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HE WAS ONCE A BUS CONDUCTOR ANDPALM WINE TAPPER. NOW, HE RUNS A FLOURISHING LAW FIRM

By NBF News
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He heads a flourishing law firm in Lagos and travels around the world for business and pleasure. But that is not the beginning of the life story of Nkem Emmanuel Anaekie.

Before becoming a lawyer, he had at various times been a journalist, teacher, apprentice trader, bus conductor and palmwine tapper. Once he came perilously close to being ripped to bits by a baboon in the bush while going to tap palm wine in the wee hours.

In fact, there was a time things were so rough for him that he harboured dark thoughts of self-destruction, fear and confusion about his future.

Indeed, Anaekie's story is a cocktail of hopes, palpable intrigue and actualized dreams. It is a classic grass to grace story, a demonstration of the never-say-die spirit of a typical Nigerian. And it is better heard from the horse's mouth.

'I started on a very rough note before I got to where I am today. In 1967, when I was almost through with my elementary school, the civil war broke out and I was taken to Onitsha as trainee articles trader. While learning the trade, Onitsha fell and I trekked from Onitsha to my village, which is about 38 kilometres away. Even at that youthful age, it was not a pleasurable experience.

When I got to the village, I could not find anything to do. So, I became a palm wine tapper. I was 14 years old at that time. I continued to tap palm wine until the war ended in 1970. I also had some training with the Biafran Organisation of Freedom Fighters. (BOFF). We were taught how to use bare hands to overcome an opponent. However, I did not major there.

At the end of the war in 1970, I used the proceeds of my palm wine business to sponsor my education. I had gone to all my relations to train me but they all turned down my request. But I was determined to go to school, so nothing could deter me or derail my ambition.

I was in secondary school class one in 1970 at the age of 17. I sat for the examination but because I did not pay school fees, they did not allow me proceed to class two. And many times while reading in the classroom, the principal and the teachers would storm the class and flog the hell out of those of us who could not afford fees. Many of my colleagues who were in the same situation dropped out. Only four of us continued in spite of the humiliation. My parents were peasant farmers who could not afford to pay school fees but I just could not imagine myself dropping out. The small money I made from palm wine tapping was barely enough to buy my books and other things, not school fees of one pound then.

In my second year, the flogging and humiliation continued. Sometimes, they would lock me in the toilet for two days for refusing to dropout. At the end of class two in 1971, there was no result. Then I went to a relation of mine, late Mr. Peter Okolo, asking for assistance. He was a very rich man but he refused to help me. What my father did was to pledge a plot of land bequeathed to me to build my own house when the time comes. The land was pledged to him for two pounds. The money was used to offset my first and second year school fees.

When I got to class three, the man refused to pay my fees again. That was another problem. We went to another relation again to help me after I had written to the pope, bishop and government of East Central State begging for scholarship. None of them could help me. I still have the replies to those letters. But I did not give up.

We later met a man who accepted that he would only train me from class three to five on the condition that I would reciprocate when I pass out. The agreement was that when I complete my secondary education and start working, I would train his children. We signed an agreement to that effect.

The funny thing was that I had an agreement with the man who gave us two pounds stating that four months after my school certificate examinations I would refund the money or forfeit the land. The agreement was prepared by a Queens Counsel then (QC). Remember that the two pounds was for my first and second year school fees. The way I would pay my fees for the remaining three years was not talked about. Yet, I was required to pay back the two pounds four months after completing my secondary school or forfeit my land. I attended Holy Cross High School, Umuawulu. My principal was Mr. Belonwu.

A turning point came when I made Grade One in the school certificate examinations despite all the problems. I took an entrance examination to do Higher School Certificate (HSC) and I was posted to Federal Government College, Kano. Funny enough, the man going for HSC in Kano had no kobo on him. All I had was the transport fare I made from palm wine.

On arrival at the school, I went for registration. At a point, the accountant of the school, one man from the old Bendel State asked for my school fees. I asked him, which school fees? They did not indicate in my admission letter that I would pay school fees and I came with nothing. The man abused me and asked me to go away.

Incidentally, the administration block was in a lonely place, infested by stray dogs and I was abandoned there till 10.00pm. The principal, Mr. Bullock, a Briton, came around and saw me clutching my weather beaten bag. He asked what I was doing there and I told him I came to school. He asked what I was doing outside then and I told him I was asked to pay school fees, which I didn't have. He asked again why I came to school when I did not have school fees. I told him that I came because I wanted to go to school. He left me and brought the vice principal, who happened to come from Igbo speaking area of Delta State. The vice principal was very angry with me, saying that people like me were disgracing our people. I begged them to forgive me if I had committed any offence, insisting however that it was not indicated in my letter that school fees were required.

They asked me if I had eaten. But the truth was that I did not eat any food for two days before I arrived there. So, they brought me food. At that time I had not eaten a good lump of meat in my life. So, when they brought a plate full of meat for me, I couldn't believe my eyes. I asked them if the food was actually for me and they said yes. I was only used to bush rats and things like that. The man was watching me while I ate the food. He later took me to the school house and got me a bed to sleep on.

The next day at 5.30am, the man came again with the vice principal and asked me to tell them my story. I repeated the story. He told the vice principal to allow me to remain in school. That was how I got a scholarship. It was another turning point. I did well in my HSC examination, passing my four papers. But that was the beginning of another problem because there was no money to go to the university. All my mates secured admission into the university except me.

I got a pleasant surprise package at Kano. At the end of the term, I was given six pounds as transport fare. I didn't know there was provision for that. A bus took me to Enugu. The transport fare from Enugu to my village was about one shilling. When I got home, I called my brother and some neighbours to join me to the lender's home as witnesses when I refund the money we had borrowed. My father was wondering how I got the money. He asked me if I stole and I explained to him my journey in Kano. He pointedly told me never to steal, saying it was not in the character of the family to do so. I assured him that I did not and will never do anything to tarnish the image or name of the family.

So, we went to the man who lent us money. I brought the agreement, money, palm wine and kolanuts to thank him. But the man refused to collect the money, saying that I should go until whenever I finish with schooling. I asked him what about the agreement you had with me? Do you want to take my land? I left the things I brought including the loan with some interest on the table and tore the agreement into pieces. My witnesses are still alive up till today. So, I took back my land.

Since there was no money to go back to school, I went to seek for a teaching appointment. Between 1976 and 1977, I taught at the Abagana Girls Secondary School. While teaching, I saw a publication calling for people to apply for scholarship. I applied and forgot about it. Then Anambra State has been created.

One day, somebody brought a newspaper publication indicating that I had been offered scholarship by Anambra State government. In fact, my name was number one on the list. That was in April 1977. I was to receive N500 per annum. It was a lot of money. I used the N607 I had saved while teaching and a part of the scholarship money to build my first house in the village. I did that because we did not have any house in my compound.

Instead of reading law, which was my first choice, I read Mass Communication at the University of Lagos because my father said he did not want me to be a lawyer. You know, there was some kind of myth about law and lawyers. He rejected law because, according to him, when lawyers die they will be buried face down because they lie a lot. At the time, I believed him but my mind was still there.

When I finished my course in 1980, I was posted to do my National Youth Service in the old Gongola State. I was the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the NYSC. I became a big man of sort because I was given two cars, a Peugeot 504 salon and a Volkswagen beetle. It was another turning point. I made a lot of money there with which I built another house. The house is still standing till today. I made the money from allowances given to me because of my constant movements. At the time, there was only one bank in Yola, the state capital. That was First Bank. I was the one carrying money to pay corps members. Most of the time I was refunded money I spent on travelling. I saved the money and built a six-room bungalow with it.

After youth service, I joined the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) as a reporter. Thereafter, I went back to the University of Lagos (UNILAG) to read law.

There was something that happened when I was a palm wine tapper, which I will never forget. There was a time that we had a festival and as I was going to tap wine very early in the morning. As I was passing through the bushes, I was singing because I was afraid. The bush path was narrow and snaky. Suddenly, I came face to face with a very huge baboon. It was beckoning me to come and I did not have a gun. Even if I had a gun, three or four shots could not have killed it and it would have fought back before dying. I did not know what to do, so I threw the basket I was holding at and ran back.

In 1969, I worked as a bus conductor. I was accompanying a 911 lorry, which conveyed soldiers and goods from place to place. I did that just to make ends meet.

Looking back, life has taught me great lessons. It has taught me to be humble, focused and prayerful because I never knew I would get to this state in life. I believe that whatever accomplishment in life is by the grace of God not the effort of man.

In fact, when I was looking for job in 1976 and could not find any, I contemplated suicide. I had picked a rope to end it all. I could not afford university education and I could not secure a job, so I was frustrated to the point that life became meaningless.

What restored my courage and brought me back from the brink was something written on a vehicle I saw when I was returning from Enugu where I had gone in search of job. The English may not be perfect but the message was certainly profound. It read: 'Destiny is unchangeable. Why worry?' I read it and felt it was specifically meant for me. Instructively, the next day I got the letter for a teaching appointment.

Today, I cannot thank God enough. Now, I travel to everywhere I want because I can afford it. I can afford to buy any car that catches my fancy. I am happily married and blessed with four children. My first daughter is a medical doctor. She is married. My first son is a law student in his final year. My third child, who read accountancy, is doing his youth service. The last but not the least is reading computer science at University of Lagos. My wife is a teacher. Am I not an accomplished and blessed man so much loved by God?

Indeed, the answer to Anaekie's question is, no doubt, you are. And in fact, he is a lesson to others in the dark alleys of life not knowing where next to go.