I remember the first time I watched her on television in 2001 – it was Morning Ride on NTA 2 Channels 5. This was a woman with the wide eyes of insanity, a certain craze for the new job she just secured.
But there was something remarkable about her, and it wasn’t just the bulging eyes, the raised voice, the effortless reeling out of data about her sector or the magnetism of this authentically Nigerian woman. It all came together in what I could hear her saying: that she didn’t know anything about this job when she was employed, that she knelt down and prayed to the Virgin Mother for help, and that she would give her life fighting the battle that she had just chosen to fight.
Her name was Dr. Dora Akunyili (she would later become a Professor). She had just been appointed by then President Olusegun Obasanjo as the Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control, and she was fighting a battle that no one else had been able to win – counterfeit drugs, that were taking the lives of so many Nigerians on a daily basis.
These days when we think about Dora Akunyili, the images that go through our heads are not altogether pleasant. We remember the woman who left public office looking like a power monger; who lost an election that took away the last shred of her public dignity when she refused to lose gracefully.
We remember the loquaciousness of her task as the government’s information minister – the Rebrand Nigeria Project that was a failure even before it kicked off, her battle against the way the national anthem was song, and the ridiculous war against young Nigerians emotionally engaging with their country through the empowering word ‘Naija’.
But there was a Dora Akunyili before higher office unravelled her – one defined by her relentless humility in doing the job she was assigned, not just to the best of her ability but effectively.
According to a report, she became angry because “so many of (her) countrymen and women (were) fighting killer diseases like malaria and tuberculosis with little more than sugar syrup and chalk tablets, cynically packaged to look like the real thing.”
So she set a new standard for public office; she took a problem and decided she wasn’t going to stop until it was solved – even if her life was at risk, and even though those she was fighting were very quick to fight back. She was tireless – as an educator, as an advocate, as a campaigner, as a woman dedicated to a calling bigger than herself, and as a reformer.
By the time she was done, Akunyili had completely transformed the way Nigerian consume food and drugs, she left us with with an incredible legacy – the ubiquitous NAFDAC number.
There was another woman in the same government whose game was different, but whose outcome had the same distinctive quality, her name is Obiageli Ezekwesili.
The concept of a reformer in government is alien to our culture – but Ezekwesili took that concept and made it a beautiful thing. She was an activist in government, working hard to change it from the inside, with the same disdain and anger that one would expect from an activist.
It began when she set the tone for the Obasanjo government and set up the Budget Monitoring and Price Intelligence Unit – cleaning up the morass that characterised public procurement and the entire system of contacts in the government.
During almost seven years in government, she continued her fight to dramatically change the way government works in Nigeria through the Bureau for Public Procurement legislation, laws governing solid minerals through the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and setting a new standard in accountability and transparency in the oil and gas sector. Within a short period of nine months, she also became the nation’s most remarkable education minister to date.
By the time she left the government she had left another incredible legacy – the acute understanding that “Due Process” is indispensable to good governance.
When I remember these two women, both of whom I have been lucky to meet; one of whom I am lucky to know, sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.
They couldn’t be more different – underlying the fact that Nigeria doesn’t need a certain kind of person – it needs a certain kind of principle. One that does its job, one that solves problems, one that stays committed to the task of nation-building.
Of course, at the end of the day, the two followed different paths – one appeared to lose her bearings and ended up frittering the goodwill and moral authority that she had earned and deserved through an unending search for power, and more power.
The other, went from grace to grace – resisting the temptation of slothful wealth, irredeemable power and the colour blindness that follows many who taste government. She has now become an international symbol of public accountability and good governance.
The two women could not be more different. One was the product of the local system and the University of Nigeria Nsukka, one swooped in after her incubation at Harvard and with Jeffrey Sachs.
One was loud and stereotypical as a Nigerian can be complete with a love for the cameras, a loud fashion sense, aso-ebi at events and globe-trotting from one awards ceremony to the other. The other had a more simple style – the dressing was simple, jewelry absent; she refused to hug the cameras; and she cut the perfect picture of an intellectual.
But it didn’t matter – the same things drove them: passion, knowledge, competence, disdain for what is wrong, fearlessness. Above all – an irrevocable belief that Nigerian can work if there are enough of us, maybe even just one of us, doing the right thing in whatever our hands find to do.
I use these two examples because they are presently out of government, are shining, controversy-free examples of the principles I speak of, and are presently answering to no corruption allegations. Of course, there have been many more like them.
For those who keep making excuses that it is impossible to work in the Nigerian government and actually make a difference. For those who go in there and give in to the rot and are unrecognisable by those who once knew them, for those whose true characters were revealed as they reveled in the trappings of office.
For those that make it sound like there is something about us as Nigerians that makes it impossible for us to do our jobs and save our country through government, Akunyili and Ezekwesili, in two distinct ways, stand as a rebuke to that white flag.
For a new generation seeking models of effectiveness and positivity, we have a lot, very plenty, to learn from them.
Chude Jideonwo is publisher/editor-in-chief of Y!, including Y! Magazine, Y! Books, Y! TV & YNaija.com. He is also executive director of The Future Project/The Future Awards. #NewLeadership is a twice-weekly, 12-week project to inspire action from a new generation of leaders – it ends on March 31.