Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili, OFR, Former Director General of NAFDAC: Ex-Minister of Information
The war Obasanjo fought to make me NAFDAC boss
By Shola Oshunkeye/Niamey
Some loathe her because she is audacious. She has guts and God. Some detest her because she pursues whatever she sets her mind to accomplish with every fibre of her being. Some disdain her because she is confident and bold. And there are those who can’t stand her and who, indeed, avoid her like a plague because failure does not exit in her lexicon. They are often sad and mad that she succeeds where others fail and falter.
But what the traducers of Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, the no nonsense former Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, do not know is the fact that all these virtues, plus a razor sharp intellect, are ingrained in her DNA. Which is why when life’s journey becomes rough and tough, when the wind of life blows like a monsoon or a ferocious tornado, threatening to crush everything on its path, this virtuous woman stands solid like a rock, firmly anchored on those lofty ideals of humanity. The ideals normally recommend her for favours with supernatural flavours. They have won for her positions that many fight tooth and nail to secure but never get.
It was these same ideals that made former President Olusegun Obasanjo to appoint her as Director General of NAFDAC on April 11, 2001. This was at a time the life of the organization was ebbing, having been rendered comatose by the suffocating rot it was en-meshed. Prior to her appointment, Akunyili never met the then president nor had any contact whatsoever with him. But Obasanjo had learnt about her uncommon act of honesty at the Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF, where she was serving as zonal secretary, and sent for her.
It was at a period the PTF was being wound down. And Akunyili, a native of Nanka, Anambra State, had developed a health condition that her Nigerian doctor thought needed surgery. And PTF, her employers at the time, had approved 17, 000 pounds to travel to London to have the life-saving surgery. But when she got to the London Hospital, her British doctors carried out a series of tests that revealed that her condition did not require surgery. Meaning, it was a wrong diagnosis. Contrary to what many people in her shoes would have done, she, upon her return to Nigeria, refunded the 12, 000 pounds earmarked for the operation to her employers, and set a precedent in the organization.
Impressed by Akunyili’s unparalleled honesty, General Buhari, himself a straight and shrewd manager of men, materials and money, wrote her a letter of commendation. Obasanjo heard the story and personally phoned her, inviting her for a meeting at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, the next Tuesday.
It was a Sunday afternoon. Akunyili and her family had just returned from church when their phone, a NITEL landline, rang. She almost banged the phone on the president when his baritone voice boomed from the other end: “Hello, Obasanjo is my name.”
“I thought it was a con man talking,” recalls Prof. Akunyili, a recipient of the 2003 Integrity Award of Transparency International, and holder of the national award of the Order of the Federal Republic, OFR. “I was confused.”
But when that cloud of confusion cleared, and she regained her breath, the president asked her over. On the D-Day, Obasanjo didn’t need a long interview to decide that Akunyili was the woman for the job. But the political class didn’t think so. They had a separate agenda. They rose against the president’s choice, and attempted to shred her impeccable C.V. But the president saw through their shenanigans and stuck to his choice. Since then, there has been no stopping Akunyili, who clocks 59 come July 14, this year. She was, later, appointed Minister of Information by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
For President Obasanjo to have reposed such confidence in her at a time she never met him, and to ensure that Nigerians no longer suffer needlessly in the hands of the merchants of death who manufacture and peddle fake medicines, Akunyili worked herself to the bones at NAFDAC. In the process, the woman, whose diabetic sister died as direct result of fake medicines, suffered nervous breakdown and almost took a bullet in her skull. Many, indeed, are the afflictions of Dora, but the Lord saw her through them all.
In this encounter, the former minister, a staunch Catholic who has won about 700 awards, both at home and abroad, for her service to humanity, opens a window into her action-packed life.
Welcome on board this ‘flight’ with Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, CFR.
I think the best point to start this interview is this award that you are taking today (March 8, 2013) in Niamey. What is the significance of this award to you?
This award is special to me in that it is coming over four years after I left NAFDAC. What it tells me is that the struggles of those seven and a half years are still in the minds of people not just in Nigeria but also across the globe. This (Niger Republic) is a country I really least expected to honour me because it is a French-speaking country, a country where we think would not have too much information on activities in Anglophone countries like Nigeria. And I don’t have any friends here. Not even one. I also feel happy about it because it is coming from women. Remember, people used to say that women are their own enemies. That may be true to some extent. Therefore, when women appreciate one another, it is something for us to be happy for.
By the way, the wife of the president originated the award, and the Nigerien Ministry of Women Affairs took it up. They actually invited me last year (2012) but I was in America. When I told the ambassador who was asked to call me that I was in America, he said there must be a way. He said I should try to make it and that they would arrange my passage from America because the wife of the president had already put her mind to the fact that I was coming. At that point, I had to tell him the real reason I was in America.
And that was…?
I was in the hospital, preparing to have fibroid surgery, and it was a major surgery. He said okay. And I forgot about it. You can then imagine my surprise when they wrote to inform me about my nomination for this one. Generally, awards are good if they are not the cash-and-carry type. But they do no longer excite me.
Why shouldn’t they excite you?
Because I have had so many. They are almost 700. You can check www.doraakunyilionline.org to see what I mean. And we are not listing the awards from church organizations. Those are the ones we selected and they are almost 700, and many of them are international. So, I forgot about it. I didn’t even ask if it’s an annual, or what. I didn’t ask. You can then imagine how I felt when I got the message again, this year. I said, ‘so, this people still remember me, over four years after I left NAFDAC, and one year after the first nomination?’ I decided to go.
But the devil is wicked. The day of the award (March 8, 2013) again coincided with the burial of somebody I regard as my father and my mentor; somebody, who, together with his wife, actually took me as their own child right from my university days. His name is Professor J.O.C. Ezeilo, a former Vice Chancellor. He was being buried that day. So, I had another valid point not to be at the awards. But my husband said ‘no, even if daddy had been alive, if dead could talk, I know that daddy would tell you to go’. So, my husband said I should go, while he would attend the burial, from the wake-keep till the outing service on Sunday.
So, I’m happy to be here (in Niamey). I am happy because no matter how many awards you have, each of them has its own significance. This particular award, the International Active African Woman Trophy (TIFAA NIGER), I believe, must have been triggered by what I did for the West African sub-region because when the drug traffickers started having it rough in Nigeria, they began to migrate to other West African countries, and the problem became worse for them. In fact, our success in Nigeria started casting dark shadows on our neighbours and I thought of what to do. I felt strongly that we needed to do something because if we continued fighting in Nigeria without giving a thought to what was happening in the West African sub-region, these criminals will find safe havens in other places. I, therefore, on my own, got in contact with all the regulators in West Africa and invited them for a meeting in Abuja, and we instituted the West African Drug Regulatory Authority Network, WADRAN.
We created WADRAN as a platform for interacting with one another, sharing ideas, teaching them what to do, and doing peer review. That way, we would be able to form a critical mass in the region to tackle the criminals that deal in fake and adulterated drugs frontally. That way, we would make the region so hot for them that there would be no hiding place for them. And in that way, our success will be more sustained. Understandably, I was made their chairperson, and President Olusegun Obasanjo understood what I did and had to receive them personally at the villa. The regulators were all happy. We took it up from there and started having meetings in other West African countries.
Instructively, we never came to Niger Republic till I left NAFDAC. For whatever reason, our Nigerien counterparts did not invite us. But I remember vividly, (and I think it’s in my book), that when we instituted WADRAN, and had meetings in Abuja, the head of Food and Drug Administration in Niger Republic said that his problem was that whenever he intercepted fake drugs, the politicians would ask him to release. For me, that was a rude shock.
You mean you never experienced such things when you were in charge in NAFDAC?
Nobody ever gave you a phone call to say release those medicines?
I said never! Nobody ever tried it with me.
Not even the president, President Obasanjo, who hired you and could fire you without qualms?
That means you don’t know President Obasanjo. He is not one president who would give you an assignment and meddle in the way you do it. Never. He never did.
Okay, if nobody called you directly, didn’t people try to reach you indirectly? Didn’t people go through people who can reach you?
Yes, there were instances when people would call me to ask what happened. That was happening. And when I explained what happened, they would say ‘Madam, I’m sorry. My hands are not in it.’ But to call me and say ‘Madam, release…’ Nobody ever tried that with me. Nobody ever tried any monkey business with me. You know the way we went about that struggle, it would be extremely difficult for anybody to mess with me. Nobody. For me, I had a job on my palm-to save my fellow countrymen and women, our children, our senior citizens, the aged, and the vulnerable, from dying needlessly. I did my best to ensure I didn’t betray that sacred trust. Above all, I had, still have, a pact with my God not to disappoint him. You also must remember that I am a pharmacist. So, I knew what I was doing. In one minute, because of my training, I will reel out everything that happened, down to the specifications of the drugs and where they failed. When I do that, the person will just quickly say ‘Madam, I am sorry.’
There is this impression that women do better as managers because they don’t easily fall into the kind of temptations that easily beset men. When you were in NAFDAC, did you take bribe?
Were you offered bribe?
Of course yes. When I started, people offered, but after about…
(I cut in…) They were bringing money?
When somebody comes in with a briefcase and even says ‘we want to discuss’, there is a reaction you’ll give and the person will not send the message. Remember, people are also very clever. Nobody wants to be disgraced or disappointed. They find ways of introducing these things. I remember an instance, but I can’t remember the exact amount. But it is in my book. I think it’s US$10, 000. The person came and said ‘somebody wants to give you this money, I think you should take it.’ I gave him the bitterest part of my tongue. I tongue-lashed him. He was sweating under my office’s air-conditioner.
On another occasion, another one came and said, ‘Madam, somebody has 10 containers, you release nine, you can keep one. You can indicate the one you will seize; seize it and make all the noise in the media. I’ll advise you to take it, madam. This is Nigeria. There is a way to work in this country. Don’t kill yourself because of one job.’
I got that kind of advice. I documented everything in the book. There was also somebody that used me to make money, by dropping my name. He told somebody that I said he should give him money for me. He took the money. That was in 2001. Luckily for me, I did not do what they wanted and they went to my husband to say, ‘we gave N2 million to this person and your wife still did not allow our product to go. And my husband said, “Go and take your money from whoever you gave it to. My wife does not solicit bribe and will never receive any. It is not possible. Even with two million pounds, it is not possible.”
When my husband told me, I was mad. I was livid. I said I would invite the police. But he said ‘no’. He said, ‘If you invite the police, it will be your word against their (the criminals’) word. And criminals can do anything. They can say ‘Yes o, Paul was with me when I gave the money. The guy can be in a tight corner and say my P.A., Paul and Peter were with me when I gave the money’. So, it’s going to be your word against their word. What you do is tell this guy that since what you wanted was not done, that should be enough evidence for you to go and take your money.’
The good thing was that about six months after I started (as DG), I never got any satanic offers again because the message was clear. I had made myself clear that it was not going to be business as usual. The lesson in that is that once you do not compromise your principles and ideals, people have a way of conforming to whatever is the laid down standard. They have a way of knowing that there is no need to even try to make any offer.
Many people are still astounded by your success in NAFDAC. Could it be a factor of putting a square peg in a square hole?
It’s part of it. When people understand the job, when people have a passion for the job, when people have a drive, when people have an inner motivation, the job becomes easy even with the difficulties around it.
So, what was your drive? What was your motivation?
The motivation, first of all, is that as a pharmacist, I understand the job. I also understand the problems of counterfeit medicines because so many people have died, including my own sister who died of fake insulin in Nigeria. My sister’s death brought the message back home to us vividly.
What year was this?
How old was she then?
She was just 22.
What happened that she had to be taking insulin?
She had diabetes.
She developed juvenile diabetes at about 19. She was taking insulin. It was a typical case of counterfeit drug but we never knew until it was too late. We would buy from some shops, she would respond very well and be normal. You know that if you are diabetic, and you are taking your insulin, you can live for many years because you are substituting what is not there. But when we bought from shops, she would go down. It never occurred to us that what we were buying was fake because there was no public enlightenment that this insulin could be fake. What was more, when her blood sugar became uncontrollable, which did not make any sense because proper insulin must control it, she started developing some types of infections.
Again, it didn’t occur to us the kind of thing that was bustling out. These infections were caused by the type of insulin we bought. I eventually found in my first two months in NAFDAC. You know, some of the insulin we destroyed. Millions of vials of insulin were just unsterilized water. But if somebody injects water that is not sterilized, is it not potential infection? So, she died. We knew there was something wrong, but it didn’t really clicked. Honestly, it did not click too much. We could not say ‘yes, it is fake’, but we were suspecting that there was something wrong. But we didn’t know what was wrong. And we didn’t know there was a body like NAFDAC to complain to. When she died, her death brought the issue of the havoc that counterfeit medicine can cause to us as a family.
Another motivating factor was the fight that President Obasanjo had with the political class to appoint. When he wanted to make me DG of NAFDAC, he had heard about what I did at PTF (Petroleum Trust Fund). His close friend and brother, Dr. Onaolapo Soleye, who was Minister of Finance under General Buhari, had told him a story about a woman in PTF that returned about 12, 000 pounds. When he heard the story, he said he wanted to see me.
What year was this?
It was in 1999. I was in PTF as zonal secretary, coordinating all PTF projects in the south east. In 1999, I had problem with my tummy and I went to UNTH (University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu) to see the late Professor Echi who said he suspected, from the diagnosis, that I had pancreatic problem. And I needed to go for surgery in London.
The diagnosis was correct?
No, it was wrong. So, I wrote a letter for sponsorship and I was given 12, 000 pounds or the surgery and another 5000 pounds for incidental expenses. In all, PTF paid me 17,000 pounds, and I went to London. But after undergoing several tests, the doctors said the initial diagnosis was wrong. They said what I had was irritable bowel syndrome and I would not need surgery. So, I was given drugs to normalize it. At the end of my stay, I had to tell the doctor that I needed to be paid back for the money meant for the surgery-12, 000 pounds, so I could return it to my employers, PTF. I told them the money, whether cash or cheque, should be paid to PTF. They said they had never returned money to anybody, but they could give me cash. They were shocked that I said I was going to return it to my employers since I didn’t have the surgery. When I returned to work and returned the money to General Muhammadu Buhari, our Executive Chairman, he too couldn’t believe me. He was pleasantly surprised. He wrote me a letter of commendation. I still have the letter. I protect it like a certificate. General Buhari said, and he wrote behind the letter: “I did not know that there are still some Nigerians with integrity.” He said I should give the money to director of finance. I returned the money. I also submitted the result of all my tests and all the drugs that I bought.
How did people at PTF generally react to that act of honesty?
My brother, I saw hell. I experienced unprecedented persecutions and attacks because it had never happened and I had made a precedent. Even auditors came to check my account to see whether they could find something because it was like I stopped a process that people used in making money. They couldn’t find anything to roast me. But I’m happy to say that despite the persecution, my action caused a quiet revolution at PTF such that when people now travel for official assignments, they would bring their tellers.
So, what happened next?
One day, I went to see my friend, Engineer Joko Senumi, in his office. He is now in CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria). I came from Enugu. As soon as I came in, he turned to a man sitting beside him and said: “Daddy, this is the woman that returned the 12, 000 pounds.” The man, who turned out to be Dr. Onaolapo Soleye, General Buhari’s Minister’s of Finance, said: “You! What happened? Tell me.” I was flabbergasted. He said he was just from Gen. Buhari’s office and everybody was talking about me. And he asked: “What happened? Why did you return it?” I said ‘Well, it’s not my money and my Catholic upbringing would not allow me to take what is not my own.”
He said what I did meant a lot in Nigeria of the time, that Gen. Buhari said he didn’t know that there were still some Nigerians with integrity. Then, he said, “My friend (President Obasanjo) has been looking for somebody to clean up NAFDAC. Give me your CV.” I said ‘I don’t move around with CV.’ He said “go and do me a CV.” So, I went and typed what I could remember, and gave him. Exactly two weeks after, on a Sunday afternoon, I got call. Then, landlines (NITEL lines) were still working.
The voice said: “Hello, my name is Obasanjo.” I almost dropped the phone. I thought it was a con man talking. Then, he talked a little more, and suddenly, it became clear to me that ‘this is the voice we normally hear on radio and TV.’ I was confused. I was shaking. I can’t even remember what I said to him in reply because I was totally confused. I guess he too must have sensed my apprehension because he allowed some seconds to pass before he spoke again, and said: “Can you come and see me on Tuesday?” I said ‘yes sir’.
So, on Tuesday, I went to Abuja. My name was at the gate. I had lunch with the president. Then, he took me to the small office and started asking me about the issue of the money that I returned in PTF. I told him the story. He said: “You are a pharmacists; my friend gave me your CV.” Then, he asked me a few questions about what was happening in NAFDAC, and I told him what I saw. And he made up his mind to give me the job.
Just like that?
Just like that. But trust Nigerians, that triggered a war of some sort because even the then senate president had a candidate.
Dr. Chuba Okadigbo?
Yes, God bless and rest his soul. Our beloved brother, the late Okadigbo also had his eyes on NAFDAC. He had a candidate. The political class, they all had candidate. They all had their eyes on NAFDAC.
Maybe they had seen that it was juicy portfolio?
I don’t know about that. But everybody at the top level, especially the political class, had their candidates. So, the fireworks began. Everybody was against President Obasanjo; and when people are against an appointment, they can always make up credible reasons. They could argue: one, she is Igbo, the minister is Igbo, and who are the drug counterfeiters? So, it sounds logical. How can she do it? Besides, gender issue is there but nobody would actually bring it up. The fight was intense and fierce but Obasanjo stood his ground. He said “I have made up my mind to give the job to this woman, let her go there. If she doesn’t do it well, then, I will remove her. I have made up my mind and nothing can change it.” Eventually, they cooked up another story. They went and told him that I was not a pharmacist. Simultaneously, they mounted serious pressure on him to quickly sign and approve their candidate. You know once the announcement is made, he cannot reverse it. That was the game.
Luckily for me, President Obasanjo called Dr. Soleye and that people said the woman he recommended for the cleaning of NAFDAC was not even a pharmacist! He said they have come to give me another news that she is not a pharmacist. Dr. Soleye told me all these one morning. But Dr. Soleye said he begged the president to let him call me and revert to him as soon as he finished speaking with me. He called me. I said ‘I am pharmacist. I started Pharmacy from first degree to post doctoral level.’ He said ‘do you have your certificates? Bring them.’ The next day, I took all my certificates to Abuja, and Dr. Soleye collected them and went and showed them to the president. The president approved my appointment immediately. Dr. Soleye told me all these.
Why am I saying all these? I said all these in response to your question about what motivated me to put my life on the line in NAFDAC. The death of my sister from fake medicine motivated me. I could not afford to allow Nigerians to suffer needlessly from the evil deeds of counterfeiters. The second was the huge trust I had from a president who never knew me from Adam, and who I never knew nor met one-on-one. Can, and should anybody in his or her senses betray that kind of trust? President Obasanjo’s trust in me was a motivating force for me. Again, when people say you can’t do a job, it’s also a motivating factor because you want to prove that you can do it.
(To be continued next week)