He was born on 29th November 1906 in Unwana, a town situated about 15 kilometers southeast of Afikpo in Ebonyi state in Nigeria. He was the second son of Chief Ibiam Aka, a well known and highly respected traditional ruler in the village clan of Unwana. He was a year old when his father died.
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 baptized 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 the field of 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 Universty of St. Andrews in 1934.
On his return to Nigeria in August 1935, Francis chose to be a missionary medical doctor under the auspices of 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. Later 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 beliefs 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 the Hope Waddell Training Institution in Calabar in 1958. This was a renowned comprehensive post primary school that has to its credit the making of oustanding 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 both the Eastern House of Assembly and the Legislative Council in Lagos. Five years later, in 1951, he won the 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 21st 1960, Sir Francis Ibiam was appointed to the post of 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 the 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 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 peoples of northern origin, caused severe discontent among the other sections of the country especially the Igbos of the southern part of Nigeria. The ills of corruption, nepotism, and favouritism born 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 BBC in particular began a most viscious 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 this, 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 Aguyi 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 know 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 15th January 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 both 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 victimized by the war.
In the wake of all this, 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), with these words: “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. Akanu Ibiam.” Dr. Ibiam conveyed his message to the Queen of England in 1967 through the British High Commissioner in Enugu, capital of Eastern Nigeria.
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 Gowan, who assured him of his safety and gave him safe conduct to his home in Unwana, in eastern Nigeria.
With the cessation of hostilites, Dr. Ibiam laboured 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 Ezeogo Isiala 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.
The following citation from the Upper Room best summarizes the life and work of Dr. Ibiam:
SIR FRANCIS IBIAM: M.D., G.O.C.N., K.C.M.G., KBE, OBE, LLD, Litt.D.
A Medical Missionary Doctor with the Church of Scotland Mission, Calabar, Nigeria; Born in Nigeria; Educated in Nigeria and at Andrew’s University, Scotland; Started new hospital in Abriba under Calabar Mission; was Medical Superintendent, Church of Scotland Mission Hospital, Uburu; Member of the Legislative Council of Nigeria; Member of the Executive Council, Nigeria; Member of the Board of Governors, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Umuahia-Ibeku; Member, Provisional Council of the University of Ibadan; Member, Privy Council, Eastern Nigeria; President, Christian Council of Nigeria; Member, Administrative Committee of International Missionary Council, 1957-1961; Chairman, Council of the University College, Ibadan; Executive Member, United Bible Societies; Governor, Eastern Nigeria, 1960-1966; Member, Educational Authority of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria; Member, Missionaries Committee, Medical Board, and Standing Committee of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria; Elder, Presbyterian Church of Nigeria; One of the Six Presidents of the World Council of Churches 1961-1970; Member, Commission of the Churches on International Affairs; Vice Chairman, United Bible Societies of Nigeria; Founder and Honorary President, Student Christian Movement of Nigeria.
Created Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George by Her Majesty the Queen; Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger by His Excellency, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; President, World Council of Christian Education and Sunday School Association; Decorated with a Golden Star Medal of the First Degree of the Order of the Russian Orthodox Church, after the Great Vladimir by the Patriarch of Masion and All Russia-Alexy, and the Golden Cros with a Crown, the insignia of the Order of the Orthodox Knights of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Advisor to the Military Governor of the Eastern Provinces of Nigeria on appointment by the Head of the Federal Military Government, and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
In conclusion, the Upper Room had this to say about Dr. Akanu Ibiam:
“Dedicated lay witness to the gospel of Christ; a humble follower of the great Physician; dedicated to the practicing of medicine and surgery; given to good works in the uplifting and healing of his people; a servant in whom there is no guile; committed to world Christian fellowship in the service of his Lord.”
Emele Mba Uka
Agwu Kalu, Dr. Ibiam… the Challenge of His Life (Aba: Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, 1988).
Oral interview with Dr. Ibiam, my Principal and elder of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria.
Francis Akanu Ibiam, What About Africa? (1961).
This article, received in 2001, was researched and written by Rev. Dr. Emele Mba Uka, a Project Luke Fellow, Professor of Theology in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at the Federal University of Calabar, Nigeria (UNICAL).