A surgeon dedicated to his patients, Chike Akunyili was on the frontline of people’s suffering. We must address the problems that drove his killers to pull a trigger just because they could
Last modified on Tue 26 Oct 2021 07.17 EDT
On the afternoon of 28 September 2021 my father was murdered in broad daylight by Nigeria’s ubiquitous “unknown gunmen”, the name given to unidentified attackers.
His killing, which happened to be on my birthday, was gruesome, cruel and senseless. As he struggled for his life no one helped or comforted him in his hour of need. Worse still, his body was robbed.
Dr Chike Akunyili was shot to death in Anambra, the Nigerian state where he was born, estimated to be home to more than six million people, where the security situation is emblematic of the greater challenges facing the country. It does not reflect the general values of the people.
I spoke with my father the day before his death. He complained about the state of things in Nigeria. As a surgeon he had always been on the frontline of people’s suffering and he knew just how hard life was for many.
Patients, he told me, were no longer able to pay for care, and many more treatments were given free of charge. It didn’t help, he added, that no one was safe.
I asked him if he was being careful, and he assured me that he was, and that he rarely went out any more. This was how challenging the security in the region had become.
His death shook the country, not least because he was the husband of the late Prof Dora Akunyili, my mother, who, as head of the food and drug regulatory agency, protected the health and wellbeing of millions of Nigerians, who were being sickened and killed by contaminated water, fake and expired food and drugs.
Why, many asked, would the country repay her dedication in such a manner? Others, myself included, asked how could he die in this way, killed for no reason by his fellow man, to whom he had dedicated his life for more than four decades.
I received a condolence call from a cousin who reminded me that, as we mourn our father, another tragic layer is the loss to those dependent on his support and benevolence, not least the thousands of patients over the years he had treated at no charge, the many people whose school fees he paid, and those he employed at his hospital.
I grew up watching my parents demonstrate kindness and charity in helping the neediest members of our community, a care that extended, in the case of my mother, to millions of Nigerians.
There is a concept that has its roots in most Bantu languages, and across various African communities. It is ubuntu. It means: “I am because you are, you are because we are.”
It captures the interconnectedness of all beings, upholding a belief in the universal ties that bind – celebrating our codependent human community.
Ubuntu and the importance of taking care of one another was core to who my parents were. We are responsible for one another, and everyone matters. This is a value we hold dear as a people.
Nigeria’s current path, marked by increasing insecurity, exploitation, poverty, inadequate education and lack of work and access to decent livelihoods, has negatively impacted our country for far too long and only leads to more senseless death and pain. We can choose a different path.
For too long, we’ve teetered on the edge of hopelessness, only to trudge on, hoping that somehow we don’t tip over. Since childhood, most of the conversations I have heard between adults have bemoaned the state of the country.
From hopeful beginnings in 1960, west Africa’s powerhouse has suffered civil war, years of coups and military rule, ethnic and regional conflicts, endemic corruption, banditry and Islamist insurgencies. Here are some key events.
New constitution establishes federal system with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner, as prime minister and Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, as governor general, the ceremonial head of state.
Government overthrown in what was seen as an “Igbo coup” and General Aguiyi-Ironsi takes power. Balewa and Ahmadu Bello, northern Hausa-Fulani leader, among those killed
Lt Col Yakubu Gowon becomes head of state. Estimated 30,000 Igbos massacred in riots in northern Nigeria, causing about 1 million to flee to south-east
Between 500,000 and 2 million civilians die from starvation during the war. Gowon attempts reconciliation, declaring “no victor, no vanquished”
Process of moving federal capital to Abuja begins
Succeeded by top aide, Lt Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, who initiates transition from military rule to US-style presidential system
Shehu Shagari, a northerner, becomes first president of second republic, with Igbo vice-president
Coup led by Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari after disputed elections
Chief Moshood Abiola is apparent winner
In 2000, government declares that Abacha and his family stole $4.3bn from public funds
He is arrested for treason and jailed for four years
The writer and campaigner against oil industry damage to his Ogoni homeland, is executed with eight other dissidents. EU imposes sanctions and Commonwealth suspends Nigeria’s membership
Clashes with Christians opposing the issue lead to hundreds of deaths
Obasanjo elected for second term despite EU observers reporting “serious irregularities”
This leads to attacks to pipelines and other oil facilities and the kidnap foreign oil workers
Subsequently more than 100 are killed in co-ordinated bombings and shootings in Kano
A state of emergency is declared in northern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa. Insurgent violence mounts in eight other states
They are taken from a boarding school in northern town of Chibok. Over the next year, Boko Haram launch series of attacks across north-east Nigeria and into neighbouring Chad and Cameroon, seizing several towns near Lake Chad. Group’s allegiance switched from al-Qaida to Islamic State
The intention is to push Boko Haram out of towns and back into their Sambisa forest stronghold. UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says conflict has caused at least 157,000 people to flee into Niger, Cameroon and Chad. A further one million people estimated to be internally displaced inside Nigeria
He is the first opposition candidate to do so in Nigeria
US thinktank Freedom House claims polls “marred by serious irregularities and widespread intimidation”. At least 141 people killed in communal clashes between Fulani and Adara in Kaduna state
Youth protests against police brutality, focused on the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), spread across cities in the south. The #EndSARS movement ends with massacre of still unconfirmed number of protesters shot by security forces at Lekki tollgate in Lagos
They also abduct nine women and girls in Takulashi, Borno state. The following month Boko Haram abduct 334 boys from school in Kankara, Katsina state; days later, 80 pupils of madrasa abducted in Dandume, Katsina State
Isis-linked militia seizes arms from Boko Haram and integrates former commanders and fighters. Analysts say Iswap’s greater discipline and strategy of both co-opting and coercing local communities has helped it expand across Sahel and poses bigger threat.
Nigeria spends 1.47tn naira (£2.6bn) on servicing domestic and external debt in first half of 2021, according to data from Debt Management Office
Fast forward three decades and we still gather in homes across Nigeria lamenting the daily decline: hyperinflation, increased unemployment, rampant crime, lack of healthcare, impunity of public servants … and so it goes on. Change comes at a moment when the status quo is challenged. It does not happen in a vacuum and requires the majority to embrace the invitation.
My mother showed the power of just one person when she committed her career as a civil servant, notably in the regulation of food and drugs, to serving the most vulnerable, rejecting the temptation of corruption and any practice that ran counter to the needs of the people.
I hope my father’s death wakes up enough people for us to no longer be content to teeter on the edge but to reclaim the immense potential of this country in the vein of the mantra my mother championed: “Good people, great nation”.
Realistically, I do not expect much in terms of justice for my father’s murder.
The man who pulled the trigger is because we are – the senselessness and injustice of his action, his anger, and his violence are because they are mirrored in the world around him. True justice will come if we address the problems that drive a man to commit such a violent act for no other reason than he can.
Things need to change. It starts with acknowledging what is broken, and with it, the values that contributed to that breakdown. The path forward is not only to dream a future we desire, but also to identify our various roles in achieving it.
Ubuntu reminds us of the critical role of all individuals who make up the whole.
One person with courage. One person with integrity. One person with compassion. One person to act differently, to say no to corruption, to say no to acts of terror, to protect our girls, to uphold the values of diversity, to inspire a free and fair election.
We need to challenge the biases we have against people of different ethnic groups, religious beliefs and socioeconomic means. We need to challenge the apathy that leads to the conclusion that there is nothing we can do. Giving up means accepting that the system has already failed. Real change will require everyone to not only believe that it can be different, but to live up to this dream.
Chidiogo Akunyili is the author of upcoming memoir I Am Because We Are: An African Mother’s Fight for the Soul of a Nation, which tells the story of her mother Dora Akunyili and explains the philosophy of ubuntu