‘She Waged A War’: A Daughter’s Intimate Look At Nigeria’s Most-Decorated Figure

Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr


TVO.org speaks with author Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr about her mother, Dora Akunyili, and how she battled discrimination and death threats to take on corruption

In 1988, Dora Akunyili’s sister died after being given fake insulin to treat her diabetes. It was not an isolated incident: estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of the drugs in circulation in Nigeria at the time were counterfeit.

Akunyili, who’d earned her PhD in ethnopharmacology in 1985, would make the fight against fake medicine her life’s work.

In 2001, she became the director-general of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, where she worked to reduce the circulation of counterfeit drugs in the country. Not long into her tenure, the BBC reported that her team had confiscated £140,000 worth of fake drugs.

Akunyili also relied heavily on public-education campaigns. While her efforts were successful, she received death threats; in 2003, she survived an assassination attempt after a bullet shattered the windscreen of her car and pierced her headscarf.

Eleven years later, Akunyili died of cancer. She is said to be the most honoured Nigerian ever, having received more than 1,000 awards.

Earlier this year, Akunyili’s daughter, Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr — a Toronto-based author and speaker — published a book about her mother’s life titled I Am Because We Are: An African Mother’s Fight for the Soul of a Nation. TVO.org speaks with Akunyili-Parr about her mother’s legacy, hope in politics, and the importance of interdependence and community.

TVO.org: For those who might not know your mother, can you describe her briefly and tell us what she represented?

Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr: She was at some point named “Man of the Year” — that’s the kind of person my mom was. She was called an Amazon by many people, so this is to say that she was a strong woman. She was very publicly recognized for the work she did while at the helm of the Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, where she served as the director general. And that work was very important because it is a sector that is the vein of a country.

All of us, every single day, put food and medicine into our bodies. Imagine if the food and medicine were counterfeit and doing the opposite of what they were supposed to do. It’s not nourishing you; it’s killing you. And this is not an overstatement. This was going on, and many people were dying, including my own mother’s sister, who died as a result of fake insulin.

She took the work to heart, and she waged a war. She called it a war against fake drugs. She didn’t do this alone; she brought the people of Nigeria along with her, sensitized them on what the actual problem was and empowered them to be a part of this journey. She came to the attention of millions, not just by virtue of her words but also by her actions and the 80 per cent reduction in fake drugs that happened in Nigeria.

She as a hard-working woman who was looking out for the well-being of the people. The people were very central to her. She really saw the power of shared humanity and guarded it, because that's what it means to be human and to be each other's brothers and sisters.

TVO.org: I recently watched a news clip from Nigeria’s National Television Authority that featured a tribute to her after her death. In the video, Nigerians here in Canada — in Ottawa — were mourning her death. One man said, “She gave us hope.” What was it about her life that affected people, even those watching from here?

Akunyili-Parr: Growing up in Nigeria, it was very common for us to sit around the dinner table and bemoan the state of affairs, politics, leadership. It was this hopelessness, and all we could do was just complain. Nigerians have had very few individuals that represented a new possibility for the country, so when she came along, it was exciting, because that’s what Nigerians have been desiring. She embodied that Nigeria that was in our hearts as a dream.

And how did she do this? She worked hard, refused bribes, and she had several assassinations attempts on her life as a result of saying no to compromising herself on this war against fake drugs. When you can see someone who embodies something that is otherwise sort of a dream, maybe dismissed as unrealistic — someone who doesn’t take bribes, someone who is not corrupt, someone who cares about the people… We had very much bought into that story that we’ve always known, but in truth is not who we are. She was a different story and has inspired so many others; we didn’t have to be that single story of what it means to be Nigerian.

TVO.org: There’s so much to be said about being a woman in politics and the sense that it is an old boys’ club. Can you share a little bit about what your mother experienced and how she overcame it?

Akunyili-Parr: A friend of mine just finished reading the book, and she said that it shows the struggles of women that shattered the glass ceiling, because my mother shattered expectations. But there are scars along that route; there's a cost to that. From the get-go, she stepped into this job with something to prove, because there were concerns that she couldn't handle it, because she was a woman. There was a cost to her family. She had six children; she was away all the time. But luckily, we were older when she got the job. At some point, there was a threat to her children. My little brother's life was threatened as a way of getting to her, and he had to be removed from the country.

But my mother's superpower was whatever you threw at her, she used almost as a weapon. So: “You think I can't do it because I'm a woman? I’ll show you.” Or “you think I'm going to be corruptible because of XYZ? I’ll do the opposite.”

“Try to kill me because I'm doing good work, and I’ll get even stronger.”

TVO.org: In this book, you write in her voice and tell her story. I wonder what you wanted us to take from her story and what you think she would have wanted readers to take from the story of her life?

Akunyili-Parr: I was very clear that this was not the unattainable story of a hero or a story for us to look at how amazing she was and be impressed by that. At the core, I wanted to tell a human story, a story that would help us realize that she was you and I — she was just a girl. She was just an Igbo girl who believed in herself and what she had to offer and whose values were shaped by growing up in a village, raised by her grandmother who was this incredible matriarch and had deep values that she bestowed upon her — values of hard work, of honesty, of community, and all these things that became part of who she was. She was just a person who felt pain like we all do, was heartbroken, questioned herself, had insecurities.

But there were some key elements that I anchor in the book: her faith and her own inner belief that there was a purpose to her life. In many ways, she's sharing who she is so that we can find who we are. She is telling you her story so that you can understand that your story is powerful. In the beginning of each chapter, I start with an African proverb, and one of the ones that people have really loved is “if you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never spent a night with a mosquito.” And I think in many ways, that captures her life. She always believed that she could make a difference anywhere she was put. She started with a group in a local village, where she built a clinic. and then someone saw that and put her in a local government and so on. So, I would say that it's knowing yourself, stepping into the truth of who you are, and knowing that your story is being written and that you are the author of that.

TVO.org: Another major theme in the book is Ubuntu, which you describe as the importance of community over the individual. In these times, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing that our own individual actions have shared consequences.

Akunyili-Parr: Ubuntu stems from different Bantu languages. It is an African humanist philosophy; one of the translations is “a person is a person to other people.” Another is “I am because you are. You are because we are.” Something that a friend who did a PhD in Ubuntu always makes sure to remind people of is that it’s not always about the human part of it; it’s also about recognizing the bigger world we are part of. Everything is interconnected, and everything is part of this very beautiful delicate balance.

My mother had this saying at the end of the last speech she made before she passed a few months later. She ended with “a society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they know they shall never sit.” And I believe that is the essence of Ubuntu — that interconnectedness is so delicate and so powerful. My mother’s life not just Ubuntu because she decided to show up, but in how she showed up. She was consciously showing up to safeguard lives, knowing that every life matters. She saw fake drugs as a huge problem because human potential is incredible, and when lives are lost senselessly, so is the potential they had to have contributed deeply to community.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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