Tuesday, June 7, 2016 9:34 am
By Francis Ottah Agbo
Exactly two years ago, precisely on June 7th 2014, a day after my birthday, in far- away India, the cold hands of cancer snatched my second mother, former NAFDAC DG and Minister of Information and Communications, Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, OFR. She was 59. For me, she was a mother of the motherless, activist in government, a courageous turn-around expert, uncommon anti -fake drug czar, anti-corruption crusader, a disciplinarian, a compassionate public servant and a devout Christian of catholic faith!
Going by what I know about her medical history, particularly her proactive regular medical check- ups abroad, it was difficult for me to accept her passing. Even after I had joined her husband, siblings, and her former governor, Mr. Peter Obi to deposit her remains at the National Hospital mortuary, Abuja, it was difficult to grapple with the irredeemable reality of her death. I continued to wallow in this state of disbelief even after she was laid to rest on August 28, 2014 in her Agulu country home, (Anambra State). I waited in vain for a miracle. I had thought that one day, I would see her. Two years down the line, when her early morning calls ceased coming, I accepted the reality of her death. Indeed, I now know I can only see Dora in the hereafter because there is life after death!
I joined Dora on the 6th of January 2009 as one of her media aides. Before I got to her office on the eight floor of Radio House, Garki, Abuja, she was already on her table treating files and dishing out instructions to staff of the Federal Ministry of Information and Communications. I had thought that she would be struggling to fully settle down to work having been sworn in as minister in December 2008. But I saw a confident and passionate woman who took charge of her responsibility as if she had held the portfolio for years! She had commissioned a media guru and a well-respected editor to hunt for a Special Assistant that would manage her image. Though I had been interviewed and selected for the job by the consultant and my CV sent to her, Dora still went ahead to interview me. She then congratulated me after our interaction and allotted an office to me that same day. I was lodged in Chida International hotel, Utako until I was given a place in Wuse 2 both in Abuja.
One thing that struck me on the 6th of January was that aside me, many journalists were recommended by her kinsmen and friends in the media industry to work with her even for free. And those who couldn’t pass the Dora test left unhappy because many professionals especially journalists wanted to manage Professor Akunyili to among other things, tap from her media savvy and fountain of knowledge.
She was very close to her aides and staff of the ministry; she even called us by our first names. She called me Francis my son. In spite of her busy schedules, she kept tab with our birthdays and congratulated us on our birthdays, in some cases, bought gifts for us. It was also on record that as minister, she personally wrote letters to senior journalists and correspondents covering the ministry on their birthdays. The letters were also followed by birthday gifts. This superb public relations sense, passion for Nigeria, uncommon courage, brilliance, industry, syllogism and patriotism endeared her to Nigerians and made her the reporters delight any day. Unknown to many Nigerians, this was why President Umar Yar’ Adua of blessed memory appointed Dora the spokesperson of the Federal Government of Nigeria. And she used her goodwill and towering image at NAFDAC to shore up the battered image of the government, having been produced by the controversial 2007 general elections, conducted by Professor Maurice Iwu’s INEC and adjudged to be a charade.
The negative image of Nigeria at the time and Dora’s love for fatherland propelled her to initiate an image programme, tagged National Rebranding Campaign. Her target was to reposition the image of the federal government and restore the dignity of the Nigerian both locally and internationally so that the green passport could be taken to the bank. The campaign came with a bang but not without efforts of some Nigerian brand eroders who did so much to return Nigeria to Egypt! Whether the campaign achieved the set target is an issue for another day. What was however glaring was that there were conscious attempts at attitudinal change, re-orienting Nigerians and Nigeria had a brand new logo: Nigeria, good people, great nation. And many scholars across the globe wrote their thesis on Rebranding Nigeria. Dora’s exploits in the ministry earned her local and international awards and attracted positive stunt to the country in those days before her successor, Mr. Labaran Maku who had endorsed Rebranding when he was her junior minister suddenly jettisoned Rebranding with a wave of the hand. What a country of discontinuity!
I enjoyed every bit of my association with her. Dora cared about my family. She facilitated the employment of her female personal assistants and our spouses who had no job at the time before she threw in the towel in December 2010 to contest the senatorial election in Anambra State. She asked for a ‘favour’ from me before we left the ministry which was that I should name my daughter after her which I did. I could see the happiness on her face when she attended the naming ceremony in June 2013.
Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili was born into a family of workaholics, baptized and ushered into hard work. Hard work, passion, uncommon courage and her creativity were the propelling forces which enabled her to safeguard public health at NAFDAC, rebrand Nigeria and indeed turned around every institution she was privileged to superintend!
Dora, my daughter’s name sake was an international figure and a workaholic of inestimable proportion. I remember those days of rebranding, Abdulmutalab terrorism saga and the President Yar’Adua health crisis. We would work round the clock and retire to bed at ungodly hours. But by 6;00 am, when people of her age should still be sleeping, Dora would be on her feet working, calling me on phone to wake up to continue working. For this departed amazon, the reward for hardwork was more and more work! Having worked with her closely till death did us part, I know she loved mankind and served Nigeria with passion, served the nation dutifully and died on a national service at the National Conference as a soldier in her boot!
Many Nigerians still remember how she averted the looming constitutional crisis in the President Yar’Adua days through her letter, urging the Federal Executive Council to pass a resolution to make the then Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, acting president pending the recovery of Yar’Adua. This show of uncommon courage further endeared her to world leaders and earned her the sobriquet: hero of constitutional democracy.
We cannot question God on this unfortunate loss to humanity. Nigerians should Weep not for Akunyili for she played her part extremely well. She was simply a change agent on our planet and not many change agents are fortunate to die at the ripe age. But my consolation is that there is life after death and I believe, Dora, my mother who fondly called me ‘‘my son’’ will continue to render selfless service in the hereafter!
My only regret is that she didn’t live for my daughter, Dora to know her and tap from her tank of knowledge. Two, she passed on at a time when religion and ethnicity had more than ever before become the deciding factors in Nigerian politics. Now that Dora is dead who will now speak truth to power and the secessionist groups springing up in today’s Nigeria? Three, her vision, the Drug Mart in Bayelsa State will be commissioned in Yenagoa without the cameras beaming on her elegant face. Oh death, thou is truly a bad reaper! Dora conceived the Drug Mart project to phase out fake drugs and substandard products from the market in her days as DG NAFDAC but no government had the political will to execute it until the Governor of Bayelsa State, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson came to judgement and funded it. Four, she would have loved to live to see the Chibok girls released from captivity and peace returned to Nigeria. Five, her pet project, National Rebranding project was abandoned by her successors; and the resultant effect of it is that, Nigeria of today is more divided than when there was a Dora!
The lesson to be drawn from Dora’s demise is that: death is no respecter of persons. The Federal Government of Nigeria must immortalize Dora so that her spirit will live on. And the best way to do this is to name a national institution after her, deepen democracy with its attendant dividends, properly safeguard our public health and of course, release the Chibok girls.
Francis Ottah Agbo, Special Adviser, Media Relations to the Governor of Bayelsa State was SA Media to Professor Dora Akunyili.