MOTHER OF ALL MEMOIRS
On the day and about the hour the Peruvian novelist, journalist and politician Mario Vargas Llosa was being announced as the winner of this year's Nobel Literature Prize, another Nobel laureate, Nigeria's Wole Soyinka, was on the podium in Abuja, announcing the birth of two books from an unusual writer.
The mother of the 'twins' is Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili, the woman of Nigeria, the amazing Amazon, the minister, the fighter, the reformer, the woman whose bravery in battling Nigeria's deadly fake drugs mafia is the stuff that can win a Nobel, if it were to be fiction. But this is no fiction, even though it reads like fiction. In Nigeria, reality is stranger and more shocking than fiction.
Dora Akunyili's memoirs as a fighter who nearly paid with her dear life while fighting the merchants of counterfeit drugs, harmful cosmetics and substandard food might as well be entitled, The Time of the Hero or The War of the End of the World, two of Mario Vargas Llosa's well-known novels.
But Dora's book is straightforwardly entitled, The War Against Counterfeit Medicine—My Story. It is one odyssey that ranks her among heroines not just in Nigeria but around the world. Here is a modern-day Moremi, Queen Amina or Joan D'Arc without a sword, without cavalry, without armoured tanks, yet leading from the front to wage an all-out war against a 'hydra-headed monster, with the aim of safeguarding the lives of Nigerians.'
In the words of Nigeria's war-time leader, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, the chairman of the book presentation, Dora, by dint of the war she prosecuted against the drug mafia, has become not just a Director-General (of NAFDAC) but a General in the moral army, in God's army, where she fought to save majority of Nigerians from the evil of the greedy and conscienceless few who profit from killer drugs.
As brand names go, Gowon cites Dora as one of those famous Nigerians who have achieved so much that they don't need a second name to be recognized. Just one mention of Dora and everybody knows who you mean, Gowon says. He goes on to reel out other famous first names: Fela, Gani, Wole… But he spoils the broth with one infamous name in history: Idi! That Idi-ot! That monster of Uganda whose humorous, illiterate way of twisting the English language confirms Alexander Pope's statement that 'a little learning is a dangerous thing.' Meaning a half-literate is far more dangerous than a complete illiterate.
Prayer time: My beloved reader, may God save us from half-literates. May God not make your children half-literates! That is my prayer for you today in our Saturday-Saturday Church.
The problem with Nigeria today is that we are plagued with a dangerous disease whose sufferers are mainly half-literates. Parents, I am begging you to invest everything you have in your children's education. I am begging the government to save our educational system from the doldrums where it lies today. Let our children drink deep from the well of good education. That is the only legacy we can bequeath to our future. A complete, all-round education is the only thing that would save this country. The way our educational train is going, Nigeria would continue to breed half-literates, even in our universities.
Today, our universities have lost their glories. University education is not what it used to be even in our days. Now, if Mr. President is reading this, why can't you make Dora the minister of education? Why don't you try this woman with the Midas touch to touch our educational sector after all she did at the health sector through NAFDAC? Why can't we try out this mother whose five children all made a First Class? There is something she knows which we don't know. Our educational system surely needs a saviour, someone who would bring in fresh, creative, radical ideas. I nominate Dora! I believe in her. I believe that wherever you put her, she would shine. Well, this is my opinion, not that of Gowon. I may be right. I may be wrong.
Back to Gowon, the book launch provided another opportunity to mend fences with his old nemesis and prisoner of conscience, Soyinka. He regaled the audience with an anecdote: how he kept the troublesome Soyinka in a 'nice comfortable guest house' while the Nigerian Civil War was being fought. It was from there that Soyinka wrote his prison notes, The Man Died.
You can trust Soyinka to 'revenge' Idi-Amin style by reacting to Gowon's remarks and referring to him as the head of the Gestapo that kidnapped him and imprisoned him for 22 months, accused of siding with Biafra. It was, indeed, a day of drama for the two men of Nigerian history who for a long time never saw eye-to-eye. Now that they are both old men, all seems to be forgiven, even though not forgotten. It was a day to look back at the past and make a joke of it while the audience laughed and clapped for the two actors on our national stage.
Looking at Gowon, Soyinka and Shehu Shagari, Nigeria's former President, one Yoruba expression came to my mind: Agba ti de. Meaning 'age has finally arrived' and taken its toll on the men of yesterday. Here was Soyinka whose shock of summer hairs has now turned wintry white. Here was Gowon, the handsome young leader who used to star in Nigeria's war movie as Jack. The Jack who once boasted to the world that Nigeria under him had so much money that we didn't know how to spend it. The Jack who prosecuted a war, which ended with 'no winner and no vanquished.' The Jack who, in all humility, went back to school after rising to the pinnacle as head of state, teaching us that there is no shame in acquiring knowledge at any age. The Jack who left behind in Nigeria monuments that still bear his mark of honour. Now, what is the point in leaving nothing, having nothing to show as a leader many years after you have left office? How many Nigerian leaders have something to show after they left office? How many?
From Gowon's account at the book launch, we got to know that the fake and counterfeit syndrome also extended to the military, where soldiers who fought in the Nigerian Civil war were unknowingly supplied with fake ammunition. On his part, Soyinka also wants a law that would compel the police and the military to stop fake tear gas on Nigerians.
On this special morning, here was the 'Father of the Day, former President Shehu Shagari, one of those reluctant rulers thrust in office, who have continued to be our lot. Here was Shagari, shy and reticent as ever, still cloaked in his usual humility. He was sitting next to his modern counterpart and alter ego, President Goodluck Jonathan. He was saying in all diffidence that the title of the 'Father of the Day' should not be accorded him but should be given to President Goodluck Jonathan who, he says, is the real 'father of the day' in today's Nigeria. Blessed are the humble, for they shall be continually raised by the hands of the Almighty.
Looking back, this was the mother of all book launches, indeed! Only Dora could pull this through: bringing under the same room everybody from Gowon to Shagari to Soyinka to Emeka Anyaoku to Adams Oshiomhole who publicly ridiculed his Anambra State counterpart, Governor Peter Obi, as being 'too stingy' that he would not launch Dora's book with something big. It turned out that he too didn't commit himself to any amount. He would be waiting for the Edo State House of Assembly to approve how much to spend on the book. Funny guy!
I was there with my twin brother, Dimgba Igwe, to witness this epiphany of a new book, to congratulate Dora and to welcome her into our fold as authors. There is a special feeling in fathering and mothering a new book that only authors know. It is just like having a new baby.
The book reviewer, Arunma Oteh, Director-General, Securities and Exchange Commission was one of the stars of the day, whose review impressed the President a great deal to draw a remark from him. 'The book's central message,' she writes, 'is unquestionably that vision, audacity and courage invested in the worthy cause of humanity will overcome all odds and obstacles. The message is one of gutsy optimism about the human condition however adverse and daunting.'
On the day Dora launched her two books, I heard President Goodluck Jonathan give the soundest of advice to all writers, to all aspiring writers and to all office holders: Keep a diary! That is a one-billion naira piece of advice. Keep a diary! I hope President Jonathan himself is keeping a diary of his life in these interesting and dangerous times littered with bombs and whatnots.
A lot is happening in Nigeria today, which can confuse and intoxicate the brain and wipe away the memory like a virus. The antidote is to keep a notebook of the good and the bad. If you depend solely on your brain, it might let you down, like a betrayer. The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera writes in his The Unbearable Lightness of Being: 'The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.'
Like death and birth, remembering and forgetting are two Siamese twins of the same parents. The line between them is too thin to be noticed. It is easy to forget to remember.
Last prayer: As writers, reporters and memoirists, may God bless us with the powerful memory to remember when we set out to write about the past that we have lived and witnessed. And may God continually help us to remember not to forget to do good to the glory of His holy name.