I remember with glee the Nigerian icon, courageous leader and Nation Builder, Professor Dora Akunyili. At a time where Africa’s leadership remains plagued by the “strong man syndrome”, were the only legacy left behind by leaders are ‘themselves’, This visionary built an important institution- the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC or The Nigerian FDA). A pharmacist, Professor Dora Akunyili, was a mentor, mother and an inspiration to me. We shared the same birthday (14th July) and I learnt a lot from her work ethic and enthusiasm for anything Nigerian. Interestingly, she will always be excited whenever we marked the birth date, particularly when I called in to wish her well. She had an unflinching loyalty to Nigeria and worked courageously for our country amidst great risk to her life. Through her instrumentality at the Nigerian FDA (NAFDAC), drug safety became a ‘front burner’ issue in Nigeria and drug Counterfeiters were put out of business. The result? Many lives were saved.
When she became Minister of Information; She understood that the Nigerian brand was in danger of annihilation fueled by the wrong, international perception of our morality and founded on a concept similar to Chimamanda’s “danger of a single story” principle. She therefore started the process of rebranding Nigeria despite dwindling support from Nigerians themselves. On September 19, 2009, I was among the few Nigerians who saw the movie “District 9” screened in Abuja, Nigeria. The depiction by Neil Blomkamp and Peter Jackson of Nigerians as cannibals and prostitutes was at best gory. Disturbed by this, I thought the government needed to do something about this spurious portrayal of Nigerians by Hollywood and I sent Prof. Akunyili a text message describing the movie but not expecting a response from her. I was shocked that she immediately called back and invited me to give her more details about the movie.
On arriving at her residence the next day (20th September, 2009), it was obvious that she was offended and visibly angered by such denigration of Nigerians by Hollywood. Sadly, she was about to embark on an official trip to Jos, Plateau State for a broadcaster’s summit that Sunday afternoon, thus I would eventually end up scribbling some key points on a sheet of paper detailing the actual scenes in the movie. She would waste no time in openly condemning the movie and subsequently having the deplorable movie banned the next day in Nigeria. Indeed Our voices had not only been heard but were now amplified by the prompt, incisive actions of this Paragon who made it clear to the world that despite their insidious posturing, Nigerians will not allow themselves to be the butt of hollywood’s jokes.
Such was the icon whose life was cut short by Cancer yesterday. She will be dearly missed by all Nigerians irrespective of tribe, creed or political divide. Her respectable achievements live beyond her. Sadly, the cancer scourge is still with us and we must intensify all efforts to curb this public health crisis that is now a major killer in Africa.
Dr. Chinemerem Onwuliri writes from Amuzi, Ahiazu Mbaise, Nigeria.