Apr 3, 2024

Francis Akanu Ibriam


Knighthood conjures up legendary stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Knighthood is bestowed by the British king and queen for significant achievement and meritorious service to the United Kingdom. The prefix “Sir” is an honorific title to accompany knighthood. Sir Francis Akanu Ibriam (1906-1995) was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956, the first Nigerian to be so honored. He was also the first person to renounce his knighthood. Akanu received his medical degree from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) in 1934. He could have chosen a lucrative practice in the city but instead followed God’s call to become a medical missionary with the Church of Scotland. He returned to his homeland to start a hospital for underserved people in rural populations of Nigeria. He was appointed Governor of Eastern Nigeria in 1960 until the Republic of Biafra declared its independence from Nigeria in 1967, resulting in the Biafran War. England supported the Nigerian government and its economic blockade against Biafra, resulting in mass starvation. In protest, Akanu shed his English name, Francis, and returned the three insignias of knighthood in a letter to the queen. “I can’t be the queen’s knight and watch the same kingdom killing my people in Biafra,” he wrote. His bold defiance drew attention to the plight of the Biafran people, resulting in much-needed relief aid by the World Council of Churches. Airports and schools are named in his honor today. When Akanu died in 1996, 20,000 people attended his funeral. One of his eulogizers described him as “a humble servant of the Great Physician.” He prayed at a 1989 gathering of the World Council of Churches:

O God you who are from generation to generation the Creator of the ends of the earth and all that it contains, we of the continent of Africa bow our heads to you in humble thanks for the work that you have wrought in our lands and communities over the years. We remember with joy the refuge which your only begotten Son our Savior and his earthly parents took in Africa. We rejoice when we remember the journey of the Ethiopian eunuch, and his Christian fellowship with your disciple Philip in the Gaza desert. It is a wonderful tribute to Africa that Simon of Cyrene helped to bear the heavy wooden cross upon which you hung and suffered for us sinners here in Africa and all over the world. We can never forget the countless men and women of other lands who spread throughout Africa the gospel news of the saving grace of Christ, and now that same call comes to us to do the same. When we think of these things, our gratitude knows no bounds.
John Carden With All God’s People (Geneva WCC Publications, 1989), 191.

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.