Friday, May 18, 2007
CITY UNDER SIEGE
This piece cost me three thousand naira to write and a lecture from the street school of experience. My car had displayed a niggling problem for a while, deciding to flat-line in the most unbelievable places for no reason at all, so my mechanic, Martin (in Lagos, they make house calls) and I decided we’d trouble shoot.
We left home early in the morning, laspapi in the driver’s seat, air-conditioner on, Fela Anikulapo Kuti calling the Nigerian Head-of-State, Obasanjo, names on the car-deck... All was well with the world. The car, with a mind of its own, decided not to flat-line, behaving itself impeccably.
Martin, probably lulled into a false sense of security suggested we drive to the island (I live in Surulere and we’d been making large circles in this area). So off to the island we went, climbing the famous eko bridge.
It was 9am.
We were at the centre of the bridge when the car died. I was confident, ignoring the curious stares of other drivers as Martin got out and raised the bonnet, peering under the hood, spanners in hand. The best dressed car-mechanic I know, I was never alarmed if he was around. I got out too and looked around in the heavy traffic as Martin pondered.
I had no idea where they came from. They were about eight men, and they looked as mean as sin. “Give us our own”, they said in vernacular. I explained nicely that the car was experiencing difficulty and how could I do that if it wasn’t moving. The lead guy had blocked my door, leaning on it so I couldn’t enter and the demands continued. They wanted money or there’d be hell. Other drivers cautiously bye-passed us. I didn’t get the full gravity of it, still trying to explain as they snarled and dribbled from the mouth around me. One kept a close eye on the chain around my neck and probably having no idea of white gold, let it be where it lay. It was a few minutes after nine in the morning.
I knew I couldn’t give these marauders money because everything I had was in a wallet (all eleven thousand of it) and to bring out that wallet would have been suicidal. After a while, the lead guy said he wanted to give me advice as we spoke the same language. According to him, it would be better for them to help push the car down the bridge to one of the roads on the side, as even if I paid them, other groups would come and “ask for theirs” then others still would come and “obtain” (street slang for dispossessing me off all my property). I thought it best to yield to good advice to prevent being “obtained”. As I got into the car so they could push, I heard one bray not to let my mechanic back into the car. Effectively, they had a hostage.
They quickly cleared space for me as they pushed, the lead guy seated on the car bonnet as we descended. At this time, I quickly brought out my wallet, removed three thousand naira and stuffed the rest into the back pocket of my jeans. The guy on the bonnet looked at me as I did this, re-assuring me with signs through the windscreen that all was well and I need not fear. When he looked ahead to shout out directions, I removed the money in my back pocket and stuffed it on top of the sun visor just above the windscreen.
Then I used the momentum of the push and tried to start the car, using the second gear, and the “las-mobile” magically roared to life and surged forward. One thing though, my mechanic was firmly ensconced between the other gang members and I couldn‘t leave him behind. As they caught up with me, I heard the original eight snarling and warning off others, more wolves who had smelt easy prey and were running determinedly to join the kill.
I thought to myself, “I’ve been had. This is a quiet spot removed from the eyes of the public. I‘m alone here.”
As more feral members joined, fiercely asking where their share of the loot was, the lead member came to my window to push them away from direct contact with me. I hadn’t seen a single weapon but as I looked at a particular fellow by my window, I knew I was inches away from being slashed. I handed three thousand naira to the alpha-thief who bellowed in primeval tones, “This is not our money, this is not our money. Our money is ten thousand naira”. The others began to jostle, getting more menacing, and I yelled at him, “don’t we speak the same language?” (again that appeal to tribal lunacy), “come into the car, come into the car, let me talk to you”. Without thinking he got into my front passenger seat and the quick-thinking Martin slid into the back seat and locked his own door as members of the gang yelled again in Yoruba, “Don’t get into the car with him”, “Don’t let the mechanic get in, don’t let him get in”. As I turned to plead with the lead guy, engine still running, one put a hand into my side of the car and from nowhere had my wallet in his hands, rifling through it. That caught the attention of the leader who jumped out of the car, racing to the guy with the wallet. I believe the gang leader felt the best way to get all I had was not through brazen force as had already commenced. I yelled, a cross between anger and fear, snatched my wallet back from the guy by the window who had removed all the money in it (about one hundred naira in small notes), still pondering whether he had done well or not and careened off, my foot flat out on the accelerator, willing the car not to die, Martin on the back seat, holding on for dear life.
I hit the main road to Ijora and turned into it at 60km an hour and then took a sharp right to the back entrance of the Arts Theatre where I was stopped by a police check point. Martin and I, adrenalin flowing, got out of the car to tell them what had happened and the policemen commiserated with us. They were far removed from the spot and knew the gang would have dispersed. As we stood by them, Martin again looking into the engine which had decided to fail us afresh by the policemen, one cop in particular told tales of horror. Of a man who had been pursued by robbers on the very road we were on and had been saved by a police patrol van when his car got stuck, of robbers laying in wait for drivers by the theatre’s back entrance at night… Just before we drove off, the policeman tapping a rifle he described as just issued, spoke about their lack of weaponry, the fact they had no stun guns etc to incapacitate hoodlums (what wouldn’t I have done to have had one capable of frying the brains of the gang leader when he was howling, “this is not my money”). And a point I will never forget- the policeman said, “people complain about the police but forget that we sometimes rescue them”.
Well, I can say this, if the under-paid, and ill-equipped motley crew called the Nigerian Police didn’t exist, it would be over for us all, truly. Anarchy would reign in our country. Sometimes it looks like it already does.