Regent of Unwana Kingdom in Afikpo North, Ebonyi State, Princess Alu Ibiam, is the first daughter of the First Republic governor of the Eastern Region, the late Francis Akanu Ibiam. She talks about her father with EDWARD NNACHI
Tell us more about yourself.
We are three – myself, my sister and a brother. All of us followed our father throughout the mission field for primary education. I went abroad (Canada) for university education in McGill University, where I did Social Work and thereafter, I married and have a family in Canada.
When my father was getting older, I returned to Nigeria to look after him for a short period. But it turned out to be his last three years on earth which I was happy to stay with him as he went around till he died. I was thinking of going back to Canada when I was invited to become the Regent of Unwana Kingdom, thinking it was a short prospect. But it turned out to be a long one and which I’m still doing as a caretaker traditional ruler; what regency indicates.
What are your recollections growing up with your father?
For one thing, I think everybody knows that my father was a disciplinarian, which a man of God, who worships God fervently, should be and he impacted that on his children and those near him. He had a strong work ethics – one has to be industrious, truthful, honest and obedient to God. I would think he was one of the most obedient servants of God. He chose to do what God asked him to do, which was working in the mission field and that turned out to be the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria today.
How comfortable did he make his children when he was in government?
We were comfortable when he was comfortable. Truthfully, we were scared but he was a loving person and he wanted only honesty, truthfulness, faithfulness, hard work and to love God and humanity. This is why we are today encouraged to do things for our community.
My father was of the view that we should work to better the lots of our communities whether we know them or not; knowing that it would be for good. We were comfortable because he laid a solid foundation for the family in the way of God before he died. The foundation is for all of us to be obedient and faithful and to do what is correct whether we like it or not.
If it’s the right thing to do, one must do it. That was what he taught us to do and that was where we drew and still draw our comfort. He didn’t make any particular issue or draw people’s attention to himself, to show that he had risen. He treated everybody equally and wasn’t ostentatious. Whether anyone was high or low didn’t make any difference and he wanted us to feel that way as well.
Did he encourage his children to follow in his career path?
No. He gave us freedom to study whatever we wanted to do. My only sister is the one who became a doctor and I followed the liberal arts; music, language and literature and I ended up doing social work, which I supposed was halfway in the helpful business which is medicine, law and all that. He didn’t force anybody to do what he didn’t want to do. My younger brother studied mechanical engineering. Everybody was free to study what he or she wanted to do.
What kind of father was he?
He was a loving and patient father, but was extremely strict and a disciplinarian. He encouraged us to be interested in anything we wanted to do. He was actually a musician. He sang in the choir at Saint Andrews University in Scotland. He was also interested in agriculture. In fact, when he went to the University of Cambridge, he found it costly to study there.
He felt his brother, who sponsored him, may not be able to afford his needs at the university. So he abandoned Medicine at Cambridge and told his brother he was going to study agriculture. Of course, you know at the time we didn’t have the Internet and by the time the news got to his brother and he told him to continue medicine, he had already moved to agriculture. He could no longer go to medical classes. He went to Saint Andrews University in Scotland. But before then, he went to Glasgow, but he didn’t like what he saw there. He eventually settled for Saint Andrews University and that was where he completed his medical studies.
How did he discipline any child who misbehaved?
You know, in those days, they believed in corporal punishment. He had a favourite stick which he didn’t mind to use on anybody who misbehaved. We felt a bit of his stick on our body, but he was gentle and didn’t kill us with it.
How close were you to him?
I was close to him and I understood that but didn’t know I was that close to him, until now that I’m older. He kept talking about me. He was a gender-oriented person to make sure that women as well did well in their chosen fields – be industrious and achieve whatever they wanted to achieve. But at the time, it was the man who was the heir and the woman was the issue. Having met my mother, who was a dynamic woman too, my father quickly converted to gender-sensitivity and always pursued the notion that women should see the sky as their limit.
Who were his friends?
He had his age-mates and schoolmates, most of whom were from his village. He also had friends like Alvan Ikokwu, Chief Ugochukwu of Aro-Ndi-Izuogu in present-day Abia State, and other friends like Alex Ekwueme and Chief Mbanefo in present-day Anambra State and many others I can’t quite remember now. And of course, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, who is the first executive governor of Abia State and present Minister of Science and Technology from Ebonyi State. My father ran an open-door policy and was a man of many people. He wasn’t discriminatory, irrespective of tribe or religion. He was a liberal man and helped to solve many problems.
What was his favourite food?
His favourite food was pounded yam and egusi soup. Throughout his life, he loved chewing real food but towards the end of his life, he couldn’t chew more because of his failing health. At this time, we only ensured he ate survival foods and he preferred things like okra soup and any draw soups. There was a day he was served okra soup and because he knew he couldn’t handle how it draws, he asked if we had any thick soup, and we said yes. He ordered that it should be mixed with the okra soup to stop the drawing. This was because he was a clean and neat person, and wouldn’t like any the soup to stain his clothes.
As he travelled, he tasted different foods in other parts of the world. My mother came from Abeokuta, Ogun State.
How did he like to dress?
He loved English and traditional outfits when with his kinsmen. As he grew older, he wore uniforms, even as a governor, but he loved to appear casual and sporty.
He loved football and played hockey and others in Saint Andrews and he was one of the first eleven there. We could easily spot him while playing because he always wore white short and T-shirt.
Before my father died, one day Dr. Onu came to the house and I saw him and ran to tell my father to wear something nice as the governor was around. He said, ‘I know Onu is a governor. Wasn’t I a governor, too? He went to receive him and Onu treated him as a father. After he left, my father asked for the clothes we suggested he should put on when the governor came. I said there was no need since the governor had gone. But he said it didn’t matter. He wore the clothes. My father was quite witty and a serious person too.
How did he relax?
He loved music and as a singer; he would sing from time to time and that made him happy. Most frankly, I didn’t see him relax much because as of the time, he was playing lawn tennis, football and all that. Later, he would chat, read books and play old and traditional instruments like the old guitar and native hand drums with his fingers. I think I saw them somewhere in the house.
What changed in the care for his family when he became governor?
Of course, yes, as governor, we were put in more comfortable houses than when he wasn’t a governor. This was different from when we were on the mission field which was just a hut or a palm-roofed small house that we all managed in. But back in Uburu as missionaries, there were nice colonial structures. But when he became governor, there were good structures as part of his office. They, however, didn’t really mean anything. They didn’t change our hearts. One has to be someone who cares for his family and those who work with one.
What values have you imbibed from your father?
He taught me to know that humans are the same everywhere and those other concrete values as I have mentioned before, such as truthfulness, accountability and transparency. These are the values I have imbibed from him. He taught us to love our families, and others around us and to service our community.
Would you say the government has done enough to recognise him?
Different arms of government have done their bit to honour him. The Federal Government established the Akanu Ibiam Federal Polytechnic Unwana-Afikpo, Ebonyi State, to recognise him. It has also named the Enugu Airport after him and today, the airport is called the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu. There are different schools named after him. Also, the current Governor of Ebonyi State, Dave Umahi, has built several flyovers in the state and named one after him. He equally erected stature of Dr. Akanu Ibiam at a strategic location in Abakaliki, the capital of Ebonyi State.
How has his name helped you?
I wouldn’t know what his name has helped me to achieve because I don’t use his name to push myself anywhere. In fact, there are many people who have fared better using my father’s name than myself and that means, many people are where they are currently because of my father’s name. This is because my father was a man of the people. He was generous and would recommend anybody for any appointment or office even without meeting or having physical contact with the person. What sometimes discourage and make me feel bad is that the government has not really done enough to really honour him.
For instance, this palace is not a befitting place considering his many contributions to the development of Nigeria. I once visited the Ahmadu Bello’s palace in Zaria and was impressed with how the place is. Look at how late Akanu Ibiam palace is. Also, his hometown in Unwana needs a lot of social amenities. I appreciate Governor Umahi who has done one or two things at the place, but the Federal Government ought to do something in this community. As his children, we resist the temptation to use his name for anything because we can achieve whatever we want to achieve even though he’s no longer with us. He was open to all and this house, as you see, welcomes all.
What do you miss most about him?
What I miss most about him is his counsel at this terrible time because things and societies are more complex now than before. One needs to be particular about happenings in our society at this time. His advice would be very welcomed now than ever. But we try our best to put ourselves in his position and luckily enough, since we know him quite well, we should always strive to do what we think he would have done if he were still with us.
Is any of the children in politics?
None of us is in politics. In fact, the thought of going into politics is more resistant because it’s even more difficult now. There is a lot of corruption and it’s difficult to be in politics at any level in this part of the world. As a matter of fact, I doff my cap for politicians in Nigeria because they have stamina.
Did your father discuss his beliefs about Biafra with you?
We didn’t have a chance for that. At the time, I was not around and when I was abroad, he tried to protect me and hid anything about Biafra from me. It’s only when I returned to Nigeria that I started catching up with news about Biafra and all that. But I heard he was special adviser to the late Biafran warlord, Odumegwu Ojukwu and I learnt that in the course of the civil war, he tried to broker peace between the two warring parties. I also heard he was part of the emissaries that went to countries such as Gabon, Angola and Tanzania to plead for humanitarian aids to the Igbo during the war. He ensured, as I heard, that the war should end in order to stop the killings of the Igbo then and he pushed for the speaking of Igbo among the Igbo to ensure there was no saboteur among them.
How did you react when you heard about his death?
I came back to Nigeria for a visit and found that his health was failing and I decided to stay back and this turned out to be the last three years of his life like I said earlier. He had had an accident and had a hip injury and that one was first repaired at Orthopaedic Hospital, Enugu, and later at a London clinic. I stayed back hoping that he had recovered and rehabilitated. I followed him to meetings and sometimes to the meetings of Abia State Traditional Rulers Council and other places. I followed him in those last three years, until he had stroke and he had to be rehabilitated again, at the Igbinedion University Teaching Hospital, Edo State. We came back and soon after that, he died. I was by his side at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu, when he died.
I felt bad because I never knew he was going to die. He was such a tough and strong person that even when you shook hands with him, his grip was pretty firm. He was always optimistic and cheerful so that when the last came, it didn’t occur to me he was going to die. I was thinking he would really recover and move on to be 100 years old or more. But he died at 88.
How does his family remember him annually?
We remember him privately. It’s been a bit of an uphill battle because many people are interested in establishing a foundation in his name and it takes efforts to make a first-class foundation. Unfortunately, the means is not there because he wasn’t that a prosperous person himself, because he wasn’t also after the things of the world during his time. In my position now, we have to juggle the means I have to help the community, so there hasn’t been too much time and resources. We are hoping that eventually, we will establish a foundation in Akanu Ibiam’s name.
But in all, because my father is gone now, it doesn’t really matter. This is because whatever happens here is of no consequence to him. But because our people respect and value history, it’s important that we bring back history by adequately honouring the fallen great Nigerians so that the younger generation will know those before them and what they did. This will enable the younger generation to have good role models and follow them and their values assiduously. Currently, very few would remember Akanu Ibiam and others when you talk about them, because many of them are not in the history book.
It’s also important we set up a foundation so that as much as we can, we can take care of many children who can study them whether in primary, secondary or tertiary institutions. There are many people who had benefited from him and many do think they are also his children. It’s just that my father was generous. The little he had, he didn’t hold unto it himself but shared among others to make sure that people pursue education and also lift up from poverty-stricken homes to lead meaningful life.
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.
Contact: [email protected]