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Whenever people think of the agency NAFDAC, there is no doubt an image of Professor Dora Akunyili, or the millions of fake drugs she regularly impounded comes to mind. This is no mere coincidence; it’s a merited result of sheer hard work and incorruptible integrity.
When the vacancy for the Director-General of NAFDAC opened, ordinarily, Dora Akunyili wouldn’t be the ideal candidate for the office because of our heavily patriarchal culture. Vested interests didn’t hesitate to weaponize the gender card against her, yet somehow, she emerged so. The impeccable work ethic she exhibited at previous workplaces came highly recommended, especially from the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF).
The first time she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, she was granted $17,000 by the PTF to foot overseas treatment. When the doctors confirmed it was a misdiagnosis, she refunded the remainder as soon as she returned to the country, even in the face of stiff finances in her home. For a country where no one is meticulously auditing the books, she could have pocketed the money without anyone realizing it, but she didn’t.
On assuming office, she began a bottom-to-top revamping and restructuring that involved laying off redundant workers and retraining others. She ensured drugs underwent thorough scrutiny before entering the market. It involved obtaining recertification which must be tendered at the port before the clearance. It wasn’t business as usual anymore; every container of drug and food was painstakingly inspected, and the issuance of NAFDAC registration numbers became tightly regulated. Locally, surveillance teams were set up to embark on random inspections in open markets and pharmacies. She utilized multimedia sources to grow public awareness of fake consumables. Her holistic strategies cut down fake drugs and food in circulation by 70%.
During a crucial period when counterfeit consumables dominated the Nigerian market, Dora Akunyili didn’t just tackle the menace but proved, again, that women can perform exceptionally when given a platform. Perhaps it was her sister’s death from fake insulin or the desire to drive palpable impact or both, Dora left no crevice safe for these substandard drug dealers who had plagued the country for about three decades.
As Nigerian markets became increasingly unconducive for these drug marketers, neighbouring countries became the next destination for their deadly products. But before they could settle there, Dora instituted the West Africa Drug Regulatory Authority Network with the cooperation of associated countries to track down counterfeiters. Her leadership saw the drastic reduction of counterfeit medicines across West Africa too.
Fighting corruption in Nigeria is extremely dangerous. Taking down transnational fake drug rings made her and her family targets of repeated attacks that she had to relocate her children out of the country. One time, she was shot at close range but escaped with only minor injuries.
After the expiration of her tenure at the NAFDAC, she was appointed as minister of communications where amongst other outstanding projects, she launched Rebrand Nigeria popularly remembered by its slogan: Good people, great nation. She resigned later to delve into politics proper. She ran for Senate but lost the race. Sadly, her time in the political arena was short-lived.
Dora, a trained pharmacologist at the University of Nigeria, lectured across various universities for years until she obtained a Ph. D. in ethnopharmacology. All her academic pursuits post-primary school were funded by different scholarships she earned by her academic excellence. Throughout her career, she bagged over 1000 awards and international recognition, and this record is still unbeaten by any Nigerian.
Born in 1954, she led an exemplary life. Professor Dora Akunyili was a remarkable scholar, politician, and public servant par excellence. She was also a mother to six children. One of them is Njideka Akunyili-Crosby, an award-winning visual artist. She lived her life trying to save millions of lives from counterfeit drugs and foods. She died in 2014 fighting a relapse of uterine cancer.