Inventor and business man Mike Akkary is a white Nigerian of Lebanese decent. Even though his family arrived Nigeria in 1910 and Mike, who speaks Hausa with a Zamfara accent, has won three National Merit awards, he still finds the embrace of his country a bit callous.
When Abraham Abdallah Akkary left his village of Miziara, in Northern Lebanon and set sail for Brazil in the early 1900s, he was only doing what millions of Lebanese have been doing for years, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century—migrating.
Over a hundred years later, his descendant, Mike Akkary, 55, sitting in the lobby of his hotel in Minna, northern Nigeria says, “There is no reason for the Lebanese to say we have to immigrate, they just immigrate. And when they go, they just go.”
How four generations of the Abdallah Akkary family came to call Nigeria their country is a mix of fate and deception.
When the ship on which Abraham Akkary was traveling alongside other Lebanese emigrants berthed in the port of Lagos in 1910, they were told they had arrived Brazil.
Not knowing any better, they disembarked, determined to set up home and business in a new country. It is not clear when exactly they discovered they had been conned, or why they didn’t push out to Brazil afterwards.
“They survive where they are and die where they are,” Mike says about Lebanese emigrants. “And when they die, they say bury us here. Other nationalities go back, but not the Lebanese.”
So Abraham Akkary decided to survive the territory the British would later call Nigeria, crossing its rain forest and its savannah, pushing further into the hinterland all the way to the northern town of Gusau, some 860 kilometres from Lagos. He was later joined by his brother, Michael Akkary.
He made money selling colourful beads he had brought with him from his homeland. But even this was not without some difficulties. Villagers he tried to interest in his beads, having never seen a white person before, fled, thinking he was a ghost. But Abraham persevered and eventually won over the locals.
And he was eventually joined by his brother Michael Akkary and together the brothers built a family business that involved trade in textiles and later, diversified into cinemas.
But the matter of skin colour did not end with the first Akkary brothers, who eventually passed away in the 1960s. It is also the bane of Michael’s grandson, Mike, a third generation Nigerian for an altogether different reason.
“There are areas where kidnappers are lurking. It is safe for me to go around but it is not safe if I don’t take care. We hope this will be taken care of with the new president so that we can have a free country like we had in the ‘60s where we were only afraid of animals,” he says.
What most people don’t quite realise is that Mike is a local, his family has lived here even before Nigeria became a country in 1914, he has lived all his life in Nigeria and speaks Hausa with a Zamfara accent. He thinks very much like a Nigerian. When he says, “We are Nigerians,” it is with a mix of pride and exasperation, like a typical Nigerian that has been cuddled and bruised by this country.
Several times, he has been to Miziara, the village in Lebanon where his family stemmed from.
“Sometimes we go once every five years. There is a time we didn’t go for 16 years. There are Lebanese-Brazilians; they don’t know Lebanon because they’ve never been there. There are Lebanese-Australians, they don’t know Lebanon. But we go sometimes,” he says.
But despite the visits, Mike feels like a foreigner amongst his kin. His entire life is based in Nigeria. This is the country where if he gets into money troubles, he has people to fall back on, the same people he helps out when they have money troubles of their own. He does not have a similar network in Lebanon.
“We came here in the 1900s. We become multinationals. We are Nigerians, yes and no. We are Lebanese, yes and no. Maybe we would fit more in Nigeria than in the Arab world, because even our communication is no longer the same,” he says, staring ahead reflectively.
It is not only in terms of communication that Mike sees a difference. Even their mindset is different.
“A typical Lebanese will come here looking for money for himself. We, who have been here, we will be looking for money to pay our staff, to keep them going with their family. We are working for here, they are working for there,” he says.
The staff Mike refers to are the 200 people who had been on his payroll, working in his hotel and his Akkary factory, which has been closed down for a couple of years now. It is not far from the hotel, this factory, and there, the heavy machineries stand in a mildewed building gathering dust. In its productive days, the factory functioned as a fertilizer blending plant, a tricycle manufacturing and modifying unit, where Mike produced tricycle ambulances, water tanks, and even refuse trucks for use in rural areas. They are designed to withstand the rigours of Nigeria’s rugged terrain.
Mike is an engineer and inventor of repute and is keen on using local raw materials for his products. But this passion has caused him as much pride as it has caused him anguish.
“We have been researching on how to manufacture automobiles using locally-sourced material but we haven’t had any kind of support [from the government] despite there being a Raw Material Research Council,” he says standing by the machines that now look like the carcases of hope.
Amongst his machines, Mike is full of pride as he explains his inventions and their capabilities. But when he talks about his frustrations and how lack of government patronage forced him to close down, his eyes dim and his shoulders slouch. His speech is often punctuated with exasperated shrugs. It is with this sad expression that he pulls the door close, solemnly, like one putting a sick child to sleep.
His first venture into manufacturing was in the 1980s when he set up a macaroni company in Lagos. But in the wake of the unrest that followed the June 12, 1993 elections, his employees were attacked, forcing him to close down his business and move back to the North.
Back in his hotel lobby, Mike looks around at the framed photos on the wall. In some he poses with former Nigeria rulers, General Yakubu Gowon, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, And General Ibrahim Babangida. In one he was captured in a handshake with President Olusegun Obasanjo.
It was taken during a National Merit Award ceremony and in here, Mike has found some recognition for his works. He has received National Merits Awards from three Heads of States, as well as a host of awards from trade fairs and various government agencies.
“I am a general in my field,” he says proudly. “I have earned several awards for my works. I have succeeded through my awards to get my rank.”
But like everything that has to do with his country Nigeria, it always comes with an element of frustration. He is worried that these awards have not translated into the kind of success that would allow him support his employees. When he speaks of this, his voice is heavy and there is a shadow in his eyes, eyes that have seen Nigeria grow from a newly independent British colony, to a floundering giant of Africa.
“We are approaching 60 now and we are still working like before but we can’t move around all that much. We look in the mirror and say we are ageing o,” he says.
It is this fear of ageing and what this would mean in a Nigeria that has refused to embrace him whole-heartedly and allow him to help her grow that has made him seriously consider moving to another country – not Lebanon, but perhaps North America.
His children found Lebanon harsh when he sent them there for their university education. The culture was too different from what they had grown into in Nigeria.
But when it comes to leaving, Mike is reluctant, especially after every election. “We have hope that this change will bring something different. It is the hope that we have that we could do something and they will see. That they will call us and say what can you do and I will say I can produce tricycles and water purification plants and fertilizer plants. Every four years we give it a chance but age is not giving us a chance. We must look for retirement somewhere.”
If he does leave eventually, he won’t be the first Lebanese-Nigerian to. At some point Mike estimated that there were around 500, 000 Lebanese in Nigeria. Now he says that figure has dropped to just about 100, 000. Many of them got frustrated with the system and moved on.
With the new government in Niger State promising to help revive the factory through a scheme that will see Mike training some 200 people on manufacturing spare parts, he is willing to give it another shot.
“We are still around. We hope it works out but if it doesn’t maybe we too have to head somewhere,” he says, looking blandly into space.
But it looks like Mike will be staying after all, with the Governor of Niger State, Abubakar Sani Bello committing to reviving the Akkary Factory by not procuring from elsewhere what the company can manufacture. This news has brought the tinkle back in Mike’s voice and made him a more optimistic Nigerian.