I believe that President Umaru Yar’Adua is sincere. But you know he can’t work alone. He works with Nigerians. He’s very sincere and genuine. He’s committed to changing the system, he is because I work with him. It may take a little long to put things in proper shape because things have deteriorated for too long.
Newswatch: In an earlier interview with a newspaper, they referred to you as village girl. How did that come about?
Akunyili: (Laughs) My life story is very dramatic. I was not really born in the village. I was born in Makurdi, Benue State. My father was a businessman and was about the richest man then in Makurdi. My father was so comfortable that whenever he was travelling from Kano to Makurdi in the early 60s, he used to charter an aircraft to the aerodrome then. That was how comfortable he was and he built most of the public places in Makurdi, like the police barracks and others. He used to be called Paul-Young. Our surname is Edemobi, but he was known more as Paul-Young.
My mother was a housewife. But as a child, right from the primary school , I was always first in class, so my father started dotting on me, to a point that my mum and siblings felt a bit frustrated about it that if my father continued the way he was going, I was going to be so spoilt that I would not know how to do simple chores. In fact, my father never allowed me to take part in any household chores. He would always say that Dora’s brain would earn her cooks and stewards. She should not do anything, let her just go and read. My parents did not handle my academic success well, with due respect to them. They were always saying that my other siblings were not doing well. And my brother would wonder and say ah-ah, if somebody comes tenth or third or fourth, out of a combined class of 250, that person would not be congratulated because Dora came first? So my mum conspired with my other siblings and they decided that the best thing was to take me to the village. They convinced my dad that since my mother’s brother who was a teacher was living in the village with my grand mother, it would be better for me because teachers are better at bringing up children. I don’t know why my father bought the idea and that was how I was whisked to the village in December 1963, when I was just nine years plus. All I know was that they put my things together and my father said you are going to the village to live with nne (that’s the grandmother) and onyenkuzi (school teacher).
As a child, I couldn’t revolt. I just entered the car and when I got to the village, it was a rude shock to me. You see, from township and relative luxury to village, where there was no electricity, no water, and no good food. Something like rice was only eaten on Sundays. No meat, no eggs. If you talk about eggs, my grand mother would say, are you a thief? Children are not given eggs in the village. Life was very difficult for me. At the second crow of the cock, because the first crow of the clock is at 2 a.m. while the second one is at four, we would go to the stream inside that gully erosion, many, many miles, from Isuofia to Nanka to fetch water and by the time we come back from fetching that water it would be about 6:30 a.m. Then I would sweep the compound, warm the left over cassava, eat and trek to school. It was no longer the issue of being carried to school in a car. My grandmother didn’t even have bicycle. And when I got to school, I started doing very well. The first time I came first, my seniors, because in village they don’t start school early, they were bigger than me, they started beating me up. I, also, was stubborn and I started fighting for myself. This was so because, the first time I ran to my grandmother to tell her I was beaten up, she told me that ‘this is not a city where children are spoilt. In the village, parents don’t fight for their children; you have to fight for yourself.’ So I started fighting. After school, you just carried your little bag and somebody would say, “wait for me today, today, wait for me. You answered all the questions in class and the teacher was abusing all of us because of you, wait for me.” That kind of things. So before you dropped your bag, I had dropped mine and confronted the person. But later, few months after, they left me alone. So I was able to get my freedom.
But talking about life in the village, I would always trek to school and if I ever got there a minute late, of course, the teachers would flog me. I would be punished. It took a little while before the teacher started developing some soft spot but I still went through the punishment for ever going late. They would not look at your eyes to know how drowsy you must have been after waking up at four and trekking so many kilometres. Fetching of firewood was what I found the most tedious of all the chores done by children in the village and the most risky because most of the time, you see reptiles, especially big snakes – pythons, and also twigs, some of them with thorns. I would cry all through but my grandmother would still expect me to get the firewood and she was a very tough disciplinarian who never allowed me to have friends. The first time I came to live in the village, I didn’t know that my father brought me a camp bed. So, I was sleeping on a mat because my grandmother and I were not even aware it was a camp bed. I was sleeping on a mat on the floor until I got pneumonia. I nearly died. I was rushed to the hospital. My father had to send a driver from Makurdi to Isuofia to set up a simple camp bed for me. The first day I lay on that bed, I felt as if I was in heaven. I knew my being in the village was like punishment but I couldn’t put a finger to it. And whenever I went on holidays, my other siblings would be taunting me, telling me to tell them about village life and I would tell them that the village is so hard but that here I can eat rice everyday. And whenever it was time for me to go back to the village, I would cry out my heart.
My father loved me to a fault. I remember sometimes he would just leave the house on the day of my going because I would cry and cry and by the time I would say the final goodbye, I would see his eyes turning red. It was like he felt I needed that training. He knew there was a risk that I was exposed to, but he also felt I had a lot to gain from that experience. But now, when I look back, I feel grateful to God for that experience because today, I know what it means to be poor, I know what it means to be hungry, I know what it means to live in plenty. I can identify with people when they are suffering and it made me a very strong person such that sometimes, I find it difficult to understand what it means that somebody is tired, because in the village you cannot really say you are tired because it’s work without end.
Newswatch: Did your siblings’ conspiracy affect your relationship with them in later life?
Akunyili: No, no, no, it didn’t. Because I felt they were worried for me and it was not unexpected because my father would do things that you would not believe. He could ask me to come and sit down on a chair and people should just clap for me. He would ask me what I wanted to eat, and could get a whole chicken and say, ‘come and sit down and eat with me.’
Newswatch: You have been saying very good things about your father, but you haven’t said anything good about your mother, except that she conspired against you.
Akunyili: My mother was not ready to spoil me. She was more objective about training me than my father. My father, if he had his way, would not allow me to step my feet on the floor. But my mum was more practical. So, naturally, I would tend towards the person that felt I was an angel from heaven (laughs).
Newswatch: Was your father spoilt by his own father? Was he that brilliant and was he protected that he so transferred that love to you?
Akunyili: My father was one of the most intelligent human beings I have ever seen. My mother was of average intelligence or maybe a little above average, because people said she was very smart. I found her smart but I found my father out of this world.
Newswatch: So he had all the reason to protect you because he knew the value of your intellect?
Akunyili: I don’t know but he so believed in me. And he would always say, during the civil war, instead of me to die, he would prefer to die. In fact, my mother had to guard the food because my father could even say, “give most of it to this girl so that she should not die,” as if to say, others can die.
Newswatch: How do you compare and relate with your siblings now?
Akunyili: Oh! we relate well and they are doing very very well. My elder sister has a master’s, she’s an intelligent woman, and she got married during the war. She’s secretary of a commission in the state. The one next to her is in business. Then, there’s the one just before me, my immediate elder brother. Then my younger brother has a PhD. He was doing very well, he was very intelligent. But like I said, it was either he came first or he didn’t do well. He was a lecturer in America before he came back to Nigeria to teach in the university. In the 90s, he left the university and went to do business. He’s now into estate business. Then, the one after him is a teacher, the one after her is a chartered accountant, while the last one is late. Their children are doing very well too.
Newswatch: Did your father live to see you make a success of your life in later life as he predicted?
Akunyili: He did not but he kept saying it even until he died. He said too many things that I may not want to say now until I’m old enough to write my memoir. But even when he was sick, in 1973 (actually my father wouldn’t have died if not for the war). You see, people died out of that war. People that were not shot or from bullet wounds but from losing everything they had. So he was ill and he really knew he was going to die. He said a few things to me about how serious I should still take my studies, that he knew I would reach the top. He expected I would be a professor, I would discover something and acquire fame and things like that. He didn’t live to see these but he believed in it so much that he could feel it, even more than I believed he could have felt it if he were to be alive.
My mother died in 1981. So they didn’t live to see me attain these heights. It’s very hurting when you are actually doing well and somebody predicted it, somebody felt it, talked about it and is not around to see it. But, even up till now, when I have difficulties, I pray and say “I know you can see me but I can’t see you – you know. And if we can pray to St Theresa, pray to St Augustine and St Rita, then I can also talk to you to pray for me for this circumstance and so on.
Newswatch: Very early in life, you were exposed to two major phases of Nigeria. Comfortable phase in the towns and the village life. Putting these two experiences together, how did they shape your life and particularly your sense of service since you came into public office?
Akunyili: When I put together the two phases of life I’ve seen, it humbles me. It makes me appreciate God more and appreciate my fellow human beings more in spite of their levels. It makes me always know that whatever we are in this life is by the grace of God not by one’s intelligence or power. Because I remember a particular incident that I think about almost everyday. There was a boy in my primary school whose name was Godwin. He was my only competitor. If I made any little mistake, Godwin would come first. But by the time I was in my third year in the university, I met Godwin at Onitsha on my way to Aba. He was a motor park tout. He saw me before I saw him; he said Dora be anyi (our own Dora). I said is this you? What are you doing here? He said well, I’m helping these drivers load their buses. I said but you made a distinction. He said well, I have nobody to sponsor me. You see, it’s not just poverty, ignorance is also part of it. And I said, but I was given a scholarship even though my father could pay for me. If you had taken entrance, you could have just gone to any government school and the Eastern Nigerian government would pay for you, its automatic. He said well, nobody told me, I didn’t know. So he didn’t take advantage of that Eastern Nigeria scholarship that was automatic for anybody that had distinction. He was a motor park tout, but I can tell you that I found him more intelligent than me. When we were taken on aptitude text, I found him to be sharper than me. And he now said, I heard you are studying pharmacy. But why didn’t you go to medical school? You see, Nigerians have such good heart. This was a motor park tout who was competing with me but was angry that I didn’t do a course he felt was better. I told him this is what I wanted to do; you know how much we liked mathematics. He went and bought two loaves of bread and gave me five shillings. I cried from Onitsha to Aba. I said, God, there must be many Godwins who are as intelligent as this young boy, but either poverty or ignorance had made them not to pursue their potential. I don’t know Phillip Emeagwali, but I don’t know anybody who is as intelligent as that young man. So, as I said, what I have gone through makes me appreciate life better. I also know that we need to work hard and use every available opportunity in public service to change the system for the better so that those coming after us will not go through what we are going through. I always remind myself that wherever I find myself I should put in my best because it’s a privilege to be in any position. It’s a call to service to make life better for others. For me, to work is normal, to rest is difficult.
Newswatch: If you were a leader yourself and given the kind of experience you had as a child, and seeing that much of the life in the village hasn’t probably changed, how would you go about making things happen?
Akunyili: I believe that President Umaru Yar’Adua is sincere. But you know he can’t work alone. He works with Nigerians. He’s very sincere and genuine. He’s committed to changing the system, he is because I work with him. It may take a little long to put things in proper shape because things have deteriorated for too long. The deterioration is at geometrical rate for decades, and now we have settled down to put in place a plan for reconstruction under Vision 20- 20-20. We have a blueprint now, so we can have a mapped out plan for development. We have a plan that will soon be presented to the public. That is Vision 20- 20-20 blueprint. And if all Nigerians can come together, believe in ourselves and work and implement it to the letter with all our heart, then we will get there.
Newswatch: You talk about Vision 20; 20-20. You know, all of us cannot inspire ourselves. Are we not going to have someone to inspire us and take us along the path to realising the vision?
Akunyili: I believe that President Yar’Adua is already giving us a lot of inspiration at the federal level. I feel inspired by his vision because I discuss with him, I’ve looked at the economic blueprint. I’ve looked at the 20; 20-20 blueprint and I believe that if we all work hard, we are going to make it. President Yar’Adua is working on a system, remember, that deteriorated for decades.
Newswatch: You do know that this is not the first vision we are having; we had visions 2000 and 2010 and NEEDS.
Akunyili: Yes, we had similar things in the past but I believe that this particular 20-20-20 is based on sincerity. And I believe that Nigerians even know that Yar’Adua is sincere. I know because it is the trust and confidence that the people of Niger Delta had on him that made them to embrace the amnesty in totality. And many Nigerians also trust him. But it's not just a question of leadership. It's also important for everybody to agree that we can do it. There's actually no leader that can do it alone. It's a collective struggle.
Newswatch: Where do we start the seriousness from?
Akunyili: The seriousness should start from us as leaders. Like I am a leader as minister. The seriousness should start from us and I believe that my principal, the president, is serious. I talk with him.
Newswatch: But the impression some people had is that the government is not doing much. That it is slow.
Akunyili: I have heard that but I believe that before long, Nigerians will start seeing results. Too many road contracts were awarded. They were not awarded on the air. The statistics are there in the newspapers so that in the next six months to one year, if you don’t see the roads or water system Nigerians have been promised they will get, that is the time you can accuse government of not working. You cannot start something today and get the result immediately. What I’m trying to say is that work is going on; it will take a little while to get the result like in the power sector. The National Integrated Power Project is being completed. All over the country we are adding coal, we are adding hydro. Insufficient gas was a problem. Now we have started increasing our gas supply with the success of the amnesty programme. So we are getting more comfortable, praying that by the grace of God, we have come to the end of the problem.
Newswatch: It is almost impossible not to be cynical about these current flurry of activities relating to the award of contracts. The 7-point agenda was enunciated at the beginning of the president‘s take-off in 2007. We are 30 months into his administration and the roads were as bad as they are now when he took office, education was as bad as it is now when he took office, it’s even gone worse-and no attention was paid to all these. And it seems that all these flurry of activities of awarding contracts are geared towards 2011.
Akunyili: I doubt it, I’ve listened to the president all the time. His sincerity is palpable. His genuineness, I can feel it very strongly. But I want you to know that the president cannot work alone; he’s working with people. But I believe in my heart of hearts that the president is not working because of election. He’s putting us all on our toes because he believes that we need to deliver to our people.
Newswatch: What stage are we now with the rebranding?
Akunyili: Oh! the rebranding project is going very well and the critical success story in rebranding is that everybody is talking about it jokingly and seriously. It‘s been discussed both in Nigeria and overseas.
In fact, some weeks ago, a Nigerian student was given a master’s degree topic by a British professor and the thesis is “rebranding Nigeria.” Rebranding is all about us. It’s important. It is anchored on reorientation, attitudinal change, change of mindset because the way we operate today as Nigerians, if we continue this way, even if all the roads are fixed, Nigerians will start breaking those roads. Many of us still don’t feel a part of the country. So, we want to develop love and patriotism. It will bring back those beautiful old cultural values that we are known for. It is only after this is done that we will stand in a better platform to tell the world our numerous success stories which we have not been talking about. We have not been telling our story. We don’t even believe in ourselves, most of us, in this country. We have allowed foreigners to describe us, to define us based on the bad behaviour of a few of us. We are all regarded as if we are all criminals and fraudsters not just in Nigeria but all over the world. Wherever the green passport is sighted, the owner becomes a marked person. We are not even given the benefit of the doubt because of this negative perception. And because Nigeria had never concretely addressed our image problem, it continued until it got stuck in people`s consciousness that we are really bad people which is not true. We want to tell our story the way Americans told their story and the way South Africa is telling their story. We didn’t go there to tell them how to tell their stories. Haven’t we been doing a lot for the whole world that we can project positively and at the same time responsibly manage the negative? And this is where the press should come in because it seems as if we are overdramatising the evil in our midst and suppressing the good. But we should dramatise the good and responsibly report the negative for our sake, for our image. Look at the world war, look at what Nigeria did. Nigeria was part of the world war from the beginning. Nigeria liberated Sierra Leone and Liberia through the instrumentality of ECOMOG. Nobody is talking about it. Go to the internet, it`s been attributed to the United Nations. This is because we are not telling our story and staying on the message. We are still fighting in Congo and Darfur and losing precious lives and resources. Nobody is talking about it. Nigeria is the only country in Africa, no matter the deficiencies of the system, that is courageous and honest enough to say that corruption is a problem and set up anti corruption agencies. Something is happening. We have places that we can showcase but it’s like we are becoming timid even in our successes.
Newswatch: How has your ministry tried to help journalists by getting the National Assembly to pass the freedom of information bill?
Akunyili: The freedom of information bill right now, is before the National Assembly. I know there are processes or procedures. I’m interested in that bill being passed so that there will be free flow of information. Information is power. I’m for the freedom of information bill. It’s before the National Assembly. It’s totally their responsibility now to come up with whatever they decide.
Newswatch: Your reaction on the South African Film District 9 was quite strong. But is that different from what is produced in Nollywood in terms of corruption, gangsterism and violence?
Akunyili: You see, you have brought to the table, the problem we have with Nollywood. Nollywood is doing very well but we have a challenge with Nollywood and that is the way they are projecting Nigerians. And when I had a meeting with them, I pleaded with them to project us better, that they can still show some of the bad things that happen without making them all the time the main themes of the film. They agreed with me. Because what you have just said is what CNN and Aljazeera asked me. They said, in their own words what they showed about Nigeria in South Africa, is it not what Nollywood is showing about Nigeria? I think Nollywood should do a better job about the way they project us so that we will have the moral ground to tell people not to denigrate us.
Newswatch: Your job must have taken you far away from your husband. Tell us about him.
Akunyili: My husband is a very very good person that is very interested in his job and his patients. He has a hospital, a very busy hospital and so he works round the clock. And because I’m overseeing a very big ministry, two big ministries in one, I also work round the clock. Fortunately, our children are all grown. So, because he is very busy and I’m very busy, it’s easier for us to handle. You know, people get lonely when they are not busy but that doesn’t mean that we don’t see at some weekends