Beaming Searchlight on Nigeria’s Forgotten Hero

2

Emmanuel Chukwu, one time Liberia’s richest foreign businessman worth $89.405 million at the time, singlehandedly saved over 1000 Nigerians during the 1989 war in Liberia by sacrificing his two ships for their evacuation into Nigeria at the expense of his investments. That humane decision cost him his wealth, businesses, health of his wife, and three decades later, he is currently at the verge of becoming homeless in Lagos. No thanks to Nigerian government who promised to repay his gesture but defaulted. Martins Ifijeh chronicles his journey

If there is one man that has sacrificed everything he has to protect the lives and properties of fellow Nigerians in a far away country, it is the unsung hero; 75 years old Emmanuel Chukwu Collins, who against all odds, gave up all the things that mattered most to him so his countrymen do not get beheaded or burnt alive during the 1989 civil war in Liberia, as Nigerians were major targets.

Chukwu was a middle aged man when he left Nigeria for Liberia at the instance of the then President of Liberia, William Tolbert, who saw him as vast and knowledgeable in business. He soon became a dependable ally of the government and doors of opportunities were thrown open to him.

Within a few years, he had become a big importer of rice and other commodities to Liberia. And with each move, his reach, network, bank accounts and investments began to swell. Soon, Chukwu became a household name in Monrovia and other cities in Liberia.

It was in the heat of this that late President Tolbert was overthrown and subsequently killed in a coup d’etat by the then new President, Samuel Doe.

But because Chukwu had become a huge asset to the country, Doe drew him even closer. Every government cherished having him around because the business world in the country revolved around him. In no time, he was appointed by Doe as the Top Priority Agent to the only cement company in Liberia. By 1989, his investments in Liberia were already worth $89.405 million; that is N2.8 trillion in today’s money.

Things Fall Apart

But that was the best of the dreams he lived in Liberia. War soon broke out and Samuel Doe’s presidency was under threat by a rebel group led by Charles Taylor.

Unfortunately for Nigerians in the country, Taylor’s men intercepted a truck load of ammunitions which the Nigerian government had secretly sent to the president to defend his government. Angered by this, Taylor then declared the Nigerian government and President Doe’s government as his enemies. A move that made him hunt for Nigerians for execution. To him, for every Liberia killed by Doe’s government, five Nigerians will be beheaded or burnt alive.

Things soon began to fall apart for the Nigerian community in the country. Every one that crossed the part of the rebels was killed, including two Nigerian journalists who were covering the war.

“At this point, the Nigerian Ambassador to Nigeria ran to me, and we put our heads together and then decided that we should involve our government so they can evacuate our people out of the country,” said Chukwu who was a rallying point for the Nigerian community in Liberia.

But surprisingly, the Nigerian government did not act on the demand; leading daily to the killing of Nigerians by Taylor and his men. As the fight became intense, Taylor’s men were increasingly becoming more powerful, while Nigerians were suffering the most attacks, and Doe’s government was gradually falling apart.

Evacuation

This was the point Chukwu ordered for two ships so he could take most of his assets out of the country, including the remaining cements and other commodities. Even though each ship was a giant one, what he had in the country would require a minimum of two giant ships to evacuate back to Nigeria, except for the factories and buildings which were not transportable.

In no time, his vessels arrived and were ready to take all he had, including his family to Nigeria, but there was a problem. The ambassador begged him not to abandon the Nigerians there. Chukwu was then torn between evacuating his multi-million dollar investments or evacuating over 1000 stranded Nigerians out of the country.

“I had no choice other than to agree because these are my country men and women. So the ambassador gave all Nigerians in Liberia four options; run to the United Nations building, run to churches, run to Nigeria Embassy or move straight to my two vessels already at the port of the country.

“Over 1000 went along with their belongings to the ships, many ran to the UN building and the other two places. Unfortunately, all those who ran to the other places were killed. The rebel group struck these three places and beheaded many of those captured,” explained Chukwu.

Left Behind

But as a kind hearted man that he is, he first allowed everyone to find their way to the vessels. By the time he was ready to access the vessels as well, it was already late. The rebels had taken over streets and strategic locations in the city. The man who brought in the ships could not even access his own ships.

At this point, the ambassador and other Nigerians were already at the ship, and he was told to find a way to get to Nigeria since if he attempts to move towards the ships the rebels might take him and his family out.

“That was how the ships left without me, because the ambassador had given me his word that the Nigerian government will not take my sacrifice for granted,” the one time business mogul explained.

Stroke of Luck

At this point, Chukwu and his family were living at the mercy of soldiers. They were only wishing that their worst fear do not come to reality. The only option they had was to risk their lives and move to the airport, but flights had been banned from either coming into the country or leaving. Besides, the roads leading to the airport were manned by the rebels, who, at this point, were going to oust Doe any moment obviously.

“I didn’t have a choice than to tell my wife and four children to brace up for the unknown. We packed our bags, and headed for the airport. I had with me sums of money with which I bribed my way through the road blocks until I got to the airport,” Chukwu said.

While he wasn’t sure if they will ever get a flight to Nigeria since flights had been banned and insurance firms had placed a 300 per cent risk on any ship or flight to Liberia, he believed pushing his luck was the only option.

They got to the airport and realised soldiers were placed in strategic positions, just waiting for orders until they level the public institution. “I was scared for my family. So I kept on praying for a miracle. Within two hours of helplessness, we saw a flight from Cote’ D Voire, landing at the airport. It was a test run flight which was just repaired. The owners only tested it to that airport with no knowledge of the situation of things in the country. I earnestly yearned that that same flight would take us out of Liberia. Considering that all workers at the airport including their managers knew me, they gave my family priority and we entered the plane so it could bring us to Lagos.”

While these negotiations were going on, the soldiers were looking at them. They had no order yet to stop anyone. But 10 minutes after the plane had taken off, the order came and the airport was leveled down. By the time they reached Muritala Mohammed Airport in Ikeja, the city had fallen to the hands of Charles Taylor, and Samuel Doe was subsequently killed.

A Futile Attempt to Recoup Loss

When we got to Lagos, it dawned on me I didn’t enter the country with a dime. Then the journey to recover my investments through the federal government started.

“I located the ambassador at the foreign affairs office here in Lagos, and he took me to see General Ibrahim Babangida, who thanked me for saving the lives of Nigerians. He immediately referred me to the Secretary to the Federal Government who then asked me to write down all I needed to settle down in Nigeria.

“I told them I would need a house, a school for my children, some money, and then my goods in Liberia should be allowed free duty. I presented these because they told me they won’t be able to pay in cash what I had lost.”

These were the beginning of another journey for Chukwu. He started chasing all the things the Nigerian government had approved for him, all without success. He was broke, without a car, his children dropped out of school, and he started to live the kind of life even his former cooks would not live.

He pursued all these from Babangida’s time all through to Obasanjo’s and now President Muhammadu Buhari. The more he tries, the more things remained the same.

The one time business mogul said: “I approached Okonji Iweala, the then minister of finance who told me the government will not give me duty waiver for the importation of rice, which was one of the things government approved for me. She advised me to take oil, as that was what they had in record for settling debts like mine. I didn’t have a choice, I accepted even if I didn’t have market for crude oil.”

Since then, nothing concrete has happened. He approached Senator Ike Ekweremadu who is the lawmaker representing his constituency. He then approached Hon. KGB Ogakwa of the House of Representatives, who took it up in the House. The House deliberated on it and requested he go renew the paper with the president of the day.

But as typical with the Nigerian system, the people around the president made it absolutely impossible for Chukwu to see him.

“After all the frustrations, I went back to the House and they wrote the then Information Minister, Dora Akunyili to take me to the president so that he can hear me out and renew it. But as we speak now, nothing has been done. This is three decades since then and I am still pursing this.”

Loss of Sight

While he was pursing all these in penury, his wife who had diabetes began to fail in health. She managed her diabetic condition well in Liberia but began to lose her sight as she was no longer able to afford treatment and the food regimen needed to put her sugar level in check. As at today, Mrs. Tobi Chukwu is a blind woman.

“We noticed she was gradually going blind. At some point her left eye could only see shadows. So I managed to raise money through my children and few friends and we took her to Dubai for surgery. After which we went to India for another one, from where they told us to come back in four months time so they could perfect everything. But we didn’t have money to go back. At this point she had lost the left eye completely and the right one was just starting to deteriorate.

“Through divine providence, Senator Hope Uzodinma heard about our plight and sponsored her treatment in Mayo Clinic in Minessota in the United States. It cost $35, 000. Prior to then, we never met Uzodinma. He is not even the law maker from my constituency, but he helped. Unfortunately, the surgery was unsuccessful and my wife went totally blind. I hear there is retina transplant available, and I am hoping one day I will take her up for treatment so she can regain her sight back,” he said.

Tobi, who interjected her husband’s conversation with THISDAY, said the lack of money was what took her eyesight as she would have been able to prevent it if there was money. “I can’t wait to regain my sight back. Every day I keep asking people if research has shown a damaged retina can be replaced. Some people say outright eye transplant can give me my sight back. I am looking forward to this,” she said.

The loss of his wife’s eyesights isn’t the only thing he lost. The cerebral business man lost his younger brother who was killed while rebels were looking for him. He lost $89, 405 million, which in today’s money is about N2.8 trillion, an amount that easily could place him as Nigeria’s richest man. He lost 30 years of not doing business. He lost a good life and today, he is a shadow of his former self.

Chukwu believes now that he is still alive, government should do the needful and give him all that he is entitled to. He is of the view that when the presidency, politicians, the business community, and kind hearted Nigerians read about his journey, they may be touched to either prevail on the government to settle him what he is entitled to, or be given a philanthropic gesture to be back on his feet.

In saner climes, Chukwu would not have only been given all that has been approved for him by the federal government; he would have been given a national honor for saving the lives of over 1000 Nigerians at the expense of all that mattered most to him. He should have been regarded as a special citizen, especially now that he is in his old age, where he can no longer work as usual, as was the case when all Liberian presidents were all over him.

Homelessness Looms

When THISDAY visited him in his three bedroom apartment at Jakande Estate, Oke Afa, Isolo, he presented a quit notice he has been given by his landlord for failing to pay his house rent over the years. He is currently living from hand to mouth and by next month may become homeless, along with his blind wife.

If such an act of sacrifice for ones country cannot be rewarded in Nigeria, how then can other Nigerians show patriotism to this country?

Chukwu, one of the greatest business moguls Nigeria never had, can be reached on 2348083840570 and +234805549455. His account details are: Account number – 2009273674; Account name – Emmanuel Chukwu, Bank name – Zenith.