic circumstances are such that for many young people, it’s 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.
Later in life you chose to study law. What was the attraction?
Quite a few reasons, actually. No indigenous businesses were covered by the NSE laws. I believed that studying law would provide me with more robust insights as to the workings of the capital market and how law and regulation could perhaps be put to use towards enhancing the value which local businesses in particular could derive from the stock exchange. Then of course, I also thought that the law profession would provide me with a strong platform with which to help the underprivileged. Maybe I was also keen to find out why lawyers call themselves learned.
What was it like setting up Juli Pharmacy?
It was very fulfilling. I had become national secretary of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria at the time and had been privileged to see how many retail pharmacy outlets looked. Many were, to say the least, quite conservative in outlook and fell far short of the standards I had come to expect given my exposure to such outlets in other parts of the world. I thought there was an opportunity for me to help raise the standards as a sort of torch bearer. Air conditioning was still relatively new in Nigeria in those days, but Juli Pharmacy was fully air conditioned from day one. It was a novelty at that time and there were many who thought it couldn’t be done, that the business was never going to be able to sustain having air conditioners in a pharmacy. But we succeeded and others had to follow suit. I called the pharmacy; Juli Pharmacy and Stores, but quite a few of my colleagues were not very happy with the name because I had added stores. But we succeeded and soon many others were emulating what we had done. But I vowed from the onset that we would be distinguished by the service we provided. We provided 24 hour services, we worked round-the-clock. I don’t know if anyone else has matched that. It was a novelty at the time.
What prompted you to make it a public quoted company?
Raising capital was a key factor, 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 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. It was a possibility. If Juli could do it, then, they could too.
Some people have said that Nigeria’s business environment is so ridden with unethical practice that it takes a miracle for anyone to survive and thrive by practicing ethically. What’s your view of this?
It can be said that the more ethical you are, the more difficult it is to be successful. There is always the temptation to make money.
The day a leader who puts a premium on character and ideals of service emerges, things will change in Nigeria. This is one of the reasons I keep advocating that professionals need to get more involved in politics, especially at the grassroots level. Things can change in Nigeria.
If indeed there is a real decadence in the area of ethics, not only in business but in society at large, what does Nigeria need to do? How can we eliminate the problem of unethical behavior and outright corruption in the public space?
There is a lot that can be done, but leadership is pivotal. People generally look up to the leadership. So it’s important that leaders demonstrate capacity and character and lead by example. As a country, we also urgently need a rebirth of a national ethos. What kind of Nigeria do we want? What role should everyone be playing towards the emergence of such a Nigeria? And how can we own that consciousness and drive it regardless of our current circumstances, regardless of whether we are rich or poor, high or low?
The fourth estate of the realm played a vibrant role during the colonial era when we sought for self-governance. I believe it can again play such a role to help in the reversal of Nigeria’s fortunes. We need to reclaim Nigeria from the morass of corruption and selfishness and greed in which the country is now. Journalists can help to raise the consciousness of our people; they can help a better Nigeria to emerge.
COVID-19 has exposed the underbelly of the nation’s healthcare system. What should the country do to have a strong healthcare system?
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’s 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’s 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 are your pastimes?
I do a little bit of sports. I am a golfer. Again, by accident, I had a hole-in-one sometime in 2016. I say it’s an accident. In golf, when you have a hole-in-one, it is celebrated all over the place, up to Scotland where golf started. Although in my own case, it was by accident not as a result of knowing how to play it very well. But I play golf to exercise myself, not to win any of those trophies that golfers always win or celebrate.
I go to church at St. Leo’s Catholic Church. I say my prayers. God has also used me to be a member of the parish from the first hour. In other words, I have grown with it. I have been the secretary of the Parish Pastoral Council (PPC). I have been chairman also. We’ve done a whole lot of things that needed to be done. And because I have been there, I have created a few things which are now useful. I wrote the church anthem. I was the first organist in the church and I like singing.
Again, I grew up in the Catholic Church. I like singing, especially in Latin. I am still very active in Rotary club. I am the chairman of the council of district governors.
How would you want to be remembered?
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.
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