Dora Akunyili: The bold administrator who rid Nigeria of fake drugs

While many people regard her as one of the most awarded Nigerian women of all time, the former Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Late Dora Akunyili is mostly remembered as the woman who cleaned up Nigeria's toxic pharmaceutical and consumer goods industry.

Before her reforms, the Nigerian market was flooded with fake drugs and counterfeit products that caused a lot of untold misery to unsuspecting members of the public. Sick people would see their conditions deteriorate while taking 'appropriate' medicines prescribed to them without knowing that the drugs they bought were just placebos. But once she was appointed the DG of NAFDAC, she set out to rectify the situation.

Dora Akunyili had taken a keen interest in stamping out fake drugs from Nigeria after suffering a personal tragedy. Her sister, Vivian met her untimely death after taking fake insulin injection in 1988. She then vowed to fight against drug counterfeiters. All her endeavours were pursued with that goal in mind. She finally fulfilled her dreams when she was appointed to lead the NAFDAC in 2001, a position she held till 2008.

Born on July 14, 1954, to Chief and Mrs. Paul Young Edemobi, Dora Nkem Akunyili attended St. Patrick's Primary School, Isuofia, Anambra state in 1966 before proceeding to Queen of Rosary Secondary School, Nsukka, Enugu State. She would later become a renowned pharmacist after obtaining her first degree in Pharmacology at the University of Nigeria Nsukka in 1978.

During her studies, she met and married a physician, JC Akunyili in her third year. Immediately after her studies, she started working as a Pharmacist at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) in Enugu from 1978 to 1981.

Dora will go on to become a senior lecturer and a consultant pharmacologist in the College of Medicine at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) after receiving a Ph.D. from the same university in 1985.

Before she was appointed the Director-General of NAFDAC, she was the zonal secretary of the Petroleum Special Trust Fund (PTF) for four years. It was while working there that she caught the attention of then-president Olusegun Obasanjo after she was diagnosed with severe pancreatic disease, and was sent to London for treatment with government funds. When her doctors determined that she wouldn't need the surgery, Akunyili returned the $18,000 check to the Nigerian government. This gesture elevated her image which was already spectacular from the numerous accolades she had received for her work in pharmacology, public health, and human rights.

She was later invited, on President Obasanjo's request to take up a position at the NAFDAC following his resolve to clean up the sector. Once she took the reins at the regulatory agency, Akunyili decided to implement a system of registration where all packaged foods, beverages and pharmaceutical products were assigned NAFDAC numbers as a mark of their authenticity. Even manufacturers of "pure water" (drinking water sold in nylon sachet at a lower cost than bottled water) were equally mandated to get NAFDAC numbers. The screening drastically reduced the incidence of cholera which was caused by contaminated water in Nigeria.

She gradually moved into reforming the pharmaceutical industry after an alarming 70 percent of the drugs sold in the country were found to be counterfeit during testing. The fake drug peddlers were paying huge bribes to the regulatory officials who looked the other way while many Nigerians died every year after being dosed with the toxic mixtures. 

She carried out a national sensitization program to confront the problem while securing testing agreements between the Nigerian government and China, India, and Egypt – three of the biggest suppliers of counterfeit drugs to the country. She followed up with a clampdown on the fake drug marketers, some of whom were convicted for their crimes. Her efforts paid off as the sales of counterfeits declined by up to 90%. 

This success didn't come without a price. It wasn't long before the fake drugs mafia started hunting her. Assassination attempts were made on her life and in December of 2003 six assassins opened fire on her car with AK-47 rifles. Akunyili luckily escaped with the bullet grazing her head, but a nearby bus driver was killed. Sections of the NAFDAC building were set ablaze, but Akunyili was undeterred. She moved her family to safety abroad and stayed back in Nigeria to continue the fight.

"Thousands of Nigerians die from fake drugs every year. Is my life worth more than their lives?" She had queried while being asked if staying back was worth it. "I will keep on fighting. If only we get adequate support from Customs, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), and Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), not a single fake tablet will come into this country. We will keep on fighting in any case. And we are making progress."

The people noticed her bravery and she garnered a lot of solidarity as a result. By the time she left NAFDAC in 2008, the fake drug industry was reduced to nothing and the testing and assigning of NAFDAC numbers has become a standard practice in Nigeria today.

Immediately after leaving NAFDAC, she was also called up to lead as the Nigerian Minister of Information and Communications from 2008 to 2010. It was during this time that she ran an international campaign to elevate the image of Nigeria around the world. The campaign slogan, "Good People, Great Nation" became so popular even as some people argued that one cannot market a bad product. But Akunyili succeeded in making the country look good for the time she was at the helm of affairs. 


Throughout her career, she received numerous awards, including the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) 2002; Transparency International Integrity Award, 2003; Time Magazine's Heroes of Our Time Award, 2006; International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) Industrial Pharmacy Medal Award, 2005; President Olusegun Obasanjo's Icon of Hope for Nigerians Award, 2002; and over 900 other awards and recognitions.

In 2011, Akunyili decided to venture into politics after being urged by many Nigerians over time to run for president and help fix the country. She reckoned that the presidency was too far from her grasp, so she offered to run as Senator for Anambra Central under APGA, but lost to Chris Ngige of the ACN. She disputed the result and petitioned INEC for redress.

All along Akunyili had been battling uterine cancer which later claimed her life at the age of 60. She died in an Indian hospital on June 7, 2014, and was laid to rest in Agulu, Anambra state on August 28, 2014. Her death was seen as a great loss to the country.

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