I first fell in adoration with Professor Dora Akunyili sometime in 2002 when I watched a news clip of her speaking about her commitment to eradicate counterfeit drugs and unsafe food. Back then, she was the Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
At that time, Mrs Akunyili’s enthusiasm and valor to clean up a sector flooded with fake foods and drugs endeared her to a population so ravaged by the dishonesty and mendacity of administration officers. It seemed unfathomable to most of us that such a principled government official, who was ready to risk her personal safety in order to do what was right in her capacity as a Nigerian in the position of authority, would operate with the kind of unabated zeal that she did.
To Africa’s most populous nation, she was the amazon who became a breath of fresh air. Together with the likes of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu and Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, she was the conscience of a nation and the poster child for what a new Nigeria could be if only we took the initiative and embraced the courage to do what was right. She came across as a very blunt woman who was unapologetic for her convictions and ideals. She was the government insider that wasn’t afraid to stand up and speak on the issues she believed in, an art that has been fundamentally misplaced to the shameful sycophancy and brownnosing pretension and calculated doublespeak often seen in the corridors of power in Nigeria.
On the morning of 7th June 2014, news that Mrs Akunyili had lost her two-year battle with cancer brought great sadness and grief to the whole nation. I think for most of us, her brand of leadership and the way she publicly exhibited an unwavering commitment to promoting conditions that constantly upheld decency and forthrightness in government resonated quite deeply. From her early days as a first class student through to her working career as a pharmacist and lecturer, right up to her vocation as a governmental administrator, she used her intrinsic ability to change and advance every system she met into something much better. And even though she was not always successful in all her endeavors to bring reform, one must recognize the fact that Professor Dora Akunyili really did try.
Right from her debut onto the public scene, she seemed to be the real deal, an authentic person who had a high level of intelligence. And never during those years, up until when she was Minister of Information, did she let her boldness to transform our decayed system through her commitment by operationalizing the standards she upheld, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles, be overshadowed.
As the Director General of NAFDAC, Professor Akunyili, made it her priority to fight a cabal so entrenched in the murky world of counterfeit drugs and unsafe food. She was gung-ho in her dedication to clean up, introduce and enforce regulations in the sector that would be safe for the consumption of Nigerians. Due to her crackdown as the Director -General of NAFDAC, she faced intimidation, blackmail, harassment, verbal abuse, and survived a number of assassination attempts. But never once did she let the threats deter her from carrying out her duty in the most upright and dedicated way possible.
A lot of people speak about the brilliant and revolutionary work that Professor Akunyili did in NAFDAC. That work is, by and large, regarded as her greatest legacy in her public life. But, for me, the factor that makes her work in NAFDAC even more significant is not just that she was able to clean up the sector or set a precedent that demanded a higher standard for our government officials, it was the fact that Mrs Akunyili carried out her work with a sincerity of purpose that transgressed beyond the boundaries of culture, tribe and religion.
Arguably, most of the offenders that operated in the sector that she confronted head on were from the same part of the country as she was and debatably from her own state. But that was never a factor of consideration for the Professor. She did what she had to do in the interest of the whole country despite the effect that her actions would invariably have on those closest to her and people that she allegedly knew. This earnest part of her character and professional conduct is one of the qualities that separated her from so many of her peers that hail from all parts of the country (from the north right down to the south) and who occasionally allow sentiment and tribal allegiance to skewer their duty to the nation as a whole.
Notwithstanding the great work Professor Akunyili did in NAFDAC, I believe that her greatest moment; the one act that will forever place her on the right side of history came in 2010 when she alone had the courage to stand up and say what every Nigerian knew to be inevitably true at that time, that the then president, late President Umaru Yar'Adua, was no longer fit to lead the country.
Back then, Nigeria was a ‘sick’ country theoretically ruled by an ailing president but practically ruled by a voracious and megalomaniac first lady together with an insatiable cabal who behaved little better than cannibals at a buffet of raw meat. There seemed to be a fear, especially in government quarters, of who would do the inevitable and call a spade a spade. Amidst the collective outrage and uproar from the public, Nigerians watched-on helplessly as our leaders and representatives were unable to find their voice.
Then out of the wilderness emerged one voice; one memo that spoke of the incapacity of the late president to run the country and requesting for power to immediately be handed over to Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan. That voice belonged to Professor Dora Akunyili.
By speaking out, especially during such a delicate moment of political transition and a fragmented society, she honored her social and constitutional allegiance to 170 million Nigerians as opposed to honoring her personal connection with the persona of the president. Again Professor Akunyili found herself going against the tide, confronting a different kind of cabal who in turn subjected her to ridicule, gave her flak and bullied her for speaking her truth. Again, she rose above it all to do right by Nigeria. By choosing the path of allegiance to the country, the Professor personified respect, objectivity, patriotism and she distinguished herself as a unique and vanishing breed of Nigerian leaders that are dedicated to be in service for the people.
Every Nigerian, especially those in the corridors of power should forever be challenged and deeply motivated by Mrs Akunyili’s example and leadership in any pursuit to contribute to this country. The effect she had on this nation was a magnificent example of believing in what is possible when we do what is right by Nigeria and stand up to be counted at the time it matters. We should be dedicated to learn as much as we can from people like Chief Gani Fawehinmi and Professor Dora Akunyili.
However, even with her triumphs came the failures. Like every single one of us, Professor Akunyili was by no means perfect. She had flaws as a human being and in her capacity as a public figure. On the backdrop of her success in re-branding NAFDAC, she came to the Ministry of Information with a most outlandish scheme to ‘rebrand’ a country that was internally in disarray for the purpose of an external audience. Then there were raised eyebrows at her criticism of the modern way that some sang the national anthem and the use of the word ‘Naija’ to refer to Nigeria. Also, her overly emotional reaction and unsavory outpouring of grief in the aftermath of her failed election bid for the Senatorial seat for Anambra Central on the platform of APGA against Senator Chris Ngige of ACN in 2011 greatly tested her composure.
It is a cruel paradox that, perhaps, the one reproach that has the facility of slightly tinting the contribution she made to this country mirrors the greatest one she gave it. When six years ago she wrote that heroic memo which urged a dying president, too sick to fully carry out his duties, to make the honorable sacrifice of stepping down from office, little did she know that she would soon be confronted with the very same test that the late President Umaru Musa Yaradua so woefully failed! When Professor Akunyili accepted the position to become a delegate at the National Conference in 2014, she must have already known that she was very ill. And if that is the case, then she proved the validity of John Heywood’s 1546 self-deprecating adage of, “It is as folke dooe, and not as folke say” (do as I do, not as I say). Her perceived final inability to overcome the sit-tight attitude of our leaders and exit the stage is by far the biggest let down for me, as a great admirer of Mrs Akunyili. Watching her at the National Conference was bitter sweet; bitter because it was a test which she too seemed to have failed and sweet because it was great to see her diligently perform for her beloved Nigeria one last time.
But even with the disappointment of seeing her on that stage and notwithstanding her very frail state, one cannot take away the fact that her final performance at that same National Conference was ‘Quintessentially Dora,’ the Nigerian ‘National Treasure’ who has always had the unique ability to inspire us to look ahead. I suppose, in time, it will be the mixture of the good and the bad moments of her that we were privy to that will help forge her ultimate legacy. And despite everything, I have no doubt that it will be an exceptional and positive one.
I never knew Mrs Akunyili personally although I did have three brief encounters with her. And what I find most ironic about the connection that I felt with this lady who never really knew me was the awkwardness of those three encounters. The first encounter was in the Ministry of Information in 2009, where I had gone with one of my lawyers to follow up on a legal brief. Having been ordered to sit and wait in a room for what seemed like an eternity, I caught a glimpse of Professor Akunyili go past the room I was in. Immediately I got up, hurried passed her entourage and approached her to explain why I were there. As I greeted her and began to speak, she immediately shut me down and told me that approaching her in the manner I did was not right or proper by any account. She then turned and walked away leaving me red-faced. Knowing that I was wrong and that my approach was in no way appropriate I proceeded to gather my shame together and leave. But just before leaving I looked up and there I saw her standing at the end of the corridor slightly smiling at me. I smiled back; she gave me a slight nod that I read as an acknowledgment and then she was gone through a door.
The second encounter was not a physical one but a verbal one. It was in the aftermath of the release of the 2009 Peter Jackson sci-fi movie, District 9, where Nigerians living in South African slums were portrayed really negatively. As the then Information Minister, Mrs Akunyili had issued a statement asking cinemas to stop screening the movie and had written to the producer and distributor of the film demanding an apology. In response, I wrote an article that week titled, ‘Whitewashing the Grave’ in which I articulated my view that, although the film was harsh in its portrayal of the antagonists who were Nigerian, the the story was a politically incorrect and pushing-the-envelope science fiction which played on very ridiculous and shallow stereotypes. The stereotype of Nigerians internationally committing crime, 419, scams, violence, murders, voodoo and claiming asylum in other countries is there because it is in part based on the truth and in the portrayal that we put out there through our own Nigerian produced movies. I wrote that we needed to take responsibility for our conduct and the unfavorable perception that the world has of us. In my write up, I advised the minister that rather than the government put its energy into challenging Sony Entertainment for a public retraction of a movie that had already been released to the cinema, it was more important for the government to redirect its efforts into providing a conducive and law abiding atmosphere at home so that more Nigerians wouldn’t feel compelled to leave the country and for criminal elements within the country to be held accountable. The late former Minister did not take kindly to my view and she wrote to me formally scolding me for what she interpreted as my unpatriotic stance. I eventually got to briefly speak to her over the phone regarding the issue where she accepted my view but reminded me that in order to do better as a nation each and every one of us had to expect more.
The third encounter was at the unveiling of the Liberian embassy or high commission in Abuja in 2010, where I was invited as a guest and she was invited as the guest of honor. After the ceremony when we retired for refreshments, I again tried to approach her to have a brief chat. However, just like before she was very abrupt; she said she was about to leave and gently pushed me aside in order to pass. With my pride getting the better of me, I felt irritated and slightly embarrassed, so as a defense mechanism I braced myself to deliver one of my more offensive stares to her. But as I looked up at her, there was that slight smile on her face that she gave me when we first met and again she followed it by that acknowledging nod. Then she turned and left.
While I never got the full essence of whom she was on a personal level and the three brief encounters I had with her seemed almost lacking, the reactions I got from her all three times made me respect her more on a very real and humanistic level. I knew that she was a passionate and feisty woman but she was also very vulnerable and emotional at the same time. She seemed to be willing to be inappropriate in order to be appropriate and, like me, she had #ZeroToleranceForNonsense. That really endeared her to me; the combination of brilliance, integrity, commitment, resolve, vulnerability and passion that she had made her the full package.
There are many lessons to learn and unlearn from Professor Akunyili’s leadership. Examples such as hers should illuminate our moment as we continue to navigate with what and who we really are and want, as a nation, and as we continue our struggle to stabilize our politics and institutions. Like her, we should all seek to advance our separate and collective perception so that we might be better able to make more meaningful contributions to our society.
What Professor Dora Akunyili accomplished in her life time is what few have accomplished. If the majority of our public officials imbibed the mindset, spirit and conscience that Mrs Akunyili did, Nigeria would, without doubt, be a better place. Now that she has gone, we hope that her example of what a government official should be will become an inspiration to many Nigerians who will one day wear the cap that Mrs Akunyili so elegantly and courageously wore.
Throughout all the tributes that we will hear about Professor Dora Akunyili; from her over 400 local and international awards, her publications and global accolades, we must never forget what perhaps her greatest quality was: Her faith in the Nigerian people and her belief that we deserve and can do better.
Let us honor and celebrate the life and work of this dynamic, beautiful and honorable Nigerian lady; Professor Dora Akunyili.
I have wanted to write an article about Professor Akunyili since she wrote that heroic memo to save the country in 2010 but somehow I never got round to it. When I saw how ill she had become during the National Conference, I decided to write an article then so that she would know that she was in my thoughts and prayers. About five weeks ago I spoke to Sam Nda Isaiah, the former Chairman of Leadership Newspaper, expressing my desire to write a piece on her. At that time, he told me that he also had been intending to write a piece encouraging and supporting her past efforts. Unfortunately, I never got round to writing the piece during her lifetime but I was elated to see that about two weeks ago Mr Sam had written a beautiful, beautiful piece about her. Though she was very ill at the time the article came out, I hope that her and her family was aware of it and knew just how much she was appreciated, not just in death, but even when she was alive.
Now as I remember her beautiful smile and acknowledging nod and pen this late tribute to her, my heartfelt condolence goes out to her husband, Dr. Chike Akunyili, her children, grandchildren, all members of her extended family, the former Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi and her brother, Dr. Francis Anayo Edemobi, who were both there for her right till the very end, her colleagues, friends and neighbors, the good people of Anambra state, the whole Igbo population of the world, all peace loving Nigerians and every single one of us who loved and adored her from afar.
Prof. (Mrs.) Dora Nkem Akunyili believed in this nation and I believed in her! And as I join the nation to mourn her, I can unequivocally say that, in her lifetime and in death, she wasn’t just DORA, she was and will always be… a-DORA-ble!
Written By Hannatu Musawa
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