The Director General, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Sir Rufus Ebegba recently hosted Forefront in his Abuja office where he unveiled the Agency’s performance profile under his watch. Highlights of this interaction are captured by our Project Manager, ETTA MICHAEL BISONG, in this must-read package. Excerpts…
How would you assess the performance of NBMA since its establishment nearly three years ago?
Thank you very much for the interest shown in assisting to broaden our enlightenment activities on matters relating to Biosafety. The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) is about two years and nine month-old now. As an agency that is less than three years, we have actually generated a lot of both national and international interest. This is because of the fact that it is a very special sector that is a little bit controversial. Biotechnology is a fast moving technology. It is about 22-year old in the market now, and we still say they are new. In the advanced world, it is like we are very far behind. And the creation of the NBMA to ensure that these products are safe before they are adopted is a major step by the Federal Government to see that we balance the development of the technology and its products with safety.
And we would have expected that with the Agency in place as well, people should have more confidence. But I can tell you that there are those that have made up their minds never to trust the Agency because they have ulterior motives and their livelihood is centered on what they are doing. Once people’s livelihood is touched, they could become very violent and do anything. The establishment of the agency is key to our national development, particularly when we have about 15 agricultural research institutes, some colleges of agriculture, universities of agriculture that are also going to be dealing with this sector of biotechnology, and also private concern that have ventured into our economy to develop products and the Federal Government establishes an agency like this to ensure that their activities and products are safe; it means there is a new vista in the drive of our economy.
The challenging issues
The world as a whole is looking towards Green economy; an economy that its activities would not impact adversely on the environment; but rather be environmentally friendly, and reduce green house gases. If you look at the issue of chemicals, they produce green house gases that affect the ozone layer leading to climate change and other environmental problems. So, the real issue is government’s undivided interest in safe technologies that can drive the economy; ensure food security; job creation; and production of raw materials to drive our industries.
So, the issue of biosafety is very key and Nigerians should be rest assured that the NBMA is not only here to ensure this sector remain safe, but will also continue to do all the things that are needed to them and the country. So far, we have at least what can give us the impetus to say that we are capable to do what we are asked to do. We have an advanced laboratory for GM detection and analysis, we have various guard lines and staff that are well trained mostly from advanced countries where this technology has been used and the regulations more advanced.
The other things we do from time to time is in house seminars apart from other workshops in and outside the country. We adapt some quasi academic exercise in ensuring that we enhance the competency of our staff. We are not just sitting down as regulators; we are constantly updating our skills and what we need to be effective.It is really a very challenging sector, and you coming in to say you want to help enlighten Nigerians is very good. If Nigerians can be assured and believe that there is an agency to protect them and their environment, it would go a long way to help the agency.
Has NBMA been able to influence the National Biotechnology Bill currently before the National Assembly?
I believe once the National Assembly gives room for public hearing, the lawmakers will then take a critical view of the bill. The bill has not been made public as such, but I know we have very strong relationship with the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) being the agency that promotes, and we regulate. NABDA played a major role in the development of the NBMA Act.
Science and technology, like we have been saying, are drivers of change and if Nigeria is coming up now with safe biotechnology Act, I think it would go a long way to help us expand the Nigeria economy.
What is the level of collaboration with local and international bodies to buy into the mandate and functions of NBMA?
The collaboration between NBMA and international partners has been very wonderful and cordial. Let me start with the United Nations as a whole. Under the UN, the body that is responsible for biosafety matters is vested on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), specifically under the Convention of Biological Diversity secretariat. In that secretariat, members of the UN have been able to come up with a treaty known as Biological Diversity. That was in 1992 and Nigeria also signed the Earth Summit. That agreement actually specified the need for subsidiary agreement known as Biosafety Protocol to address issues of biotechnology and their products known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
So, Nigeria is a major player in the Cartagena Protocol. We attend the bi-annual conference. Apart from that, the Cartagena Protocol, when it was negotiated, Nigeria played a major role. Presently, Article 15 and 16 of the agreement, which talks about biosafety risks assessment and management, have an Annex 3 to that protocol.
In 2007 and 2008, the UN system wanted that Annex 3 to be further elaborated and come up with another guidance material and Nigeria was very much involved in it. Globally, Nigeria is a major player in biosafety issues.
In Africa, Nigeria is working with the African Union (AU). Nigeria has been working closely with AU-NEPAD since 2010. And apart from building the capacity of the regulator, we have also sent some of our staff for training in related areas for them to develop critical capacity to be able to address the issue of biosafety and engage other sister agencies to understand the issues of biosafety.
There are insinuations that Nigeria does not have a Gene Bank. What is the true situation?
That is not true. We have a gene bank. There is a Gene Bank under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. It is at Nigerian Genetic Resources and Biotechnology and that is in Ibadan. It is one of the oldest institutions that we have. We have our conventional and biological resources there. The gene bank is there for both our indigenous and new verities, they are all there. Nigeria has a gene bank.
One very relevant thing here is that information is key; however, there is no adequate information about what Nigeria currently has on ground. The structure we have in this country is good if only the management of these structures can appropriately harmonize and put them into proper usage. There is nothing that Nigeria really doesn’t have. People have even said we don’t have competence in the area of biosafety which is very wrong. And these are allusions and people don’t want to even know. They just sit down in their houses and make statements that are not substantial.