In Lagos, Harsh Economy Fuels New Despicable Survival Tactics

By Osamudiamen Ogbonmwan

A variety shop located at Doyin Omolulu street in Ketu, a suburb of Lagos, recently played host to a macabre scene. Time was few minutes past 8pm and darkness has descended heavily, aided by power outage in the area. Outside the shop, in the middle of a crowd seething with venom was a young girl of about 16.On her left hand was a litre of Kerosene in Eva Water bottle. Head bowed and hysterical, she pleaded for pardon, intermittently muttering prayers and swearing her innocence, tears streaming down her cherubic face. The more she did these, the more the crowd yelled disapproval of her action.

A young woman with a crying baby strapped on the back let out a loud sigh as she joined the obviously crestfallen girl to plead for mercy. “Let us hear her out, she pleaded”. Adding, “Lynching her will not solve whatever reason that made her do this”. But the most vociferous among the crowd, including the owner of the shop, a middle aged woman of obsessed size whose hairdo had seen better days, rooted for instant punishment but not necessarily jungle justice. She had suffered numerous shoplifting in the past without the ‘lifters’ being caught. This one that has been caught must be punished to serve as deterrent, the shop owner insisted.

However, when reason prevailed and a decision was reached to allow the young lady explain why she was clutching a bottle of kerosene she did not pay for; those who had pressed for jungle justice were disarmed by her heart-rending confession: She was on a solo mission. Her family had no dime to purchase kerosene and had  starved for two days because the title food stuff at home could not be cooked hence she decided to utilize the cover the night and power outage provided to steal the commodity to power their stove. It was her first attempt at shoplifting. Her widowed mother and starving siblings back home were not aware she embarked on the shameful mission.

To the surprise of all, tears cascaded the shop owner’s cheeks as she sprang to her feet, cleaned the sobbing girl’s tears and handed to her one extra litre of kerosene and 10 packs of noodles!

The above is just one out of many despicable survival strategies that have become the lot of many in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, a city brimming with over 22 million people. The varied but desperate survival tactics of the downtrodden and low income earners in Lagos, social affairs analysts opine are direct fallouts of the declining state of the economy, ballooning population and falling standard of living in the city. Indeed, desperate strategies to overcome Nigeria’s biting economic meltdown define the daily life of many in this bustling city.

Azubuike Ogbonna’s (not real), an Electrical  Engineering graduate of Enugu State University of Science and Technology, ESUT, completed his mandatory one year National Youth Service scheme last year and has been on the labour market since then. His narration of everyday survival in Lagos, especially as it relates to his search for job is dripping with sadness just as it evokes sympathy. Ogbonna squats in a one bedroom flat apartment in the  Oshodi area of the metropolis with a kinsman who is married with three kids. The benevolent kinsman sparingly helps out with feeding leaving the 25 years old ESUT graduate to fend for himself in other areas, including personal needs.

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So, expectedly, transport fares to aide his movement round the city in search of employment is Ogbonna’s greatest challenge. To overcome this, the Abia state indigene devised different bizarre strategies to evade fares payment. Sometimes, he feigns madness or pose as a mystery prophet who was divinely sent by God to deliver His message. As “mentally deranged”, Ogbonna would dress smartly, armed with a file containing his Curriculum Vitae, academic credentials and other important documents and then sets out to board a bus or taxi to his destination. Time to pay fare is when Ogbonna will unleash his inelegant art. He could pretend to be mentally imbalanced, most times putting up a show of violently attacking other passengers.

With the commotion, everyone including the driver or conductor will conclude the young man has just ran amok and will no longer be concerned with Ogbonna’s fares but how to quietly ease him out of the bus. But he would resist every attempt to be forced out of the bus until he is sure he was very close to his destination!

Ogbonna  as a “Prophet” instills fear into passengers, claiming God specifically sent him to the bus to deliver a special message. At the end of the long preaching and “messaging”, some gullible passengers will be so receptive of him and his “message” that they will make voluntary “offering” to the “Prophet” while the bus conductor and the driver most often ask him not to pay the bus fare as their own “offering”.

His other trick is to claim his wallet has just been stolen while boarding the bus. He will then proceed to hold everyone spellbound with good looks and impeccable queen’s English, complete with British accent, lampooning the Nigerian ‘corrupt’ system and praising the British society “where I was born and breed” He will then lament and regret ‘returning to Nigeria last week’ .This way, out of pity and concern, other passengers, especially young ladies who had already fallen for his great looks and British tale will offer to pay the fare for him. However, in reality, not only that Ogbonna does not own an International Passport, he does not know how the interior of an aero plane look like!

Though Ogbonna has a bag full of dirty tricks up his sleeve, he confesses: “I am not happy swimming in them; each time I put up any of them, I feel terribly dejected later but I have little choice”. He is however careful so as not to be discovered and hopes to secure a good job soon so that he will live a decent life.

In Lagos, weekends, especially Saturdays and Sundays are synonymous with social events-burials, weddings, graduation parties, birthday parties, Church festivities etc. However, when next you attend such events, especially high profile ones, and notice that certain guests-normally well dressed-scrambling for leftover food and pieces of meat and stockpiling same on polythene or Bacco Bag for their “dogs” at  home, do not be deceived for they have no dogs. They are simply economically handicapped Lagosians engaged in desperate measures to put food on the table! An encounter the The Source had with such Lagosian at a high profile wedding ceremony recently at Victoria Island was quite revealing. In her 40s and a mother of four, she complained that her petty trade and husband’s Okada business are not rewarding enough to fend for the family. So, to argument for whatever she and husband eek out from their trades, she invades into social event, uninvited, to scavenge for leftover food.

To be on top of her game, she picks information about social events from the three main sources: TV announcements, a relation who is a printer and a fellow “dog food” food scavenger who initiated her into the act two years ago.

In addition, at Ogba evening market where she displays her wares sometimes, her ears are always on the ground for upcoming events. However, any week she lacked information about one, she sets out for Catholic Churches where weddings take place virtually every Saturday.

Apart from the “dog food” scenarios at parties, Parent(s)-instigated child theft incidences are now common sights at some social events and church programmes. Recently at a church crusade in Igando area of the city, an eight year old boy was caught trying to steal a hand bag. His pious looking mother who posed as part of the crusade made a show of exasperation and disappointment at her son’s action, and then made a half-hearted attempt at hitting him. It was at that point that a man who recognized the woman and the boy as the same persons who were involved in a similar scenario at another Church some months before that day queried why the boy always stole in the church and the mother put up the same reaction.

The thorough questioning that followed later by the church officials forced mother and son to confess their shameful thievery antics: That day was indeed not their first outing. The harsh economic condition coupled by the collapse of her small scale business and husband’s loss of job combined to turn her and her son petty thieves. Her modus operandi: Mother will target a rich church member and then detail son to find a way to snatch his or her bag or any valuable. If the theft was successful, son will quickly disappear from the scene and run to an agreed location to await mother. If caught, mother, looking pious and clutching the Holy Bible, will raise hell, pretentiously attempting to beat son who will be weeping and pleading for mercy. Pastors and other church members will then be attracted to the scene, attribute son’s action to “signs of end time” and then proceed to cast out the “spirit of stealing in him”!

A market woman, Appolonia Iheka, who sells food stuff at Mile 12 market, Lagos, told the The source that apprehending people trying to steal her goods in the guise of pricing or buying them is not new to her as it happens quite often. “As a born again Christian, I simply pray for them and counsel them. And if I am convinced that the person, especially if a mother like me, is truly in a desperation situation, I give free what she intended to steal”

Iheka appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to urgently fulfill his campaign promises by ending the suffering of poor Nigerians. According to her, in her Church several indigent people are fed and clothed every Thursday. “Hundreds of them come every Thursday. Sometimes, you see an entire family lining up to be fed and clothed’, Iheka, a Business Administration graduate who took to food stuff business after years of fruitless search for job, told The Source.

She also admonishes graduates to get engaged in skill acquisition or business, no matter the scale “instead of roaming the streets in search of elusive job or begging and stealing to survive.”

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