When the rumour that Professor Dora Akunyili, former information minister, was very ill started, I didn’t get the real sense of what people were talking about until I saw her photograph. I am not sure I have fully accepted the photograph I saw as Dora’s. If I had met the person in that photograph in the street, I would have walked away without knowing she was the one because that image was hardly that of the ebullient and lively Dora I had known for a long time. The photograph would leave you in no doubt that Dora Akunyili is indeed terribly ill. She is currently in India receiving treatment for an ailment that, I am told, has defied diagnosis.
Dora, a true Nigerian, has always been in the service of the country for as long as I have known her. Before she got to NAFDAC, few knew the havoc that fake drugs wreaked on our society. I once jokingly told her that before she happened on NAFDAC, many people thought their ailments were the handiwork of the witches in their villages. It took a Dora for many to realise the damage that fake and substandard drugs and medicines caused our society. She simply laughed and, being Dora, she went into a very long discussion of her job and the threats she faced daily from mainly her kinsmen who were predominantly the merchants of the illegal items. She told me how she once narrowly escaped the bullets of people she suspected to be fake drug merchants.
She faced criticism though from a few pharmacists who were a little suspicious of her. It did not help that they were her professional colleagues. But we must give it to her that she did more than any Nigerian, dead or alive, to draw attention to the evil of fake drugs and medicines. It is the standard she left behind at NAFDAC that is still being improved upon by her successor.
As a politician, Dora is no less a dogged fighter and a pragmatist. I have never been in the same tendency with her and actually disagreed with her politics most of the time, but we kept close nonetheless. We always found a common ground because Dora usually means well and always works hard for what she believes is right.
I took a stand against Umaru Yar’Adua’s government in which she was minister of information. One day, she casually walked into my office to appeal to me to take it easy with their government especially because, according to her, Yar’Adua was my brother. I agreed with her that Yar’Adua was my brother but that was precisely why I demanded a higher standard from him and his government. She spent a very long time with me and insisted that, because both of us were pharmacists – she is a professor of pharmacy – I must do it for her. She explained that I couldn’t take such a stand against a government in which she was information minister and chief image maker. I told her that the issues at stake were not personal and that they were national issues bigger than both of us and that even I enjoyed some relationship with the president then. President Yar’Adua was a decent man, I told her, but many in the government she served took advantage of his illness to loot the nation dry. She left my office that day without achieving her objective but she was not bitter and did not lose her sense of humour. And, most important, we remained close friends.
But when it became clear that Yar’Adua had become permanently incapacitated and some people in their government were lying to themselves and to the Nigerian public about his whereabouts, she became the first person to go public, saying that the cabinet in which she and others served had a greater responsibility to the country and insisted that the constitution must take precedence over any other narrow consideration. It was because Dora had the courage to bell the cat that progress was made towards the appointment of an acting president of Nigeria in those trying times. Some people childishly and sentimentally accused her of betraying the man who appointed her minister, but the majority of Nigerians were thankful – and Nigeria was better for it.
Dora has always been a courageous person and that must have been the driving force that also motivated her to attend the opening session of the ongoing conference, even though she was in a very bad state.
Those of us who believe in miracles and have seen lots of them look forward to the day we will see Dora fully recovered and vivacious again to continue in her service to her country. I wish her well.