by Editorial team
She had her faults… but there was no ambiguity in the way Nigerians felt about Dora this was a leader for whom there was an unshakeable consensus: we could trust her with our very lives.
Dora Nkem Akunyili has been a national star from that moment 13 years ago, when former president, Olusegun Obasanjo picked her up from the obscurity of a university job and made her chief executive of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
Nigerians are wont to forget now, but what Dora, as she came to be called, did for Nigeria was so powerful, and so important that it should be unforgettable – she stopped those who would compromise the health and lives of Nigerian citizens; businessmen who traded in death through fake drugs and poisonous food.
The entire revolution in the way food and drugs are handled in Nigeria – importation, regulation, inspection, publicity – came from the force of conviction and the strength of character, of this one woman.
It might be hard to remember now, but before Dora came into office, the NAFDAC number meant nothing, fake drugs were not publicly destroyed, skin bleaching was in the mainstream.
She became the nation’s moral authority, the rare public official one truly loved across the country – from the top shelf of government to the bukas where the ‘common man’ would speak of her fondly like she was a sister, like she was our defender.
She had her faults – a love for the cameras, and potential conflicts from her relationships with those she was to regulate – but there was no ambiguity in the way Nigerians felt about Dora – this was a leader for whom there was an unshakeable consensus: we could trust her with our very lives.
Unfortunately, there was a period of time when Nigerians were no longer sure who Dora was – when it seemed like power had taken our hero from us.
She joined the government of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as spokesperson and became unrecognisable, needlessly picking fights –from the way the national anthem was sung to a battle with the communications commission boss – and throwing her weight around with a ridiculous re-branding project. The dissonance continued when she contested for office of Senator in Anambra, and wouldn’t take her obvious loss gracefully.
Indeed the loss in itself told a clear story of just how much she had lost her halo – she had begun to look like just another politician.
Dora has been away since then, silent and absent. Late last year, it began to be clear why. The reports were insistent, that Nigeria’s happy warrior was very ill. Her battle-ready husband would deny it vehemently, but only for a while.
It would all come into the open when she was nominated delegate to the 2014 National Conference, convened by President Goodluck Jonathan.
The Dora that emerged from the shadows shocked the nation, the photos ricocheting across the internet – Dora had obviously been very sick, she had lost almost half her weight. She was – is emaciated, a ghost of her former self.
The questions were inevitable: Why had she lied about her health? What was this sickness that had eaten her up? Why hadn’t she waited to regain her strength before joining a questionable national confab? Is she strong enough to do this for three months? Why is she doing this – for fame, for money, to remain a national force?
We have asked ourselves these questions as well – and we have come to a conclusion: it doesn’t matter.
Dora is her own woman, and if she thinks she is strong enough to do this, then she is. She has certainly earned the right to speak for and about her nation, certainly much more than half of that motley crowd of old men falling asleep and old woman crying about tissue paper.
In any case, Nigerians might forget, but we have Dora to thank for ensuring this democracy that we have – and that is no hyperbole. As the legislature and the executive colluded in cowardice after the terminal illness of Dr. Jonathan’s predecessor in 2010, it was Dora who gave the protesters and the media reports legitimacy when she challenged her colleagues to do the right thing and swear in the acting president.
Dora, once again, put herself on the line, for the country she obviously loves.
In spite of our doubts as to the utility of this present national talk, we have noted with pride that in sickness or in health or in recovery, the Dora we knew has remained the same – her convictions are strong, her voice is firm, her stand is clear.
Just as always, and just before she turns 60, she has chosen to continue as she started, even if it costs her life, and in spite of what anybody has to say.
So today we pay tribute. Because no one can take this away from you, Dora Akunyili: you are a national hero, and Nigeria thanks you for your service.
This is to many more years.