By Toyin Falola
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), 14.4 per cent of Nigerians abuse drugs, as reported in a June 23, 2021, article in the Vanguard Newspaper. The National Drug Use Survey conducted in 2019 by NAFDAC revealed that more than 10 million people consume cannabis annually. Over 11 per cent of Nigeria’s youth population engages in drug abuse, particularly hard drugs, which is depressing and causes more harm to society than we can imagine. Nigeria’s drugs include syrups, marijuana, tramadol, diazepam, cocaine, and shisha. I once saw a young Okada rider who was so high on drugs that he volunteered to use his motorcycle to tow a Dangote truck!
Drug abuse is one of the causes of different health problems affecting young people in Nigeria. It also contributes to the country’s current economic and social problems. While young people are supposed to be the primary drivers of progress and change, unhappy marriages, divorces, and family breakdowns have hurt them, leaving them vulnerable to a chaotic society. Although communities and families are expected to play important roles in supporting, caring for, and setting a good example for young people, it almost always works the other way around. Many young people are stranded and depressed because of personal failure and the inability to get help from society. To survive and make ends meet, they join the “bad guys,” indulging in hard drugs, contributing more to society’s ills, and creating havoc.
Despite being stranded, Tobias will carry on with his life, having no idea what to do next, and the unfavourable circumstances in the nation persist.
Owo mewa fun eyan kan! (Raise ten fingers for one person)
Hooting and hailing were how the boys greeted Tobias as he stepped into their midst. He hailed back and exchanged loud handshakes with everyone present, for that was the way of the streets. What better way to start the day than with people of like minds? Early morning intake clears the heart and the eyes and helps you stay sharp. The weed helps you reason new ideas of things you can do for the day. The weed dealer was not around, so Tobias dropped money in the tray where already rolled weed was displayed and picked two rolls—such honesty among weed smokers. He called on the scantily dressed lady, Iya Paraga, to sell him four sachets of gin. We now have sachet water, sachet ogogoro, and sachet bitters for extraordinary private actions.
A few hours later, his small bag was slung across his neck as he happily hummed all the way to work. Like every other day, customers were present. One would wonder if these people had nothing to do with their life other than drink alcohol and catfish pepper soup. It was not only the roughnecks who patronized the joint; they also got patronage from suit-wearing people who spent even more than the roughnecks because they often came with their young flings. The place was always a rowdy affair where customers argued at the top of their voices over football, politics, and sex. I learnt street politics from those joints, wearing a baseball cap and knickers to blend in. No Queen’s English!
On one of those days that Tobias had to work late into the night because the customers would not stop coming, the police paid them a surprise visit, storming the place the way the FBI busts drug lords in American movies. Everyone froze. The team leader went to Tobias’ Madam and told her they were looking for some boys who were part of a thieving gang. They had information from a reliable source that the boys were regular patrons at the beer parlour. By the time the police officers had arrested all their suspects, they had all the guys who wore jeans dropping down their waists and had their hair tinted in various shades of colours. They left behind those in suits and native attires because their appearance did not make them look suspicious. I was lucky not to have been there on that fateful day.
Tobias was among those arrested because of his looks, even though he repeatedly explained that he was one of the waiters at the beer parlour, and his Madam backed up his claim. They were all handcuffed and taken in a small van to the police station and dumped behind the counter. The next morning, families of the detained came one after the other to pay bail and have their people released. The officers smiled, collected money, and told each individual he was free to go. Nobody knew how much was collected, but one of the junior officers was overheard telling his friend that it was a good day and he had more than enough money to last three months. A fortune was made by creating misfortunes for others.
By the end of the second day, every other person had been released, leaving Tobias all by himself because no one had shown up to pay his bail. The police officers kept asking him when his people would come, but he had no clue. He had nobody. The only persons that could come through for him were his Madam, whom he was sure would not readily leave her beer parlour. The other person was Malik, his friend, but that one would never come to the police station; it would be like he was turning himself in.
On the third day, Tobias was moved to the cell, where Mighty happily welcomed him, the cell’s “Chief Prisoner” Two years after graduating from college, Mighty—whose real name was Ibidumo—could not find gainful employment. To avoid being labelled a “lazy Nigerian youth,” he took his friend’s advice and became a “scout” on the streets of Computer Village in Ikeja, Lagos. Ibidumo’s job was to persuade customers to purchase or have their phones repaired in the shops around, and he was paid a small percentage of the profit, oblivious of the fake phone scams that went on inside the shops.
A few weeks after he started working, he was arrested as he resumed work one morning. One of his clients had come with soldiers to arrest him for selling a fake luxurious phone to her. Ibidumo tried to explain his job to the soldiers and pleaded for them to be patient so he could take them to the other guy who sold the phone. All his pleas fell on deaf ears. He was brutalized almost to the point of death and then arrested. The woman who bought the fake phone was “connected,” as she was a side chick to a local government councillor who was enjoying the chance to misuse his power. He insisted that Ibidumo must be charged to court and jailed, so every effort by his relatives to secure his bail had been futile. Almost six months later, Ibidumo was still awaiting prosecution.
Early the next morning, when the rest of his cellmates were hustling for their share of the day’s meal after Mighty had taken the lion’s share for himself, Tobias was in a corner, weak and tired, trying to get some sleep. He had fanned Mighty all night. He was contemplating whether to lie down on the worn-out mattress next to him and risk getting a brain-resetting slap from Mighty or to crouch as he was and see if he could take a nap before Mighty found another reason to pick on him. Unexpectedly, a warder announced his name. The prison gate was opened, and the warder led him to the counter where Malik’s landlady was waiting. She had come to bail him. Tobias was surprised that she showed up, given how much she fought him and Malik and their other street miscreant friends for “constituting a nuisance” in her house. But the surprise dissolved when he got home and discovered from Malik that their friends raised money for his bail and had to “pay” the landlady before she agreed to go to the police station to bail him out.
Tobias rested for two days before returning to the beer parlour, only to find that he had been replaced. The second day he was arrested, his Madam hired a new girl to replace him. She was willing to re-employ Tobias, but on the condition that he would take a pay cut and work for a month without a salary because she could not afford to pay two bar attendants at that period. He could take a pay cut but work a month for free. No.
Dawn was fast approaching, and Tobias was on a bus headed for Oshodi. He had been going there every day for two weeks to meet with the boys and study the area. Fraternizing with them was easy, as his friend from Agege had given him the right contacts. On this day, he would begin his residency in Oshodi. His job there was clear, and his pay was determined by how well he worked. All he had to do was quickly remove wipers, spare tires, or side mirrors from buses of drivers and conductors who refused to pay the imposed and illegal levies, “owo loading”, and be able to harass and intimidate traders, “owo ile”, till he got money from them. Seventy per cent of everything he made went to Sir Mola, the Chairman of the garage, and the rest belonged to Tobias. Although his first week was daunting, he continued and gradually mastered the job. He had enough money to eat at the end of each day, but the other guys lived extravagantly, splurging on food, drinks, and women, making him wonder if being an “agbero” was their only job.
One night, Tobias was in a joint smoking weed when Agali, one of his colleagues, came to buy gin. They hailed each other and got talking. Tobias expressed his concern about the lavish lifestyle of their other colleagues and asked Agali to let him in on how to make extra money from their daily hustle. Having taken a liking to Tobias, Agali confided in him that they had an extra job they went to every night where they made some cool cash. Later that night, four other boys were waiting when Tobias and Agali arrived at the meeting point, and the six of them got into a van. On the highway, they parked and changed to black uniforms like the police.
Two of the boys leading the operation got big guns and stood in the middle of the road. As a car approached, they flagged it down, and Tobias and the other three guys swarmed it. They accused the three occupants of being Yahoo boys and threatened to arrest them or even “waste” them if they resisted. Terrified by the threat to their lives, the young guys, who were software developers coming from a late-night brainstorming meeting, reluctantly made cash transfers running close to half a million naira in exchange for their release. Tobias was overawed by the amount of money they made in a single operation.
On their way home, the boys told Tobias that Sir Mola did not know about their operation. He understood that meant he should keep his mouth shut and not tell anyone about the night operation. It made Tobias happy, as it also meant they would have more money to share. Immediately, he thought of all the things he would buy to show that he had finally made it on the streets. However, his happiness was cut short as he received far less than he thought he would. The explanation was that he was a new member of the team. He collected his share in good faith but resented the rest of the boys.
As the boys filed in one after the other, they noticed Tobias sitting across from Sir Mola, with his share of the previous night’s operation on the table. They were disappointed. Tobias was asked to repeat everything he had said in the absence of the boys, and he did so, indicting the boys. The remaining Sir Mola’s loyalists descended heavily on the other five members of Tobias’ team, beating them mercilessly until Sir Mola stopped them and passed his judgment. It was either they gave him all the money they had made from their operations or were kicked out of the park and never allowed to work in another park in the country again. They picked the first choice, but to avenge Tobias’ betrayal.
Sir Mola was a popular terror among thugs and civilians for the kinds of trouble he could foment. He had political connections, so it was no surprise that he was freed within a couple of days every time he got arrested for a crime, adding to his street credibility. He took Tobias under his wing and showed him a new world of crime. Tobias learnt to butcher people and sold their body parts to ritualists. He also started selling cocaine and other kinds of hard drugs. The future looked bright for Tobias. He was making as much money as he had always desired. His levels changed, and he started flailing his affluence to friends and enemies. They could not touch him, not when he was working directly with Sir Mola.
Unknown to him, he was as vulnerable as ever. Following a tip from the other guys whom Tobias had betrayed earlier, a police unit working with Intel started to trail Sir Mola until they caught him and Tobias in the den, where they committed their heinous acts. As they transported them to prison, Sir Mola assured Tobias they would be freed in a couple of days. Tobias had no reason to doubt his boss, and because he was not new to life inside the prison, he calmed down and even began plotting their next move once they were released.
However, it was election season, and politicians were known to distance themselves from known felons so they could paint themselves as saints to electorates; thus, the government officials Sir Mola relied on were wary of getting involved in a ritual-killings case. At the same time, Sir Mola was needed to create chaos on election day in the strongholds of the opposition party, which meant that someone else had to take his place in prison. Five days after they were arrested, someone visited Tobias in his cell. A deal was proposed in which Tobias would claim to be the notorious Sir Mola so that Sir Mola would be immediately released to work for the election, and a week later, Tobias would be freed and compensated with ten million naira.
Ten million naira was a lot of money, and Tobias trusted Sir Mola to release him. He agreed to the deal. The police officers were also in on the plan, so they processed him with the new status he had claimed. Three months later, an officer came to let him out of his cell. From then on, it was going to be him enjoying his money. He was confused when he was led into a Black Maria that conveyed him to court. In court, his lawyer did more to incriminate than exonerate him. His confession from the meeting with the politician’s representative was played, and in that recording, Tobias was heard admitting to many crimes Sir Mola had committed and reiterating that he was indeed the wanted Sir Mola. The judge ruled that he be made to face the firing squad immediately!
Everything looked like a fictional movie to Tobias until he was led to the execution grounds, with people looking at him pitifully. After taking multiple bullets to the chest and stomach, his eyes closed, and he bit the dust. Las Las! Tobias mud.
Unemployment, lack of access to quality education, corruption, insecurity, and lack of basic social amenities are hardly indicative of a responsible nation. There are millions of Tobias in our nation, and until every individual and the government accept their responsibilities and are committed to restoring Nigeria’s lost glory, we will not be free from the likes of Sir Mola and his corrupt political friends. We will keep suffering and smiling (respect to Abami Eda himself, Fela Kuti), resigned to our self-inflicted misery and sighing, “Las las, everything go dey all right.”
*(This series is dedicated to Dr. Yemi Ijaola, a Cardiologist based at UCH, Ibadan, who has enriched my slang vocabulary, and to my street guys and “Area Boys” at my various joints in Somolu, Yaba, and Onigbongbo)