Dora Akunyili And The Verdict Of History - by Sabella Abidde

I don’t remember ever commenting on Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili in her eventful public life. I don’t! I however remember critics and public intellectuals telling me that she was better than her fellow ministers; and that she was destined for better things and higher positions. And even for folk like me who had not paid her the deserved attention, she cemented her place in the pantheon of patriotism by how she handled the Yar’Adua-Jonathan succession debacle. She was a steady voice. Clear-headed. Cautious but bold.

Akunyili was here amongst us. The public knew her best as a scholar and a competent public official. But how will posterity remember her? What will be the verdict of history? I’ll get to that later.

Benazir Bhutto was one of Pakistan’s most famous and beloved politicians. When she was assassinated in 2007, Pakistan and much of the global community went into a shock. Here was a woman who, though not a saint or holy by any standard – and who could have continued to live in comfort in faraway Europe – gave her life to the service of her people and country. In return, her country and her people rewarded her with a befitting funeral.

But of course there were others like her who are as beloved by their people i.e. Garret FitzGerald (Ireland); Vaclav Havel (Czechoslovakia); and Harri Holkeri (Finland). And who could forget the grand rite of passage given to Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, Princess Diana, Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Ayrton Senna, C. N. Annadurai, Sachin Tendaulker, Umm Kulthum, Victor Hugo and Hugo Chavez.

It matters not who you are. Or were. If you served your organisation, your community, your country or the global community with grace and or distinction, the living and posterity will reward you. You will live forever in the memory of the collective. But if you were a thief, a political vagabond, a skunk or urchin, you will be remembered – not fondly, but for what you truly were: A waste and a disappointment to humanity. Sadly, there are too many of such men and women in Africa – especially in Nigeria.

There is no shame here. And there are no penalties for bad behaviours or for crimes. The more outrageous the crime or infraction, the better. Everything goes! As a public servant, you can be as incompetent as you want. Ineptitude is tolerated. Laziness is fine. Mediocrity is acceptable. Stupidity is rewarded. And every so often, you will find stark illiterates at the helm of affairs. The vast majority of politicians and public servants do not have a clue what “performance,” “responsibility” or “accountability” mean. They have no clue! And for more than three decades, they have been running the country aground.

Upon the death of such persons, a good number of Nigerians go gaga, gleeful! Some would go as far as spitting on their graves and or curse the life and time of the deceased. What many cannot and or would not say to you while you are alive, they will say to your lifeless body and surviving family members. It is their way of saying, “Hey…vanity upon vanity, all is vanity…May you rot in hell!”

It was different this time. This time around, it was different. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I cannot remember a time – any time since 1999 – when a serving or former public servant died and the general public is this sad and mournful.

When the untimely passing of Akunyili was announced on Saturday, June 7, 2014, it seemed as if the entire Nigerian community overseas went into a state of shock. It was as if they had lost a caring aunt, a loving sister, a faithful supporter and a leading cheerleader. The traditional and non-traditional media were also set ablaze with glowing tributes. In spite of her known short-comings, millions consider her to be courageous, dedicated, fair, hard-working, purposeful and patriotic. They think of her as an exception in a country where economic and political absurdities reign supreme.

On Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, it was all about the selfless sacrifices of Dora. It was all about the pain of losing such a fine, honest, and dignified public servant. No one referred to her as a saint or an infallible professor and federal minister. They knew she made some mistakes. This moment wasn’t about mistakes and errors. It was about the totality of being Dora Nkem Akunyili. In their minds, she was better than her colleagues. She was brave, open and honest; and accessible. But more than anything else, they believed in her and believed she was a very honest woman and remarkable public servant.

Those are not the kind of adjectives Nigerians use when describing their public servants and politicians. Or at least, they don’t commonly throw these complimentary terms around. Bamidele Ademola-Olateju said of her: “You shone like the bright Northern star in our firmament of disgrace…You dealt a death blow to faceless cabal who held poor President Umaru Yar’Adua and the nation hostage and liberated us from a contrived constitutional crisis.”

In her elegy, Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri wrote: “She did not stand on the fence when positions had to be taken…She did not keep silent when injustice held sway. She fought a good fight. She lived a good life, did what she possibly could, to make her country better.” Lauretta Onochie added to the sea of requiems: “Finally, she escapes! An evil system that does not appreciate those who are patriotic. She has escaped. A clueless leadership, who used up the last drop of her blood at a time she needed hospitalisation. She has escaped. A people who would rather be on their knees instead of taking advantage of advancement in technology and medicine. She has escaped. Congratulations, Dora!”

On June 7, 2014, Akunyili joined one of the rarest of lists known to the Nigerian public: She became a hero! She is a hero to millions of Nigerians who, for several decades, have been yearning for good governance. As for the verdict of history, well, let me borrow from John F. Kennedy: “In her brief span of service, she fulfilled her responsibility to the state…she was a woman of courage, a woman of sound judgment and integrity and with an uncommon dedication to this Republic.” My hope is that a grateful nation will give her a befitting burial. Her place amongst the living is assured.