Life and tributes
Akunyili: A Profile in Courage
The story of the late Professor Dora Akunyili is one of determination, courage, hardwork, patriotism and commitment to the common good. A woman of many parts, Akunyili, a rare professor of pharmacology, was an administrator, academic, politician, former Minister of Information and Communication and former Director General, National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
She was born in Makurdi, in the present day Benue State on July 14, 1954. An indigene on Nanka, in Anambra state, she was married to Dr. Chike Akunyili in the neighbouring Agulu community and they had six children. Akunyili was educated at the St. Patrick’s Primary School, Isuofia, Anambra State, Queen of Rosary Secondary School, Nsukka in the present day Enugu State where she passed The First School Leaving Certificate with Distinction in 1966; and the WEST AFRICAN SCHOOL CERTIFICATE (W.A.S.C) with Grade I Distinction in 1973. Her sterling performance earned her the Eastern Nigerian Government Post-Primary and the Federal Government Undergraduate Scholarships respectively. The late former minister later bagged a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree (B.Pharm (Hons.) in 1978 and PhD in 1985 both from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).
Akunyili started her working career as a pharmacist in the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Enugu, in 1978. She was there until 1981 when she veered into academics, starting off as a Graduate Assistant (Research Fellow) in the faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, UNN. She later transferred her services to the College of Medicine in the same university in 1992 and rose to the position of Consultant Pharmacologist in 1996, a position she held until April 12, 2001. Akunyili was also a part time lecturer of the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacist, Lagos from 1992 -1995.
The stuff Akunyili was made of started manifestation during her time as Zonal Secretary in the defunct Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), the intervention agency established by the late Head of State, General Sanni Abacha. During her time as Zonal Secretary in the PTF, the former NAFDAC DG was saddled with the task of coordinating all the agency’s projects in the five South Eastern states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo. While working in the PTF Akunyili had collected money to go for foreign medical treatment. But eventually she did not spend the money. On her return she returned the money to the government coffers, a thing unheard of among government officials in the clime. This singular act of honesty marked her out as a rare breed, who could be trusted with sensitive assignments. This was to speak for her years later when the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo administration needed an honest and patriotic Nigerian to fight drug counterfeiting.
Her stint in NAFDAC
Akunyili was appointed NAFDAC DG in April 2001. On assumption of duty on April 12, 2001, the professor of pharmacology set as a top priority the eradication of counterfeit drugs and unsafe food products. Prior to her coming to NAFDAC, substandard foods and counterfeit drugs were sold in Nigeria without any form of regulation. She had lost a sister to the menace of fake drugs. Her sister, Vivian, who was diabetic, had died after being injected with fake insulin.
So, Akunyili had a firsthand experience of what it means for ones child to be cut short, by the same drug meant to cure the ailment. From thence, she made a silent vow to do something about drug counterfeiting, whenever she could. Consequently, when she found herself at the helm of affairs in NAFDAC the former minister fought counterfeit drugs and their merchants with all the strength she could muster. She didn’t want what befell her and her family to befall other Nigerians. Even at a great risk to her life, she sustained the war against counterfeit drugs.
Giving an insight into what informed the candour and single-minded determination with which she pursued her duties in NAFDAC, Akunyili had written in the preface to her book, The war against Counterfeit Medicines, My story: “First, former President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed me to the position (of Director-General) despite the stiff opposition from the political class. He believed in my ability to do the job. Following my performance in my former job at the PTF. I am also mindful that many families have lost loved ones because of the effects of fake drugs, an experience my family shared with the loss of my favourite sister Vivian. In addition I felt that my appointment was an opportunity to give back to the country that had given so much to me. My entire education from high school through to university, to doctorate and post-doctorate studies in London was possible due to government scholarships. Finally, against the barrage of criticism, I was determined to succeed, to prove my critics wrong and to remain uncompromising in my job.” Prior to her emergence as NAFDAC DG, the agency was seen in Nigeria as just another governmental parastatal. Only a few knew what the acronym even stood for.
The late amazon brought life into the then moribund agency and raised public consciousness about the danger of fake and substandard drugs and allied products. For her the saying “all it takes for evil to thrive is for good men to stand and do nothing” held true. Her days in NAFDAC were no doubt, the defining moments in her life in the service to her fatherland. It was through her activism that the drug market in Nigeria was sanitized to a great extent. For Nigeria and Nigerians held down by merchants of counterfeit drugs and food products, Akunyili was a savior sent by God to rescue a critical sector of the nation’s life. To the producers and merchandise of fake drugs the late NAFDAC DG was a terror. For these people the fear of Akunyili was the beginning of wisdom, as they wept and gnashed their teeth, when counterfeit drugs worth several hundreds of millions of naira were always burnt to ashes. They never liked it and made attempts on her life.
Expectedly, the drug counterfeits fought back. First, they started with harassment, intimidation, blackmail and graduated to threats. The drug counterfeits also deployed diabolical attacks to scare her out of the fight against food and pharmaceutical products. But Akunyili was not deterred. When all these failed they made direct attempts on her life. Twice they sought to eliminate the hardworking DG but twice, God foiled their evil plans. Akunyili further revealed in her book; “when all their efforts at bribery failed, the criminals resorted to intimidation harassment, blackmail and threats. They deposited fetish objects in our office which included blood stained feathers, African beads and a tortoise. They also threatened me and my husband on phone. When they still did not succeed, they resorted to physical and arson attacks against our personnel.”
Still on her challenges then, she stated “Too many people tried to use my relationship with them to get me to compromise in the process of taking tough decisions. Sometimes it was difficult for me because most of the counterfeiters came from the South Eastern part of Nigeria where I come from. But I was able to remain unwavering in all my regulatory responsibilities.”
The failed attempts on her life
The first assassination attempt was in August 2001, barely four months after she assumed office, as NAFDAC DG. Six armed men had laid ambush for her in her home in Enugu. Unknown to them she had made an unscheduled trip to Lagos. The second attempt on her life was made on December 26, 2003 when Akunyili, accompanied by her family members, visited Agulu, on her way from a ceremony in Orlu, Imo state. She gave the account of that close shave with death thus “On our way back to Enugu from Orlu, i decided to stop at Agulu once again to say goodbye to my mother-in-law. A few meters from the village house, my driver overtook the pilot car to prevent the driver from driving past the road to my in-law’s house because he was not informed that we were going to see my mother in-law again.”
“At that point, we suddenly heard loud bangs which I thought were sounds from Christmas fireworks. The bangs were actually from gun shots. Within a split seconds there was a painful bang on my head which made my scalp hurt badly. A bullet had just shattered the rear wind screen of my vehicle pierced my headscarf, burnt my scarf like hot water and gone through the front screen.” Interestingly, by December 2008 when she left NAFDAC, Akunyili succeeded in fighting drug counterfeiters to a standstill and breathing life to the once comatose agency.
Life as Information Minister
Following her appointment as Minister of Information and Communication in the late Umar Musa Yar’Adua administration, Akunyili took to her position the same zeal with which she pursued her duties in NAFDAC. Her major preoccupation was how to rebuild the nation’s sullied image. As part of her rebranding programmes, she came up with the slogan “Nigeria: Good People Great Nation.” Unfortunately, the rebranding campaign was not as successful as her activism in NAFDAC.
The high point of her tenure as a cabinet minister was during the health travails of former president Yar’Adua. The late president had travelled out of the country for medical treatments for months without handing over to his deputy, as stipulated by the constitution. It was obvious to all and sundry that the late Yar’Adua was incapacitated and could no longer carry on as the president. By the constitution, only the Federal Executive Council (FEC) could declare him unfit to continue in office. Ironically the FEC, on December 3, 2009 declared that the late Yar’Adua was fit to continue in office but the Council could not bring itself to do this, until Akunyili rose like lone voice in the wilderness. In a memo to her colleagues on February 3, 2010, Akunyili urged them to do the needful and save the country. She called on the ailing Yar’Adua to transmit a letter to the National Assembly, so that his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, could be empowered to act as president in his absence. In taking that stance, she did not love her boss less than those who choose to be quiet, in a time of national quagmire. It was just that she believed that national interest should supersede primordial interests.
Contest for Senatorial Seat
In the run-up to 2011 general elections, Akunyili resigned from the federal cabinet and joined the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA). She contested the 2015 senatorial election for Anambra Central Senatorial District and lost to Senator Chris Ngige of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) by a slim margin, albeit in very controversial circumstances. After her loss at the 2015 poll the former minister retreated from the public view. It was a gaunt Akunyili that reappeared at the National Conference earlier this year, as a delegate. It later emerged that she was recovering from an ailment. She had a relapse and was rushed to an Indian hospital. Eventually, the former NAFDAC boss died of cancer on June 8. Her death threw the nation into mourning. Her demise confirmed the words of William Shakespeare that “when beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
At the time of her death, the former minister had over four hundred local and international awards, particularly in recognition of her work in NAFDAC and service to humanity. Akunyili ran the race of life with an uncommon candour. She kept the faith, finished strong and bowed gallantly after fifty nine eventful years. Though she is no longer in this clime, the former Information and Communication Minister lives on in the hearts of Nigerians, most especially all those whose lives she affected, one way or the other.
(Published by DAILYSUN August 28, 2014)