By Gbénró Adégbóla
The tragic Beirut blast the other day is still in the news.
It provides a good opportunity for us to take a look at a demographic group of Nigerians many may not know of.
Let’s talk about Lebanese Nigerians, some of who’ve been here for 4 generations, since 1885, shall we?
There’s some controversy as to who exactly was the first Lebanese to arrive in Nigeria, but what is clear is that it was between 1885 and 1890. Some think it is Michael Elias who first arrived. Others say it is Elias Kourhy.
Michael Elias found early success as a cattle trader in Lagos & at the height of his trading, he was doing 15,000 heads of cattle a year. He is said to have later built a three-story building on Ereko/Balogun street on Lagos Island. He was buried in Lagos at his death.
Many more Lebanese began to arrive following the earliest settlers. The largest settlements were mainly in Lagos, Ibadan and Kano, although Port Harcourt, Calabar and Warri as well as many parts of the North West, also had significant Lebanese presence.
Kano has a major road; Beirut Road, now the city’s telecoms & computer retail hub. Ibadan has Lebanon Street right in the center of town. There are other similar landmarks elsewhere pointing to their long presence. By 1938, they had grown in number to 818 documented families.
A major feature of Nigeria’s Lebanese community is that they mostly come from mainly 2 villages. Miziarah in the North populated mostly by Christians & Jwaya in the South, an area populated by Shia Moslems.
At the height of it, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were close to 200,000 ‘Lebanese’ settled all over Nigeria. Although quite a number were Syrians, Libyan and Morrocan Jews erroneously referred to as Lebanese; all Arabs/
Middle Easterns, tended to be called Lebanese.
Perhaps the most famous monument to their presence in Nigeria is the Independence Fountain at Tinubu Square in Lagos, donated as an independence gift to Nigeria in 1960, by the Lebanese community.
After the arrival of the earliest, the first set of second generation Lebanese Nigerians began to be born around the mid 1920s upwards, in places like Lagos, Kano, Ile Ife & Ibadan. People like the Zard brothers; William Maurice and Raymond were all born between Ibadan and Ife.
Relatively younger ones born in the 1940s, including the billionaire businessman Gilbert Chagoury, who was born in Lagos in 1946 are among the older members of the community today.
Today, of the about 116,000 ‘white’ Nigerians by naturalization, it is reckoned that there are about 30,000 Lebanese, many of whom are third and fourth generation Lebanese-Nigerians who hold the Nigerian passport.
They engaged originally in cocoa, textile sales, cattle, hides and skin trades, up till about the 60s. After independence they dominated the Cinemas, Restaurant, Nite Life, Gaming and Pools Betting industries.
They later moved into the oil and gas, tourism/hospitality, construction, food processing and manufacturing industries in Nigeria.
The Aim Group, for example, a family run conglomerate whose activities includes broadcasters Cool FM and Wazobia FM, Wazobia TV, Confectionery, Architectural Design and construction, is Lebanese Nigerian owned, descendants of Michael Elias.
Between them, the Lebanese Nigerians, generate a significant %tage, in the middle 1 to early 2 figure %centile of Lebanon’s GDP through remittances back home. There’s an interesting article on their somewhat extravagant holiday homes & mansions in Miziara.
There are also streets named after Nigeria there in Lebanon, both in Jwaya and Miziara.
Curiously, Nigeria and Lebanon didn’t seem to have formal diplomatic relations till 1973, when Nigeria’s mission was opened in Beirut.
Historically prominent Lebanese Nigerian family names include Fawaz, Gamra, Aboul, Hajiag, Moukarim, El-Khalil, Boulous, Zard, Saad, Kawam, Halawi, Taktouck, Safiedin and many others.
Back in the ‘70s, there were several flights to and fro Beirut per week and it was a popular shopping and holiday destination. The Lebanese civil war from 1975, put an end to all that.
The war also brought an influx of refuge seekers to Nigeria. Many did not bother to learn the host culture & tended to display racist attitudes both in their speech & employment practices. Some engaged in criminal acts. That was the beginning of their sometimes poor reputation.
Undoubtedly, the Lebanese Nigerian population has whittled in the past many years. Many of the younger ones have gone on to acquire American, Canadian, Australian and other citizenships, and have moved on, but Nigeria remains a true home for them.
Dedicated to the memory of Fadi Halawi, my friend and occasional golf buddy, who sadly passed away a month ago on 14th July at the age of 53.
A true Ibadan man.
May his gentle soul Rest In Peace.