Professor Dora Nkem Akunyili
Doctor of Laws
18 July 2006 - Orator: Mrs Jane Venner-Pack
As a medical man yourself, imagine your feelings if you discovered that the drugs you prescribed were fake, little more than chalk or sugar syrup. And worse, that your patient was just as likely to die from what you were prescribing as from the disease you were attempting to treat. You would probably be very angry.
When our honorary graduand, Professor Dora Akunyili, took up her appointment as director general of NAFDAC, Nigeria's National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, what she found made hervery angry. The scandal of counterfeit drugs was all pervading; a World Health Organisation survey had found that more than half the drugs on sale in Nigeria were counterfeit or sub-standard. Nigerian hospitals were using fake and contaminated drips, surgeons were using fake adrenalin to re-start the heart, anaesthetists were giving sub-strength muscle relaxant to patients in their operating theatres; many of her countrymen and women were fighting killer diseases like malaria and tuberculosis with fake drugs cynically packaged to look like the real thing. As a pharmacist she had always been aware of the problem, indeed, her own diabetic sister died from what Dora is convinced were fake insulin and fake antibiotics.
To root out these fakes, to defeat counterfeiters, to close down the importers and end bribery, to end the large scale corruption that was ruining the health and taking the lives and the hopes of so many, this was the task that this remarkable woman took on 2001 at the personal request of the President of Nigeria, President Obasanjo.
Dora was born in 1954, the fourth child of Chief and Mrs Paul Young Edemobi, and from her infancy was the apple of her father's eye. He was a businessman and general contractor, well known and respected; from early on he realised that his daughter, Dora, was born to make an impact on society. This she started to do in primary school where, academically bright right from the start, she outshone all others. At the age of ten, however, thinking that life was, perhaps, too easy for her, her father sent her to live with her maternal grandmother and uncle, a respected teacher, in Isufia village in Anambra State. This was a cultural shock for the young 'city' girl but it taught her fortitude and faith, two of life's hardest lessons. In the Isufia village there was no piped water, no electricity, no one to do the household chores. Dora buckled down to do her bit, cooking and cleaning and, very early in the morning, walking 10 kilometres to fetch clean drinking water for the household. As regards her education, she did every bit as well in her schoolwork as she had in her early days in the city, topping the class at every test.
The start of her secondary school education was disrupted by civil war, but Dora continued to triumph at the top of her class. Then came university; and in 1973 she won a Federal Government of Nigeria Undergraduate Scholarship. After hovering between medicine and law, eventually she decided on pharmacy, which encompassed her two favourite subjects, mathematics and chemistry, a happy choice as it happens, as it has led her eventually to her life's work, to the enormous benefit of her country.
After graduating from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, UNN, of which she was to become a Professor in 2000, she began her first job as a hospital pharmacist in the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu, but in 1981 she returned to her alma mater, UNN, and ventured into academic life. She took her PhD at UNN in 1985 and, in 1988, became a post doctoral fellow in the University of London. To broaden her skills and prepare for work ahead she also trained, in London, in management, and later, in Nigeria, in computer science. Her love of teaching still holds fast her interest in academic life; she has a string of distinguished publications and papers going back to 1983 to her name and she is currently supervising six postgraduate students in the College of Medicine, UNN.
In 2001, however, came the great change. Between 1996 and 2000, she had worked as Zonal Secretary for five provinces covering projects funded by the Petroleum Special Trust Fund, where her industry and honesty were both outstanding and remarkable. In January 2001 she returned to university life, only to receive a telephone call some few weeks later from President Obasjano asking her to take on the post of Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control. This was a huge and, to a lesser woman, terrifying honour but it was an appointment that fitted her perfectly and it is a position in which she has been, and still is, an outstanding success.
The President summed up his expectations of her stewardship by giving her the target of turning the Agency around, of achieving effective food and drug regulation with special emphasis on the area of eradication of fake and counterfeit drugs and other regulated products. Without fanfare and in the face of many dissenting opinions, Dora Akunyili took up this challenge.
How has she fared? Before her arrival, NAFDAC, like many other government organisations in Africa, had functioned as little better than a toll-gate. Importers simply paid a bribe to get their products into the market. After the arrival of Dora Akunyili, that changed! But she has not had it easy. She closed down the vast open-air medicines market in Kano for three months while her officers confiscated £140,000 worth of fake drugs. She built a new team of female inspectors and pharmacists (she believes most men are too easily tempted). She began to prosecute importers of fake drugs. She upgraded premises and she upgraded laboratories. The public applauded, but the counterfeiters fought back. They burnt down NAFDAC offices, trashed the NAFDAC laboratories and threatened the lives of her family. They shot at her in her car – a bullet grazed her skull but she survived. But since her appointment there has been a drop of at least 50% in the quantity of fake drugs on the market and many now owe their lives to her fearless campaign.
Mr Vice-Chancellor – Dora Akunyili states bluntly, "Counterfeit drugs are murder." She has backed her work with plenty of talk to spread the message far and wide. She is well aware that the problem of drugs is not confined to Nigeria, but she believes that raising public awareness has produced dramatic results in Nigeria and urges other nations to be more open. Unsurprisingly, drug companies around the world are justifiably fearful that their brand will be damaged if news of a fake gets out. Dora Akunyili, however, is not going to back off or relax for one moment!
Throughout all this, Professor Akunyili, who is a woman of deep Christian faith, has had wonderful support from many in Nigeria and around the world, and particularly from her husband, Dr Chike John Akunyili, whom she met in 1976 when a fourth year student and who is himself a medical man, currently working at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu. Their six children have clearly inherited their parents' academic gifts, the elder two – daughter, Ijeoma, and son, Edozie – have graduated from leading American universities, three younger children are now undergraduates and the youngest is in Junior Secondary School. We are delighted to welcome Dr John Akunyili here, today, to support his wife. We also greet and welcome the distinguished leaders and business people who have travelled to Bristol from Nigeria to honour their remarkable countrywoman.
There is no doubt that Dora Akunyili has accomplished a great deal. Her professional achievements, scholarship and commitment have been recognised over the years by many awards from organisations and governments in Africa, Europe and America, not least her nomination as one of the 'Heroes of our Time' by Time Magazine in New York, and the International Service Human Rights Award which she received at the House of Commons in London, in December last year.
There is no doubt that she has achieved much; not only has she changed NAFDAC, but she has changed the pharmaceutical industry in her country. Perhaps more importantly, she has saved countless lives and brought sanity to an abused food and drug regulatory regime. She has honoured her profession and served her country diligently, being in the vanguard of those exceptional individuals who are helping to shape a new image for Nigeria and, indeed, for Africa. She sees much more to do ahead. We wish her well and God speed.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Dora Nkem Akunyili as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.