SEVERAL decades ago, Golda Meir, a founding mother of the State of Israel and its fourth Prime Minister, declared that “to be successful, a woman has to be better at her job than a man”. This is one of the attributes that Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, OFR, consistently portrayedin her life-time. Observing the first memorial of her death, it is instructive to ponder this Amazon who reflected what the Germans would tag “the spirit of the time”; a reminder of what we need to do in any given period, particularly when facing challenges as a nation.
All through human history, women have been critical to the development of society. They are not only bastions of the home front, they have played active roles in the polity, economy and wider society; now and then as prime movers. In the Nigerian experience, there are the like of Margaret Ekpo, Gambo Sawaba [of the NEPU fame], Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the women against illegal taxation in Aba as well as post-colonial female players in the executive, legislature, judiciary, civil service, disciplined services, commerce, industry and entertainment, among others. When they get the opportunity, they have largely recorded impressive attainments despite the constraints of our male-dominated society.
Over the years, I followed Big Aunty Dora’s rising profile with much admiration and respect; and we interacted on a range of issues affecting our dear Anambra State and Nigeria at large; and with positive outcomes.
Although she was born into a comfortable family, she spent part of her early years in harsh conditions. For a period, she lived with her grandmother and uncle in the village, going through the mill of a range of chores; trekking long distances to fetch water and fire-wood, to the farm and to attend school. She also excelled in her academic work, which subsequently became a family tradition; as five of her children obtained their first degrees with 1st Class, even as three of them are medical doctors like their esteemed and unassuming father, Dr. Chike Akunyili. In all the places she worked, Dora displayed high principles – the hallmarks of successful public service. At the UNTH, UNN, Hospitals Management Board, Better Life Programme, Local Government Service and PTF, she maintained her record of excellence in several ramifications.
Dora’s appointment as Director-General of NAFDAC by the astute President Olusegun Obasanjo, was clearly on the highest recommendations, and testimony to her integrity, competence and verve. Having set the tone for high regulatory standards in the sector, her unrelenting war against the merchants of death and economic saboteurs became a national ethos and attracted tremendous international goodwill for Nigeria. She, her family, staff and the agency’s facilities were at great risk all through her tenure; even as she escaped assassin’s bullets by God’s grace. Years after, she left the agency, buyers of packaged drugs and regulated foods would instinctively inquire: “Does it have NAFDAC Number?” and “Where is the NAFDAC Number?” Or, should we talk about ‘Pharmaco-Vigilance’ platforms, that enable members of the public confirm the integrity of drugs they want to purchase?
Dora’s appointment as Minister of Information and Communications was not just for the status and cameras. She brought to bear on her new posting the intense passion she exhibited elsewhere — actively promoting the goodness and greatness of the country and its people. How many Nigerians and Nigeria-watchers would forget the novel Pay-Off: “ Nigeria! Good people, great nation”?It was inspired ambition that made Dora to resign her plum appointment as a Minister of the Federal Republic to fulfil other goals in the service of her fatherland. Though unsuccessful in her bid to be a Senator, she re-directed her boundless energy to community service and philanthropy. With Government’s decision to hold a National Conference, Dora was a natural choice as one of the three delegates to represent Anambra State. Her last address, even in ill-health, to the Conference is revealing, which in conclusion quoted a Chinese adage that “a society grows when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”.
Dora was a woman of vision, mission and clear purpose. Her integrity shone like a million stars across the land. At the PTF [then under General Muhammadu Buhari, rtd.], she returned a whopping sum of some 12,000 Pounds Sterling of her unutilized medical funds to the Treasury; rather than “retire” the monies approved for her trip. At NAFDAC, she remained uncompromised; rejecting several offers of inducements by the merchants of death, and getting them arrested and prosecuted.
This unambiguously dignified woman received acclaim from discerning people and grudging respect from her detractors. The honours accorded her were not for sale, and the samplers are enlighteningNigerian Woman of Distinction [50th Independence anniversary], Integrity Award [Transparency International], Amazon of Integrity [National Council of Women’s Societies], Pharmacist of the Year 2005 [International Pharmaceutical Federation], Honorary Member of The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, One of 18 Heroes (Health) of Our Time [TIME magazine], One of 4 Top World-Class Women Achievers [Italian Government], Chair endowed in her name at the UNN, Post-Doctoral Fellow [University of London], Fellow [West African Post-Graduate College of Pharmacists, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria and Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy], and Member [New York Academy of Science, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Association for African Medicinal Plant Standards, International Narcotics Control Board, International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders, and US Pharmacopeia Expert Committee].
Dora went beyond the call of duty – at great risk to her health and life. In all her appointments and assignments, she did not only make a difference, but a great difference, with far-reaching positive implications for the Nigerian society at large. She made tremendous impact with the opportunities she had; reminding us that we pass through this world only once.
We do not owe her encomiums as much as we need to sustain her legacies. We must strive to uphold her bar of public service, even if we cannot raise it. May Almighty God continue to bless the soul of this remarkable woman!
. Excerpts from a lecture delivered by Mr. Peter Obi, CON during the one-year memorial anniversary of the death of Prof. Dora Akunyili at the Nike Lake Hotel, Enugu