Nigeria Health Watch

A Tribute to Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili

A tribute by the Nigeria Health Watch team to Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, a rare symbol of courage and public service.

“Segun, my conscience can no longer allow me to keep quiet on this issue of the president’s absence from the country.” Prof DORA AKUNYILI 1954-2014

There are many stories about Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, pharmacist, former director-general of the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) who sadly passed away in an Indian hospital a few days ago. My favourite is a story that was told to me by someone who had heard her recount it at an event, many years ago.

Apparently, already as a child at primary school, Dora Akunyili was very bright, and excelled. At the time she had a rival, a boy with whom she often vied for honours. When they finished primary school, she won a scholarship to secondary school, and then on to university, while her rival was not so fortunate. Professor Akunyili told of an incident, at a motor park on her way back to university in Nsukka at the beginning of a new term when she heard someone calling her name. She didn’t recognize the man, a porter; pushing a wheelbarrow and helping passengers transport their luggage. He introduced himself as her old rival. She noticed that he was excited to see her and even more excited to hear that she was at university studying pharmacy. He insisted on pushing a crumpled note into her hand as “pocket money to buy bread with.” Professor Akunyili said that she wept in the car all the way from that motor park back to the university.

Her determination must have come from experiences like this. Knowing that people had given their last shirt, figuratively speaking, so that she could reach a position in which she was able to change the society. It also gave her the common touch and courage that endeared her to so many.

Before she was appointed as director-general of NAFDAC in 2001, not many Nigerians had heard of the agency. At the time of her appointment, the World Health Organization had estimated that 50 per cent of drugs sold in Nigeria were fake or substandard. Buoyed by the loss of a sister who had died after receiving fake insulin to treat diabetes, she took on the battle against fake drugs. She launched public campaigns and made sure that drugs and packaged food and drink items had to be properly licensed. She also closed down medicine markets that for years had been making profits from trading in substandard medicines. She also tried to tackle the issue of prescription drugs being sold over the counter by sending officials of her agency on undercover visits to patent medicine shops and pharmacies that indulged in the practice. In doing this, she became a heroine to the Nigerian public, who appreciated her efforts and her exemplary public service. While some critics had misgivings about the degree of publicity that she received for her efforts and argued for a more systematic and effective subtler approach to tackling the fake drugs problem, there was no doubt that she brought the issue squarely to the forefront of Nigerian and international attention, winning awards in the process.

There were many attempts to deter Prof Akunyili with threats and intimidation, but they all failed to stop her.

Following her tenure at NAFDAC, late President Yar’adua, probably impressed by Prof Akunyili as so many, appointed her as Minister for Information and Communication. Many people criticized her for taking on the role. They felt that she had sold out, especially when she had to defend unpopular government policies, but she was adamant that she was still following the same essential call to serve her people.

It was while she was Minister for Information and Communication that she performed another courageous act, which won back many of her earlier admirers. It was early 2010, after President Yar’adua had fallen ill and been flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. For weeks, he was not seen in public, and a dangerous vacuum was beginning to emerge in leadership in Nigeria. Many politicians were loath to speak out even as ordinary Nigerians lamented the lack of clear information about the president’s whereabouts and condition. At a meeting of the Federal Executive Council, Professor Akunyili made a bold intervention, tabling a paper that argued that she and her fellow ministers could no longer be silent while the nation drifted, and asking that the Vice President be formally appointed as Acting President. As recounted by the journalist Segun Adeniyi in his memoir of his time serving as President Yar’adua’s spokesman, Prof Akunyili said to him “Segun, my conscience can no longer allow me to keep quiet on this issue of the president’s absence from the country. I intend to speak about it today in FEC.” Although many tried to dissuade her, she went ahead and many believed her intervention forced the national assembly to pay attention to the issue, which helped resolve the impasse.

Prof Akunyili’s last public appearance was as a delegate at the National Conference. By then she had already been diagnosed with cancer. Many at the National Conference were shocked at her physical appearance, but such was her commitment to public service that she made that effort even though she was obviously very ill.

She was a teacher of many, supervising postgraduate students even after she had been appointed to national office, and a supporter of women. She appointed many women to her inspectorate team at NAFDAC as she felt that they were less susceptible to corruption than their male counterparts.

The health sector, Nigeria and indeed the world has suffered a great loss. It is also poignant that such a prominent and dedicated Nigerian public servant who had devoted so much to the Nigerian health sector had to seek medical treatment in India in her final illness. Perhaps one way of honouring her will be to ensure that in future, Nigerians can be treated locally, without needing to travel to India, Germany and Dubai.

At Nigeria Health Watch, we salute Prof Dora Nkem Akunyili and bid her farewell, sending our thoughts and prayers to her family, friends and many admirers across the world.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

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