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On December 27, 2018, High Chief Olu Benson Lulu-Briggs and his wife Seinye took off on a private flight from Port Harcourt International Airport to Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana. The short hop from Nigeria to Ghana on a charter flight was hardly a rarity for the billionaire businessman and his wife, but the fallout of that day’s events is still reverberating across Rivers State and the wider Niger Delta region more than a year later.
This is a story that would make a Mexican Telenovela screenwriter green with envy, with its abundance of plot twists, shocking revelations, powerful women, dangerous men and an international legal dispute. It has everything you can imagine – infighting, skullduggery, a bitter family feud, greasy allegations, public media battles, courtroom drama, and – for maximum effect – a prominent ex-Niger Delta warlord and the current Rivers State governor.
At the centre of the story are three key pillars – the billionaire’s powerful widow Seinye Lulu-Briggs, his arguably even more powerful eldest son Chief Dumo Lulu-Briggs and the fabulous family fortune he left behind which includes a real estate empire and several oil mining and oil prospecting licenses.
A Billionaire Dies and a Family Feud Begins
On the day in question, according to flight records at Port Harcourt International Airport, the flight conveying Lulu-Briggs and his wife took off later than scheduled. A request emanating from the flight was made for a ‘cargo permit’ before takeoff. A cargo permit is the official permission that an aircraft needs to convey certain types of loads.
Such as a human corpse for example.
As yet however, there is no material evidence to say that a death occurred before takeoff, so it must be assumed that everyone onboard was alive at takeoff. Here the story starts getting complicated. According to the official story, upon landing at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, High Chief Lulu-Briggs was pronounced dead, and his corpse was conveyed to 37 Military Hospital on Mills Road, Accra. The family back home was informed of his death and at this point, all proverbial hell broke loose as the enraged family pointed accusing fingers at Seinye.
Suspecting foul play in his father’s death, Dumo Lulu-Briggs immediately demanded that an autopsy be carried out. At this point, one would think that the autopsy report would have determined once and for all what happened so everyone could get their closure. Unfortunately, while the autopsy report determined that the philanthropist died of a heart attack, the toxicology report (a report on the substances found in his bloodstream), which would establish or debunk foul play once and for all, was not provided.
Despite an order from the Kaneshie District Magistrate Court in July 2019 for this report to be provided, it has somehow not surfaced since then. In September, the court Magistrate and Coroner, Mrs. E.K. Barnes-Botchway granted an ex parte motion application by Dumo Lulu-Briggs for an inquest into his father’s death. While ordering the inquest, Barnes-Botchway stated that she had probable cause to believe that High Chief Lulu-Briggs did not in fact die a natural death.
Seinye Lulu-Briggs: Black Widow or Victim of Cultural Chauvinism?
In response, Seinye Lulu-Briggs then filed a motion at the High Court in Accra demanding that the Magistrate Court should be prohibited from proceeding with the inquest. According to court papers, her reasons for demanding a halt to a process that could comprehensively clear her of all suspicion, were that the Kaneshie District Magistrate Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case, and the Coroner’s prior comments about the case exposed a bias against her.
An excerpt from the court filing reads:
“I am advised by Counsel and I believe same to be true that, when an autopsy has been conducted, the proper and fair procedure is for the Coroner to rely on the contents of the autopsy report to determine whether to order an inquest.”
Bear in mind that at this point, the toxicology report had still not been provided, so the thrust of Mrs. Lulu-Briggs argument was essentially that the incomplete autopsy report should have been enough for the Magistrate to declare the matter closed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dumo and the late billionaire’s other sons have since embarked on a series of public media skirmishes with their father’s widow, hinting at but not quite accusing her of culpability for the man’s death.
Amid all of this, the corpse of the late man remains in a Ghanaian mortuary, to the chagrin of his Kalabari kinsmen back home in Rivers State.
To understand why the late High Chief’s survivors are involved in such a bitter dispute, it is important to note that Dumo, Seinbo and Sofiri Lulu-Briggs who are the late billionaire’s oldest sons are not Seinye’s biological children. Dumo’s mother, Madam Irene Ine Sokari Lulu-Briggs nee Danagogo was the first wife of the family patriarch. This hints at a predictable and extant power struggle pitting Seinye against her husband’s oldest sons.
More significantly, since his death, the many assets and business interests he controlled have come under the control of his widow – something that his biological children have taken great exception to. Indeed, an unverified document purporting to be the late billionaire’s Will released to the media in the immediate aftermath of his death points to the heart of the dispute.
According to the above document, Dumo Lulu-Briggs and his siblings were expressly omitted from all inheritance by their father, and all his assets and business concerns were willed to his wife. While stranger things have been known to happen, it raises the question of why High Chief Lulu-Briggs would have taken such a drastic stance in 2012 while just a year before, he installed Dumo as Chief of the Lulu-Briggs family and head of the family in his absence.
Even more bafflingly, why did he – apparently two years after doing the legal equivalent of blowing up his children with napalm – then support Dumo’s bid to gain the PDP ticket for Rivers State in the 2014 gubernatorial election?
Not a Simple Family Squabble
As can be surmised, the Telemundo-worthy saga surrounding High Chief Lulu-Briggs’ death has a lot more to it than meets the eye. At the centre of the late man’s empire lies the family’s frontline business, Moni Pulo Limited, which is an oil exploration and production company formed in 1992 under a program by former military head of state Ibrahim Babangida to encourage indigenous participation in the upstream oil and gas industry.
His estimated net worth of $1.1bn including about $500m in liquid cash holdings includes oil mining and prospecting stakes in several areas scattered across Ondo, Abia and Akwa Ibom states. The jewel in the crown is OML 114 in Abana, Cross River state, which produces about 10,000 barrels per day, while OPL 234, OPL 239 OPL 231 are also being developed for oil production.
This sort of wealth comes with the potential for significant political influence in the politics of Rivers State and Nigeria as a whole. Unsurprisingly, some of the most recognisable faces in the politics of Rivers State have got involved in the saga. Former militant leader Asari Dokubo and current Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike are just two of the prominent personalities who have weighed in on the matter.
While the matter is by no means concluded, there is however, one important update on the fate of the High Chief’s corpse and the wider asset dispute which it serves as a proxy for. On December 23, an Accra High Court presided over by Appeal Court Justice Eric Kyei Baffour ordered that his remains be released to his biological family led by Dumo Lulu-Briggs, and conveyed to Nigeria for burial and funeral rites in line with Kalabari customs.
While Dumo, Seinbo and Sofiri will doubtless see this as a win after a year of frustrating legal processes, this is however, likely to be just the start of a series of lengthy legal and media battles as the proverbial unstoppable force meets its immovable object.
Only one thing is sure – the late man would not have wanted any of this.