The death of a former Minister of Information and Director-General of the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control, Prof. Dora Akunyili, reminds us of the immense transformational influence that one person can wield, especially in a country like ours permanently crying out for heroes. She took over a demoralised regulatory agency and energised it, and in the process showed us that public service doesn’t always have to entail settling for the path of least resistance.
Akunyili was one of the earliest arrivals in our new democracy to inspire us to a higher level of belief and hope in ourselves. It was clear that she wholeheartedly believed in the anti-counterfeiting message she was responsible for championing, and her belief translated into the sort of action whose effects reverberated across Nigeria and beyond. That she ended up amassing an impressive array of awards was by-the-way, an inevitable outcome of her rare zeal.
Like the finest of public servants, she stepped on toes. She had to. You cannot make a mark in Nigeria’s dysfunctional bureaucracy without having to take on vested interests of all shapes and sizes; elements conditioned to breed in large numbers by the very nature of our ways of carrying on business. Look at Nigeria’s dismal rankings on any index that measures progress and development, and be reminded that there are many collections of human beings actively responsible. They come in several guises: drug merchants, crude oil thieves, smuggling barons, arms dealers, subsidy thieves, etc; taking them on is never easy, neither is success guaranteed. But take them on Akunyili did, with a clear understanding of what needed to be done.
In a profile to mark her selection as a TIMEMagazine Global Health Hero in 2005, she was quoted as saying: “Malaria can be prevented, HIV/AIDS can be avoided and armed robbery may kill a few at a time, but fake drugs kill en masse.” In those words could be found her motivation, and direction.
Akunyili is not alone in that category of Nigerians who elevated public service in inspiring ways. There’s also Nuhu Ribadu, who built the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission from scratch, and who succeeded to a large extent in striking a deep-rooted fear into the hearts of fast-fingered political office holders. Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru’s emergence as boss of the federal tax agency in 2004 brought with it a gale of efficiency that could not have gone unnoticed.
Lamido Sanusi took over the running of the Central Bank of Nigeria at a time when the lines between the regulator and the regulated had blurred dangerously. He didn’t flinch when decisive steps needed to be taken to rescue Nigeria’s banking industry from a rot that threatened to overwhelm it. And just as Sanusi did not allow ethnic sentiments – the fact that the biggest and most powerful dealers were from his part of the country – to affect his move to clean up Bureau de Change operations in Nigeria, Akunyili also was not deterred by the fact that her biggest headache as NAFDAC boss came from people who spoke the same local language as her. In fact, the online news medium, The Cable, reports that the fact that she was from Anambra State, home to one of the most prominent fake drug hubs in Nigeria, was used to argue against her nomination by President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2001. We subsequently saw how her actions rendered those concerns baseless.
Sometimes, the revolution is dressed up in relatively low-key garb. The work of Yemi Kale as boss of the National Bureau of Statistics in 2011 is one good example. The Bureau has of course always existed. But something changed in 2011 when Kale took over. Amid all the talk about rebasing, not many people seem to have acknowledged his central role in the rebasing project, or the fact that under his watch, the NBS has acquired a visibility to which pleasantly surprised analysts have responded with increasing enthusiasm. A difficult and complicated matter like a ‘rebasing’ does not just happen. It takes a lot of hard work, which has to be directed by someone with a vision for real change.
And it’s not really about perfection. None of the persons mentioned above is perfect. Akunyili was sometimes accused of being too enamoured of public and international praise and recognition. Ribadu was often accused of allowing himself to be used by Obasanjo to target his political enemies. Sanusi’s governorship was characterised by much debate over the extent to which a Central Bank Governor should allow himself to be seen as confrontational and controversial.
But perfection is not the point. If we wanted perfection, we would confine ourselves to churches and mosques and shrines and plead with God/gods to take over our public institutions, or at the very least send us tried-and-tested angels and spirits to rescue us from these giant holes.
In my opinion, what we should be looking for in our public officials is passion, competence, a reputation for integrity and an ability to speak the truth to power, even from the inside.
In closing, I’d like to dwell briefly on some issues related to public service. Post-service reinvention/transition is one: How do you, after what has been adjudged an impressive performance as a public official, reinvent yourself on different terrain? How does a Nuhu Ribadu who built his name on the strength of fighting fraudsters and corrupt politicians negotiate the treacherous road to becoming a politician?
We all saw how Akunyili struggled to make the transition from the clear-cut mandates of being NAFDAC boss to the painful nebulousness of being the Information Minister; from fighting criminals to having to peddle propaganda on behalf of a less-than-serious government. It wasn’t easy for her, and many will remember her famous outburst at the height of the constitutional crisis that accompanied the disappearance of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua: “I am the Minister of Information for the Federal Republic of Nigeria but if you ask me, I have no information about this matter.”
There’s also the vexed matter of “loyalty”. What do you as a trailblazing public servant do when you run into difficult circumstances thrown up by elements within the government you’re serving? How do you define loyalty to government and loyalty to personal conviction, and where to draw the line? Do you stay in and try to force change from the inside? Or, do you throw in the towel early on? Are there cases in which an immediate resignation might not be a smart move?
In Akunyili’s case, she eventually resigned from government, to pursue a career in elective politics. Ribadu and Sanusi chose to hang on, even when it was clear that the governments they were serving no longer had much use for them. They must have had their reasons for hanging on; sometimes, points need to be proved to vested interests. But they were both eventually hounded out of office – a cautionary tale to everyone who seeks public office for the purpose of creating real change.