The viewpoints of a man watching a fast changing world
Monday, June 24, 2013
The gang wars no one is talking about
There is an on-going gang war on the streets of Lagos that the media is ignoring.
I choose to call it a silent war, but this classification – my attempt to stress the media’s seeming disinterest in the matter – is false. The war is by no means silent; it is loud and, as anyone who pays attention to happenings on the streets of Mushin, Bariga, Oshodi and affected parts of Lagos know too well, bloody.
I became aware of this war when I moved from Ajao Estate to Mafoluku, Oshodi, in 2008. Armed robbery and other associated crimes were at that time an issue in Ajao Estate, a town once considered prime real estate by the 419 dons of the ’90s (Eze Ego’s house still stands impressive and imposing opposite the CPM chapel). Ajao Estate later became a magnet for Yahoo-Yahoo boys and the Pentecostal preachers that are ever drawn to owners of easy money.
In Mafoluku, to which I moved because the rent in Ajao Estate climbed beyond my reach, the headache was street gangs, the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) and like-leaning marauders.
Separated from Ajao Estate by the Airport Road, instances of armed robbery or theft in Mafoluku were as rare as it could get in any Nigerian city suburb. Many say this low robbery rate was as a result of ‘the boys’ not being inclined to operating in their own neighbourhood – they would rather cross the road to Ajao Estate or lurk at the dark spots around Airport Road to do their criminal deeds.
However, while we rarely got to hear the crack of automatic weapons as we did in Ajao Estate, the screams of distressed souls was a soundtrack that both places shared. Mafoluku, like Oshodi, Mushin and lately Bariga, all bear witness to turf wars that turn streets into war zones and erstwhile jovial area boys into cold-blooded killers with little qualms about hacking opponents to death and setting them ablaze.
I remember back then in Mafoluku; it was expected that the existing truce – they were perpetually calling truces – could break at any moment; so the wary knew to expect trouble at any time and steer clear of flash points. I recall asking someone affiliated to one of the gangs in Mafoluku what the fuss was all about, why young men who were pals yesterday face-off in a life or death struggle today. The answer was simple: poverty.
Urban poverty is rife in Lagos. The acute unemployment situation in Nigeria is felt in this city of millions just as acutely as it is across the nation. Lagos, however, offers a contrast that adds fuel to a common fire: it is a large city and this means that there is money to be made. Every day, the millions of residents need to be ferried from one point of the city to another. To transport these people you need buses, boats, tricycles, and motorcycles. To avoid anarchy when all these vehicles come together, there must be a method to controlling the transporters and designated drop-off points.
To fill this need, the National Union of Road Transport Workers was created. NURTW coordinates commercial transport operators, who together constitute the major transport operators across the country. The NURTW is probably the second highest employer of area boys, next in line only to politicians (although a blurred line exists where the politicians and NURTW are concerned – Ibadan and Oshodi on my mind).
To get commercial bus operators to pay what are usually illegal charges at bus stops, hot-blooded unruly youths are employed. In addition, a part of the daily take goes to the gang controlling the neighbourhood where a bus stop is cited and to whom the youths are aligned.
For many kids from underprivileged backgrounds, working as conductors on Lagos buses, or collecting money at bus stops, is one way to put food on the table. As such, you have a boy born into a very poor family where parental control is slack, looking to the street for care and companionship. Street gangs offer companionship, and later, a means of livelihood.
Most times, this is the path to a life of crime, but it also provides the chance to grow in the seemingly regimented world of NURTW and make a living at the fringes of the law. A lot of money is collected as revenue from the buses traversing Lagos roads, and this revenue is the primary cause of the ongoing wars among the city’s street gangs.
When gangs fight in Bariga, it is really about turf and control. For this, they are willing to kill and destroy. Politicians, who see these street gangs as a ready army during election campaigns, are also complicit; as are land speculators who use them to chase off dissenting voices from lands they want to claim.
No one knows the official number of people who have died in Lagos’s incessant gang wars, but I have witnessed some of these battles, and fatalities are commonplace.
While the Lagos State Government has made several pronouncements on the menace of street gangs, the attempts to curb gang violence or end the type of carnage common in areas like Bariga, Mushin and even Obalende have been largely feeble; with the gangs coming back to the streets they control after a few weeks away time.
As Lagos makes moves to become a mega-city, it would make sense for government and the media to take a stronger, more effective stance in this regard.