Born on November 29, 1906, in Unwana, a town about 15 kilometers southeast of Afikpo in Ebonyi State, Nigeria, Sir Francis AkanuIbiam was the second son of Chief Ibiam Aka, a well-known and highly respected traditional ruler in the village of Unwana. He was a year old when his father died. He later became traditional ruler with the title of EzeogoIsiala 1 of Unwana.
Ibiam was brought up by his elder brother, Samuel Aka Ibiam, who was a teacher at the Hope Waddell Training Institution in Calabar. He enrolled Ibiam at Hope Waddell Primary School in 1912. In 1916, Ibiam was admitted to the junior secondary section of the school. He was baptised in 1919 and given the name Francis. In order to study science subjects like physics, chemistry, and biology, he was transferred in 1921 from Hope Waddell to King’s College, Lagos. His ambition was to study medicine. At King’s College, he distinguished himself, not only in sports and soccer, but also in his studies. He completed his course at King’s College in 1924 and passed the Senior Cambridge Certificate exam with distinction.
Francis then went to the UK to study medicine with the full financial support of his elder brother, Samuel. He graduated in medicine from the University of St. Andrews in 1934.
On his return to Nigeria in August 1935, Francis chose to be a missionary medical doctor under the Church of Scotland Mission. He was inspired to do this by his abiding admiration for the Scottish missionaries, who left the beauty and bounty of their homes to serve in remote places like his village in Unwana.
Dr. Ibiam was given the assignment of opening up a rural hospital in Abriba. In 1936, he began by setting up a dispensary and consequently, when more funds became available, he expanded the facility to a hospital. This hospital served not only the Abriba community but also the surrounding villages like Ohafia, Item, Igbere and Nkporo. In 1945, the Mission Council transferred Dr. Ibiam to Itu Hospital, now in Akwa Ibom State. While in Itu, he was instrumental in setting up the school of nursing there. From Itu, Dr. Ibiam was posted to work in Uburu Hospital in 1952. While in Uburu, he advanced the cause of women by promoting maternity work and child welfare services. Through his efforts, hospital services in Uburu and Itu received financial grants from the government of the eastern region of Nigeria and from the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
As an African and a member of the Igbo culture, Dr. Ibiam understood the impact of superstition and witchcraft on his people. These beliefs caused the people to attribute all their problems – be it barrenness, the birth of twins, malaria, miscarriages, fever, stroke – to demonic attacks. Dr. Ibiam was bold and fearless but sympathetic in dispelling these fears from the minds of his patients. He gave them physical healing through western medicine and spiritual and emotional healing through the dynamic preaching of the gospel.
Dr. Ibiam’s career as an educationist came to the fore with his appointment as the first Nigerian principal of Hope Waddell Training Institution in Calabar in 1958. This was a renowned comprehensive post primary school that had to its credit the making of outstanding Nigerians: leading statesmen, medical doctors, engineers, theologians and university professors.
Though Dr. Ibiam served as a missionary medical doctor, he equally maintained an active and transparent interest in education and politics. As early as 1940, he represented his people in the Afikpo Divisional Council and later became a member of the Eastern House of Assembly and the Legislative Council in Lagos. Five years later, in 1951, he won election into the Eastern House of Assembly and was later decorated by King George VI of Britain as a Knight of the British Empire (KBE).
On October 21, 1960, Sir Francis Ibiam was appointed the Governor of the eastern region of Nigeria. Dr. Ibiam brought his Christian beliefs to bear on some of the vital decisions of the government. Though this role was ceremonial, yet he refused to give his assent to the bills promoting lottery in the region. He threatened to resign rather than give approval to such a bill. Consequently, the bill did not see the light of the day.
One of the distressing national issues that bothered Dr. Ibiam was that of “tribalism.” He consistently condemned national appointments that were based on tribal affiliation and not on merit. He publicly lamented the enthronement of “mediocrity” in the place of “meritocracy” in the nation’s civil service and government appointments.
The issue of tribalism and its application to the sole advantage of the people of northern origin, caused severe discontent among the other sections of the country especially the Igbo of the southern part of Nigeria. The ills of corruption, nepotism, and favouritism borne out of tribalism were so deep and carried out with such arrogance and impunity by the northern people in government that the army intervened to flush out the corrupt leaders whose rule was divisive, deceitful, unjust and demonic.
The 1966 military coup was greeted with jubilation throughout the country. But this mirth was short lived. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in particular began a most vicious distortion of the coup by describing it as an “Igbo” coup because the leader of the coup was by name an Igbo man, though he was born and raised in Kaduna, in Northern Nigeria. Besides, when the dust of the coup settled, the most senior army officer, a major general who emerged to be the leader of the country was an Igbo man named Aguiyi Ironsi. The BBC thereafter poisoned the minds of the northerners who were the majority in the Nigerian army, and before long, the northern army and their people colluded to carry out the most horrible and bloody counter-coup and the worst kind of pogrom ever known in Nigerian history. The inevitable consequence of this was the secession of the eastern region from the Nigerian body politic under the name “The People’s Republic of Biafra.” This was in May 1966 and was the immediate cause of the Nigerian civil war. The civil war raged on till January 15, 1970, when Nigeria emerged as the victor so to say.
When the war began, Dr. Ibiam lost his position as governor of the eastern region. He was however engaged in speaking tours in Biafra and abroad. Dr. Ibiam condemned the civil war in its entirety. He had great sympathy for the Biafran cause and the Biafran tragedy, that is, the enormous number of the dying and dead, and the hungry men, women and children victimised by the war.
In the wake of all these, Dr. Ibiam, as a former president of the World Council of Churches, travelled to Geneva and other parts of the world to appeal for food and medical aid for the embattled and battered people of Biafra. In view of the British government’s open hostility to Biafra, Dr. Ibiam dropped his English name Francis and returned the insignia of his knighthood as a Knight of the British Empire (KBE). Dr. Ibiam conveyed his message to the Queen of England in 1967 through the British High Commissioner in Enugu, capital of Eastern Nigeria with these words:
“In 1949 New Year Honours Awards, Your Majesty’s revered and late father, His Majesty King George the sixth, graciously conferred on me the honour to be an Officer of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (O.B.E) for services to the church and state. Again, in the New Year Honours, 1951, he conferred on me the dignity to be a Knight Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (K.B.E) for selfless service to the church and my country. I happened to be in London at this time as a special guest of the British Council, and when I was invited by a Buckingham Palace official to present myself before His Majesty to receive the insignia and accolade of Knighthood, I begged permission to have them conferred on me on my return home to Nigeria. I did receive the insignia and certificate at the hands of His Excellency the then Governor of Nigeria, Sir John Macpherson, but I had the unique distinction and singular privilege of receiving the accolade from Your Majesty’s august person during your Majesty’s Royal and memorable visit to Nigeria in February, 1956. On the attainment and independence of Nigeria and sovereignty by Nigeria on October 1, 1960, Your Majesty was graciously pleased to appoint me as Governor of Eastern Nigeria within the Federal Republic of Nigeria on the recommendation of the Honourable Premier of Eastern Nigeria with the assent of his Excellency the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In August 1962, Your Majesty conferred on me the dignity of being a Knight Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (K.C.M.G.).
“For these great honours and special recognitions, I am humbly grateful to Your Majesty and Your Majesty’s Britannic Government. They are a happy reflection of the importance of Africa and her people before God and man. Howbeit, I must renounce all of them at this time. I do so to register the strongest protest at my command against Your Majesty’s Government of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for supplying military equipment and arms to Nigeria which has waged a senseless and futile war of aggression against my country, the Republic of Biafra. My objection and protest are directed solely and entirely to the British Government because I believe that the staunch British friends of Africa, particularly the Church, and informed British public opinion will deplore this unkindly act of the British Government to the Republic of Biafra. With the highest sense of responsibility, therefore, and bearing clearly in my own mind the moral issues which are at stake, and my own stand thereat, I return the insignia and paraphernalia of my title to Your Majesty’s Britannic Government through the British Deputy High Commissioner who is resident here in Enugu – the capital city of the Republic of Biafra.
“I consider it illogical and immoral to wear the insignia of your knighthood in view of the most dangerous weapons you give to the Federal troops to eliminate me and my people. Henceforth I wish to be known and addressed as Dr. AkanuIbiam.”
Dr. Ibiam was in Germany, when the war ended. He was there to appeal for relief support for Biafra. When he heard that the war was over, he hurried back to Nigeria and had an audience with the head of the military government, General Yakubu Gowon, who assured him of his safety and gave him safe conduct to his home in Unwana, in eastern Nigeria.
With the cessation of hostilities, Dr. Ibiamlaboured with his fellow Biafrans to resettle themselves in their places of abode. He continued to be bold and fearless in his advocacy for justice and the equitable distribution of Nigerian resources. He served as a special advisor to the military governors in the eastern states of Nigeria.
In April 1974, Dr. Ibiam lost his dear wife. Out of respect for her, he refused to marry any other woman. She was given a state burial.
In 1983, Dr. Ibiam was decorated with the traditional title of EzeogoIsiala of Unwana, the local community where he was born. This traditional title was conferred upon him in recognition of his shining contributions to the welfare of his community and that of the nation at large. In continued recognition of his sterling contributions to the field of education, politics, medicine and Christian community service, Dr. Ibiam received many awards: the honorary doctorate degree of LLD was conferred upon him by the University of Ibadan, the DSc. honorary degree by the University of Ife. He was also elected Chairman of Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN) and Chairman of the Imo State Council of Chiefs.
In recognition of his towering achievements in public service, the Federal Government of Nigeria named a Federal Polytechnic (AkanuIbiam Federal Polytechnic, Unwana) and a major Nigerian airport (AkanuIbiam International Airport, Enugu) after AkanuIbiam.
Ibiam died in December 1995. More than 20,000 people attended his funeral in Unwana. The AkanuIbiam International Airport, Enugu, and the AkanuIbiam Federal Polytechnic, Unwana, Ebonyi State are named after him.