Emmanuel Nimley first met Mohammed Jabbateh, a warlord known as Jungle Jabbah, on a bridge outside Monrovia, the Liberian capital. It was the dry season of 1992, during a stalemate in Liberia’s first civil war, which would ultimately kill tens of thousands of people.
At the time, Nimley was operating a successful transport company, and Jabbateh, a commander in the ULIMO rebel group, had sent aides to Nimley’s office with a business proposition. He wanted to know if Nimley would make some of his trucks available to the rebels to move rubber from western Liberia, where Jabbateh’s forces held territory, to the Monrovia port.
In a war that was already turning Liberia into a byword for wanton brutality, the ULIMO fighters, and Jabbateh in particular, stood out as especially fearsome, reportedly committing all manner of killings, torture, and sexual violence. Their ranks included a number of “heartmen,” a term referring to perpetrators of ritual killings who sometimes extracted, cooked, and ate the hearts of their victims, believing this would bring them strength. Nimley, familiar with such stories, had no interest in going into business with them, and initially tried to decline Jabbateh’s offer. But Jabbateh’s men insisted that Nimley speak with their boss directly.
Their meeting was scheduled on a bridge over the Po River, in a buffer zone between the capital and rebel territory. When Nimley arrived, he looked across and saw Jabbateh, with his trademark short dreadlocks, for the first time. A Nigerian peacekeeper posted at the crossing warned Nimley, “I guarantee your safety to this point. If you cross that bridge and anything happens to you, you’re on your own.” Nimley hesitated, but decided to walk on after seeing Jabbateh set down his AK-47. “I did martial arts,” he said. “Me, I can defend myself.”
That initial encounter formed the basis of a partnership that would span two continents and more than 10 years. For several months, Nimley transported rubber for ULIMO, taking a cut for himself once the trucks reached Monrovia. Jabbateh promised to keep the trucks safe, and somehow, despite the chaos of the war, he kept his word.
The two men fell out of contact after Nimley, wary of a new wave of violence threatening Monrovia, fled the country. About 10 years later, though, they were reunited just outside Philadelphia, where there is a sizable Liberian diaspora community. One day, in a loading yard where Nimley was working, his old partner came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. “He said, ‘You know me, it’s Jungle.’ I said, ‘Jabbateh!’ We embraced each other,” Nimley recalled.
Nimley had, since arriving in Philadelphia, founded a business that sent shipping containers to West Africa, and Jabbateh asked Nimley to teach him the trade. Nimley agreed. Though the two men did not grow especially close, they maintained their cordial professional relationship, and Nimley observed as Jabbateh, his combat days behind him, quietly went about establishing a life for himself and his family in America.