Dora Akunyili: A Dedicated Public Servant

Written by | Africa, Icons, See Africa

Dora Akunyili

Dora Akunyili was regarded as one of the most outstanding public officers in Nigeria’s political history. No single person in Nigeria had as much influence to end the trafficking of fake drugs as Professor Dora Akunyili did. Her efforts in the drug business enabled her to generate many long lasting achievements which contributed to the development and refinement of the drug business. Most of the measures she put in place are still present in the business today.

Early Years

Prof Dora Akunyili was born in Makurdi, Benue State in 1954, to parents from Anambra state. She had her primary education in St. Patrick’s Primary School Anambra and her secondary education at Queen of the Rosary Secondary school Nsukka, Enugu State graduating in 1973. She won a scholarship from the federal government and went on to study Pharmacology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka earning a degree in 1978. She also earned her PhD in ethnopharmacology from the same University in 1985.

After graduation, she worked with different government parastatals. She was also a lecturer with the University of Nigeria Nsukka for a while. In 1996, during the Abacha era, Dora became the Zonal Secretary of the Petroleum Special Trust Fund for the South East region during the Abacha era. 

Dora Akuyili
Journey to NAFDAC

While Dora Akunyili was the Zonal Secretary of the Petroleum Special Trust Fund for the South East Zone, doctors in Nigeria diagnosed her with a problem and said she needed surgery. Her boss gave her $17,000 to travel to the United States for proper medical help with $12,000 set aside for surgery. When she arrived in the USA, the doctors discovered it was a mild issue. Therefore, she did not need surgery anymore. She thanked the doctors and told them the money will be returned to her employer (PTF). This was something rare to see by a Nigerian government official. They usually had other officials come and sometimes escalate their bills beyond the agreed price. Therefore, the hospital sent a commendation back to her employers in Nigeria.

The National Agency for Food Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) was established by the Babangida regime in 1993. However, it did little to bring an end to the drug epidemic ravaging Nigeria. The issue of fake and counterfeit drugs was having a serious negative impact on the Nigerian environment. President Obasanjo wanted to go hard on fake drugs and Dora’s name came up in conversations as someone with integrity. To add to this, she had a background in pharmacy. So, she accepted the job. People were sceptical of her appointment at that time. This was because she was from the Eastern part of Nigeria and the Igbos (especially those in Onitsha) were known for being at the forefront of the trade.

NAFDAC and the War on Drugs

Dora Akunyili became the head of NAFDAC in 2001. After she assumed office, she assembled a team of Pharmacists and got to work on clamping down on fake drugs. She achieved significant progress and was able to reduce drug trafficking from 70% to over 10% in Nigeria. Transforming a sector especially in Nigeria where corruption is in full swing is never an easy feat. However, through sheer determination, the backing of the President and a formidable team she was able to make this happen. 

NAFDAC helped in sensitizing people on the difference between fake and counterfeit drugs. There were radio jingles on air advising people to shun fake drugs. Also, the NAFDAC registration number became compulsory for any product coming into Nigeria or produced by Nigerians. Especially drugs and packaged foods. One thing she made reference to for her stance on fake drugs was an incident in 1988. She watched her 21year old sister die from fake insulin as part of treatment for diabetes.

Assassination Attempt and the Destruction of NAFDAC Properties

People were making millions of naira from the drug trafficking business in Nigeria. For example in Kano state, fake drugs worth over £140,000 were confiscated. For this reason, Dora developed enemies within the country. She and her family were constantly under death threats, together with her colleagues. In December 2003, there was an attempt on her life by hired assassins. They shot at her car on the way to the East. One bullet narrowly missed her skull by going through her headscarf. Therefore, she had to move around with heavily armed security men in order to do her work efficiently.

NAFDAC buildings also got their fair share of destruction. In March 2004, the building that housed her office in Lagos got torched by arsonists. All these things though they were tough, didn’t make her lose her resolve to bring sanity to the drug industry. 

Ministerial Role and Politics

In 2008, President Yar’adua appointed Professor Dora Akunyili as minister of information and communications. During her time as minister, she launched a rebranding campaign for the country known as “Nigeria, Good People, Great Nation”. Changing the Nigerian narrative of corruption and bad governance was close to her heart. She also stood her ground at a time when the nation was in turmoil during the illness of President Yar’adua. Dora made this known through a written memo to the Federal Executive council on February 4th 2010. She insisted Vice President Goodluck Jonathan be appointed as Acting President while the President was on sick leave. This did not sit well with most of her ministerial colleagues but she insisted she had to do what was right.

She resigned her ministerial role in 2010 to contest the Senate election for Anambra Central Senatorial district. Unfortunately, she lost the election to Chris Ngige. After this she left public service. 

Dora Akunyili

After Dora Akunyili left public office, she continued to go on routine medical checkups. A few years later reports came out that she was ill and admitted in the United States. Dora was diagnosed with Uterine cancer which she battled for a while. She died on the 7th of June 2014 in a hospital in India.

Dora made an impact in the a government agency that was hardly known to anyone. She always admitted she didn’t know how tough the job was. Her life was one dedicated to public service for the good of Nigeria. Throughout her lifetime she won over 820 awards. Two years after her death, her husband discovered another box with over 150 award plaques.

Last modified: June 9, 2021

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