By Shola Oshunkeye/Niamey
(Continued from last week)
As she enthuses in her book, The War Against Counterfeit Medicine, My Story, a book that chronicles her childhood and the titanic battle she fought against merchants of death masquerading as businessmen in Nigeria, life was good in Makurdi, her place of birth in Benue State.
Born to a wealthy businessman, Chief Paul Edemobi, and his wife, Grace, life, for Dora Nkem Edemobi, then a little but exceptionally brilliant girl, was full of bloom and no blight. She pleasured her parents and teachers to the heights with her razor sharp intellect. She regaled them with her ingenuities.
“In fact, due to my performance in school (she always topped her class), my father exempted me from all household chores, afraid that they may distract me from my studies,” recalls Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, former Minister of Information and erstwhile Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC. “My father’s slogan was: Dora’s brain will earn her cooks and stewards.”
How prophetic. Dora’s exceptional brilliance, content of character and a steely resolve to success where others failed, effectively ensured that her parents never spent a dime on her education. “My entire education, from high school through university in Nigeria, to doctorate and post-doctoral studies in London, was possible due to government scholarships,” Akunyili, who turns 59 on July 14, this year, writes in the book.
The same qualities, especially her honesty and hard work, also recommended her for all the top public service positions she has held so far. They also account for the almost 700 awards she has garnered so far, both locally and internationally. However, Akunyili’s success, as she recalls in this interview conducted in Niamey, Niger Republic, almost brought her ruins as some agents of darkness attempted to kill her for doing what was right and just. But like the Holy Book says, many have been the afflictions of Prof. Dora Akunyili, but the Lord saw her through them all.
Here are excerpts:
The forces that you fought at NAFDAC were formidable. Apart the assassination attempt on your life, what were the other attacks that you also escaped?
There were many threats. Prior to that attack, they would write letters, make phone calls, call my husband and tell him that ‘if you don’t caution your wife, she may not come out of this job alive’.
And what did your husband do?
He was supporting me but he was a little bit afraid. He was afraid for my life and it’s natural. But my spirit was stronger. When they harassed him, he would call me. In some other instances, he would not even tell me so as not to create any panic. Oh, those criminals, they did a lot. There was a time they went to my house at Abuja and looked for me. Fortunately, I had left for Lagos. I had an emergency in Lagos and I left from the office. They came to my house that same night, beat my cook almost to pulp, repeatedly asking him: where is she? They ransacked everywhere. If I had slept in that house that night, only God knows what would have happened.
What I found worrisome was that the day these people came, the police security people on duty did not come to work. I reported to the then Commissioner of Police in charge of the Federal Capital Territory, Mr. Lawrence Alobi. Till today, nobody has told me what really happened.
That was exactly what happened the day Chief Bola Ige, a sitting Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice who was killed right in his bedroom after his police orderlies left their post to eat. Did you suspect any high level conspiracy?
You cannot put anything beyond the cartel behind counterfeit medicines. There was another day they planned to attack me in the Lagos office. Somehow, something prevented the plot. We had that kind of reports (of planned attack) about two or three other times and asked for our police protection to be reinforced. On another occasion, they put a tortoise in my office.
It looked dried.
How did they get into your personal office? Was it not locked?
Of course, my office was locked.
So, what happened to the tortoise?
I didn’t touch it. It was my assistant that sprinkled holy water on it and removed it. I didn’t even want to talk about it. It’s not worth announcing. It was the Minister (of Health), Prof. A.B.C. Nwosu, that got so frightened that he said offhandedly that: “People should leave this woman alone! Why should anybody put tortoise in her office?” They didn’t attack just me, they also attacked our staff at Onitsha. Do you think we closed Onitsha Market just because there were fakes? No. If there is fake, you screen the system and flush out the fakes! We were screening the system with their cooperation. But on one occasion, my staff went there and they attacked them and destroyed six cars. So, I said ‘enough is enough!’ Since they would not even allow us to screen, we needed to close the market. And we did.
Gen. Owoye Azazi, may his soul rest in peace, was the Chief of Army Staff then. The Inspector General of Police was Mr. Sunday Ehindero. President Obasanjo got them together to give us support to clean up the place. They attacked our staff in Onitsha. They attacked our staff in Kano. They attacked them in Dukku Local Government Area of Gombe State. . They destroyed our vehicles. The then Governor Danjuma Goje of Gombe State consoled us and promised to replace the cars. I think he did. So, it is not just attacking me and threatening me, they were also attacking the staff of NAFDAC. They were threatening my family members. There was even one staff member in Gombe State that I had to relocate the family.
What about my son? They attempted to kidnap my son but for God. My son was in Igbinedion High School (Benin, Edo State) then, and two men came and told him that his uncle, Clement, was looking for him. When he came out, he saw two fierce-looking men. Before he knew what was happening, they grabbed him, and said: You are Obuneme, Professor Akunyili’s son. My son said: ‘No, she is my aunty!’ He swore vehemently that I was his aunt, so they left him. They almost kidnapped him. That was why we quickly bundled him to America. All his other siblings had gone to America because I won the American Visa Lottery. But we didn’t want him to go to America because he was too young. We felt he should stay and get older. But after that incident at Igbinedion High School, we quickly sent him over.
I never knew that big people like you also play the American Visa Lottery…
I did not only play, I also prayed out my heart that God should let us win. I wanted it so badly so that my children would go to school in America. It was a direct prayer point to God. It was my earnest prayer.
You were still teaching then?
I was in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and that is the power of testimony.
How did it happen?
A lady came to look for my head of department, Dr. Okonkwo, and she waited till evening. I said ‘You have been here since morning, I don’t think Dr. Okonkwo will still come to work today. What do you want him for? Is it something I can do for you or you want to go to his house?’ She said she would go to his house because she won the American Visa Lottery. I said ‘What? How? Who are you?’ She said she was his niece, and she brought out the letter that was sent from America. I asked if she knew anybody in America because I didn’t see it as a lottery that anybody could win just like that. She said she didn’t know anybody. She said she filled it at Awka, sent it and she won. She also said “But, aunty, I prayed out my heart.’
So, I took her to Dr. Okwonkwo’s house. From there, I went to Big Heart Memorial Seminary, visited five different Reverend Fathers, and told them to book mass for me for 30 days. I told them to tell God that I wanted to win the American Visa Lottery so that my children can go and study in America. The five Reverend Fathers booked 30 days masses for me. When I got home, I called my children and told them to let us start 30 days Novena prayers to Our Lady. I told them I wanted them to go and study in America. But without the lottery, it would be impossible for six of you to study in America. We will not be able to pay. So, we started the prayer, everyday for 30 days.
While we were praying, I called one of my husband’s relations to enquire if there was any special form that we must fill. He said there was none; that we should just apply. So, we applied. But, because I wrote in a hurry to give to somebody travelling to America to give to my husband’s relation, I made a mistake on one of my daughters’ date of birth. One day, we got a phone call saying that we won the American Visa Lottery. My God, we were very happy. We were excited. We rejoiced. But we still needed to go to the embassy in Lagos because it is not automatic. Somehow, my husband felt he didn’t need it. He said since it’s the children that needed it, we should go.
So, I went with my children. Meanwhile, my first daughter had left Nigeria on NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) scholarship. They asked her to come back because after the NASA scholarship, she would still not be able to get a Green Card. So, she rushed back from America for that. The first day we went to the embassy, they looked at my papers and asked me to sit down. We just sat there, from morning till afternoon, waiting for the counselor. One man told me that if they keep you for too long, it means they want to mess you up.
With faith, I said it’s not possible. Immediately, I told my children to join hands and let us pray that one prayer: what God has given to us, nobody can take it away. I told them we would be praying it even if it takes four hours for them to call us. People who saw our mouths moving were wondering what was going on.
Finally, they called us. The female counselor asked: how are you going to take care of six children in America? Do you have a job? I said I was a pharmacist. I could work in any lab. I could teach. I would earn enough resources with my skill to take care of them. The woman looked at our paper and stamped it. She gave all our documents to me and told us to come and collect our visas, maybe the next day or whatever. I carried everything to the hotel. I didn’t open it.
When we got to the hotel and started cutting out the papers, we noticed that immigration in America had written a letter to Lagos telling them that there was a discrepancy in the date of birth of one of my children. Now, if they had seen that kind of red flag in Lagos, that would have been the end of the journey. My interpretation of that miracle is that it’s either an angel did not allow them to read that letter, or somebody read it and forgot. That is the highpoint of my testimony about our Green Card. That’s how I took my children to America, left them with our relations who took care of them, and they started going to the community college because it is free. But we left out my last born because we thought he was too young to live in America, …until that kidnap attempt in Igbinedion High School.
While all those attacks were going on, weren’t there moments you felt like quitting the job?
Well, not really. But there was pressure from my husband, my children and my relations. One day, this particular Obuneme that was almost kidnapped said to me, ‘Mummy, when is this job coming to an end?’ I said, ‘I have spent two years, it remains three.’ So, every year, the boy was counting. He was actually singing it to all his siblings. So, when we were celebrating our four years at NAFDAC, my husband came. When he was talking, he said that ‘Thank God, by next year, this job will be coming to an end.’ He said that I would not go for second tenure; and that was the family’s decision. When President Obasanjo heard it, he asked me to call him. I called him.
What did Baba tell him?
Of course, you don’t expect Baba to say ‘please’. In Baba’s characteristic manner, ‘Why are you discouraging her instead of encouraging her? You should be encouraging her.’ Then, he stylishly appealed to him: ‘Do not discourage her. Please, encourage her.’ My husband felt good that he (the president) called to talk to him about it. And that really helped. Now, normally, if you desire second term, you are supposed to write a letter two months to the end of the first tenure. I didn’t write any letter. It was one-and-a-half years into my second tenure that my board members said ‘listen, by law, whatever you were signing in the last one-and-a-half years, somebody can pick it up and use it against you. You must write a letter.’ So, I wrote.
Is there anything you did in office that you regret?
Yes. My husband’s first cousin, who was living in London, and who loved me to a crazy point, had some drugs to register. For more than five years, he was not doing his documentation properly. And I kept telling him that if ‘you don’t do things properly, they cannot be registered’. There is no brother or sister in this job because if I bend the rule, my staff will start bending the rule too. Once I bend the rule, all that I have struggled to build in the past would be rubbished because they are also watching me. But because I am able to stand erect, nobody can bend the rule without facing the consequence. So, my brother-in-law kept begging me: ‘Please, do this for me’. I couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, he died without getting the approval. It haunts me.
Even till now?
Even till now because he never got it. Maybe he felt that he didn’t need to do everything that was required by law. He never concluded it until he died. And when he died, my pain was that he was not able to register those drugs. Even the day I was launching my book (The War Against Counterfeit Medicines, My Story), I said, ‘I pray that he has forgiven me.’ I said the same thing to those people, in general, who also felt I did not bend the law for them. I said, I hoped they had forgiven me.
Then, President Jonathan got up and said I did not need to ask for forgiveness from anybody. He said I was a worthy daughter of Nigeria; that I did not owe anybody any apology; and that Nigerians appreciated what we did. Indeed, I also got very motivated by the support of Nigerians. I don’t know any public office holder that got the kind of support I got when I was working with my great team to fight drug counterfeiters. The support was unprecedented, all over the country and even outside the country.
I want to take you back to your fibroid surgery that you told me about at the beginning of this discussion. Was that the first fibroid you had or you had more?
That was the first. But luckily, since I was no longer having children, they had to remove the womb.
You did hysterectomy?
Yes, I did hysterectomy. The doctor suggested that and I agreed with him that removing the womb would be better, because if you remove fibroid, it might re-grow. So, I had the surgery in America.
It couldn’t be done in Nigeria?
Why not? We have great doctors in Nigeria. Our surgeons are among the best in the world. Given the same work environment, given the same opportunities, given appropriate equipment, they would work excellently. But I didn’t go to America because of surgery. I went to visit my daughter-in-law who had a baby. But when I got there, I decided to do some check-up. It was during the check-up that they found that I had fibroid. And I was caught between coming home, prepare for it and then return to America; or I do it straightaway. I figured that since I wasn’t working back home, and my children are there in America, and they are doctors, why shouldn’t I stay and do it? That was the first time fibroid was detected.
What year was this?
Last year. 2012.
That means you had been carrying it all over the place without knowing it?
I didn’t know because it doesn’t pain.
No symptoms like heavy menstrual period?
Yes, I had heavy menstrual period but I felt it was the onset of menopause.
How old were you then?
I was 57 then. I was 58 last July. I started getting into menopause at 56. And that was when I started getting irregular and heavy menstrual period. So, I felt it was part of the process. I didn’t know it was fibroid.
What are the things that made you know that you were getting into menopause?
My menstrual period started getting irregular and very painful; then, age. When you combine that with your age, you can then guess. After 45, people start expecting menopause, depending on the family. For my family, we start expecting it from 55. These things are genetic.
When the late President Yar’Adua appointed minister, most Nigerians were disappointed. They felt you should have continued the great work you were doing in NAFDAC.
Their reactions were born out of the love they had for me. But we must appreciate that this is a developing country where the president of the country calls you from a parastatal. NAFDAC is a parastatal. It was just that by the grace of God that we raised it to a level that made it to look larger than a parastatal, because of the work we were doing. So, when the president says, ‘come out of NAFDAC, I want to make you a minister,’ do you really have a choice? Could you, in all honesty, say ‘No’? Besides, I didn’t have the opportunity to say, ‘minister of what?’ And I don’t know of anybody that had the opportunity. And won’t it even sound and look a bit naïve and not fair-minded for you to tell the president of Nigeria that, ‘Sir, let me be. I don’t want to be promoted. I want to remain where I am.’ It’s impudent.
Meanwhile, the same Nigerians that were saying we are disappointed she left NAFDAC, will also say there is something she has there that she doesn’t want to leave. What does she have in that NAFDAC that she doesn’t want to leave? The same Nigerians will say that ‘after being in a job for seven-and-a-half years, with all the threats to her life, with the assassination attempt, is she not tired? Shouldn’t she be released?’
To be honest with you, I was relieved to leave because I was happy that I didn’t leave NAFDAC out of fright, out of fear, or out of cowardice. Remember I told you that I told my husband, when he was saying that I should not take a second term, that if I left at that point, the drug counterfeiters would feel that they had won. They were actually popping champagne at Onitsha when my husband said I was not going to continue. I said they were celebrating and we cannot allow them to have the last laugh. So, when, by the grace of God, two-and-a-half years later, the president now said ‘come, I want to give you a higher responsibility, if I were your wife, would you say no? Even if the president did not appoint me minister, I would still have left two years after because the law would not be changed for me.
So, how did you react when you heard that you had been appointed minister?
It further strengthened my belief that nothing happens without God’s approval. Six months before I was appointed Minister of Information, my elder sister, Mrs. Obala, phoned me and said she had a dream where I was made Minister of Information. I said to her: ‘You must have malaria, and you know that malaria causes hallucination. Go and drink Coatem. What is my business with Information?’ She stood her ground. She said that was how she saw it, and that the dream was very vivid. Now, after the announcement as ministers, after the screening and all that, on the day that new ministers are being sworn in, the last thing they normally do is the announcement of portfolios. And that is after the swearing in. When they announced Dora Akunyili, Minister of Information, I nearly broke down. I quickly collected papers and started taking minutes of the (Federal Executive Committee, FEC) meeting because the meeting started immediately.
So, the Minister of Information is the secretary of FEC?
Yes. He takes the minutes. He reports the decisions from the meeting to the public.
And you had never done such a job before, even at board level?
No. But when you are properly educated, you are actually prepared for anything. That is what I feel. Bill Gates did not study computer science but he put his mind in it, focussed on it and he was able to develop it. In other ministries, people are not appointed to positions just because of what they studied. It is out of competence because in most ministries, what you do is that you are managing human beings and resources. So, after the announcement of my portfolio as Minister of Information, I almost broke down.
What was your disappointment?
My disappointment was that I expected anything but Information.
Were you expecting Ministry of Health?
Yes. I was expecting health but I never dreamt or believed it could be Information. So, I went to President Yar’Adua during lunch break. As I said ‘Your Excellency’, he said ‘No, don’t talk. Please, I want you to be the one handling the ministry. We have huge problem and I know you can handle it.’ He never allowed me to talk. I don’t know whether he knew what I wanted to say. Maybe he saw my face. So, I went into the toilet and cried my heart out. I was shattered.
What consoled me? I remembered my sister’s dream. I said ‘God, you want me to be there (Ministry of Information), and you have a reason; to you be the glory. You have your reason for taking me to this place that I don’t know anything about; this place that is regarded as a ministry where people just talk. I would have loved to go to the ministry where I would effect a change, a total change in the system. It doesn’t have to be health. If I went to environment, I know I will change the system. If I went to aviation, I know I will change the system. All I wanted was any of these critical areas where people would see changes in six months. That was what I wanted. But when I remembered the dream of my sister, I said ‘God, you know everything. You have your reason and to you be the glory. For you to reveal this to my sister, to prepare my mind, I give you all the glory. I will put in my best.’
Again, my daughter, who came from America for the swearing-in ceremony, said ‘Mummy, I want you to know that no matter what people say about Ministry of Information, it is the soul and image of the country. So, it is out of trust that it is being given to you. Stop crying.’ My daughter, and the mother-in-law, who came from Cote D’Ivoire, spoke to me. The mother-in-law said what my daughter said was correct. She said ‘Ministry of Information is not given to questionable characters. Please, bring your make-up, people should not see your face like this.’ So, I cleaned my eyes and did my make-up with them right there in the bathroom. We finished the meeting, I reported it.
When I got to the ministry, the wretchedness I saw at the place crashed my spirit again. It was unbelievable. It was not as good as my directors’ office in NAFDAC. But I must quickly add that that one didn’t crash my spirit like the first day I got to NAFDAC. When I went to NAFDAC, there was nothing. When I got to Information, journalists came around. They asked me, ‘How would you do this? You are not a journalist.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have to be a journalist to do this job. My trainings, over the years, have prepared me to be able to fit into any system.’ They said Minister of Information is expected to be telling lies. I said ‘I am not prepared to tell lies for anybody and I will never.’
At the same time, some journalists were writing in the papers that they did not want me. But when council was dissolved, the same people started writing that they wanted me because in that space of one year, they saw that I put in all my heart into what I was doing. I don’t know how to work halfway. I started the Rebranding Nigeria Project. I said, let us change the negative perception. And it was gathering momentum. Even now, go to Heathrow Airport (in London), you will see (the slogan…) Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation. We feel so good that many Nigerians are still putting it in their products’ packs. When we were dissolved, there were a lot of write-ups from journalists association. They wanted me back; and when I was reappointed I didn’t feel terribly as I felt the first time. I was going back to a familiar ground. Then, one year after, my governor (Mr. Peter Obi of Anambra State) invited me and said I should come and run for Senate. And I said well, it’s good to get another platform, because I didn’t really feel totally utilized at Information.
I was doing my best but I didn’t see the system changing.
There were too many resistances?
Yes, too many resistances. Even the Rebranding Nigeria Project met a stiff resistance, even in-house, because people didn’t want too many activities. They were comfortable with the laid-back system. So, I couldn’t change the place the way I wanted. But I did a lot.