As director general of Nigeria's National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Dora Nkem Akunyili has amassed a record as one of the most committed and successful government administrators on the African continent. Under her leadership, counterfeit drug sales in Nigeria have dropped by an estimated 80 percent. Akunyili's story is more than one of efficiency, however—it is a profile in courage, for she has survived attempts on her life, by arson and by gunfire, from Nigerian counterfeit drug traffickers. She had, in the words of New Scientist magazine, "the most dangerous job in Nigeria." But she remained undaunted in the face of threats. "Drug faking or counterfeiting is the greatest evil of our time," she told Time magazine. "Malaria can be prevented, HIV/AIDS can be avoided and armed robbery may kill a few at a time, but fake drugs kill en masse."
A member of the Igbo ethnic group, Akunyili was born Dora Edemobi on July 14, 1954, in Makurdi, in Nigeria's Benue state. Her father Paul Young Edemobi was an Igbo chief who recognized his daughter's intelligence and sent her to live with the family of his wife's brother, who was a schoolteacher. Akunyili managed to finish her high school education in the midst of Nigeria's civil war in the early 1970s, attending Queen of the Rosary College (a Catholic high school) in the town of Nsukka. After achieving the strongest academic record in the school's history, she was admitted to the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.
Found Her Calling in Pharmacology
At the university, she hoped to study chemistry and mathematics. "They were my best subjects and I felt giving them up was like giving up my soul," she told M.O. Ené of the Kwenu Web site. "I did not know that God was actually propelling me to what he really wants me to be and coincidentally, it is actually what I want to do." Instead of going into a pure scientific research field she took pharmacology courses. In her third year of school she married J.C. Akunyili, a physician who supported his wife's pharmacology studies. In the midst of their busy careers, the couple raised six children. After she graduated from the University of Nigeria in 1978 she took graduate courses at the University of London.
Returning to Nigeria, she worked briefly as a university hospital pharmacist and then entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Nigeria and worked there as a graduate assistant, lecturer, senior lecturer, and finally (in 2000) professor. She had earned her Ph.D. in ethnopharmacology—the study of medicinal drugs in world cultures—in 1985. As a member of the country's educated elite, however, Akunyili was selected to fill government posts along with her academic work. She served on several state government boards and then was named supervisory councilor for agriculture in a local government unit in Anambra state.
In 1996 Akunyili became Zonal Secretary of the Petroleum Special Trust Fund, coordinating projects funded by oil monies in Nigeria's southeastern states. It was in this capacity that she caught the attention of Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. Diagnosed with a severe pancreatic disease, she was sent to London, with government funds in hand, for treatment. Doctors in England determined, however, that she would recover without surgery, and Akunyili returned the $18,000 check to the Nigerian government—something that would be rare enough in many countries, and almost unthinkable in Nigeria. The petroleum fund's chief executive, Akunyili recalled to Anne Harding of the Lancet, said, "I never knew that there are still Nigerians with integrity."
Invited to Apply for Regulatory Post
The country's finance minister got wind of what had happened, and, Akunyili told Harding, called her to his office. "My friend Chief Obasanjo wants somebody that will clean NAFDAC. Go and give me your CV [résumé], because I also heard you are a pharmacist," he said. A few months later, Akunyili heard that she had been appointed to head the NAFDAC. She had a special motivation for attacking the country's counterfeit drug problem: when her sister was 21, in 1988, Akunyili had watched her die after being given injections of fake insulin as part of regular diabetes treatment.
Akunyili did not immediately confront Nigeria's bribery-ridden pharmaceuticals industry, preferring to raise NAFDAC's profile through a campaign to raise the quality of "pure water," bagged drinking water sold to poorer Nigerians at lower cost than bottled water. "Akunyili implemented a registration system and spread the word through a national system of workshops for producers and consumers. "Everyone is now aware of checking the NAFDAC number on their water," she told Harding. And Nigeria's incidence of cholera, a disease frequently caused by contaminated water, dropped dramatically.
After Akunyili took the reins at NAFDAC in 2001, testing revealed that 70 percent of the drugs sold in Nigeria were counterfeit. Bribes ensured that the country's existing regulatory bureaucracy took no notice, but many Nigerians died every year after being dosed with drugs that in many cases were no better than placebos. Akunyili repeated the national educational workshop model to confront the problem, launching student competitions with prize money awarded to those with the best grasp of food and drug regulation. The Nigerian government signed testing agreements with China, India, and Egypt, three of the biggest suppliers of counterfeit drugs, and as local awareness of the dangers of fake drugs rose, sales of counterfeits dropped sharply.
At a Glance …
Born Dora Edemobi in Makurdi, Benue state, Nigeria, July 14, 1954, to Chief and Mrs. Paul Young Edemobi; married J.C. Akunyili, a physician; six children, one grandchild. Education: University of Nigeria, Nsukka, B.Pharm, 1978; Ph.D. in ethnopharmacology, 1985; postgraduate work at University of London, England. Religion: Catholic.
Career: University of Nigeria, Nsukka, graduate assistant, lecturer, senior lecturer, professor; Hospitals Management Board, Anambra State, Nigeria, 1992–94; Government of Anambra State, supervisory councillor for agriculture, 1994–96; Petroleum Special Trust Fund, zonal secretary, 1996–2001; National Agency for Food and Drug Administration, Nigeria, director general, 2001–.
Selected memberships: Member and past vice-president, Association of Lady Pharmacists (Nigeria); member, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, New York Academy of Science, International Union of Pharmacology, International Pharmaceutical Federation.
Selected awards: President Olusegun Obasanjo, Icon of Hope for Nigerians, 2002; National Order of the Federal Republic (Nigeria), 2002; Transparency International, South Korea, Integrity Award, 2003; European Marketing Research Centre (EMRC), Belgium, International Euro Market Award, 2003 and 2005; African Institute for Democracy and Good Governance, Total Quality Leadership Award, 2003; International Chamber of Commerce, Commercial Crime Services (ICC-CCS), London, England, Special Award for Combating Economic Crime, 2004; African Times-USA, African Civic Responsibility Award, 2004–05; African Writers Endowment Inc., USA, Quintessence Award, 2004; Save Africa Congress for AIDS (SACAIDS), New York, SACAIDS Humanitarian "Hero of our Time Award," 2005; International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP), Industrial Pharmacy Medal Award, 2005; over 250 other awards from organizations representing many sectors of Nigerian society.
Addresses: Office—NAFDAC Nigeria, Plot 2032 Olusegun Obasanjo Way, Wuse Zone 7, Abuja, Nigeria.
Favored Female Inspectors
Many of Akunyili's inspectors were women, for she felt that "they are less corruptible than men," as reported by Anver Versi of African Business. Border inspections were stepped up, and well-publicized busts shut down drug sales at open-air markets. Akunyili's office also prosecuted and obtained convictions of several of the illicit industry's most notorious kingpins. In the meantime, Nigeria's legitimate drug industry, long on the rocks due to the prevalence of the rogue producers, experienced a revival.
The counterfeiters, some of whom had bought tribal chieftaincies or high ecclesiastical posts with their ill-gotten gains, did not take Akunyili's campaign lying down. Akunyili and her staff began receiving threats, and such warnings as blood-dipped chicken feathers, a dried tortoise, and various shells and beads began showing up in the NAFDAC offices. The NAFDAC building was later torched and abandoned, and in December of 2003 six assassins opened fire on Aku-nyili's Peugeot sedan with AK-47 rifles. Akunyili's head was only grazed by a bullet, but a nearby bus driver was killed. Drug cartel head Marcel Nnakwe was charged with the crime but released on a jurisdictional technicality, prompting speculation that pressure had been brought to bear.
Akunyili sent three of her children out of the country but remained determined to finish her five-year term. "God gave me the opportunity to do something," the devout Catholic told Time, "and so far, God has been protecting me." She won the admiration of ordinary Nigerians, some of whom began to speak of her as a candidate for the country's presidency—startling talk in patriarchal West Africa. The list of awards she amassed from various Nigerian governmental, social, and business organizations grew to several pages long. Akunyili's first term as NAFDAC head officially expired in 2006, but, despite the expressed fears of her family, she accepted a second five-year term in the spring. She remained optimistic about the future, telling Harding, "We have created a very strong structure that would be very difficult for anybody to dismantle." M.O. Ené, writing on the Kwenu Web site, paid Akunyili a more colorful tribute, praising her for "guaranteeing that millions of future Nigerians will be born healthy and live free from fear of being poisoned by unscrupulous money-minded midget counterfeiters and unconscionable cretins who could never see beyond their nose for profit maximization, not the impact of their criminality on society."
African Business, January 2006, p. 11.
Lancet, May 6, 2006, p. 1479.
New Scientist, November 12, 2005, p. 56.
Newsweek, April 3, 2006, p. 30.
Time, November 7, 2005, p. 86.
"How Dora Akunyili of NAFDAC Is Offering Nigeria a Hopeful Future," US Africa Online, www.usafricaonline.com/romuoneke.nafdacdora.html (July 16, 2006).
"One Woman's War with Fake Drugs," BBC News/This World, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/this_world/4656627.stm (July 16, 2006).
"Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili (OFR)—Biography," NAFDAC Nigeria, www.nafdacnigeria.org/dg.html (July 16, 2006).
"Teflon Lady @ NAFDAC," Kwenu, www.kwenu.com/profile/dora/brief_profile.htm (July 16, 2006).