Sometime in February 2019, I came upon a story on THISDAY Newspaper written by Martins Ifije. The report revolved around Mr. Emmanuel Chukwu, who risked all his resources to ensure that over 1,000 Nigerians were not massacred during Liberia’s first civil war. The result of Chukwu’s sacrifice wasn’t only his near-death in the hands of the rebel troops, but heavy silence on his heroism on the part of the Nigerian government. Since 1991, Chukwu’s experience with Nigeria’s government has been that of immense frustration, betrayal and neglect. His was one of those stories that easily sink into your consciousness, spinning its webs in your mind, dampening your optimism.
I reached out to Ifije and, through him, established contact with the Chukwu family over the phone. As it turned out, I was just one of many callers that had rung up the family, expressing solidarity. But I was curious to find more about this man who had successfully pulled off the evacuation of Nigerians at the precipice of utter annihilation.
After months of corresponding over the phone, Mr. Chukwu accepted to meet me. I travelled from Lagos to Suleja, Niger State, where he was holed up in. He would later tell me that he had been in Niger State for months, away from his family, because someone at the Presidency had contacted him after the Ifije report became public. The contact had asked him to ensure he was living close to Abuja as he could be summoned to the Presidential Villa at any moment in time. In preparation of the supposedly imminent invitation, he had managed to (after spending nights sleeping in an uncompleted church building), through the help of a construction engineer, find a room in a compound filled with old bungalows, in a remote area. It was this place that he took me to after meeting me at the gate of the Teaching Hospital, Suleja. A small, frail man in his 70s, he was bespectacled, in a black T-shirt and black pants; and when he shook my hands and led me to a nearby kiosk to buy two cold cans of Amstel malt, I noted that he walked with a stoop. But I would easily be taken by the energy he exuded, his rigid belief in a supreme Divine Plan for his life.
“My place is not far,” he said when I asked where he lived. It turned out to be about a ten-minute walk. A group of young girls were plaiting hair outside a bungalow opposite Mr. Chukwu’s ad-hoc compound; his place had no gate, as open as an abandoned temple. “This is my friend,” he introduced me to the girls, wearing a smile I would spot often during our conversation that spanned, by my calculation, well over two hours. “He is a pressman.”
I returned the girls’ pleasantries. Chukwu would then lead me into his room, which was sparsely furnished with a bed and a crumpled blanket, a white bucket, a half-filled bag of pure water. In a corner sat his partly unzipped travelling bag and on the wall hung a couple of clothes. As we sat down, he let me have one of the malts he had bought, keeping the other to himself. “These women sometimes help me in fetching water,” he said, referring to the girls outside. “But I take care of myself, I go to the market, I wash my things myself.”
“Maybe God is using this for something in my life,” he said about his present condition. My eyes were trained on him, this man who had decades ago clinked glasses with presidents. Before he ever stepped out of Nigeria, he had a metaphysical experience. An angel appeared to him and said, “‘I’m going to use you’. But he didn’t say in which area.”
Before the Nigerian civil war, he had studied at the University of Ibadan, and he was also a business manager with the University Supplies Limited. When massive killings of easterners erupted, he, alongside his tribesmen, fled back to their place of origin.
After the war, he worked with Arthur Nzeribe’s company, Sentinel, an insurance outfit in Lagos. One time, his Greek managing director returned to Nigeria and directed him to go to the Federal Palace Hotel to look into an insurance report. The people he would meet at the hotel were all foreigners, so he had to prepare himself for the encounter. After talking with the apparently impressed businessmen, he was asked, “How would you like to work outside Nigeria?”
“For sure.” Like many youngsters, he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about leaving the country. He, however, asked for some time to let his mother know about the development. He had lost his father in 1956.
His request was granted. Chukwu had two weeks to be with his family before joining his newfound employers. He told his Greek boss about the offer, seeking his opinion. “That’s your luck,” his boss replied.
While Chukwu’s mother was happy for the changing fortunes of her young son, she was insistent that he got engaged to a girl before leaving. “I don’t want you bringing any white girl here,” he laughingly recollects her saying.
He had one week left to find a wife before leaving for his new job. This didn’t prove to be a backbreaking task because he had a classmate in school whose younger sister was already a nursing student. He was also in the good books of her family. With his eyes on a girl, the marital rites commenced and the question of marriage was almost settled.
But he had his concerns. Where he was leaving the country for, was he going to join an already established company or assist in building one from dust? He consequently determined that whichever it was, he was going to contribute positively. After dropping some money at home for his family’s upkeep and schooling fees for his two younger brothers, he joined his new masters in Lagos.
“Then I left the country, came to Liberia,” he said. With this single act, Chukwu had cast himself into the spinning wheels of destiny.
Shortly after arriving Liberia, he made a realization that would vault his fortunes. The country’s most important economic positions were held almost entirely by whites. Instead of despairing at this imperialistic exploitation of the nation’s wealth, Chukwu saw an opportunity. He thought that with him being black, he could “politicize” the situation and “all the blacks would come my way and if they come my way, they’d purchase everything they wanted instead of going elsewhere.” To achieve his revolutionary intentions, he resigned from his workplace and went private. “Into importation,” he said.
I asked how the importation process began.
“My link at the presidential villa over there helped me a lot,” he admitted, his voice momentarily losing its vigour. President Tolbert’s daughter was keenly interested in him, but the feelings weren’t mutual. “I wasn’t interested in marrying any foreign woman.” With unlimited access to the Presidency, he got in contact with important bank managers and his relationship with government officials flourished. “Everybody knew me, so I said I can’t lose this opportunity, let me zoom into importation and retail.”
The Bank of Liberia, where Tolbert’s daughter held an influential position, supported him. Each time he put in paper for foreign credit coverage to secure his imports, which was predominantly rice, he was always successful. Then his wife and younger brother, Theophilus, joined him. His brother later became a lecturer at the University of Liberia and would be murdered when that country’s civil war broke out.
“It was just an opportunity. All the primary schools, all the secondary schools, they were purchasing. I rented a place. Then Tolbert was overthrown.”
On the night of the coup, Chukwu and his colleagues had no idea that the government was about to be smashed by Samuel Doe. In fact, he was at Doe’s sister’s residence in Congo Town. “The woman married an Italian man, so they were going on vacation to Italy. They invited those of us, their friends, so we were there drinking.”
Because his hugely successful importation business had made him one of the most easily recognizable names in the country, and because of his friendship with Doe, Chukwu’s financial stability wasn’t threatened; like his predecessor, Doe would bring him closer to the government. But Chukwu had been saddened when Doe gave his “God is tired” speech, after President Tolbert’s body had been (as author Charles Rivers Editors captures it) “badly mutilated and conspicuously disembowelled, the only known means by which a Wizard or a witch doctor could be killed.” The skull had multiple gun wounds. The death of the president had generated widespread jubilation in Monrovia and beyond. His family members were hunted down and massacred. Members of the much-resented regime were in flight. The captured cabinet ministers and government officials were publicly marched to stakes, half-naked, and shot. “The executions were performed by a small group of drunken soldiers, some requiring several attempts as appalled members of the press and the diplomatic corps watched in utter astonishment,” Rivers wrote. With this purge, Samuel Doe had established himself as the only king on the throne.
Of the Krahn ethnic extraction, Samuel Doe came into national prominence hoisting the flag of a messiah. He formed the People’s Redemption Council, assuring the country of better times. And, though poorly educated, many believed in him. Besides, according to Rivers, “No single member of the junta could claim any standard of education at all, and there was no evident sophistication among them, suggesting that anyone possessed the capability of understanding, let alone assuming control of a modern administration.”
If there were concerns that the junta was dominated by members of Doe’s ethnic group, they weren’t publicly expressed. Liberian politics, like that of many African countries, are vastly driven on tribal wheels. Soon, educated civilians were given a chance in government. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, a University of Ohio-educated economist, was put in charge of Planning and Economic Affairs and Charles Taylor, also American-trained, became the Director-General of General Services Agency. It was the latter who wound up to be Doe’s ultimate nemesis.
Faith in Doe’s regime would crumble when his policies became sources of heartbreak for the masses. Dissidents were met with massive suppression. In 1985, the result of the general elections, which the Los Angeles Times described as “one of the most blatant vote frauds in recent African history” left the people further disenchanted. Doe, contesting on the platform of his puppet political party, the National Democratic Party of Liberia, won.
That November, the begrudged former Commanding General of the Armed Forces of Liberia, Thomas Quiwonkpa, originally from Nimba County of the Gio ethnic group, who had been forced into exile by the government on the allegation of plotting a coup, made an ambitious attempt to overthrow Doe. The failure of his coup attempt ended with him dead, his body publicly displayed at the Executive Mansion in Monrovia. The fact that Doe and Quiwonkpa had once been friends didn’t stop the widespread state-sponsored retaliatory massacres of the Gio people that followed. An estimated 2,000 lives were lost. While Doe was weeding out his enemies and squandering government funds, the country sank under the weight of poverty. Liberia’s foreign debt ran into $1.4 billion dollars.
Then Doe made the enmity that would be his ruin. His good friend, Charles Taylor, of the General Services Agency, was accused of embezzlement of funds that amounted to $1 million. Before Doe could apprehend Taylor, the GSA man was airborne, out of Liberia, to the United States.
Taylor was of America-Liberian descent, from a bloodline of former African slaves in America that were resettled in Liberia after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. He would soon return to West Africa, allying himself with Prince Johnson, a soldier that was involved in the Quiwonkpa coup. Heading separate troops, they launched attacks with the aim of capturing Monrovia and sacking Doe. As the conflict raged, Doe gradually found himself losing the initiative. Rejecting all counsel to abscond, for his life’s sake, he secretly accepted a consignment of ammunition from the General Ibrahim Babangida government of Nigeria. This import was to prove to be a double-edged sword, for while it helped equip Doe’s forces, a part of the consignment was hijacked by Taylor’s men. The fallout would be fatal for Nigerians living in Liberia. Because it was inadvertently Doe’s ally, Taylor declared on the national television and radio that the Nigerian government was an enemy, “the aggressor,” as Chukwu puts it. “He said that for every Liberian man killed, he will kill five Nigerians.”
The first casualties of this decree were the Nigerian journalists that flew into the country to cover the conflict. Chukwu and a handful of others attempted to hide the reporters at Broad street, but “they were fished out. He killed them.”
However, Chukwu’s brother at the University of Liberia had been captured. “I thought they took him (and other Nigerians) to the rubber plantation, off Roberts Field.”
Then Chukwu came upon a bit of luck. One of Taylor’s field commanders had been Chukwu’s staff. He contacted the commander and told him, “I want you to release these people.” But the commander explained that it was necessary to detain the Nigerians, so that Taylor’s army could, using the hostages, raise enough money to prosecute the war. “The Nigerian government is not going to come,” Chukwu argued. “Are you going to kill these people over what they don’t know? These are ordinary people that came here to look for their daily bread, as well as myself.” Thomas, the commander, replied that it was impossible to go contrary to Taylor’s instructions. Desperate now, Chukwu settled for the last option he had. “How much money is it going to cost to release them?” On being told the cost of freedom, he paid up and when he ran out of cash, he handed over his newly acquired Mercedes. “With this car, Taylor would be convinced we visited your house,” Thomas told him. “You have helped our people, you cannot die here.” It was then that Thomas showed him the list of the Nigerians Taylor was resolute on exterminating.
“The first name on the list was that of the ambassador,” Chukwu remembers. “The second name was Jones Waribi, who was in charge of Toyota, Nissan, from Japan. He placed me number three.”
Chukwu had hosted Taylor (and Andrew Davies, the police chief) at his own home when times were good. Taylor might have thought that Chukwu was in collaboration with the Nigerian government.
Having secured their freedom, the Nigerians in Thomas’ custody were released. Chukwu was dazed when he discovered that his brother wasn’t among this group of captives. Theophilus had been moved to another location, where he was murdered.
As a countermeasure, the Nigerian community in the country met with the Nigerian ambassador to Liberia, Ambassador Tukor. Other nations were already salvaging their citizens from the crumbling state. “The Americans were well organized. I learnt what I did from the Americans, I no go lie for you,” Chukwu said lightheartedly. “The Americans were asking their people to leave, no matter where you are; if you have your car, you can bring it to Mambo Point, the seaport.” Chukwu recollects that the American embassy was located very close to the sea and all the nearby buildings were purchased by the American government as a security measure. “So that you cannot know what is happening within the embassy,” he said, cracking with laughter.
The Nigerian ambassador told the Nigerian community delegates, “If the situation comes to the worst, you can run to the churches, to the UN house, to the Nigerian embassy in Congo Town.” Considering the magnitude of the approaching danger, this counsel from the diplomat couldn’t have been more unrealistic. The ambassador then suggested that perhaps Chukwu could use his ships to convey the people home. “When we get to Nigeria, we will sort ourselves out,” the diplomat said.
Although there were signs of impending chaos and bloodshed in the country, Chukwu kept on importing goods. He was certain the social and political turbulence would fade as quickly as they emerged. So when total war broke out, he had consignments of rice arriving in the country. “I was well stocked. I had no more money in the bank because I used all I had in purchasing rice at the time. But I was saving over here in Nigeria, but I didn’t know that all the banks I was saving with were porous. They mismanaged the banks here (in Nigeria) and they all went bankrupt.”
With the Nigerian community abandoned by her government (the ambassador and other high-profile Nigerians had left the country), Chukwu put out an announcement that all Nigerians should head straight to his 300 metric-ton ships, which bore his goods. In a short time, the ships’ cargoes were kept aside and filled with not just Nigerians, but Liberians and other nationalities that felt unsafe. The coast guards turned out to be Taylor loyalists. As with Thomas, Chukwu singlehandedly paid off the coast guards to ensure passage of the Nigerians out of Liberian waters. “When the ships were ready to go, I could not access the ships myself,” Chukwu said.
I asked, “How many people do you think the ships carried?”
“Over one thousand men, women and children, I was told,” Chukwu said, matter-of-factly. “I couldn’t go there, as a wanted person. I was hiding with my family. The first ship left on April 17, 1991. The second ship departed on June 17, 1991.”
With his ships gone and his goods worth millions of dollars irretrievably discarded, Chukwu hadn’t lost only both money and the most secure route out of the hellhole, he and his family had become trapped. And Taylor’s murderous squads were swarming all over the region. But one thing was certain: if he was to survive, he must leave Liberia. “So I told my family, we cannot go to the ports. Let’s see what we can do through the airport. Surely, we have to leave.”
Chukwu hoped to charter one of the planes sitting in the hangars of the international airport and fly out before the walls caved in on him. He got a station wagon from a church, turned on the ignition and drove his family to the airport. “Going to the airport, tight security was everywhere. Every checkpoint had a big man who had the right to allow you to go or not.”
“And these soldiers were loyalists to Charles Taylor?”
“Correct,” he affirmed.
“And they all knew you?”
“Of course. I used to make supplies to their depot at Roberts Field. I was in charge of supplies of essential commodities all over the country.”
Fortunately for Chukwu and his fleeing family, at each checkpoint, there was a soldier that knew him. He would pay before being flagged on. The soldiers assured him that no harm would befall him because “I had helped them a lot.”
“My wife was a nurse. We used to treat them every Saturday, share rice to everybody. I opened my home to them. The average Nigerian man, wherever you live in, you must develop it. That is our nature, especially the Igbo man. That was what I did and everybody loved me because of that.”
At the airport, Chukwu saw a sight that nearly sunk his heart. Taylor’s soldiers had besieged the place, waiting for the final order to shut down the airport, a directive that could come at any moment, any second. “Taylor had locked down all the roads out of Liberia. The only way out was to jump into the sea or to fly out.” Premonition of impending doom made him so nervous he felt like making use of the restroom.
“However, my Bible says call unto me in the hour of trouble and I will answer you. So I told God, whatever you’re going to do, do it today.” An hour passed at the airport, nothing positive happened. Two hours, nothing. The walls were fast falling on him. Then it happened. There was an aircraft heading out of the country for Ivory Coast. He dashed for it. Just as his family was checking into the plan, they encountered a problem. The air ticket he bought for his wife, just the previous week, had been used to fly out a Nigerian student that committed a crime in the country. “This boy was a student at the university. He was doing his IT. He was in construction. He sold the people’s cement and the CID grabbed him. But I had an understanding with the CID. If a Nigerian commits a crime, if it is not cocaine or something too serious, bring him to me, let me see what I can do. That was the arrangement. Nelson was in charge at the time.”
“Who is Nelson?”
“An officer at the CID,” he said. “Nelson called me. I met Nelson that evening and we talked about Moore, the detained Nigerian student. Nelson told me that the only way to save the boy, let him leave the country the next day. He said he would file a report to his superiors, stating that the boy had absconded. I called the Nigerian Airways, asked them if they can accept my wife’s ticket on behalf of the boy. The manager said no problem, as long as Moore had a passport.”
Now at the airport, Chukwu used almost all the money left on him to get his wife on the plane. “Immediately we got into the air, they levelled the airport.”
On arriving at the Ikeja airport, in Nigeria, Chukwu and his family checked into a hotel. It was there he learned that his old guest at his home, Charles Taylor, had completely taken over the country. Before a video recorder, Doe had been killed by Prince Johnson’s men.
Back in his homeland, the first feeling Chukwu felt was that of safety. “But I had a lot to do. I left Liberia with only six hundred dollars, can you imagine that?” But he wasn’t much perturbed. His savings in Nigerian banks could give him a fresh start. He believed that with his contact with the Nigerian ambassador to Liberia, it wouldn’t be much of a task convincing the Nigerian government to compensate him for all he lost in rescuing his fellow countrymen.
Future events would leave him disillusioned. “I realized that all the banks I saved with were all porous.” His money went with the fallen banks, Greek Merchant Bank and ABC Merchant Bank. On several occasions, he went to the Foreign Affairs ministry, hoping to meet the ambassador. “They were not able to tell me anything about the man. In fact they were suspecting me.” However, on one of his visits, Chukwu understood that Ambassador Tukor was with the Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida, making plans about the newly formed ECOMOG. After finally meeting the ambassador and taken to Dodan Barracks that August, Chukwu received a letter from the presidency. “They asked me what I would need to settle down in Nigeria. I have the papers till today.”
Unsure of how to respond to the request, he decided to pay a visit to Pastor William Kumuyi, the founder of Deeper Life Church in Nigeria. “The man prayed with me, said that God was very pleased with me. Said that I should ask for what is relative to the work of my hands, that God will bless it.” Chukwu’s eventual response to the presidency was that he needed a house for his family, a decent school for his young children, funds with which to establish himself and the financial worth of what he abandoned in Liberia in the course of fleeing. The financial worth was estimated to be US$89.405 million.
President Ibrahim Babangida approved two items on Chukwu’s wish list—a house for him and the value of what was left behind. “But they will not pay cash, but by barter.” But despite the president’s formal consent, nothing was done about it. Then Babangida left power and Shonekan took over. Abacha’s regime did nothing. And despite a couple of visits Chukwu paid to Obasanjo in Aso Rock, having private interviews with the president, the federal government kept mute on the documented presidential directive. During Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, the late minister, Dora Akunyili had promised to personally take up Chukwu’s cause, but she couldn’t do anything meaningful till she passed on.
In that hour of danger, his country, through Ambassador Tukor, had encouraged him to help save Nigerians in Liberia, with the assurance of a befitting compensation. Chukwu had done just that, “a very painful decision,” he calls it. And now, almost thirty years since Chukwu made that courageous decision to freight his people to safety, Nigeria has failed to fulfil its end of the bargain, to properly reward one of its greatest heroes. Today, he is incapable of taking care of his rents, his wife who stuck with him through the years has lost her sight “because there is no retina doctor in Nigeria”.
He had told Ifije: “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 Minnesota in the United States. It cost $35,000. Prior to then, we never met Uzodinma. He is not even the lawmaker 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.”
Hope Uzodinma is presently the governor of Imo state.
Chukwu believes that someday God would come through for him, that his country would remember how he helped prevent the genocidal purge of Nigerians in the hands of his old friend, Taylor. He now divides his time between Lagos (where he is about to be evicted from his apartment) and Suleja, Niger state—Suleja because the town is close to Abuja, because he still dreams of the definitive call from the presidency, of a government manifestly prepared to keep its word. His wife shares this faith. She hopes the government would come through for them, and she hopes the relevant authorities would intervene and restore her failed sight. “I just want to see again,” she once told me on the phone. ✚
To reach out or help ease the financial burden, Mr Emmanuel Chukwu can be contacted via: 0808 384 0570, 0810 748 4886. His account details are: Account number – 2009273674; Account name – Emmanuel Chukwu, Bank name – Zenith.
The reporter wishes to thank Mr Chimezie Jude Ogborogu whose generosity made the interview possible.
Eloka is an Editor at the Question Marker.