Nigeria Mourns ‘Fearless’ Woman Who Took on Counterfeit Drug Lords and Survived Two Assassination Attempts


“I believe in Nigeria almost in a fanatical manner, because this is a country that has made who I am today… I therefore always have that strong feeling that I can never sacrifice enough for this great country.” – PROFESSOR DORA AKUNYILI (1954-2014). Image: Efizyblog

Admired public servant Dora Nkemdilim Akunyili was well-known for her stellar performance in public office, her patriotic fervour and her courage to speak up – qualities that are considered rare in the Nigerian public sphere.

Akunyili died on Saturday, June 7 at the age of 59 after a “long battle with cancer“. The distinguished pharmacist, pharmacologist and university teacher was a recipient of Nigeria's National Honour of Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR) and was formerly the director general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and Nigeria's minister of information and communication.

News of her passing was confirmed and widely shared on social media. For example, ElTV tweeted:

Akunyili stood out for her integrity, competence and an unabashed love for Nigeria. In 1998, Akunyili took the nation by surprise when she returned 17,000 US dollars of unspent medical funds to the treasury, money which was sanctioned to her for undergoing a surgery in the United States. When doctors in the US told her that a surgery was not needed, she returned the money. This act of honesty was seen as a rather ‘strange’ occurrence in a country strife with endemic corruption. 

In 2001, Akunyili was appointed the director general of the National Agency for Drug and Food Administration and Control (NAFDAC) by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Akunyili took up her new job with an outstanding zest, becoming the enemy-in-chief of kingpins dealing in fake and adulterated food and medicinal products. The scope of the problem of fake and counterfeit drugs in Nigeria prior to 2001 is summarized as follows:

  • Nigeria was rated as one of the countries with the highest incidence of fake/counterfeit drugs. Consequently, drugs produced in Nigeria were officially unaccepted in other West African countries.
  • Fake drugs embarrassed our health care providers and eroded the confidence of the public on our healthcare system.
  • Estimates of the extent of counterfeit medicines in circulation in Nigeria ranged from 48% to 80% from various studies before 2001.

Akunyili confronted these problems head-on, and as a result of which, she received over 400 local and international awards. However, it was not simply all accolades; she survived two assassination attempts, as well.

Her courageous role during the “political limbo” surrounding the failing health of former President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua and his unwillingness to hand over power to his then deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, shot her back into public consciousness. Akunyili wrote a memo to her colleagues in the federal cabinet insisting that they respect the constitution and declare Jonathan as the acting president because “Yar'Adua's aides are deceiving Nigerians“. 

The outpouring of emotions on the news of her death have been continuous and also not surprising. Saatah Nubari described her as the seventh stanza of the first verse of Nigeria's national anthem

Your days as NAFDAC boss, reminds me of the stanza of our national anthem that says “To serve with heart and might”. That’s you Dora; you were “heart and might” moulded into flesh. I can’t comprehend the number of Nigerians walking the streets today, strong and healthy. That Nigerian heart and might you possess, which has almost gone into oblivion, made it possible. That for decades, we lived or thought we were living; taking drugs and foods we never knew were draining us of the little life we had… Your stint as NAFDAC boss is one we’ll forever remember – I pray we actually do remember. How many of us would’ve lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, we’ll never know.

 Bayo Oluwasanmi described her as “light in Nigeria's darkest hour“: 

It was a time when the life of sick Nigerians – the poor and the vulnerable, the frail and the infirm – were filled with shadow. Dora was the light and the sunshine. […] Dora was to Nigeria public office as light is to stained glass. She was intelligent, strong, unrelenting, and a fearless advocate in her pursuit of justice. She was a surrogate for hard work and persistence.

Blogger Bukola Adeolu-‘Dele praised her love for humanity: 

Dora started on the path of integrity right from her growing up years and as a young wife who was not concerned about just herself and family but how to bring a change into the lives of the average Nigerian, not for fame, not for gain, but for the love of humanity. This, I can relate perfectly with!

Adbul Mahmud, a lawyer and public commentator, tweeted: 

She was an embodiment of hope in a united Nigeria, says a Twitter user in Abuja: 

Chief Ekene Ngwu shared a poem he wrote for Akunyili in 2004:

Even in her sick bed, Akunyili reportedly prayed for Nigeria and the release of the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram: 

Mark Amaze, a writer and political blogger, asserted that:

The touching tribute by Chidiogo, Akuniyli's daughter, summarized the sentiments of Nigerians:

“To many, she was an icon, to others, she was an inspiration, to me, she was my mother and all of the above. What I told her just last week stays with me, ‘I am your daughter, and you raised me, you have been in the midst of everything, mummy and that is the strength that is now mine and all of us your children. It is also the strength of a whole nation; you touched so many lives, and that is a blessing that must not be taken lightly.”

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