DORA AKUNYILI first gained national attention after she was appointed Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC.
It was the era of counterfeit drug production or I should say that Akunyili brought to the fore the fact that the Nigerian drug industry had almost been entirely taken over by quacks. She made the world know that by far more Nigerians were dying from ingesting fake drugs than they were from the diseases that the drugs were meant to cure.
Her brief appearance at the Jonathan Conference in Abuja a few weeks ago after about two years absence from the national stage was therefore a farewell call on Nigerians that had admired and appreciated her duty call in the years she made fake drugs the main issue of public discourse as DG of NAFDAC.
There is no doubt that the ignoble trade in fake drug production had been going on for God knows how long before Akunyili berthed at NAFDAC.
But she made Nigerians and the rest of the world realise what rot we had all been sitting on. Even though the kingpins of the multibillion Naira trade in counterfeit drugs were believed to be people primarily from the Eastern part of Nigeria from where she came, Akunyili took no prisoners in her battle against them. It was a battle that brought hired killers on her trail and almost cost her her life as lethal shots missed her skull by mere whiskers.
Yet she did not stop, literally putting her life on the line for the sake of Nigerians. Her passion for her job was unmistakable and the call of duty was for her clearly stronger than the call of blood and allegiance to kin interest. Having lost a dear sister to the menace of counterfeit drug she became the scourge and nemesis of the merchants of this killer trade.
Dora Akunyili had both the brain and drive for her job as DG of NAFDAC, a position that seemed tailor-made for her. Hers was one of the best and flawless appointments of the Obasanjo years and arguably one of the best ever public appointments in Nigeria. Whatever reservations Nigerians may have about Obasanjo or his presidency, he had a knack for recognising real talent and he scored a bull’s eye with his appointment of Akunyili.
She proved you didn’t have to be a minister, governor or president to make an impact. She also proved that having the total support of one’s boss and the free hand to operate is central to success in a public office. Akunyili enjoyed both from Obasanjo.
She was one of several women that defined the face of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration and gave that administration a sense of purpose. Her death in India where she had been taken for medical care over a week ago is surely a national loss.
Her reputation as a thoroughbred technocrat and a very honest one at that had preceded her to her position as director. Thus her appointment by Obasanjo was entirely earned and based on pure merit.
Although Obasanjo appeared to be making a conscious statement in the manner he appointed women into prominent positions in his administration but the appointment of Akunyili must have been one of those not influenced by political affiliation even if her name had come to Obasanjo’s ears through a political associate who had himself been a former minister and politician, Dr. Onaolapo Soleye.
Dr. Soleye, a Yoruba man, had been struck by the story of this woman who was reported to have returned the unspent balance of money meant for her medical expenses while holding a public office.
When Obasanjo sent out informal searchers for Nigerians with the right professional, technical and moral pedigree to help his fledgling administration it wasn’t long before Akunyili’s name came to his hearing. She had beauty. She had brains. But above all she had the courage of her conviction.
Which is very much unlike the third rate female team that has so far besmirched the Jonathan administration. When one compare the women in the Obasanjo administration to those of the Jonathan administration, when one thinks of these women including one or two that first found their way into public office through Obasanjo, one realises just how far we have fallen. There is a clear and unmistakable difference in quality, a difference due in no small measure to the personal attributes and experience of the individuals to whom these women were/are answerable.
Even Akunyili’s last call to duty in Abuja, the Jonathan conference was of a far lower quality and calibre than the kind of responsibilities that had brought her deserved national attention. The only thing that hinted of failure in Dora Akunyili’s sterling credentials was her foray into politics, the nemesis and waterloo of the most gifted and most dedicated Nigerians.
Her loss couldn’t have been personal but that of the people denied the privilege of her contribution. Perhaps driven by a desire to impact on her immediate community Akunyili contested in 2011 for the position of senator in her native Anambra State on the platform of the All Progressives Grand Alliance. She lost perhaps on account of the platform she contested on or the candidate she contested against. Her effort to overturn the verdict was bogged in controversy. It was her last major act on the public stage before she re-emerged several weeks ago in Abuja.
Far from the ebullient figure that oozed vitality, the picture that greeted Nigerians was of a much depreciated Akunyili. She looked weak physically. But hers was a conqueror’s spirit, stubborn to the very end in the affirmation of her conviction.
Nigerians were rightly shocked by the sight of her. Her head-turning looks now much ravished by illness attracted far more comments from Nigerians than her contribution on the floor. Her presence at that conference was an act of courage that could only have come from a woman that personified courage like Dora Akunyili. Even when she quelled questions about her health, admitting she had been ill she assured us all that she was getting better.
In retrospect one can say that Dora Akunyili came to the conference in a conscious attempt to bid Nigerians a final farewell even as the night drew perilously near. To tell us all not to forget what she stood and fought for. We are the worse for it for since she left NAFDAC all seems quiet at that end.
It’s as if the counterfeit drug lords have had their career terminated. But we know Akunyili’s exit from NAFDAC didn’t and couldn’t have put paid to the activities of killer drug makers. Dora has come. She has seen and has conquered. It’s our call what we make of her legacy.