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Of Akunyili and other ‘Living Legends’

By John Ogunro

A PROPHET is not respected in his own community.” That popular saying is drawn from the Bible, and is often used to demonstrate the disdain a community sometimes develops for a successful or famous ‘home boy’. A perfect case was Jesus Christ. Although famed for his miracles, wisdom and deep insight, the people of Nazareth, his hometown, did not consider him extraordinary. “Is he not the son of Joseph, the carpenter?” they asked.

They could not relate the wonderful stories they had heard about Jesus, or even the evidence of their own eyes, with the fact that he was the carpenter’s son who had played around with other boys, ran errands for his parents and perhaps done a mischief or two.

Like the people of Nazareth of old, the ‘village-boy syndrome’ is powerful in Nigeria. That is why so many diligent, honest but quiet Nigerians who should get commendations for their life’s work are ignored. Until they die. Then we shed the usual crocodile tears. Take full page adverts in national newspapers to recount their good deeds and mourn their eternal departure.  But, thankfully, no one would accuse Vanguard newspapers and the Silverbird Group of suffering from this retrogressive syndrome.

In a rare collaboration, the two media groups launched the ‘Living Legend Awards’ early last year  to celebrate exceptional Nigerians who have contributed greatly to making this a better nation. A statement by  Vanguard and Silverbird explained the reasons why they embarked on the venture.

After several months when Nigerians were encouraged to vote for their favourite living legend, five were eventually selected for the awards. They are: Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God;   soccer star and captain of the Super Eagles  Nwankwo Kanu; former warlord and ‘born-again’ nationalist Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu;  Nobel Laureate and influential social commentator, Professor Wole Soyinka, and of course,  Dora Akunyili, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Communications.

These are all men and woman of ‘timber and calibre’, who have done their bits in diverse fields to make Nigeria a better place. Pastor Adeboye leads the largest Pentecostal Christian congregation in the world and was named by Newsweek magazine as one of the 50 most influential people alive. Kanu is revered by Nigerians for his mercurial  soccer skills and for being a survivalist who overcame  a serious heart defect on his way to achieving soccer glory for club and country. Dim Ojukwu was a rebel leader, but who today is a champion of a democratic and united Nigeria. Soyinka continues to fight for our democratic rights  and has put his life on the line for his beliefs.

And then, there is Dora Akunyili.  She is one of my enduring Nigerian heroes. I daresay that if the same competition had taken place several years ago, during  Prof. Akunyili’s days in NAFDAC, she would have easily emerged at the top.  Her achievements in Nigeria’s food and drug regulatory agency were exceptional. Before her,  NAFDAC was a backwater government agency that was virtually unknown, a sort of Siberia where public servants would do everything to avoid. Besides,  the ratio of fake and sub-standard drugs in Nigeria was very high, estimated to be around 50 per cent. At that time, to label a drug made-in-Nigeria was to put a banner on it suggesting that it was fake, sub-standard or even lethal.

I am an indirect victim of this faking of drugs. My nephew died in 1998 after undergoing a surgery that went well, but turned sour when he was discharged from hospital and advised to take some drugs as an outpatient. He developed complications  after taking what now is sure to be fake drug, which was bought from a pharmacy. Because of victims like my nephew, I could appreciate the significant  transformation that took place in Nigeria’s drug control and regulatory environment when Ms Akunyili took over.

The ‘NAFDAC  number’ became popular even among illiterates who would ask if a drug  is authorized by the agency before consuming it.  Possibly Akunyili’s action  saved tens, if not hundreds,  thousands of lives.

So I have always admired her as a Nigerian who has made a real difference in this generation. She demonstrated great leadership and was a poster-girl for a Nigeria that is possible. Her present assignment as Minster of Information and Communications  is no doubt tough. She is the spokesperson for a government that most Nigerians consider  poor.
Nevertheless, her passion energy and populist streak have remained the same.

Her present circumstance reminds me of the Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel winner, Wangari Muta Maathai.  Wangari was much loved in Kenya for her dedication to preserving the environment. She was the Gani Fawehinmi  of  the East African country as she went to jail countless times for organizing protests and sit-ins against government actions that may endanger the environment.

This won her  a  Nobel Prize for Peace for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She was the first African woman, and the first environmentalist to win the prize. Yet Wangari served as Assistant Minister in the government of President Mwai Kibaaki, that was infamous for its sleaze. I suspect that what made the decision for Wangari to serve in Kibaaki’s government was the opportunity it offered her to serve the Kenyan people. That action did not obliterate all the good works she had done as an environmentalist of note. No, it did n
ot. Same for Akunyili. No plaque is too valuable for this great woman.

And for other winners. Lets toast to their good health  and life while they are still here with us. Lets honour our own prophets.

Ogunro wrote from Lagos


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.