Tribute to the Phenomenal Pharmacist: Dora Nkem Akunyili, Ph.D. (14 July 1954- 7 June, 2014)-  ‘Tosin Ayo

To many, she was an astonishing icon and an unusual Amazon, to others, she was an indelible inspiration, to me personally and every well-meaning Nigerian, she was the extraordinary woman who risked her life to save ours from the scourge of counterfeit drugs, expired food and drinks unsuitable for human consumption. Dora was the incredible strength of a whole African nation who touched so many lives and that is an invaluable blessing that must not be taken lightly by every Nigerian.

She enriched our world with her astounding array of talents, ‘unwonted’ strength of character and accomplishments: she was a notable, outstanding, prominent, remarkable, salient and striking Pharmacist and seasoned governmental administrator who gained international recognition and won hundreds of awards for her work in pharmacology, public health and human rights. She was a prolific life saver, a thorn in the ferocious flesh of drug counterfeiters, a major bane of slow killers, medication scavengers and manufacturing monsters. She emblematised the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) of Nigeria, thus giving it momentum and character. She was a prominent Pharmacologist, national branding crooner, media personality, University Don, motivational speaker, Author, visionary leader, civil rights activist and a humanist.

This was a concerned woman that was thoroughly pained that so many Nigerians were fighting killer diseases like malaria, cholera and tuberculosis with little more than sugar syrup, water for injection and chalk tablets viciously ‘packaged’ by unpatriotic, utterly belligerent and malevolent ‘drugpreneurs’ for sinister pecuniary objectives. They feasted on human lives for ages and thrived on the collective ignorance of unsuspecting consumers. Akunyili faced considerable risk to her personal safety in her fight to combat the issue of fake and counterfeit drugs. She danced with danger, romanced risks, hugged high voltage wire chains of callous cartel, dared damn, roared like the vengeful Lioness and ended many nefarious life-ending business ventures. We all sought NAFDAC numbers on our ‘Zobo’, ‘Kunu’ and other consumables and many ‘poor water’ factories were clamped down. She rekindled our hope and her exemplary service became an ingenious reflection of what qualitative Leadership can do to the effectiveness or otherwise of national institutions.

Born in Makurdi, Benue State 6 years before Nigeria attained flag Independence, but brought up in Nanka and married in Agulu, both in Anambra State of Nigeria in a world, given the season, place, and circumstance of her birth, she was literally imbued with a negligible chance to demonstrate her raw talents and even a far between possibility for ferrying her God-given potentials to ultimate career and personal fulfilment. She was born a Nigerian female in a largely Paternalistic environment of African descent at a time when both designations were anyone’s undoing. A girl child’s societal aspiration and eternal ambition was to be the ‘kitchen manager’ of any man at the time of her birth. Life for any young Nigerian female was naturally hard, short, nasty, less liveable, brutish, worthless and almost forbidding, but She, through her precocious growth and academic dexterity made a land of realisable dreams and endless possibilities out of a desert of desolation and despair. She proved true the assertion that there are more people ennobled and enabled by study than by nature in a hapless African society; a conquered race of the European community that was trying to grapple with the searing contradictions between the lofty ideals proclaimed at the lowering of the Union jack and our touted independence from the British overlords on one hand and the not too piquant treatment and gross inequities meted out to its marginalised tribal inferiors, congregants of the lowest economic cadre and its gender underclass.

Having shown a commendable academic brilliance from infancy, she studied on Scholarship almost all her life: she obtained her First School Leaving Certificate with Distinction at St. Patrick’s Primary School, Isuofia, Anambra State in 1966, and the West African School Certificate (W.A.S.C.) with Grade I Distinction in 1973 from Queen of the Rosary Secondary School, Nsukka, Nigeria. These exceptional results in the First School Leaving Certificate, and W.A.S.C. earned her the Eastern Nigerian Government Post Primary Scholarship and the Federal Government of Nigeria Undergraduate Scholarship. She obtained her First Degree in Pharmacy B.Pharm (Hons) in 1978 and her PhD in 1985 from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Dr. Akunyili was a Post Doctorate Fellow of University of London and a Fellow of the West African Post Graduate College of Pharmacists.

Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili like many Nigerians, was a victim of the Nigerian nightmare and paradoxically a shining female example of its seemingly elusive dreams. Her entire life and time was an enduring tale of greatness and a demonstration of God’s limitless capabilities to take anyone from the dregs of grass to the ever-flowing garb of Grace. Her life is a sweet lesson in the act of obtaining personal accomplishment from the throes of lack, receiving eminence on the altar of diligence and attaining excellence on the path of industry. She ebbed victory out of the jaws of defeat. Hers is the empowering tale of a woman with neither a visible political ancestry nor a financially viable dynasty who rose to become a notable bureaucrat; a NAFDAC Boss and a Federal Minister of Information and Communication of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This is the rousing cautionary tale of a woman who rose from acute obscurity to global acclaim; a woman who used up all her public life to fight the lingering health challenges in her country only to fall at the wicked arms of the same scourge! This was a woman who was once unknown beyond her immediate community where she wallowed in unspeakable impecuniosity but who rose to become an irrepressible African voice, a famous Amazon, a comfortable Don and a strong and eloquent anti-fake drugs Crusader with myriads of laurels and a resounding hope that our country, Nigeria isn’t just a den of holocaust, a thrash-bin of dishonest people and a debris of incompetent people.

To Dora as she is fondly called, setbacks, challenges and adversities are, most times, the building bricks of the house of success and excuses are the nails used to build the house of failure; for life without its vicissitudes is like Christianity without the Cross and an unexamined life to her was not worth living. She knew life was a risk or nothing. As a devout Catholic, she believed in the sacredness of the human life. She risked her life to save ours. Like Amalinze the Cat, several attempts on her life by unnatural causes proved abortive. In matters of style, she swam with the tide, in matters of principle, she stood like a rock! She redefined the abundant strength and moxie of the Nigerian woman, deepened the world’s understanding of the African woman; her forthrightness, her uncompromising integrity, unyielding stance in matters of principle and her unequalled effectiveness at NAFDAC and the Information ministry in contra-distinction with the foisted disjointed tales of ignorance, ignominy, derision, the purveyance of the African woman as nothing more than a bare-brain, willing sex object, blatant deceit, forced silence, crumbled history and mutilated perception of the average African woman.

A vivid apprehension of historical misconception and gender misgiving and its poignant impact on the present, a touching narrative of the battles of life, of hope, of avoidable risks; the archaeology of adversity, the chronology of effective leadership, the excellence of industry bereft of gender-insensitivity­, the ethos of discipline and its delicate inexorable relationship to eventual triumph, the undying spirit of the Nigerian, the willingness to risk risks and the desire to cleanse our society of all dirts and the ambition to stop all avoidable deaths in the hands of drinkers of blood, the unquenchable penchant for saving humanity, the necessity of love and the possibility of hope; the redemptive functions of an effective leadership culture; a soothing spirituality older, deeper, and much wider than the troubling superficialities of our self-centred grabbing world; a relentless insistence on propriety and order, a connoisseur of our remaining cultural values: a beautiful obstinacy over a worthy cause; these are the recurrent decimals of Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili’s life and exploits in the government agencies where she held sway. These are the principles which ruled her life. This is why, bolstered by uncommon courage, brash confidence and utmost conviction, she was able to put a commendable stop to the life-ending business activities of counterfeiters and injected quality and uncompromising standard into our national consumption life. She stood on the side of the truth when a dangerous cabal held the nation by the jugular, refusing to let go of power even though it was apparent that its arrow-head was incapacitated and wholly incapable of performing the official functions of his high office. Now, that is strength.

She was almost a lone fighter in salvaging the lives of Nigerians from the multifarious heists confronting them. The consumption sector was not the only monster facing the average Nigerian. The Nigerian society in general has experienced disaster minutely and massively in the deaths caused by bad roads, fake drugs, faulty constructions, poor health service, non-existent provision of security, erratic power supply, flooding and erosion, trigger-happy Police officers and other substandard government services. All these bitter experiences have only propelled us in times past to, individually, search for alternatives from private sources, sometimes resorting to self-help. It is in this light that I, like many Nigerians find Prof. Akunyili truly phenomenal, Yes, she did the incredible, the magical, the miraculous and the preternatural. To many of us who were touched by her midas touch, She was a superhuman, a supernormal, transcendental, immortal and unearthly life saver. Dora has indeed descended from the roof-top of life; she has tied the garment of the extra-terrestrial and swallowed the ‘capsule’ of mortality, but she has left us a medication of goodwill, a diagnosis of depth and a drug of effectual leadership. She has showed us that with the right set of Leaders, Nigeria will once again rise from the lowest rung of pittance to the pinnacle of true national growth and development. We are consoled by her imperishable exploits at NAFDAC, her eloquent communication, her elegant simplicity, her radiant brilliance, her dignified presence, her vibrant leadership and her forthright candour which are epigrammatic renaissance of her moral injunction and unchanging convictions.

Without any sense of contradiction, I dare say that If you do not understand the contribution of a legend like Dora, then you are the problem with Nigeria. It was selfless people like Akunyili that ensured you did not die by the hands of businessmen ready to thrive on the innocent citizens’ blood. One major problem with Nigerians is that we are too involved in our private battles that we no longer care about Nigeria and other people. Corruption like almost every problem of Nigeria is traceable to the greed of the Nigerian who considers himself first. Unlike Dora, we no longer see the wood for the trees. Many bury their heads in the sand of their goals and delight in their private accomplishments at the expense of everyone. This is not the Dora I knew.

Weep mother Africa, weep, for you have lost one of your brightest stars. The whole world has lost a truly extraordinary woman. The Health sector has lost a shinning strobe! The mandarin has kicked the bucket and Nigeria is finding it hard to fill the void. I am tremendously happy on one hand that this unmistakable genius was hatched on our soil and she touched our lives with the dogged persistence of her visible fight against counterfeiters, thus reducing corruption drastically and the giant strides recorded in rebranding Nigeria, but sadly, the Nigeria that Dora tried frantically to sanitise isn’t just a corrupt country anymore; it is now a dangerous country. Live on Dora in the diary of our minds.

‘Tosin Ayo is a Nigerian Legal Practitioner, Author and Energy Law Specialist. He holds a Master of Laws, (Energy Law) of the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom. His Ph.D research interest is International Environmental Oil and Gas Law.
June 27, 2014

The views expressed above are solely that of the author and not of or its associates.

About the author


Lanre Olagunju is an hydrologist turned freelance journalist. He has a degree in hydrology from the University of Agriculture Abeokuta and a professional diploma in journalism from the American College of Journalism. Lanre advocates on several international platforms for the prosperity and absolute well-being of the African continent. He's @Lanre_Olagunju on Twitter