#NewLeadership Series With Chude Jideonwo: Lessons To Learn From Obiageli Ezekwesili & Dora Akunyili

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.

13 Comments on #NewLeadership Series With Chude Jideonwo: Lessons To Learn From Obiageli Ezekwesili & Dora Akunyili
  • OlaOluwayimikaaaa February 8, 2013 at 10:39 am

    This a Good Article from Chude Jideonwo.
    However, I find it diffucult reading his articles without a pinch of salt.
    My bias “assumptions’ will be proven wrong when i see an article by Chude Jideonwo on “Lessons To Learn From Reuben Abati and Labaran Maku”.

    Darn!!!… I remember watching Patitos Gang with allll seriousness as though the people involved especially Reuben Abati, had great “plans” for Nigeria…as though everyone in the Patitos Gang Team deserved a Nigerian Governmnet appointment to chart a good course for this Country.
    Well, Reuben Abati just destroyed it all, dashed our hopes. He has totally turned the Nigerian government into a Delusional one… A total disconnect betwen the “Governing” and “Governed”. Nigeria is run by a totally Delusional President surrounded By a Delusional Team. This is evident by several national and international interviews the President and “his team” grant; most recently being that with Chritine Amanpour.

    My Point, what is the Primary endpoints for all this articles if at the end of the day NO ACtion is taken OR morestill good thinkers cum writers eventually become delusional about the “real” happenings in this country.

    God help us all. May the Wise and Visionary Leaders Arise and Chart a good “unselfish” course for this Nation.

  • Ijesco February 8, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Beautiful write up…..alot to really learn

  • Mama February 8, 2013 at 11:27 am

    The amazon of Nigeria, you will rise to fall no more!

  • Chokwizy February 8, 2013 at 11:42 am

    I read this piece with a smile on my face because the change they brought into governance still exist and is been improved on. NAFDAC is what it is today because of Akunyili, mistakes might have been made but she still represents the change we hope for. As for Obiageli Ezekwesili, she is one of the few political appointees i can bear to listen. She is a charismatic leader, true to her loyalty as a citizen, spearheading change were needed. We cant ask for less, we are a nation who just choose to forget and only celebrate the very ones causing decay in the system. We all have our part to play, we all have changes we must make. Thumbs up Chude!

  • ToBechiStyle February 8, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    You tell a true leader who in the face of absolute power remained uncorrupted. Mrs. Ezekwesili might stand,(judging from the little you wrote of her), Mrs Akunyili will not.
    Laud people who do deserve it.


    • ArabianPrincess February 8, 2013 at 1:21 pm

      Tobechi, to clear the air, are U saying Dora Akunyili ‘is/was’ corrupt?

  • oluchy February 8, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    l love this write up, will use as a guide as l move higher in life to be watchful of pitfalls. Thank u, Chude.

  • tomeloma February 8, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Thumbs-up Chude, you are right on the money here …– 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…I agree with you that if we all follow the principle of change then we just might save this nation ( but first how down we get rid of those old cargos rotating the power amongst themselves with their sycophant, Reuben Abati)

  • david February 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you chude. @oluwayinkaa. “What is the …endpoint for ..this article” ……..? Chude wrote this to inspire us. We must now take it further by building momentum and forming covenant alliances to preserve the legacies of these great women. The lesson from this is that Individual crusade is good but it does not last long. Sincere people must avoid whining and embrace strategy, avoid analyses and embrace calculated actions, avoid criticisms and embrace endless search for solutions. Read RIGHTEOUS MAN IN POWER. Well done Chude.

  • Tessy February 8, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Waooh I luv dis write up. A good name is better than riches

  • Myne Whitman February 8, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    You should have used Ezekwesili alone and gone into more details. There is still the question of how Dora funded her campaign, and that huge plot of NAFDAC land on which stands her private building. #justsaying

    But you’re right, their passion and dedication while in office have left footsteps that won’t be easily wiped away.

  • Mee February 9, 2013 at 7:51 am

    So many of us think that Dora is not eligible to be on the list. But I think otherwise……. Infact, if Oby seeks for elective positions she would have her name soiled like Dora. The fact remains that our political envt. is very complicated and albeit dirty. I would have loved to see Dora become the governor of my state. If she handles the state like she did NAFDAC, we wld be better off.

  • Fabulous Guy February 9, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    This is beautiful, and i totally ADORE Oby and i have met her twice. I however disagree with the picture of Dora that you are cutting. The ‘intellectuals’ cant reform from outside only, and sometimes as appointees, they have to get in the game to do the real work. Politics however always ends up rubbishing those with good intentions (another case in point; Chukwuma Soludo)! Dora wasnt on any quest for power and more power, she just wanted a chance to make a difference. Asoebi wearing? loud fashion? seriously? Dora? i disagree totally. Dora still remains a shinning example that “yes it can be done’

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