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Evaluating Salako’s success story at NIMR

By Sunday Saanu
22 July 2022   |   2:43 am
It is trite, but true to restate that Nigeria’s major problem is leadership! Despite her abundance of natural and human endowments, the country perhaps simply lacks quality leadership

[FILE PHOTO] Professor Babatunde Lawal Salako, Director General of the Nigerian Institute Of Medical Research, NIMR.

It is trite, but true to restate that Nigeria’s major problem is leadership! Despite her abundance of natural and human endowments, the country perhaps simply lacks quality leadership that could have translated people’s dreams into realities.

Consequently, the Nigerian environment has been nothing, if not funereal. Public larceny on an apocalyptic scale is the hallmark of many successive Nigerian leaderships. More poignantly, quite a number of our leaders are in the habit of trading merit for mediocrity without caring a hoot!

Leadership, according to an Austrian-American management consultant, Peter Drucker, is lifting a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond his normal limitations. Leadership is about the strength of mind, self-confidence, far-sightedness and good judgement. It is the ability of an individual or a group of individuals to lead, guide, influence and organise in an effective manner and inspire the leader towards the fulfilment of the organisation’s goals, and balancing the conflict of interests of all subordinates and stakeholders.

This is the background with which this writer spent two days in Lagos in order to verify the emerging positive claims that the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) under the leadership of Prof. Babatunde Lawal Salako has initiated a paradigm shift with his uncommon leadership styles that have consequently turned the hitherto bad story of the Institute into a success story.

The NIMR is the nation’s foremost Institute of medical research with a vision to be an institution of excellence in basic, applied and operational research for the promotion of National Health and Development. Its mission is to conduct research into diseases of public health importance in the country and develop structures for the dissemination of research findings. It is expected to do this by providing enabling environment and facilities for health research and training in cooperation with the Federal and State Ministries of Health. The NIMR is also expected to collaborate with universities, allied institutions and Organised Private Sectors nationally and internationally.

However, this institute, which was established in 1977, was in recent memory, caught in a double whammy of serial unrest on account of alleged poor leadership, eroding budgets, as well a stifling operational environment.

Until Prof. Salako was appointed in 2016, the problems facing the institute seemed intractable as NIMR was extremely impecunious. The situation was as dark as it was dire. It was as if there was a spell of voodoo which had dazed the workers into a stupor! Incessant strike was a recurring decimal as there was career stagnation!

There was a massive brain drain because the environment was not only toxic but noxious and asphyxiating. Interestingly, the former Provost of College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, Prof Salako was appointed as the Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of NIMR amidst the crisis! With his experience, Salako probably has his job cut out. To everyone’s delight, he called what he termed a “Town Hall” meeting (as it is the practice in UI) where he listened to all the staff members and unfolded his own agenda.

Testifying, NIMR Deputy Director (Administration), Mr Bitrus Nelson Nimlyat disclosed: “He told us that he was appointed to work and turn the situation around for the better. Therefore, he told us he was not interested in rumour, religious and tribal sentiments, but rather, hard work and results. He said he was not appointed to sack anybody. Those who worked with the former DG are still the same set of people working with Prof Salako? His leadership styles are uncommon.”

In his own assessment, NIMR Chief Research Scientist and Team Leader, Dr Onwuamah Chika, declared that “Prof Salako is a God-sent to NIMR with his own unique leadership qualities which have significantly transformed this place. Nobody believed we could experience this kind of life-changing transformation, and all because of his leadership styles.”

What magic wand did the DG brandish to bring about this success story? Prof. Salako himself explained that the first step he took “was a special appeal he made to the then Health Minister, Prof. Isaac Folorunso Adewole, who graciously increased the budget allocation of the NIMR from the paltry N50 million to N950 million. After that, I deployed UI’s standard, using the committee system. We restructured governance systems. We created different committees in order to decentralize power. People began to show appreciation and confidence in the administration.”

Prof. Salako added that he gave every department and unit the opportunity to exercise their rights of choice as “I cannot be dealing with adults and be applying juvenile principles.” He emphasized that as a leader, his principal job is to create an operating environment where staff members can thrive. To this end, in 2019 for instance, NIMR witnessed innovations and new initiatives in translating medical products and services, filling the gaps in diagnostics and laboratory needs in the area of life science and drug development. As a way of improving human capacity for research, intramural research awards were given to deserving junior and senior research fellows who keenly competed to get the grant. A few NIMR extramural grants were also awarded to five postgraduate students in four collaborating Universities to research viral haemorrhagic fever, especially Lassa fever, which has become a perennial outbreak in Nigeria.

In 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world, NIMR did a lot, deploying health research expertise and making modest strides in genomic surveillance, COVID-19 testing, and reporting towards the response to curbing the pandemic. At the threshold of the pandemic in Nigeria, NIMR was responsible for the genetic sequencing of the Index COVID-19 case that earned the country international commendation. So far, Prof. Salako’s leadership styles have remained a tonic for the tired souls of NIMR. As a leader, he remains resilient in serving the nation as a burden bearer, combining technical brilliance with strategic savvy.

Good enough, Prof. Salako will be a year older on Saturday, July 23, having been born in 1959 to Alhaji and Alhaja Ibathllahi Lawal Salako. He attended the University of Ibadan where he bagged an MBBS degree in 1986. The then Dr. Salako joined the UCH in April 1990 for Residency training in the Department of Medicine and obtained the Fellowship of the West African College of Physicians. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in September 2014 and the Royal College of Physicians of London in May 2016.
Saanu (08034073427) is with the University of Ibadan.