Previously on LAGOS DIARIES…
The driver steered the bus further and further away from any semblance of help for us, until he finally pulled up before a sad, partially-completed building in a derelict neighbourhood. The criminals – four of them – hustled us out of the bus and into the dank gloom of the building. More cutlasses had materialized, and they shoved the five of us forward until we got to a room whose floors and walls were not all the way cemented. We were pushed to the ground. One of the young women tumbled to the floor with a shriek; her skirt ripped, and she quickly gathered herself into her arms with the frightened countenance of one who feared a fate worse than robbery. The matronly woman was pleading in between gulps of air, “My children, abeg wetin we do? Abeg make una no do this… Abeg, na beg I dey beg!”
But our captors were unmoved. The moment they had us all settled on the ground, they snatched the women’s bags. Two of them pulled me and the other man to our feet, and their hands rifled through our pockets. They took our phones – my Nokia and the guy’s Samsung – his wallet, and the money I had on me. One of them held my book in his hand, staring at it incredulously like it was the host of a new threat to mankind since HIV/AIDS; then he turned to me and snarled, “Na wetin be this?”
“A novel,” I answered.
“You be reporter?” he barked.
“Na why you come dey carry book?” Without waiting for an answer, he slapped the novel against my temple, before dropping it on the ground with a distasteful expression.
“Wey your ATM card?” the second one who was going through my co-victim’s wallet asked.
“It’s missing,” the man replied woodenly, as he watched him confiscate the wads of cash in the wallet.
“Your ATM card nko?” the book-hater snapped at me.
In the millisecond it took me to reply, I muttered a silent prayer of thanks to God for making me so frustrated that I left my wallet and Blackberry at home.
“It’s spoiled,” I said, “and so I applied to the Bank for another one.”
“Na lie!” He slapped me across the face. “Wey your ATM?” He jerked me to him and began running his hands over me in a more thorough body search. He came up empty, and that seemed to irritate him the more.
“You no get ATM, na only chicken change dey your pocket, which kain person you be sef?” he snapped.
“A poor person,” I replied.
“You say wetin?”
“I said I’m a hustler like you people,” I said, stepping into the role of a sad Ramsey Nouah. I forced a distraught expression on my face and said, “Please, I just came to Lagos six months ago to come and look for job. I don’t have anything or anyone. Abeg! I don’t know anyone in this place. I just came here to find something to do –”
“Sharrap!” one of our abductors snapped, slapping the back of my head. “Who you dey tell that one? All of una, siddon!”
The other man and I quickly dropped to the ground. Two of them had finished raiding the handbags of the women, while the other two who had attended to us males stared with heavy disappointment at their find.
“How much you get for your account?” one of them barked at the man beside me.
He hedged, as though to gauge how truthful to be. “I’m not sure…but it’s not much –”
“You nko?” He turned to me.
“Shi-shi, I don’t have!” I burst out. “Please, I don’t have any money. Please…”
The bandit was going through my phone, his fingers flicking over the Nokia’s keypad. Then he saw something and his eyes lit up with sneering delight. He thrust the phone at me. “You say you no get money – wetin be this?”
I was staring at the last debit alert I’d received from GTBank. But even then, my brain was scrambling one step ahead of them. The day was Wednesday and I’d made that ATM withdrawal on Friday the previous week. And thankfully, what he’d seen was my GTBank account, which I regarded as my ‘transport’ account. I used it to move money around in the event of any dealings I had.
“And plenty money still dey the account sef,” the bandit was saying.
“Yes, but check the date of the transaction,” I said. “You will see that it is Friday. That money was sent to me by someone who wanted me to deliver it to his cousin who doesn’t have an account. By Monday, I made another withdrawal that emptied the account –”
“Shuttup! Which one you dey speak plenty English like this!” He was squinting at the phone, verifying what I’d just told him. He scrolled some more and then snapped, “How come the alert for the one wey you do on Monday no dey here?”
“Because I deleted it.”
He started laughing, a disbelieving bark that the others joined in. “Come, you think say I no get sense?”
“Please let me just explain –”
“You think say I no go school?”
“I’m sure you went to school, but let me explain. My phone inbox was getting too filled with messages. So I deleted the messages at the top, and that Monday alert was one of them. I wanted to free the inbox small to receive more messages.”
He paused and stared malignantly at me, unable to argue with the logic of my answer. “So you poor true-true.”
The Nigerian in me wanted to say “Tufiakwa! I cannot be poor in Jesus’ name”, but I was still in character. So I replied, “I’m serious, I don’t have any money. Please…”
“Ehn, as you no get money, your people must get. Na one of them go send money come to bail you!”
Oh my God! So basically, this had turned from a robbery to a kidnapping! I began to feel genuine despair clench hold of my insides.
“Yes!” another one concurred. “And you too” – he was pointing at the other man – “your people go bail you!”
The two of them were back to perusing our phones, clearly scrolling through the phonebooks for any appealing contact. My heart began to pound faster as I thought of the contacts in my phone that’d be easy targets.
Sure enough, the robber with my phone crowed as he found one he was looking for. “Dad,” he said with an emphatic sneer. “Na your papa be this, abi? We go call am first.” And he pressed the Call Button on the phone and took it to his ear.
“Please…” I began again. “My father is an old man. He doesn’t have any money. Please, if you call him about this, he might have a heart attack…” I scrunched up my face, working it until I was able to produce a tear. It slipped from my eye and traced a line of wetness down my cheek. “Please, don’t do this…”
But it was done. I heard the call connect and heard the tinny sound of my father’s voice come indecipherably to me from the phone’s speaker.
“Oga!” the robber barked. “Are you… Wetin be your name?” he turned to me.
“Walter…” I said in a low tone.
“Speak up!” another one shouted, slapping my head.
Honestly! Enough with the slaps on my head!
“Walter,” I spoke up.
“Oga,” he returned to the phone, “are you Walter’s father?” My father’s voice warbled through the speaker, and he said, “Ehen, okay good. So listen, your son dey with us here…” As he spoke, he moved away from the room and the conversation drifted with him. As he exited the room, the bandit handling the other man’s phone was still scrolling, getting increasingly impatient.
“Wey your papa number?”
“His number is not there. He’s dead,” the man said flatly.
“Your mama number nko?”
“She’s dead too.”
“Na who dey here wey we go call?” The robber looked up to glare at the man.
“No one,” the man replied.
“You think say na play we come here to play?” Without waiting for a response, he attacked the man with blows to his face.
As the man recoiled from his assailant, the bandit on the phone with my father returned. He didn’t look pleased.
“Imagine,” he growled. “I dey tell this man say him pikin don kidnap, he dey there dey preach Jesus-Jesus to me. Him dey craze!” He was back to scrolling through my phone. “Na who else dey here? Ehen! You even get uncles sef.”
“Please,” I started again, “none of those uncles will give you anything. They are wicked people. They have been ignoring my family for years, not helping us. They won’t give you any money. Please, believe me…”
“Why you come get their number for your phone?”
“Because I’m hoping they can still help me now that I’m looking for a job.”
“You dey craze! You must call one of them.”
I stared with apprehension as he dialed a number and handed the phone to me. The person he’d called was my Uncle Okey. He is a good man, family man with his own business, who resides in the East. I hadn’t spoken to him in several months.
“Hello?” he answered.
“Uncle, good morning,” I answered.
“Uche, good morning. Nna, how are you? Otela o! How is Lagos?”
“Lagos is fine.”
“Ahu kwanu? How is work? Ina emekwa ofuma?”
“Everything is fine, uncle –”
“Oya!” the robber hissed, gesturing impatiently for me to move it along.
“Uncle, actually…” I began haltingly. “I want to ask for something. Please can you send me a small amount of money…like five thousand –”
“Five?!” the robber hissed incredulously.
“Like ten thousand,” I amended. “Please, uncle, it’s urgent. Can you?”
I had never asked this relative for money before. This request was entirely out of character, and I think he suspected something was wrong, because…well, he asked.
“Nna, is everything alright?”
“Yes, uncle, I just need the money.”
He paused and then pressed some more. “Are you sure everything is okay?”
“Yes, I’m sure, uncle.”
“I hope you don’t need the money urgently, because things are a little tight around here. The economy is really bad here in Owerri. Things are just rough financially at the moment…”
The call was on speakerphone, and as he went on about his dismal financial situation, I stared at my abductors, as though to say to them: See? I told you. Wicked uncles!
The bandit didn’t wait for my uncle to finish speaking; he snatched the phone from me and cut off the call. Then he glared at me. “Which kain people you get sef?”
“I told you –”
“Sharrap! Somebody must bail you today.”
“But I don’t have anybody –”
“And you no get money too, eh? See you! You no wan make we get anything from you. You be greedy person. Very greedy!”
I beg your pardon? I wanted to say. So because I wasn’t letting them have what they wanted from me, I was greedy? Were these guys for real?
At this point, they turned their attention back to the women. The other two had the ATM cards of the young females and queried them for their pin numbers. After the girls recited the digits, the bandits informed them that should they get to an ATM machine and find out the numbers were false, they would come back and deal with them.
As this was going on, I observed the other guy beside me looking stealthily around. He had a sudden shifty look on his face and I knew he was planning something.
I reached out to surreptitiously tap him. He turned. Looking earnestly at him, I said in a voice that was so low, the sound was almost nonexistent, “I’m with you.”
He read my lips and nodded before mouthing, I want to run.
But they are armed, I mouthed back.
With cutlasses. We can still run.
Just wait. If I look at you, you’ll know it’s time.
I immediately knew what he was waiting for – a lessening of our abductors’ number. Two of them soon left the room, off to raid the bank accounts of the women. The girls were sobbing softly as we watched them go. I wanted to feel sorry for them, but I was too tensely focused on my situation. There were now two of the brigands left. I reached forward and retrieved my book from the ground. They had my phone, but that was alright. I could always get a new one. It was the imminent retrieval of my contacts that had my heart breaking.
The remaining two robbers came over and harassed us some more. They made me call another person whose number I’d saved with the name ‘Tunde Audit’. (LOL! These guys sha, they knew potential advantage when they saw it). Of course I’d never asked Tunde for money before; we didn’t even have that kind of relationship. And as we spoke, unlike with my uncle, I knew when he picked up on the oddity of the phone call. It helped that my voice trembled with despair and the bandit constantly hissed instructions at me, not realizing that his voice was carrying through the connection to the other end of the line. Tunde said he was busy, couldn’t get out of the office until late. Dead end, that one.
The robbers got increasingly upset, brandishing their cutlasses and threatening us with bodily harm at what they perceived was our lack of cooperation. One of them, in a show of sheer pettiness, looked me over and commanded me to give him my belt. I stood and was slowly tugging the belt loose from the trouser hoops. Angrily, he came over, snatched up a small cement brick and smashed it on my head. The brick disintegrated and I winced as pain scissored through my head.
“Come on, bring the belt!” he roared, yanking at it until he pulled it free. “Your watch too! Fast!”
I was unstrapping my watch as the other one demanded for my fellow abductee’s shoes. The man had just kicked off his shoes when he slid a look at me. I caught it.
It was time!
I’d barely acknowledged the signal before he sprang forward, swinging a hand in a blur that struck the robber claiming his shoes. The robber gave out a choked scream and careened to the floor. The other one, snarling, darted toward him. But he didn’t see me coming. I leaped forward and shoved at him with all my vengeful might, sending him flying toward the wall.
The two of us did not wait to admire our handiwork. We simply turned and fled.
“Hey! Hey! Come back here!”
We heard a scuffle behind us as the bandits struggled to their feet. But we had a head start. I only paused to kick off my palm slippers and take them in my hands before sprinting after the other guy. I didn’t look back, but I could hear them behind us, giving chase.
“Stop there! Stop there or…!”
Or what? You’ll shoot? With what – your cutlasses? Yea, I don’t think so!
We continued running. I was at my Usain Bolt best, running with a fury that Olympic athletes would envy. I ran and ran, until a sharp pain began to nag at the base of my chest.
Eventually, the bandits stopped pursuing us. And then, we could stop to catch our breaths. We were panting so heavily, comforted by the sounds of traffic and passersby moving this way and that around us. We’d returned to crowded, familiar terrain.
“Those women…” I panted.
“If they had any sense, they would have run when those thieves were pursing us,” my fellow survivor answered breathlessly.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Be safe,” he replied.
And we parted ways.
I just wanted to get to an MTN office and shut down my line. I was in the environs of Obanikoro and the MTN office I knew to go to was on Airport Road. At this point, I didn’t care about my appointment anymore. I was late anyway and I couldn’t call to explain my situation. And I didn’t have any money to go on to Yaba.
Or to go home for that matter.
I thought about the trek that was waiting for me, and I wanted to cry. I entertained the thought of approaching pedestrians for money, but the thought of Lagosians’ cynicism and pitilessness toward well-dressed beggars killed my soul. I didn’t even know how I’d do it, how I’d beg on the road.
Please, sir, can you give me just 100 naira, I want to get to Oshodi, please…
Tufia! I recoiled from the picture. My pride stiffened my resolve and after putting my palm slippers back on, I began my own version of the Mandela Long Walk of Freedom. I walked and walked, across Ikorodu Road to the other side, past Anthony, down the highway sweeping toward Oshodi. The morning sun beat down mercilessly on my head. I was parched. I was tired. But I kept on walking. By the time I got to the MTN office on Airport Road, every muscle in my body was trembling like someone was strumming them the way a guitarist would the strings of his instrument.
My business at the office was quick, facilitated by the fact that I knew a couple of the staff members there. Everything had to be transacted on credit – the retrieval of my SIM card and the purchase of a new phone and some airtime. I had to borrow some money from the guy who attended to me for the rest of my journey home.
I inserted the SIM card into the phone and called the first number I knew – my father’s. What followed was a gushing appreciation of my well being, before he went on, after I’d told him of my ordeal, to let me know that the bandits had apparently gone on to call my mother and a few other aunties and uncles on my phone, in a desperate bid to male some gain from the situation even though their leverage had escaped. These relatives had communicated with my parents and there followed a worldwide panic over what everyone was assuming was my kidnapping. I envisioned a lot of phone calls and a lot of retelling of my story.
When I ended the call, I clicked to save my father’s number. I began typing ‘Dad’. Then I paused, deleted the letters and typed his name instead before hitting SAVE.
I am @Walt_Shakes