Things We See on the Road
I had visited the Onitsha International Textile Market and was now in a minivan heading back to Imo. I sat in the front passenger seat, so I could see the city properly as I left. It was my first time in Onitsha, this ancient city I had always read about. A white charger extended from the car’s dashboard, its cord snaked to the floor. I asked the driver if I could charge my phone, and he agreed. I plugged it and kept the phone behind my left foot.
As we drove through the city, through the tall, old buildings and all their history, in front of us, a dark-skinned boy in jean shorts was running after a vehicle; the vehicle, a makeshift truck, was a fabrication of a motorcycle with a large carriage attached at its rear. Four women were seated in the carriage, baskets and loaded sacks sat with them. The dark-skinned boy, still running after them in the heat of the sun, the blue underfoot of his slippers flashing and vanishing, increased his pace when the vehicle approached a road bump, and he closed up on them. The vehicle fired after clearing the bump, leaving a good distance for the boy to cover, again. After a while, the boy, seeing how little his effort was paying, slowed to a jog, then finally stopped. Everyone in the minivan laughed.
“These jobless boys. Instead of them to go look for work, they hang around the road, extorting money from traders,” the driver said. He drove close to the makeshift truck and honked at them, as a remark for a race well ran.
I had earlier experienced the extortion on my way out of the textile market. The keke I had boarded was bullied to a stop by a lout who had spotted the fabrics stacked at the rear of the autorickshaw. The keke driver merely parked and stayed quiet as the lout bullied the man who owned the fabrics into paying two hundred naira as tax for his load, handing the trader, in return for his payment, a faux receipt.
We drove past the makeshift truck and the driver continued, “Those boys are the ones spoiling Onitsha, the only people who know how to handle them well are the SARS men…”
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was infamous for the negatives, like: accusing young Nigerians of cyber-crime, then arresting and extorting them afterwards; it always turned out that most of these alleged cyber-criminals were innocent and their only crime was looking good, or looking like they had money in their bank accounts. The serial harassments they meted out to citizens had led people to, times without number, protest for their disbandment, which came into realization after one of the SARS men killed an innocent young man. But, again, they were banded back together. And like bandits, they continued shaking the safety of people who fell victim to their lawless way of operation. So, hearing someone speak of them in the affirmative was a new experience for me.
“…If you see the way they tie these boys up when they catch them, you would think the boys killed someone. And that is the kind of treatment these boys need so they can come to their senses.”
I reached for my phone to confirm if it was charging.
The driver, on noticing where I had kept the phone, laughed and said, “Ah, is that where you hid your phone? It seems you’ve had an experience with these Onitsha boys before.”
I just smiled. It was my first time in Onitsha. Drivers and chattiness. The man was plump and brown-skinned. His head and chin neatly shaved. He looked late forties.
He continued, “There was this woman who boarded my car one time, she had one of these big phones in her hands. She was pressing the phone, holding it high to her face. I told her: ‘Madam be careful with that your phone; these boys are always looking for what to steal.’ She said, ‘Tah, nobody can rob me in this Onitsha.’ I said, ‘Okay, if anything should happen know that I will not help you.’ Do you know that after I spoke, a hand rushed into the car through the half-closed window? The snatcher didn’t grab the phone firmly so it fell off both his and the woman’s hands, and landed on her laps. After that she put the phone in her purse.”
I sniggered, not knowing what other befitting response to give. We were still weaving our way through the streets, flanked by tall buildings, within Onitsha. Evening was closing in on us, and the sun, which had turned a pale yellow, appeared and disappeared behind the buildings as we drove past them. All buildings here seemed to be either four or five or more stories high, like there was an invisible law that no one should build below four stories. Although the buildings were mostly old and denigrating – most of them could use a face lift – they left one impression: that this city, at a time, could easily have been one of the most developed cities in the country. Being a host to Onitsha Main Market, the largest market in Africa (judging by its landed size and quantity of goods it contained), host to an International Textile Market, and having a link with the river Niger, Onitsha was an economic trading hub. And one that could rival Lagos if given the right attention from the federal government.
I reached for my phone again, the rickety jumps through bumps and potholes had shifted the charger. The driver was still talking.
“I tell you, some passengers are not worth fighting for. I have been beaten before at Upper Iweka one December, because I refused the agberos from robbing my passengers.”
Up ahead, a group of men in black, with guns slung over their shoulders, were huddled by the road, checking some cars.
“See them,” the driver said, “those SARS people I talked about. When those agberos see these ones they usually run away.”
We approached where they stood and the driver slowed. He regarded them and they waved us to drive by.
The driver sped off, then continued, “Like I was saying, do you know that after I was beaten, after we had safely travelled back, none of those passengers, even the ones who had my number, called to check if I was alive or dead? It was not funny.”
“How did it happen?” I asked.
“Decembers in Onitsha are usually problematic. My other colleagues at the park had always told me about their December experiences, how their passengers got robbed and they couldn’t utter a word in fear of being rough-handled by the agberos. I told them I couldn’t allow such to happen, that if it ever happened to me, I wouldn’t let them rob my passengers. So, on that day, caught in snail traffic, when one agbero approached my car, saying: ‘Nna, remove your eye and let us do our thing,’ I remembered my conversations with my colleagues and I rebelled. I told him, ‘No, you can’t rob these people.’ The agbero protested and I wound up all my windows, stepped out of the car and locked it behind me. He stepped back.
“I told him to do his worst, approaching him as I spoke, ready for a fight. And as I was in verbal confrontation with him, a heavy blow landed at the back of my head, flashing sparks over my eyes. Dazed, I bent down, then looked up to see who had hit me. The guy towered behind me, his muscularity intimidating. But the battle line had been drawn, and I was no coward. Seeing the sand gathered on the road below me, and how close I was to it, I snatched a handful and hurled it onto his face. They speared into his eyes, throwing him off balance as he made to find his sight back. I took advantage of the moment and sent fine slaps across his face. He staggered backwards.
“Voices screamed from a distance: ‘Onye isi anyị!’ More agberos ran towards me, angry I had not just disrespected but slapped their leader. At that moment, I knew I was done for. People were around us, but no one dared to interfere. The agberos pounced on me in their numbers, blows pelted me from all directions. I hit the ones I could as I punched randomly. They kept increasing in number, and I remembered my wife and children. I feared for my life. See, that day, I thought those boys would kill me in public, for nothing.”
He paused, shook his head.
“Na wa o,” I said, in want of a befitting response.
We approached some policemen on the road and the driver slowed. They peered into the car. The driver told them, as they could see, he had no passengers today (there were five of us, I and four women, and he normally carried ten) so he had nothing to give them. They let him go.
“Nna, you see these people…forget them. Do you know, that day, police came after the fight was over and asked me to settle those agberos so they can let me go?”
“Ahn-ahn! So how did you manage?”
“My brother, it was one of my passengers that came to my rescue o. He was a young guy. After the fight was over, he told me, on seeing that those people may beat me to death, and he being a young man couldn’t just stay back and watch an older man die protecting him. He unlocked the door, jumped out of the car and brought his special ring out from his pocket. The ring had some charms in it and he always took it around for protection, especially when visiting Onitsha. He slid his finger into the ring and approached the fighting crowd. He waved his hand in the air and threw a punch at the first man, the man fell to the floor and remained fixed.
“The agberos hadn’t noticed him at first, but when they saw three of their men on the floor and a new fighting man, they withdrew, watching him with caution, as a deer watches a wounded tiger. He waved his hand in the air and any agbero’s direction whom he faced took off. Some other passengers stepped out of the car to help too, mostly with their voices, shouting that what the agberos were doing was bad.
“In the heat of the chaos, an up and coming agbero snipped off, with scissors, a woman’s purse from its hand. One man, a member of the public, who was probably irritated by the activity of the hoodlums, caught sight of what had happened and ran to the scene. He sent two tight slaps into the cheek of the boy and asked him to produce that purse. The boy denied, saying he had no purse. He was searched thoroughly but nothing was found on him. The public member, being a heavily built man, lifted the boy up in the air and let him fall face flat to the floor. After the third lift the boy produced the purse, the heavily built man handed the purse back to the woman and she thanked him. By then the crowd had thinned, the agberos, it seemed, had gone to call for reinforcement. That was when the police showed up saying we should settle the hoodlums before more of them came…”
“Settle for what,” I cut in, it was more of an angry statement than a question.
The women at the backseats, also angered by the story, threw curses at both the louts and the policemen. They knew, as frequent traders, it could have been them in the car that day.
The driver chuckled as they vented their anger, then said: “My brother, it’s the things we see on the road.”
He shook his head again, eyes set forward, hands balanced on the wheel, and drove on.
Zenas Ubere is a creative writer from Nigeria. His works appear on Agbowó, Praxis Magazine, African Writer, Witsprouts, The K & L Histories of Yesterday Anthology, and elsewhere. He lives in and writes from Owerri.
*Image by Stephen Olatunde on Unsplash.