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Controversies Surrounding Death, Burial of High Chief Olu Benson Lulu Briggs

By Eric Elezuo

It was a huge sigh of relief when on Saturday, March 13, 2021, the remains of late Ijaw traditional ruler, philanthropist and businessman, High Chief Olu Benson Lulu-Briggs, were finally committed to mother earth. The body of the deceased had remained in the mortuary since December 27, 2018 when he dropped dead shortly after arriving Accra, Ghana, for a month long vacation with a retinue of family members and staff, his wife of over two decades, Seinye Lulu Briggs, inclusive.

There are personalities whose remains have caused a lot of stir among family members; remaining in the custody of mortuary attendants for months and sometimes years, but Lulu Briggs unwarranted incarceration in the Accra morgue, was one case too many. The beef was centred on the widow, Seinye and the deceased children, led by one of his sons, Dumo Lulu Briggs.

While Dumo alleged that the widow had a hand in the death of his father, and therefore, has a case to answer, the widow, on her part felt she had been wrongly accused, and as a result, must prove her innocence. Consequently, both parties, each with a retinue of supporters drawn from various quarters including the business environment, traditional class, media and more, were locked in a battle of wits, which culminated in the 27 months stay of the body of the deceased in the mortuary.

Recall that in November 2017, Lulu Briggs escaped an assassination attempt at his hometown, Abonnema, in Akuku-Toru Local Council of Rivers State while on a peace and reconciliation meeting between chiefs, opinion leaders and elders of the area, in respect of the crisis rocking the position of the chairman of the council of chiefs.

He had just taken over from Chief Disrael Gbobo Bob-Manuel as Acting Chairman of the Council a week earlier.

Many however, are of the opinion that the major crux of the matter is nested on who lays his hands on the magnificent and sprawling estates of the deceased much more than proving that the billionaire businessman did not die of natural causes, and so the fierce debacle, springing up intrigues, accusations, counter accusations and elongated legal processes. In all these, the body of a man, who was said to be averse to long depositing of corpses in the mortuary, laid dejectedly in cold preservation, waiting for the warring factions to sheath their swords. But that was not to happen very soon.

The first sign of controversy regarding the death and burial of Lulu Briggs arose shortly after the sudden death on arrival to Accra, Ghana.

Seinye narrated as follows:

“On the 27th of December 2018, my beloved husband, High Chief (Dr.) O.B. Lulu-Briggs passed on to glory shortly after our arrival at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana. We traveled on a chartered flight with family, friends and some members of our staff. As soon as we alighted from the flight and the captain and crew bade us farewell, my husband’s nurse asked for an ambulance when she noticed his pulse had dropped. The ambulance took him to the medical center at the airport where a doctor informed us that my husband had passed on. You cannot imagine how shocked we all were.

“Somehow, I managed to notify my husband’s son and eldest daughter Dumo and Solate. They arrived with their siblings on the evening of 28th December and on 29th December, as a family we all visited the mortuary where my husband’s body was eventually on the morning of 28th of December. Thereafter, Senibo and Dumo, his two elder sons, started making arrangements for a casket that would be used to bring back his body to Nigeria.

“While we were preparing for the burial, Senibo – my husband’s eldest son- informed us that he was not ready, and the initial burial date was canceled due to closeness of elections. After several family meetings we agreed on another date, which was 6th of April 2019. But that too was canceled.”

The cancellation of the second date, The Boss was told, was not unconnected with major discoveries in between. Within the period between December 2018 and when the next burial date was programmed, it was revealed that the content of the deceased’s Will had been made public, and therefore, warranted accusations, and need to respond to the arising accusations. Everyone wanted a huge piece of the cake, and they all went about it the best way the deemed fit. “Otherwise, why would a family keep their dead benefactor in the mortuary for that long. It’s all about a selfish interest,” a respondent told The Boss. 

Dumo, being the eldest son of the deceased, was not ready to let the death of his father go uninvestigated, especially having suspected foul play. He therefore, instituted a judicial process to stop the burial until a verifiable autopsy has been conducted. He further stated that his father did not die of natural causes, rather was murdered, pointing accusing fingers at his stepmother, Seinye.

The court had therefore, ordered an autopsy, with representatives of all the feuding parties present. This was embarked upon based on a police report, acting on a petition by the three eldest of the deceased’s seven children, which claimed among others, that “the children suggest that the deceased died a violent or unnatural death or has died a death of which the cause is unknown at present.”

At the end of the day, the Pathology laboratory of the ISO-certified 37 Military Hospital in Ghana, conducted the postmortem on July 19, 2019.

According to the result which was released following the orders of the Supreme Court of Ghana, the deceased reportedly did not die a violent death, ruling out insinuations by some of his relatives that he was murdered.

The cause of death of the High Chief as stated in his autopsy report was “right lung infarction and severe haemorrhages in both lungs due to or as a consequence of pulmonary thromboembolism, the most likely source is inferior vena cava, site of filter.”

Other significant conditions contributing to the death of the statesman, who was steadily climbing to his 89th birthday, according to the report, were “congestive cardiac failure, hypertensive heart and kidney disease.”

More significant pathological findings contained in the report included Hypertensive heart disease, complicated atherosclerosis of aorta and major vessels, right lung infarction with severe haemorrhages, chronic congestion of the liver, hypertensive nephropathy and many other debilitating pathologies.

The autopsy report was signed by both Dr Seth Attoh, the officer-in-charge of Pathology Division of 37 Military Hospital in Ghana and Dr Lawrence Edusei, the Specialist Pathologist of the same hospital.

The release of the autopsy report after months of litigations made some fundamental proofs including that the deceased businessman died of natural causes, and can now be buried, and that Seinye was innocent.

The road was therefore paved for a befitting burial and the preservation of his glowing legacies, but more hitches unceremoniously cropped up to ridicule the January 25, 2020 date later agreed upon by the family for the burial.

Before then, a flurry of activities were on to reconcile warring family members, even as Rivers Government showed interest in early resolution of the matter. There was every indication that a consensus might be reached soon on contentious issues for the burial to hold.

On December 23, 2019, a Ghanaian High Court- had imposed preconditions for the release of the body by the Ghanaian Police and Mortuary for onward transfer to Nigeria for burial. These preconditions, which according to Seinye Lulu Briggs were not difficult, were:

“That the delegation led by Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs that will convey the body of the deceased to Nigeria, should include two representatives of the Plaintiff/Widow, who should be part of the delegation that will convey the body to Nigeria;

”That the family of the deceased, led by Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs, will give a binding unconditional undertaking that, under no circumstance will the family allow or suffer the Plaintiff/Widow to undergo any cruel, inhumane or barbaric customary practices in Nigeria, when the body is conveyed;

“That the family, led by Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs, will further undertake that the Plaintiff/Widow will be ably represented in the burial and funeral preparations, and will be allowed to play her role as a widow mourning her deceased husband.”

While the court went further to order the filing of the report of the autopsy done on the deceased, the release of the filed autopsy report was blocked by an appeal by Dumo Lulu-Briggs. His reasons were not known but imagined. Some said not to allow the public know that High Chief Lulu-Briggs died of natural causes.

It was reported that in blocking the release of the filed autopsy report, Dumo made more accusations, one of which was that his father’s widow had buried the High Chief in March 2019. This was many months after the autopsy was authorised, conducted, released and verified. the accusation raised many questions of how, when and where.

On September 6, 2019, Dumo Lulu-Briggs secured an order from the Magistrate Court in Accra, Ghana to carry out an inquest and a second autopsy on his father’s body. This was countered by Seinye, who vehemently refused with an appeal at a higher court thereby stopping the release of the corpse for a second autopsy.

Giving her reasons for stopping the second inquest and autopsy, Seinye’s spokesperson, Oraye St. Franklyn, said:

“Dr (Mrs) Seinye O. B. Lulu-Briggs repeats that her appeal was made because Dumo without fulfilling any of the three pre-conditions imposed on him by the Court Judgement had gone to the mortuary to pick up the body of her husband in the company of her supposed nominated representatives none of whom she knew, authorized or whose identities she could verify. She views that action as desperation taken too far and part of a sinister plot to obtain the body of her husband in order to wickedly tear it open yet again in the guise of conducting a private autopsy; a sinister autopsy that would fabricate false evidence supporting Dumo’s contrived allegation of her killing her 88 year old husband whom she cared for and loved for more than 2 decades.”

On December 27, 2019, Dumo’s lawyers went back to court to seek clarification of the preconditions before the remains could be released. A mild drama occur on the day in the courtroom as Seinye’s lawyers claimed that the matter will not be heard as it lacked merit. They said Dumo only wanted to further delay the burial of the late businessman. The court however, insisted that the matter would be heard, but went ahead to throw it out.

The Judge said: “I have been invited to clarify my order of the 23rd of December 2019. My order is self-explanatory and need no other clarification.

“I should not appear to be shifting the goal post so as to prejudice the appeal and the applications pending at the Supreme Court. Finding no need for the clarification, I dismiss the application.”

Much as Dumo and the family chiefs went ahead to unilaterally cancel the January 25 burial date, Seinye was optimistic it would hold, believing that the preconditions given to Lulu Briggs children were not difficult to meet.

While Dumo Briggs was withholding the release of the filed autopsy reports, Seinye was withholding the release of remains of the High Chief by her appeal at the High Court of Ghana. She maintained that unless Dumo release the autopsy report and fulfill the preconditions laid down by the court, she would not withdraw her appeal. The stalemate persisted. She maintained that till date none of the pathologists that represented all the parties (herself, Dumo, Police etc) had queried the outcome of the autopsy, and wondered why the report is held in secrecy. One of Dumo’s representatives was President of the Nigerian Medical Association, Dr Adedayo Faduyile.

In the midst of the apparent disagreements, Seinye alleged through her spokesperson that Dumo’s intention was to falsify a report, which might help him to alter her husband’s last will and testament.

“Dr (Mrs) Seinye O. B. Lulu-Briggs is of the firm belief that the reason Dumo is desperately clamouring for his private autopsy is to manipulate the outcome in order to procure a false report to use as the compelling tool in forcing her to set aside her husband’s last wishes as contained in his Last Will and Testament. Dr Mrs Seinye O. B. Lulu-Briggs states clearly that she maintains both her innocence and unpreparedness to set aside her husband’s last wishes as contained in his Last Will and Testament,” he said.

As matters deteriorate, the Amanayabo of Kalabari, King Theophilus J.T. Princewill, Amachree XI, waded in with a committee to help resolve this matter without further delay.

While the king tried to find a solution, two institutions; the Chiefs from Oruwari Briggs compound in Abonnema and the Abonnema chiefs were fighting dirty on the same issue. Seven chief from the Oruwari Briggs compound had placed an advert on national dailies, declaring the dead High Chief missing. The Abonnema Chiefs acted swiftly, placing a counter advertisement.

 

These controversies and litigations that trailed his demise, including legal tussles in Nigerian and Ghanaian Courts where he truly, finally came to a conclusive end, and the body was finally released and brought back to Nigeria on March 16, 2020. This was the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic and subsequent restrictions by the federal and state governments as regards funerals and large gatherings further dragged the final burial rites to a later date.

Speaking to the press in January at Abonnema on behalf of the Oruwari Briggs House, Ibim Dokubo, a lawyer, stated as follows: “It is our pleasure at this point to break the news that the late High Chief Olu Benson Lulu-Briggs, OON, DCF, DSSRS, the Iniikeiroari V of Kalabari Kingdom and Paramount Head of Oruwari Briggs House of Abonnema will be committed to mother Earth on Saturday, March 13, 2021.

“The major reason we could not plan the burial ceremony was because for more than fifteen months we could not take custody of the mortal remains of High Chief O.B. Lulu- Briggs because of the series of Court cases that denied the family from taking custody of the body. The controversy (that) surrounded the demise of our Paramount Head was widely reported in the media.

“Even when on December 23, 2019, a High Court in Ghana ruled that the body of the monarch be released to the family led by Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs, the matter was appealed up to the Supreme Court before the body was finally brought on March 16, 2020 into the waiting arms of the prevailing Covid restrictions.

“The overwhelming view was we needed to wait for the relaxation of the COVID-19 restrictions because High Chief O.B. Lulu-Briggs was a man of many parts, who had positively touched many lives.

“He was a public servant, a labour leader, a politician, a businessman, a philanthropist par excellence and a very High Chief. It would therefore be a gross disservice to his memory to deny his legion of friends and associates the opportunity to honour him at his funeral.”

On March 13, 2021 therefore, the entire family came together, set up a broad-based burial committee and gave the patriarch the honour that he very well deserves.

All is well that ends well, according to William Shakespeare, and swords are sheathed today, paving the way for the grand funeral that was accorded the Abonnema High Chief in his hometown.

Contrary to beliefs, there were no disturbing incidents as the who in who in Ijaw kingdom and their friends were on ground to bid the great philanthropist farewell in dignity, panache and pomp.

High Chief O. B. Lulu Briggs was the founder of Moni Pulo Limited, and a prominent traditional influence in the affairs of Abonnema Kingdom of Rivers State. In 2012, he was named number 31 among the 40 richest men in Africa by Forbes.

His company has oil blocks in Ondo, Abia and Akwa-Ibom states. Its flagship project, OML 114, produces 10,000 barrels per day. Along with his wife, he funds the O.B Lulu Briggs Foundation, which provides humanitarian services to rural communities.

Opuda, as he was fondly called while growing up, was a man of many parts who rose from a humble beginning to become a great force in the business world, creating impacts and affecting humanity positively.

He had his primary education in Abonnema before moving to Calabar and Jos. Most of his learnings were privately sought before he left for the United Kingdom for advanced studies. This strong will to succeed marked him out and elevated him even among his contemporaries.

His first career experience as a clerk with the Mandilas and Karabaris. He later proved his mettle and showed signs of greatness when he joined the Nigerian Ports Authority in 1955, rising to the position of Principal Industrial Relations Officer. He served as secretary of NPA’s workers’ Union for seven years and chairman of the Maritime Trade Union Federation, Eastern Port from 1968-1971.

He was never found wanting in any of his positions, but wrote his name in gold through achievements that have remained unequalled.

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