DR FRANCIS AKANU IBIAM KBE KCMGwas a distinguished medical missionary who was appointed the First Governor ofEastern Region, Nigeria from December 1960 until January 1966 (during the Nigerian First Republic). Born on 29th November 1906 in Unwana, Afikpo, Ebonyi State; he was the second son of Chief Ibiam Aka, a traditional ruler of Unwana. Dr Ibiam later became a traditional ruler: Eze Ogo Isiala I of Unwana and Osuji of Uburu.
He attended Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar and King’s College Lagos. Thereafter, he was admitted to the University of St. Andrews (oldest university in Scotland, United Kingdom) to study Medicine. At the end of seven rigorous years of study, he was awarded a deserved Medical Degree – thus becoming the First African Medical Graduate of the University of St. Andrews in 1934.
While studying in Scotland, Ibiam was impressed with the level of sacrifices the white missionaries had to make, to bring the gospel to African soil, and this influenced his resolve to serve his people as a medical missionary. He once commented:
“Her missionaries, men and women, left home and kindred and comfortable life, to spread Christianity far and wide in areas of the world where, for want of a better description, life was anything but civilized in the Western sense of the word, civilization. They endured lack of scientifically purified water, electric or gas light. They trekked long miles of single-file roads, endured our moist heat and drenching rains, the nuisance of mosquitoes, and sand flies and other indigenous African insects. In the earlier days of missionary venture, they imported tons of tinned foodstuffs and cared nothing for their lives so long as they could preach the Gospel and its Good News, heal the sick, and bring education and enlightenment to the people.”
After obtaining his medical degree, Dr. Akanu Ibiam (rejecting well-paid government service) joined the Church of Scotland Medical Service, Calabar Mission, Nigeria, and served the mission and its offspring – the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, from February 1, 1936 to January 31, 1967. While his missionary services lasted, he established Abiriba hospital (1936–1945) and later superintended mission hospitals at Itu and Uburu.
Amidst the challenges of working for years as the only black man amidst whites, Dr. Ibiam kept his head above the waters and was dedicated to serving his people selflessly. He once observed:
As the only Nigerian among a group of some seventy European Missionaries for twenty five years, the going was in the main, stiff and at various times, I felt most frustrated and unhappy. If European missionaries, I argued within me, could leave their well-ordered homeland and ease of life, more or less, and where they could make a name for themselves academically or otherwise, and came to my homeland where amenities of life in the European background were hardly existent, I did not see any reason why I, an African, could not follow in their footsteps and serve my own people in my own country under conditions which called for Unclad hardship and demanded much self denial and self sacrifice------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Dr. Ibiam’s sacrifices and self-denial did not go without recognition by the British Government. In 1949 New Year Honours Awards, His Majesty King George the sixth, conferred on Dr. Akanu Ibiam 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, Dr. Ibiam was conferred 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 to the Country (Nigeria). In August 1962, Dr. Ibiam was once more conferred with 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.).
During the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 – 1970, Dr. Ibiam actively assisted the Biafrans, helping obtain relief supplies through his church contacts. Ibiam was instrumental in ensuring that the nightly air lift of relief into Biafra was started. In 1969, he travelled across Canada to raise humanitarian aid and support for the people of Biafra. Ibiam returned his knighthood and renounced his English name, Francis, in protest against the British government's support of the Nigerian federal government. When war ended in 1970, he remained in Nigeria, working for reconstruction and relief and returning to honorary hospital service.
Dr. Akanu Ibiam died on 1st July 1995 and his burial at his hometown, Unwana, was massively attended by the low and the mighty. In recognition of his towering achievements in public service, the Federal Government of Nigeria named the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, the Akanu Ibiam Federal Polytechnic, Unwana, Afikpo, and the Francis Akanu Ibiam stadium University of Nigeria, Nsukka, after this great Ebonyi man of uncommon virtues.
Ebonyimovers celebrates this icon and declares this legend a pace setter of distinction!