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.
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.