Saturday, 13 April 2013

Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili, OFR: The war Obasanjo fought to make me NAFDAC boss

Our Reporter March 24, 2013 10 Comments » By Shola Oshunkeye/Niamey Some loathe her because she is audacious. She has guts and God. Some detest her because she pursues whatever she sets her mind to accomplish with every fibre of her being. Some disdain her because she is confident and bold. And there are those who can’t stand her and who, indeed, avoid her like a plague because failure does not exit in her lexicon. They are often sad and mad that she succeeds where others fail and falter.But what the traducers of Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, the no nonsense former Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, do not know is the fact that all these virtues, plus a razor sharp intellect, are ingrained in her DNA. Which is why when life’s journey becomes rough and tough, when the wind of life blows like a monsoon or a ferocious tornado, threatening to crush everything on its path, this virtuous woman stands solid like a rock, firmly anchored on those lofty ideals of humanity. The ideals normally recommend her for favours with supernatural flavours. They have won for her positions that many fight tooth and nail to secure but never get. It was these same ideals that made former President Olusegun Obasanjo to appoint her as Director General of NAFDAC on April 11, 2001. This was at a time the life of the organization was ebbing, having been rendered comatose by the suffocating rot it was en-meshed. Prior to her appointment, Akunyili never met the then president nor had any contact whatsoever with him. But Obasanjo had learnt about her uncommon act of honesty at the Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF, where she was serving as zonal secretary, and sent for her. It was at a period the PTF was being wound down. And Akunyili, a native of Nanka, Anambra State, had developed a health condition that her Nigerian doctor thought needed surgery. And PTF, her employers at the time, had approved 17, 000 pounds to travel to London to have the life-saving surgery. But when she got to the London Hospital, her British doctors carried out a series of tests that revealed that her condition did not require surgery. Meaning, it was a wrong diagnosis. Contrary to what many people in her shoes would have done, she, upon her return to Nigeria, refunded the 12, 000 pounds earmarked for the operation to her employers, and set a precedent in the organization. Impressed by Akunyili’s unparalleled honesty, General Buhari, himself a straight and shrewd manager of men, materials and money, wrote her a letter of commendation. Obasanjo heard the story and personally phoned her, inviting her for a meeting at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, the next Tuesday. It was a Sunday afternoon. Akunyili and her family had just returned from church when their phone, a NITEL landline, rang. She almost banged the phone on the president when his baritone voice boomed from the other end: “Hello, Obasanjo is my name.” “I thought it was a con man talking,” recalls Prof. Akunyili, a recipient of the 2003 Integrity Award of Transparency International, and holder of the national award of the Order of the Federal Republic, OFR. “I was confused.” But when that cloud of confusion cleared, and she regained her breath, the president asked her over. On the D-Day, Obasanjo didn’t need a long interview to decide that Akunyili was the woman for the job. But the political class didn’t think so. They had a separate agenda. They rose against the president’s choice, and attempted to shred her impeccable C.V. But the president saw through their shenanigans and stuck to his choice. Since then, there has been no stopping Akunyili, who clocks 59 come July 14, this year. She was, later, appointed Minister of Information by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. For President Obasanjo to have reposed such confidence in her at a time she never met him, and to ensure that Nigerians no longer suffer needlessly in the hands of the merchants of death who manufacture and peddle fake medicines, Akunyili worked herself to the bones at NAFDAC. In the process, the woman, whose diabetic sister died as direct result of fake medicines, suffered nervous breakdown and almost took a bullet in her skull. Many, indeed, are the afflictions of Dora, but the Lord saw her through them all. In this encounter, the former minister, a staunch Catholic who has won about 700 awards, both at home and abroad, for her service to humanity, opens a window into her action-packed life. Welcome on board this ‘flight’ with Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, CFR. Excerpts: I think the best point to start this interview is this award that you are taking today (March 8, 2013) in Niamey. What is the significance of this award to you? This award is special to me in that it is coming over four years after I left NAFDAC. What it tells me is that the struggles of those seven and a half years are still in the minds of people not just in Nigeria but also across the globe. This (Niger Republic) is a country I really least expected to honour me because it is a French-speaking country, a country where we think would not have too much information on activities in Anglophone countries like Nigeria. And I don’t have any friends here. Not even one. I also feel happy about it because it is coming from women. Remember, people used to say that women are their own enemies. That may be true to some extent. Therefore, when women appreciate one another, it is something for us to be happy for. By the way, the wife of the president originated the award, and the Nigerien Ministry of Women Affairs took it up. They actually invited me last year (2012) but I was in America. When I told the ambassador who was asked to call me that I was in America, he said there must be a way. He said I should try to make it and that they would arrange my passage from America because the wife of the president had already put her mind to the fact that I was coming. At that point, I had to tell him the real reason I was in America. And that was…? I was in the hospital, preparing to have fibroid surgery, and it was a major surgery. He said okay. And I forgot about it. You can then imagine my surprise when they wrote to inform me about my nomination for this one. Generally, awards are good if they are not the cash-and-carry type. But they do no longer excite me. Why shouldn’t they excite you? Because I have had so many. They are almost 700. You can check to see what I mean. And we are not listing the awards from church organizations. Those are the ones we selected and they are almost 700, and many of them are international. So, I forgot about it. I didn’t even ask if it’s an annual, or what. I didn’t ask. You can then imagine how I felt when I got the message again, this year. I said, ‘so, this people still remember me, over four years after I left NAFDAC, and one year after the first nomination?’ I decided to go. But the devil is wicked. The day of the award (March 8, 2013) again coincided with the burial of somebody I regard as my father and my mentor; somebody, who, together with his wife, actually took me as their own child right from my university days. His name is Professor J.O.C. Ezeilo, a former Vice Chancellor. He was being buried that day. So, I had another valid point not to be at the awards. But my husband said ‘no, even if daddy had been alive, if dead could talk, I know that daddy would tell you to go’. So, my husband said I should go, while he would attend the burial, from the wake-keep till the outing service on Sunday. So, I’m happy to be here (in Niamey). I am happy because no matter how many awards you have, each of them has its own significance. This particular award, the International Active African Woman Trophy (TIFAA NIGER), I believe, must have been triggered by what I did for the West African sub-region because when the drug traffickers started having it rough in Nigeria, they began to migrate to other West African countries, and the problem became worse for them. In fact, our success in Nigeria started casting dark shadows on our neighbours and I thought of what to do. I felt strongly that we needed to do something because if we continued fighting in Nigeria without giving a thought to what was happening in the West African sub-region, these criminals will find safe havens in other places. I, therefore, on my own, got in contact with all the regulators in West Africa and invited them for a meeting in Abuja, and we instituted the West African Drug Regulatory Authority Network, WADRAN. We created WADRAN as a platform for interacting with one another, sharing ideas, teaching them what to do, and doing peer review. That way, we would be able to form a critical mass in the region to tackle the criminals that deal in fake and adulterated drugs frontally. That way, we would make the region so hot for them that there would be no hiding place for them. And in that way, our success will be more sustained. Understandably, I was made their chairperson, and President Olusegun Obasanjo understood what I did and had to receive them personally at the villa. The regulators were all happy. We took it up from there and started having meetings in other West African countries. Instructively, we never came to Niger Republic till I left NAFDAC. For whatever reason, our Nigerien counterparts did not invite us. But I remember vividly, (and I think it’s in my book), that when we instituted WADRAN, and had meetings in Abuja, the head of Food and Drug Administration in Niger Republic said that his problem was that whenever he intercepted fake drugs, the politicians would ask him to release. For me, that was a rude shock. You mean you never experienced such things when you were in charge in NAFDAC? Never! Nobody ever gave you a phone call to say release those medicines? I said never! Nobody ever tried it with me. Not even the president, President Obasanjo, who hired you and could fire you without qualms? That means you don’t know President Obasanjo. He is not one president who would give you an assignment and meddle in the way you do it. Never. He never did. Okay, if nobody called you directly, didn’t people try to reach you indirectly? Didn’t people go through people who can reach you? Yes, there were instances when people would call me to ask what happened. That was happening. And when I explained what happened, they would say ‘Madam, I’m sorry. My hands are not in it.’ But to call me and say ‘Madam, release…’ Nobody ever tried that with me. Nobody ever tried any monkey business with me. You know the way we went about that struggle, it would be extremely difficult for anybody to mess with me. Nobody. For me, I had a job on my palm-to save my fellow countrymen and women, our children, our senior citizens, the aged, and the vulnerable, from dying needlessly. I did my best to ensure I didn’t betray that sacred trust. Above all, I had, still have, a pact with my God not to disappoint him. You also must remember that I am a pharmacist. So, I knew what I was doing. In one minute, because of my training, I will reel out everything that happened, down to the specifications of the drugs and where they failed. When I do that, the person will just quickly say ‘Madam, I am sorry.’ There is this impression that women do better as managers because they don’t easily fall into the kind of temptations that easily beset men. When you were in NAFDAC, did you take bribe? God forbid. Never? Never. Were you offered bribe? Of course yes. When I started, people offered, but after about… (I cut in…) They were bringing money? When somebody comes in with a briefcase and even says ‘we want to discuss’, there is a reaction you’ll give and the person will not send the message. Remember, people are also very clever. Nobody wants to be disgraced or disappointed. They find ways of introducing these things. I remember an instance, but I can’t remember the exact amount. But it is in my book. I think it’s US$10, 000. The person came and said ‘somebody wants to give you this money, I think you should take it.’ I gave him the bitterest part of my tongue. I tongue-lashed him. He was sweating under my office’s air-conditioner. On another occasion, another one came and said, ‘Madam, somebody has 10 containers, you release nine, you can keep one. You can indicate the one you will seize; seize it and make all the noise in the media. I’ll advise you to take it, madam. This is Nigeria. There is a way to work in this country. Don’t kill yourself because of one job.’ I got that kind of advice. I documented everything in the book. There was also somebody that used me to make money, by dropping my name. He told somebody that I said he should give him money for me. He took the money. That was in 2001. Luckily for me, I did not do what they wanted and they went to my husband to say, ‘we gave N2 million to this person and your wife still did not allow our product to go. And my husband said, “Go and take your money from whoever you gave it to. My wife does not solicit bribe and will never receive any. It is not possible. Even with two million pounds, it is not possible.” When my husband told me, I was mad. I was livid. I said I would invite the police. But he said ‘no’. He said, ‘If you invite the police, it will be your word against their (the criminals’) word. And criminals can do anything. They can say ‘Yes o, Paul was with me when I gave the money. The guy can be in a tight corner and say my P.A., Paul and Peter were with me when I gave the money’. So, it’s going to be your word against their word. What you do is tell this guy that since what you wanted was not done, that should be enough evidence for you to go and take your money.’ The good thing was that about six months after I started (as DG), I never got any satanic offers again because the message was clear. I had made myself clear that it was not going to be business as usual. The lesson in that is that once you do not compromise your principles and ideals, people have a way of conforming to whatever is the laid down standard. They have a way of knowing that there is no need to even try to make any offer. Many people are still astounded by your success in NAFDAC. Could it be a factor of putting a square peg in a square hole? It’s part of it. When people understand the job, when people have a passion for the job, when people have a drive, when people have an inner motivation, the job becomes easy even with the difficulties around it. So, what was your drive? What was your motivation? The motivation, first of all, is that as a pharmacist, I understand the job. I also understand the problems of counterfeit medicines because so many people have died, including my own sister who died of fake insulin in Nigeria. My sister’s death brought the message back home to us vividly. What year was this? 1988. How old was she then? She was just 22. What happened that she had to be taking insulin? She had diabetes. Juvenile diabetes? She developed juvenile diabetes at about 19. She was taking insulin. It was a typical case of counterfeit drug but we never knew until it was too late. We would buy from some shops, she would respond very well and be normal. You know that if you are diabetic, and you are taking your insulin, you can live for many years because you are substituting what is not there. But when we bought from shops, she would go down. It never occurred to us that what we were buying was fake because there was no public enlightenment that this insulin could be fake. What was more, when her blood sugar became uncontrollable, which did not make any sense because proper insulin must control it, she started developing some types of infections. Again, it didn’t occur to us the kind of thing that was bustling out. These infections were caused by the type of insulin we bought. I eventually found in my first two months in NAFDAC. You know, some of the insulin we destroyed. Millions of vials of insulin were just unsterilized water. But if somebody injects water that is not sterilized, is it not potential infection? So, she died. We knew there was something wrong, but it didn’t really clicked. Honestly, it did not click too much. We could not say ‘yes, it is fake’, but we were suspecting that there was something wrong. But we didn’t know what was wrong. And we didn’t know there was a body like NAFDAC to complain to. When she died, her death brought the issue of the havoc that counterfeit medicine can cause to us as a family. Another motivating factor was the fight that President Obasanjo had with the political class to appoint. When he wanted to make me DG of NAFDAC, he had heard about what I did at PTF (Petroleum Trust Fund). His close friend and brother, Dr. Onaolapo Soleye, who was Minister of Finance under General Buhari, had told him a story about a woman in PTF that returned about 12, 000 pounds. When he heard the story, he said he wanted to see me. What year was this? It was in 1999. I was in PTF as zonal secretary, coordinating all PTF projects in the south east. In 1999, I had problem with my tummy and I went to UNTH (University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu) to see the late Professor Echi who said he suspected, from the diagnosis, that I had pancreatic problem. And I needed to go for surgery in London. The diagnosis was correct? No, it was wrong. So, I wrote a letter for sponsorship and I was given 12, 000 pounds or the surgery and another 5000 pounds for incidental expenses. In all, PTF paid me 17,000 pounds, and I went to London. But after undergoing several tests, the doctors said the initial diagnosis was wrong. They said what I had was irritable bowel syndrome and I would not need surgery. So, I was given drugs to normalize it. At the end of my stay, I had to tell the doctor that I needed to be paid back for the money meant for the surgery-12, 000 pounds, so I could return it to my employers, PTF. I told them the money, whether cash or cheque, should be paid to PTF. They said they had never returned money to anybody, but they could give me cash. They were shocked that I said I was going to return it to my employers since I didn’t have the surgery. When I returned to work and returned the money to General Muhammadu Buhari, our Executive Chairman, he too couldn’t believe me. He was pleasantly surprised. He wrote me a letter of commendation. I still have the letter. I protect it like a certificate. General Buhari said, and he wrote behind the letter: “I did not know that there are still some Nigerians with integrity.” He said I should give the money to director of finance. I returned the money. I also submitted the result of all my tests and all the drugs that I bought. How did people at PTF generally react to that act of honesty? My brother, I saw hell. I experienced unprecedented persecutions and attacks because it had never happened and I had made a precedent. Even auditors came to check my account to see whether they could find something because it was like I stopped a process that people used in making money. They couldn’t find anything to roast me. But I’m happy to say that despite the persecution, my action caused a quiet revolution at PTF such that when people now travel for official assignments, they would bring their tellers. So, what happened next? One day, I went to see my friend, Engineer Joko Senumi, in his office. He is now in CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria). I came from Enugu. As soon as I came in, he turned to a man sitting beside him and said: “Daddy, this is the woman that returned the 12, 000 pounds.” The man, who turned out to be Dr. Onaolapo Soleye, General Buhari’s Minister’s of Finance, said: “You! What happened? Tell me.” I was flabbergasted. He said he was just from Gen. Buhari’s office and everybody was talking about me. And he asked: “What happened? Why did you return it?” I said ‘Well, it’s not my money and my Catholic upbringing would not allow me to take what is not my own.” He said what I did meant a lot in Nigeria of the time, that Gen. Buhari said he didn’t know that there were still some Nigerians with integrity. Then, he said, “My friend (President Obasanjo) has been looking for somebody to clean up NAFDAC. Give me your CV.” I said ‘I don’t move around with CV.’ He said “go and do me a CV.” So, I went and typed what I could remember, and gave him. Exactly two weeks after, on a Sunday afternoon, I got call. Then, landlines (NITEL lines) were still working. The voice said: “Hello, my name is Obasanjo.” I almost dropped the phone. I thought it was a con man talking. Then, he talked a little more, and suddenly, it became clear to me that ‘this is the voice we normally hear on radio and TV.’ I was confused. I was shaking. I can’t even remember what I said to him in reply because I was totally confused. I guess he too must have sensed my apprehension because he allowed some seconds to pass before he spoke again, and said: “Can you come and see me on Tuesday?” I said ‘yes sir’. So, on Tuesday, I went to Abuja. My name was at the gate. I had lunch with the president. Then, he took me to the small office and started asking me about the issue of the money that I returned in PTF. I told him the story. He said: “You are a pharmacists; my friend gave me your CV.” Then, he asked me a few questions about what was happening in NAFDAC, and I told him what I saw. And he made up his mind to give me the job. Just like that? Just like that. But trust Nigerians, that triggered a war of some sort because even the then senate president had a candidate. Dr. Chuba Okadigbo? Yes, God bless and rest his soul. Our beloved brother, the late Okadigbo also had his eyes on NAFDAC. He had a candidate. The political class, they all had candidate. They all had their eyes on NAFDAC. Maybe they had seen that it was juicy portfolio? I don’t know about that. But everybody at the top level, especially the political class, had their candidates. So, the fireworks began. Everybody was against President Obasanjo; and when people are against an appointment, they can always make up credible reasons. They could argue: one, she is Igbo, the minister is Igbo, and who are the drug counterfeiters? So, it sounds logical. How can she do it? Besides, gender issue is there but nobody would actually bring it up. The fight was intense and fierce but Obasanjo stood his ground. He said “I have made up my mind to give the job to this woman, let her go there. If she doesn’t do it well, then, I will remove her. I have made up my mind and nothing can change it.” Eventually, they cooked up another story. They went and told him that I was not a pharmacist. Simultaneously, they mounted serious pressure on him to quickly sign and approve their candidate. You know once the announcement is made, he cannot reverse it. That was the game. Luckily for me, President Obasanjo called Dr. Soleye and that people said the woman he recommended for the cleaning of NAFDAC was not even a pharmacist! He said they have come to give me another news that she is not a pharmacist. Dr. Soleye told me all these one morning. But Dr. Soleye said he begged the president to let him call me and revert to him as soon as he finished speaking with me. He called me. I said ‘I am pharmacist. I started Pharmacy from first degree to post doctoral level.’ He said ‘do you have your certificates? Bring them.’ The next day, I took all my certificates to Abuja, and Dr. Soleye collected them and went and showed them to the president. The president approved my appointment immediately. Dr. Soleye told me all these. Why am I saying all these? I said all these in response to your question about what motivated me to put my life on the line in NAFDAC. The death of my sister from fake medicine motivated me. I could not afford to allow Nigerians to suffer needlessly from the evil deeds of counterfeiters. The second was the huge trust I had from a president who never knew me from Adam, and who I never knew nor met one-on-one. Can, and should anybody in his or her senses betray that kind of trust? President Obasanjo’s trust in me was a motivating force for me. Again, when people say you can’t do a job, it’s also a motivating factor because you want to prove that you can do it. (To be continued next week) They put juju tortoise in my office at NAFDAC Our Reporter April 1, 2013 8 Comments » By Shola Oshunkeye/Niamey (Continued from last week) As she enthuses in her book, The War Against Counterfeit Medicine, My Story, a book that chronicles her childhood and the titanic battle she fought against merchants of death masquerading as businessmen in Nigeria, life was good in Makurdi, her place of birth in Benue State. Born to a wealthy businessman, Chief Paul Edemobi, and his wife, Grace, life, for Dora Nkem Edemobi, then a little but exceptionally brilliant girl, was full of bloom and no blight. She pleasured her parents and teachers to the heights with her razor sharp intellect. She regaled them with her ingenuities. “In fact, due to my performance in school (she always topped her class), my father exempted me from all household chores, afraid that they may distract me from my studies,” recalls Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili, former Minister of Information and erstwhile Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC. “My father’s slogan was: Dora’s brain will earn her cooks and stewards.” How prophetic. Dora’s exceptional brilliance, content of character and a steely resolve to success where others failed, effectively ensured that her parents never spent a dime on her education. “My entire education, from high school through university in Nigeria, to doctorate and post-doctoral studies in London, was possible due to government scholarships,” Akunyili, who turns 59 on July 14, this year, writes in the book. The same qualities, especially her honesty and hard work, also recommended her for all the top public service positions she has held so far. They also account for the almost 700 awards she has garnered so far, both locally and internationally. However, Akunyili’s success, as she recalls in this interview conducted in Niamey, Niger Republic, almost brought her ruins as some agents of darkness attempted to kill her for doing what was right and just. But like the Holy Book says, many have been the afflictions of Prof. Dora Akunyili, but the Lord saw her through them all. Here are excerpts: The forces that you fought at NAFDAC were formidable. Apart the assassination attempt on your life, what were the other attacks that you also escaped? There were many threats. Prior to that attack, they would write letters, make phone calls, call my husband and tell him that ‘if you don’t caution your wife, she may not come out of this job alive’. And what did your husband do? He was supporting me but he was a little bit afraid. He was afraid for my life and it’s natural. But my spirit was stronger. When they harassed him, he would call me. In some other instances, he would not even tell me so as not to create any panic. Oh, those criminals, they did a lot. There was a time they went to my house at Abuja and looked for me. Fortunately, I had left for Lagos. I had an emergency in Lagos and I left from the office. They came to my house that same night, beat my cook almost to pulp, repeatedly asking him: where is she? They ransacked everywhere. If I had slept in that house that night, only God knows what would have happened. What I found worrisome was that the day these people came, the police security people on duty did not come to work. I reported to the then Commissioner of Police in charge of the Federal Capital Territory, Mr. Lawrence Alobi. Till today, nobody has told me what really happened. That was exactly what happened the day Chief Bola Ige, a sitting Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice who was killed right in his bedroom after his police orderlies left their post to eat. Did you suspect any high level conspiracy? You cannot put anything beyond the cartel behind counterfeit medicines. There was another day they planned to attack me in the Lagos office. Somehow, something prevented the plot. We had that kind of reports (of planned attack) about two or three other times and asked for our police protection to be reinforced. On another occasion, they put a tortoise in my office. Live tortoise? It looked dried. How did they get into your personal office? Was it not locked? Of course, my office was locked. So, what happened to the tortoise? I didn’t touch it. It was my assistant that sprinkled holy water on it and removed it. I didn’t even want to talk about it. It’s not worth announcing. It was the Minister (of Health), Prof. A.B.C. Nwosu, that got so frightened that he said offhandedly that: “People should leave this woman alone! Why should anybody put tortoise in her office?” They didn’t attack just me, they also attacked our staff at Onitsha. Do you think we closed Onitsha Market just because there were fakes? No. If there is fake, you screen the system and flush out the fakes! We were screening the system with their cooperation. But on one occasion, my staff went there and they attacked them and destroyed six cars. So, I said ‘enough is enough!’ Since they would not even allow us to screen, we needed to close the market. And we did. Gen. Owoye Azazi, may his soul rest in peace, was the Chief of Army Staff then. The Inspector General of Police was Mr. Sunday Ehindero. President Obasanjo got them together to give us support to clean up the place. They attacked our staff in Onitsha. They attacked our staff in Kano. They attacked them in Dukku Local Government Area of Gombe State. . They destroyed our vehicles. The then Governor Danjuma Goje of Gombe State consoled us and promised to replace the cars. I think he did. So, it is not just attacking me and threatening me, they were also attacking the staff of NAFDAC. They were threatening my family members. There was even one staff member in Gombe State that I had to relocate the family. What about my son? They attempted to kidnap my son but for God. My son was in Igbinedion High School (Benin, Edo State) then, and two men came and told him that his uncle, Clement, was looking for him. When he came out, he saw two fierce-looking men. Before he knew what was happening, they grabbed him, and said: You are Obuneme, Professor Akunyili’s son. My son said: ‘No, she is my aunty!’ He swore vehemently that I was his aunt, so they left him. They almost kidnapped him. That was why we quickly bundled him to America. All his other siblings had gone to America because I won the American Visa Lottery. But we didn’t want him to go to America because he was too young. We felt he should stay and get older. But after that incident at Igbinedion High School, we quickly sent him over. I never knew that big people like you also play the American Visa Lottery… I did not only play, I also prayed out my heart that God should let us win. I wanted it so badly so that my children would go to school in America. It was a direct prayer point to God. It was my earnest prayer. You were still teaching then? I was in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and that is the power of testimony. How did it happen? A lady came to look for my head of department, Dr. Okonkwo, and she waited till evening. I said ‘You have been here since morning, I don’t think Dr. Okonkwo will still come to work today. What do you want him for? Is it something I can do for you or you want to go to his house?’ She said she would go to his house because she won the American Visa Lottery. I said ‘What? How? Who are you?’ She said she was his niece, and she brought out the letter that was sent from America. I asked if she knew anybody in America because I didn’t see it as a lottery that anybody could win just like that. She said she didn’t know anybody. She said she filled it at Awka, sent it and she won. She also said “But, aunty, I prayed out my heart.’ So, I took her to Dr. Okwonkwo’s house. From there, I went to Big Heart Memorial Seminary, visited five different Reverend Fathers, and told them to book mass for me for 30 days. I told them to tell God that I wanted to win the American Visa Lottery so that my children can go and study in America. The five Reverend Fathers booked 30 days masses for me. When I got home, I called my children and told them to let us start 30 days Novena prayers to Our Lady. I told them I wanted them to go and study in America. But without the lottery, it would be impossible for six of you to study in America. We will not be able to pay. So, we started the prayer, everyday for 30 days. While we were praying, I called one of my husband’s relations to enquire if there was any special form that we must fill. He said there was none; that we should just apply. So, we applied. But, because I wrote in a hurry to give to somebody travelling to America to give to my husband’s relation, I made a mistake on one of my daughters’ date of birth. One day, we got a phone call saying that we won the American Visa Lottery. My God, we were very happy. We were excited. We rejoiced. But we still needed to go to the embassy in Lagos because it is not automatic. Somehow, my husband felt he didn’t need it. He said since it’s the children that needed it, we should go. So, I went with my children. Meanwhile, my first daughter had left Nigeria on NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) scholarship. They asked her to come back because after the NASA scholarship, she would still not be able to get a Green Card. So, she rushed back from America for that. The first day we went to the embassy, they looked at my papers and asked me to sit down. We just sat there, from morning till afternoon, waiting for the counselor. One man told me that if they keep you for too long, it means they want to mess you up. With faith, I said it’s not possible. Immediately, I told my children to join hands and let us pray that one prayer: what God has given to us, nobody can take it away. I told them we would be praying it even if it takes four hours for them to call us. People who saw our mouths moving were wondering what was going on. Finally, they called us. The female counselor asked: how are you going to take care of six children in America? Do you have a job? I said I was a pharmacist. I could work in any lab. I could teach. I would earn enough resources with my skill to take care of them. The woman looked at our paper and stamped it. She gave all our documents to me and told us to come and collect our visas, maybe the next day or whatever. I carried everything to the hotel. I didn’t open it. When we got to the hotel and started cutting out the papers, we noticed that immigration in America had written a letter to Lagos telling them that there was a discrepancy in the date of birth of one of my children. Now, if they had seen that kind of red flag in Lagos, that would have been the end of the journey. My interpretation of that miracle is that it’s either an angel did not allow them to read that letter, or somebody read it and forgot. That is the highpoint of my testimony about our Green Card. That’s how I took my children to America, left them with our relations who took care of them, and they started going to the community college because it is free. But we left out my last born because we thought he was too young to live in America, …until that kidnap attempt in Igbinedion High School. While all those attacks were going on, weren’t there moments you felt like quitting the job? Well, not really. But there was pressure from my husband, my children and my relations. One day, this particular Obuneme that was almost kidnapped said to me, ‘Mummy, when is this job coming to an end?’ I said, ‘I have spent two years, it remains three.’ So, every year, the boy was counting. He was actually singing it to all his siblings. So, when we were celebrating our four years at NAFDAC, my husband came. When he was talking, he said that ‘Thank God, by next year, this job will be coming to an end.’ He said that I would not go for second tenure; and that was the family’s decision. When President Obasanjo heard it, he asked me to call him. I called him. What did Baba tell him? Of course, you don’t expect Baba to say ‘please’. In Baba’s characteristic manner, ‘Why are you discouraging her instead of encouraging her? You should be encouraging her.’ Then, he stylishly appealed to him: ‘Do not discourage her. Please, encourage her.’ My husband felt good that he (the president) called to talk to him about it. And that really helped. Now, normally, if you desire second term, you are supposed to write a letter two months to the end of the first tenure. I didn’t write any letter. It was one-and-a-half years into my second tenure that my board members said ‘listen, by law, whatever you were signing in the last one-and-a-half years, somebody can pick it up and use it against you. You must write a letter.’ So, I wrote. Is there anything you did in office that you regret? Yes. My husband’s first cousin, who was living in London, and who loved me to a crazy point, had some drugs to register. For more than five years, he was not doing his documentation properly. And I kept telling him that if ‘you don’t do things properly, they cannot be registered’. There is no brother or sister in this job because if I bend the rule, my staff will start bending the rule too. Once I bend the rule, all that I have struggled to build in the past would be rubbished because they are also watching me. But because I am able to stand erect, nobody can bend the rule without facing the consequence. So, my brother-in-law kept begging me: ‘Please, do this for me’. I couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, he died without getting the approval. It haunts me. Even till now? Even till now because he never got it. Maybe he felt that he didn’t need to do everything that was required by law. He never concluded it until he died. And when he died, my pain was that he was not able to register those drugs. Even the day I was launching my book (The War Against Counterfeit Medicines, My Story), I said, ‘I pray that he has forgiven me.’ I said the same thing to those people, in general, who also felt I did not bend the law for them. I said, I hoped they had forgiven me. Then, President Jonathan got up and said I did not need to ask for forgiveness from anybody. He said I was a worthy daughter of Nigeria; that I did not owe anybody any apology; and that Nigerians appreciated what we did. Indeed, I also got very motivated by the support of Nigerians. I don’t know any public office holder that got the kind of support I got when I was working with my great team to fight drug counterfeiters. The support was unprecedented, all over the country and even outside the country. I want to take you back to your fibroid surgery that you told me about at the beginning of this discussion. Was that the first fibroid you had or you had more? That was the first. But luckily, since I was no longer having children, they had to remove the womb. You did hysterectomy? Yes, I did hysterectomy. The doctor suggested that and I agreed with him that removing the womb would be better, because if you remove fibroid, it might re-grow. So, I had the surgery in America. It couldn’t be done in Nigeria? Why not? We have great doctors in Nigeria. Our surgeons are among the best in the world. Given the same work environment, given the same opportunities, given appropriate equipment, they would work excellently. But I didn’t go to America because of surgery. I went to visit my daughter-in-law who had a baby. But when I got there, I decided to do some check-up. It was during the check-up that they found that I had fibroid. And I was caught between coming home, prepare for it and then return to America; or I do it straightaway. I figured that since I wasn’t working back home, and my children are there in America, and they are doctors, why shouldn’t I stay and do it? That was the first time fibroid was detected. What year was this? Last year. 2012. That means you had been carrying it all over the place without knowing it? I didn’t know because it doesn’t pain. No symptoms like heavy menstrual period? Yes, I had heavy menstrual period but I felt it was the onset of menopause. How old were you then? I was 57 then. I was 58 last July. I started getting into menopause at 56. And that was when I started getting irregular and heavy menstrual period. So, I felt it was part of the process. I didn’t know it was fibroid. What are the things that made you know that you were getting into menopause? My menstrual period started getting irregular and very painful; then, age. When you combine that with your age, you can then guess. After 45, people start expecting menopause, depending on the family. For my family, we start expecting it from 55. These things are genetic. When the late President Yar’Adua appointed minister, most Nigerians were disappointed. They felt you should have continued the great work you were doing in NAFDAC? Their reactions were born out of the love they had for me. But we must appreciate that this is a developing country where the president of the country calls you from a parastatal. NAFDAC is a parastatal. It was just that by the grace of God that we raised it to a level that made it to look larger than a parastatal, because of the work we were doing. So, when the president says, ‘come out of NAFDAC, I want to make you a minister,’ do you really have a choice? Could you, in all honesty, say ‘No’? Besides, I didn’t have the opportunity to say, ‘minister of what?’ And I don’t know of anybody that had the opportunity. And won’t it even sound and look a bit naïve and not fair-minded for you to tell the president of Nigeria that, ‘Sir, let me be. I don’t want to be promoted. I want to remain where I am.’ It’s impudent. Meanwhile, the same Nigerians that were saying we are disappointed she left NAFDAC, will also say there is something she has there that she doesn’t want to leave. What does she have in that NAFDAC that she doesn’t want to leave? The same Nigerians will say that ‘after being in a job for seven-and-a-half years, with all the threats to her life, with the assassination attempt, is she not tired? Shouldn’t she be released?’ To be honest with you, I was relieved to leave because I was happy that I didn’t leave NAFDAC out of fright, out of fear, or out of cowardice. Remember I told you that I told my husband, when he was saying that I should not take a second term, that if I left at that point, the drug counterfeiters would feel that they had won. They were actually popping champagne at Onitsha when my husband said I was not going to continue. I said they were celebrating and we cannot allow them to have the last laugh. So, when, by the grace of God, two-and-a-half years later, the president now said ‘come, I want to give you a higher responsibility, if I were your wife, would you say no? Even if the president did not appoint me minister, I would still have left two years after because the law would not be changed for me. So, how did you react when you heard that you had been appointed minister? It further strengthened my belief that nothing happens without God’s approval. Six months before I was appointed Minister of Information, my elder sister, Mrs. Obala, phoned me and said she had a dream where I was made Minister of Information. I said to her: ‘You must have malaria, and you know that malaria causes hallucination. Go and drink Coatem. What is my business with Information?’ She stood her ground. She said that was how she saw it, and that the dream was very vivid. Now, after the announcement as ministers, after the screening and all that, on the day that new ministers are being sworn in, the last thing they normally do is the announcement of portfolios. And that is after the swearing in. When they announced Dora Akunyili, Minister of Information, I nearly broke down. I quickly collected papers and started taking minutes of the (Federal Executive Committee, FEC) meeting because the meeting started immediately. So, the Minister of Information is the secretary of FEC? Yes. He takes the minutes. He reports the decisions from the meeting to the public. And you had never done such a job before, even at board level? No. But when you are properly educated, you are actually prepared for anything. That is what I feel. Bill Gates did not study computer science but he put his mind in it, focussed on it and he was able to develop it. In other ministries, people are not appointed to positions just because of what they studied. It is out of competence because in most ministries, what you do is that you are managing human beings and resources. So, after the announcement of my portfolio as Minister of Information, I almost broke down. What was your disappointment? My disappointment was that I expected anything but Information. Were you expecting Ministry of Health? Yes. I was expecting health but I never dreamt or believed it could be Information. So, I went to President Yar’Adua during lunch break. As I said ‘Your Excellency’, he said ‘No, don’t talk. Please, I want you to be the one handling the ministry. We have huge problem and I know you can handle it.’ He never allowed me to talk. I don’t know whether he knew what I wanted to say. Maybe he saw my face. So, I went into the toilet and cried my heart out. I was shattered. What consoled me? I remembered my sister’s dream. I said ‘God, you want me to be there (Ministry of Information), and you have a reason; to you be the glory. You have your reason for taking me to this place that I don’t know anything about; this place that is regarded as a ministry where people just talk. I would have loved to go to the ministry where I would effect a change, a total change in the system. It doesn’t have to be health. If I went to environment, I know I will change the system. If I went to aviation, I know I will change the system. All I wanted was any of these critical areas where people would see changes in six months. That was what I wanted. But when I remembered the dream of my sister, I said ‘God, you know everything. You have your reason and to you be the glory. For you to reveal this to my sister, to prepare my mind, I give you all the glory. I will put in my best.’ Again, my daughter, who came from America for the swearing-in ceremony, said ‘Mummy, I want you to know that no matter what people say about Ministry of Information, it is the soul and image of the country. So, it is out of trust that it is being given to you. Stop crying.’ My daughter, and the mother-in-law, who came from Cote D’Ivoire, spoke to me. The mother-in-law said what my daughter said was correct. She said ‘Ministry of Information is not given to questionable characters. Please, bring your make-up, people should not see your face like this.’ So, I cleaned my eyes and did my make-up with them right there in the bathroom. We finished the meeting, I reported it. When I got to the ministry, the wretchedness I saw at the place crashed my spirit again. It was unbelievable. It was not as good as my directors’ office in NAFDAC. But I must quickly add that that one didn’t crash my spirit like the first day I got to NAFDAC. When I went to NAFDAC, there was nothing. When I got to Information, journalists came around. They asked me, ‘How would you do this? You are not a journalist.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have to be a journalist to do this job. My trainings, over the years, have prepared me to be able to fit into any system.’ They said Minister of Information is expected to be telling lies. I said ‘I am not prepared to tell lies for anybody and I will never.’ At the same time, some journalists were writing in the papers that they did not want me. But when council was dissolved, the same people started writing that they wanted me because in that space of one year, they saw that I put in all my heart into what I was doing. I don’t know how to work halfway. I started the Rebranding Nigeria Project. I said, let us change the negative perception. And it was gathering momentum. Even now, go to Heathrow Airport (in London), you will see (the slogan…) Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation. We feel so good that many Nigerians are still putting it in their products’ packs. When we were dissolved, there were a lot of write-ups from journalists association. They wanted me back; and when I was reappointed I didn’t feel terribly as I felt the first time. I was going back to a familiar ground. Then, one year after, my governor (Mr. Peter Obi of Anambra State) invited me and said I should come and run for Senate. And I said well, it’s good to get another platform, because I didn’t really feel totally utilized at Information. Why? I was doing my best but I didn’t see the system changing. There were too many resistances? Yes, too many resistances. Even the Rebranding Nigeria Project met a stiff resistance, even in-house, because people didn’t want too many activities. They were comfortable with the laid-back system. So, I couldn’t change the place the way I wanted. But I did a lot.

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