Michael NnebeThursday, June 5, 2014
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very once in a while someone comes along and makes an indelible mark on the conscience and psychic of a nation, Dora Akunyili was one such person in Nigeria. In the eighties and nineties thousands of Nigerians died each year after taking fake drugs. It was a two prong problem; their illnesses, no matter how serious, were never treated, and the fake medicine they bought only made their illnesses worse as it has no efficacy at all. Most victims of this unconscionable practice of selling fake drugs died within weeks or in some cases within days of their diagnosis. Today in Nigeria, most funeral posters and newspaper listings of obituaries carry the dreaded phrase "after a brief illness." This was the genesis of death after a brief illness in Nigeria. Under Obasanjo's administration Dora Akunyili was appointed the DG of Nigeria's food and drug administration agency otherwise known as NAFDAC, and all began to change, but not without a bloody fight that nearly took Dora's life.

People have often said that Nigeria's problem with corruption is so endemic that it will take more than one person and several generations to bring about an appreciable change. I have always dreamt about things the way they could be, and honestly believe that one person in the right position can make all the difference. Well, Dora had proved that one person can make all the difference in the world. She came into that job, gave a notice to the peddlers, and proceeded rather like Lt. Colombo with the most forthright diligence to dismantle a well-entrenched fake drug cartel. It did not matter to her that the majority of these merchants of death were not just Igbos, but from her own greater local government area of Anambra state. For Dora, it was not about protecting her people, it was about protecting all the vulnerable in Nigeria. It was a moral war between good and downright evil, and anyone who is not on the good side has certainly taken sides with the evil doers. At the beginning, many Igbos called her unprintable names, and these fake drug peddlers even attempted to kill her, but she persevered and consequently made a lasting mark in Nigeria.

Today, we can now go to our local pharmacy stores and pick up just about any medicine we want with little worry as to whether the drug we purchased is real or fake. Dora's fight led to a significant drop in the number of fake drugs now sold in Nigeria pharmacies. What was once a problem affecting more than 60% of all drugs sold in Nigeria is now probably no more than 14%. The level of fake drugs sold in Nigeria is still high by western standards, but we have surely come a long way largely due to one woman's efforts. Dora left such high standards of practice at NAFDAC that her successors have now taken the fight against fake drugs to new heights. Many drugs in Nigeria today come with a code and a phone number you can send a text to determine if the drug you bought is real or fake, a practice that was so successful it has been extended to cover all West Africa. Although Dora went on to become the Minister of Information under President Yar'adua, where she unsuccessfully attempted to rebrand the unrebrandable image of Nigeria, it is, I suspect, for her work at NAFDAC that she will forever be remembered in Nigeria.

I admired her tremendously, and she was to me a national hero. I even secretly wished she could run for the post of governor in Anambra and bring the same tenacity towards transforming the state, but when she ran for senate against Ngige I knew that she was running against the wrong guy at the wrong time. She was very straightforward and also very ambitious. Dora was the only minister in Yar'adua's cabinet to speak out against the continued charade of keeping a comatose man in charge of our government, and in favor of allowing Jonathan to take over immediately. Not surprisingly Jonathan took over and retained her as a minister, but her overambitious moves ultimately got her packing from that same government. I met her only once. I had escorted a friend of mine to Enugu airport on her way back to Abuja in November 2011. She was another high achiever like Dora, and while we sat at the VIP lounge waiting for the plane to arrive, Dora came in, incidentally travelling on the same plane. I found her to be far more naturally beautiful than I had imagined. After she greeted my friend whom she knew, we shook hands and I said, "Thanks for what you did for Nigeria under NAFDAC," and she let out a faint smile. That was my only opportunity to say thank you and I'm glad I seized the moment.

In spite of my overwhelming admiration for Dora and what she did for Nigeria, it is really on a sour note that I write this article. We learnt that Dora passed a day or a week ago depending on whom you ask. It does not have to be this way. There is something inherently wrong in our Nigerian culture that makes us see our illness as a failure. Perhaps these are just the vestiges of our religious background where many illnesses in the Bible are described as caused by evil or sin. The truth is that anybody can get ill, and anybody can die from illness. Popes and Presidents including US Presidents have died from illnesses. But there is this culture especially among our politicians in Nigeria to conceal their illness, when in my opinion such things are unnecessary, and if anything they give room for unfounded rumors and exaggerations of the real situation. Early last year, after Governor Sullivan Chime had been away in a hospital abroad for more than four months, and Enugu state was kept in the dark, I wrote an article titled "Nigeria politicians and the culture of impunity" in which I catalogued many infringements by high profile Nigerian politicians who often keep us in the dark about their medical problems. It is absolutely unnecessary. Chime, being a wise man, came back and within a few days granted an interview and gave full details of his cancer treatment, and that was the end of that gossip. Even Nigeria's first lady followed Chime's example and confessed a few days later that she had been in a coma in a German hospital for 8 days, and hell did not freeze over. By telling the truth you take away your enemies power to fabricate.

When the rumors of Dora's illness first made hit the media, she came out and denied that she was ever sick, even when she looked a shadow of her old self. It was undeniable that she had gone through a major illness and lost a lot of weight and vibrancy. I was therefore astonished to see her at the ongoing national conference. Why didn't her loved ones, her husband included, prevail on her not to accept her nomination to the confab? Whatever she had suffered, probably cancer from some of the reports, would have required her to rest rather than being thrust into such energy consuming environment. It is therefore not surprising that her health deteriorated while at the confab, and once again the series of denials upon denials that continued to come from her camp until her death was finally acknowledged. Even her death had to be leaked out and repeatedly denied for days before the final acknowledgement. In my opinion, all these lies and denials are unnecessary. Dora Akunyili is loved by Nigerians, she is only human and mortal just like the rest of us, and there should be no reason to diminish her with all these lies and denials in the end. For me, I would rather continue to remember her for her great contributions to this country, and I suspect that most Nigerians would likely remember her for her accomplishments at NAFDAC and not this farce that characterized her last days with us. May her soul rest in peace.