Question 1: What is National Biosafety Management Agency all about?
Answer: The NBMA was established in 2015 with the main aim of ensuring the practice and application of modern biotechnology to produce genetically modified organisms that are safe to the environment, and to human health. In essence, the NBMA ensures that before any practice of modern biotechnology takes place, we ensure that it is approved, and we also ensure that the application does not produce harmful substances, harmful organisms that can cause harm to the environment. The genetically modified organisms, which are normally the product of modern biotechnology, we also make sure that they are not harmful to the environment and human health. In this context, for example in the production of genetically modified maize, is it substantially equivalent to its conventional counterpart? Does it look like maize? Does it contain the same nutritional value as the normal maize? We also ensure that the product do not have negative impact on the environment, for instance, becoming invasive and destroying other or taking up the all the nutrients in the environment that other plants cannot survive, or will it suddenly become a weed that becomes a problem to be controlled. Apart from that, we look at the safety to environment and human health. For the human health, i.e. food safety, we also ensure that GM crops used to produce food derived from genetic engineering do not have toxins or cause harm to human health if they are consumed, or they don’t also cause allergy, particularly when you eat the particular foods and have some reactions, that those products from genetic engineering do not have such reactions.
Apart from safety to human health and to the environment, we also look at the socio-economic issues surrounding GMOs. We also ensure that GMOs does not have negative impact on our cultural values, they don’t have negative impact on the economy. The products must have economic value. For instance, GM maize must have higher value, or equivalent to the same value of other maize varieties that are being produced. We also ensure that farmers are not shortchanged, farmers don’t get less from the GM crops, and must not have negative impact on international trade. These are some of the things we do, and part of ensuring that we have developed guidelines, also train staff, and also have GMO detection lab to confirm that these products are. It is quite a laborious process and one of the major things we use to ensure this safety is risk assessment and risk managements.

Question 2: What are your achievements since your emergence?
Answer: If we talk about achievement, I will say, with all sense of modesty, we have achieved quite a lot. The agency was established in 2015, and since the creation of the agency we have been able to source personnel of 340something. These staff have been trained within and outside the country in issues relating to biosafety. We have been able to develop various guidelines to enhance the documentation of the act. We have also been able to develop the National Biosecurity Policy. 1n 2019, the mandate of the agency was expanded through an amendment to the act, including the issues of emerging aspect of modern biotechnology drive, synthetic biology and gene editing, and also giving the agency the mandate to place biosecurity measures in the country. And part of achieving that, we have developed the national law and security policy, which has been reviewed by all stakeholders, ministries and agencies and including the office of the National Security Adviser, and even the military is also involved, and other security arms. So right now, the policy will be transmitted to the Federal Executive Council, the Federal Ministry of Environment. That would become our National Biosecurity Policy. We have also been able to put in place a very sound GMO laboratory with equipment. One major thing we have been able to do is in the issue of risk assessment and risk management. It is the hub of biosafety.
Apart from developing the guideline to help processes, we have been able to train staff on how to carry out risk assessment in biosafety. We have also been able to put in place mechanisms or review of applications so that before any GMO can be used in this country the agency must approve it. We have been able to grant approval for some experimental feeds; genetically modified crops; cassava, maize, sorghum, and even rice is presently on the field on experiment. Some have been concluded. We have also been able to grant approval for the commercial release of some crops, i.e. beans, cotton, and recently GM maize that is drought tolerant and also insect resistant. Apart from that, due to our level of involvement in certain activities within and outside the country, Nigeria currently is the chair of Africa in biosafety regulators, that is all the agencies in Africa, and we are also the chair of West Africa. We were supposed to move up but because of the Covid-19, we have not been able to meet that of the West Africa to hand over to other persons. Nigeria has also been involved in the development of the Sub-regional biosafety regulation for West Africa. We have also been involved in the United Nations Convention biological diversity committee on coming up with the guidelines on the risk assessment and risk management biosafety management.
We have also been able to enlighten the members of the public. The essence is the agency since its creation, we are like an economic and safety enabler. We have been able to create the regulatory and administrative mechanism for the application of modern biotechnology to enhance the agricultural sector, enhance food production sector, to also enhance biosecurity sector. So by that, what I mean is that, with the agency creating that it means jobs will be created in that sector. Apart from jobs, wholesome products will also be made available, farmers will have higher yields with these products; we are confirming them safe. We have also granted approval for the importation of some grains, maize and soya beans. That of maize is basically for poultry production because the quantity of maize we produce in this country is not enough to service the feed mills. We have been able to carry out risk assessment to see that those who are importing GM maize are such that we have granted approval in that sector to assist in the survival of the poultry industry. We have also granted approval in the soya beans production and vegetable oil production.
One other major thing we also jealously guard is the Nigerian environment. The activities have been able to ensure and to also support the environmental sustainability. Nigeria’s signing the convention and biological diversity means that we are also major players in ensuring the conservation and subtle use of biological diversity, so biosafety ensure that application of modern biotechnology do not have negative impact on the conservation and biological diversity, so it is a related issue. Again, the issue of chemicals being used in the agricultural sector, with the advent of GMOs, particularly those that are insect resistant, it means less chemicals will be used because these crops can now defend themselves without using much or some kind of chemical at all, and when these chemicals breakdown normally, there are emissions which become greenhouse gasses and the ones reducing the ozone layer; causing ozone layer depletion, climate change, global warming and other related climate change impact. So it is an elaborate activity that we are into.
Question 3: What have been your challenges?
Answer: One of the major challenge we actually face is in the area of funding, which is not peculiar to our agency, and also that general funding, it has not been easy for the agency to have a befitting corporate office, headquarters. Where we are today we are just squatting with the National Park Service. We are from the same Ministry of Environment, so the ministry requested that we share this offices with them for now. So that is our challenge; accommodation, adequate funding…
Another major challenge we have is in the issue of, we are regulating a very sensitive and controversial sector. I am sure you are aware that some people don’t want GMOs, particularly some NGOs are going about campaigning that GMOs are harmful to the environment and human health. They have accused the agency from time to time of trying to bring GMOs to cause harm to human health and the environment. This is not true. Our own is to ensure that GMOs are safe to the environment and human health. I know that those who are campaigning against the agency negatively is not unconnected with the fact that there are some trade war going on. Those who produce chemicals suddenly have crops that do not need chemicals to control their diseases or pests. The essence is that the demand for their chemicals will be reduced. We are suspecting that they are the ones giving money to environmental activists to say that GMOs are harmful, and they have constantly tried to vilify the agency through negative publicity and so on. We have tried to inform the members of the public. One of the major challenges is misinformation, trying to distort facts and also misleading members of the public to trade hatred against the agency.
Question 4: How prepared is the Agency to tackle threats that my present it the form of biological infectious agents?
Answer: Yes! With the 2019 mandate given to the agency through the amendment of the 2015 National Biosafety Management Agency Act, giving the Agency the mandate to put biosecurity measures in place so that harmful biological agents can be properly contained and prevented from being used maliciously to cause harm to the environment an human health. In respect of that, we got this mandate in the last quarter of 2019, and in 2020 we commenced the process to develop a National Biosecurity Policy by inviting stakeholders to sit together and look at the new mandate given to the Agency, and to find out what other MDAs, because we realized that the agents are doing various pockets of biosecurity measures and activities so there is need for coordination, collaboration, synergy and putting a system in place that can trigger involvement of all other agencies in development, so the policy is not just an ordinary policy, it is a national biosecurity policy and action plan. So it gives room for who does what. We have set a motion; the process of ensuring the holistic national biosecurity process in the country.
We have been able to draft a policy and during the drafting, major stake holders were involved; the WHO was involved, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and some other partners also made contribution apart from our National Institutions and authorities. We all involve our stakeholders to severe this process since last year and we have come up with a draft document which would be sent to the Federal council in the Ministry of Environment. So that is the first policy, and also with the policy and the action plan, it means various ministries and agencies would be much more conscious of their various issues, because the issue of covid-19 is as a result of infectious virus that have been released and inadvertently, whatever it is or how it has been released, but with this national biosecurity framework we are putting in place which in Nigeria we have to be more prepared, more proactive. Apart from looking at it from the biosecurity angle, even the aspect of biosafety too, we are also going to ensure that harmful biological organisms are not developed through modern biotechnology to cause harm to the environment or humans.
Nigeria currently, the document we are developing now is going to be one of the major documents that other African countries would want to emulate, because when we were developing this document, we discovered that there were no single biosecurity policy document on boarder control versus sanitary and so on. But with this, we are going to have a compendium of one document involving all the various thematic areas in the areas of water, land, air etc. I think it is a document that is going to move the Nigerian biosecurity consciousness to the next level that Nigeria’s level of preparedness will be a trigger alert. I am sure in the next few months there will be more activities in respect of that. Training is also very key so we have also learned of various training programs for the staff of the agency and other line ministries and departments that would be involved in plain edition of the policy.
Question 5: During the review of National Biosafety Policy draft, you were quoted as saying that “Biosecurity will not be devoid of the issue of terrorism”. What do you mean by that?
Answer: Yes! The way the world is going, the issue of terrorism has become more prominent and we are looking at a situation that we must be able to use part of the policies to ensure that we have level of counter terrorism aspect of it to say that how prepared are we going to be as a nation, so that people will not use biological agents as a means of threat and national security in the area of environment, food, and also to health. So that is why you see that during the development, the office of the national security adviser was very much involved, the military, the other armed forces and other security agencies were also very much involved. The IGs office is to come up with a document to ensure that Nigeria is not going to be used as a territory where terrorists will come and attack us without being prepared. Those are the things to be infused into it so as to make sure that we are protected from harmful biological agents that would be used to cause harm.
Question 6: Sometime last year, your agency was alleged to have been enmeshed in a contract inflation scandal. The agency, headed by you, was alleged to have spent over N365 million on vehicles, computers, and equipment, all between 2016 and 2019, among other procurements. The ICIR’s investigation, however, revealed that the prices quoted for these items were inflated beyond the market price. Judging by the huge respect we have for your person, we will like to know what transpired, and what your Agency is doing to avoid such occurrences in the future.
Answer: Yes! That publication was maliciously done. The group of NGOs they requested for information and procurement process and I directed that those information be made available to them. When that was done, this ICIR wrote that we merged. From their publication, they alleged that we bought five cars whereas we bought six cars, so when we requested them to retract their publication, they refused, they said that if we have any information that we should come to them. In the first place, journalism should not be under arrogance. You came to request for information and I gave the information, if there are variances or you are not sure of what we gave to you, you ought to have come to me, justice means that you should have come to me that this is what you observed before you publish, if you cannot defend it then you go ahead, but why do you want to ambush me? I see their action as that of a yellow fever on the road that will hide somewhere so that when someone beaks the light of the car, they will jump in front of the car to unnecessarily raise alarm.
In as much as there is a lot of corruption in this country, but deliberate attempt to indict government officials or to discredit government is not good for a country which means we don’t even people of integrity in this country. When we requested them to do that, they refused, I said we should take it before the other authorities. We wrote to the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Federation, accusing this publisher of abuse of freedom of information. Then the letter was then referred to the office of the IG. They were invited, we were invited, and it was investigated and they discovered that these people maliciously did that publication. They were asked to retract, they said we should write to the Journal. I said we will never write to the Journal, rather they should send their report to the office of the Attorney General. So it was very clear and even from their own report to the police, they discovered that even the price with which we bought those cars was much cheaper than what they found in those places. Apart from that, they alleged five cars meanwhile there were six cars. Will four million buy the sixth car? A brand new car? If they say that we inflated it with four million, will that four million buy the sixth car which they did not even include?
I know that probably they are working with those who believe that the Agency is trying to bring in GMOs. We are not bringing in GMOs into the country. What we are doing is to ensure that these products are safe, and the technology is used to enhance the economy. I know what I did for us to have written to the office, I said they should investigate and prosecute, I didn’t say prosecute the author or prosecute me which means whoever is found guilty including myself. Not many agencies would do that. So the police investigated and discovered that they raised an unnecessary alarm, but if you are in a sane society, the author ought to pay for that because if you give out wrong information it is an offence just that I am waiting for the office of the Attorney General to react over the matter. If you feel that everyone in this country is a thief, it is not going to go well for this country. People are making sincere efforts to see that the state go well. Those for us are more than those against us.
Question 7: What are your goals and future plans for the Agency?
Answer: In a summary, it is to put the Agency on the platform of a global recognition of one the best, if not the best in Africa on the issue about biosafety regulation and biosecurity in this country. That is what we want to achieve. How do we want to achieve this? Through human resources, through human capital development and strengthening. Right now if you come from time to time, you see staff having seminars, doing researches and coming out with findings, emerging aspects of biosafety and biotechnology. So first of all, it is to create the human resource that all over the world they can stand up to teach you about biosafety and biosecurity and secondly, to come with a template on the issue of biosecurity, to see that Nigeria is a hub of biosecurity, Nigeria is totally devoid of the release of any harmful biological agents, to contain harmful biological agents, not just contain but to come up with the research to gnomic studies. That is to study how harmful biological organisms operate, and to be able to culture and have a safe bank of some harmful biological agents, where studies will be going on.
One of my visions, if money will be available, is to have a national biosecurity center. It is like where you have hospital for special cases like Ebola, to study the cases and if there are emergencies, how to evacuate. There should be helicopters and other things. Human resources is my target, I believe in the development of young people. If you look at the staff I have here they are very young, and I always tell them you are the future of Africa.