Nigerian civil servant Dora Nkem Akunyili has faced down the mafia and counterfeit drugs barons – and is still alive to tell about it. She recently began her sixth year as the head of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control in Nigeria (NAFDAC). Until her arrival, the agency, which was supposed to ensure the quality of drugs and other products sold to Nigerian consumers, was, as the daily Vanguard newspaper once described it, “moribund.”
Akunyili told English to Africa reporter William Eagle that upon assuming control, she discovered that regulators had been bought off by an international ring of counterfeiters who were, she says, treated like “small Gods – untouchable.”
She says the first thing she had to do was turn NAFDAC around, starting with a staff makeover: “[It meant] changing the way they thought. It was a cultural revolution down to the way they dressed, the way they treated clients, explaining to them why corruption would not help us, and we even had to retrench some corrupt, redundant and incorrigible staff.” She says she streamlined the agency, from putting in place standard operating procedures to guidelines, and offered staff training with compensation for the most competent and honest.
The crime barons, whom Akunyili traces to India and China, disliked her from the start. “When I first began my job,” she says, “I found some fetish objects in my office – feathers and blood, beads, [and] dried tortoises.”
Akunyili says the crime barons responded to the regulatory agency’s increased efficiency with threats. They destroyed a NAFDAC laboratory in Lagos and, in 2001, six armed men waited in her Abuja home, not realizing she had taken a day trip to Lagos. Two years later, gunmen shot at her motorcade on the highway. The bullets riddled a nearby commercial bus, killing the driver immediately. She escaped with a grazed scalp, and her daughters, who were with her, were unharmed. A few months later, there was a synchronized bombing of NAFDAC facilities across the country.
But Nigeria’s anti-corruption crusader continues on, saying she relies on her religious faith and her own personal experience with corruption: her diabetic sister died in 1988 from taking counterfeit insulin. “I’m not intimidated,” Akunyili says, ”because [lives are] involved. If not for my family, I am prepared to die. I’m worried for my family. These [criminals] have been killing people since the 1970’s – unchallenged -- not just in Nigeria, but also in the whole West African sub-region. Now that they’re being chased out of this country, they are migrating to other West African countries and creating problems for those people. I refuse to be paid off…. I refuse to be compromised, and that is what is bothering them. They can’t get over it…. If I had collected one dime, that bullet that grazed me would have killed me. Being compromised is the same as killing myself.”
Akunyili says she has confidence in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s drive to stamp out corruption, which she says has even led to the investigation of the Inspector general of police and the head of the Senate.
The president also supports her. She has just begun her second five-year term as head of her agency. She’s also popular with consumers and with legitimate pharmaceutical firms, with whom she says the government should work to protect the public interest.
Akunyili has also been elected leader of the network of West Africa's drug regulatory agencies and will likely take the fight well beyond Nigeria.