The Sango-Otta junction part of the Lagos-Abeokuta expressway in the southwest of Nigeria is one part I approach with anxiety each time I have to travel that route. As far as I know, Ojota-Berger, Ojuelegba and Oshodi apart, only a few other places or spots in the whole of Lagos and Ogun State can rival the traffic chaos, vehicular and pedestrian, which this area serves up everyday. And ever since someone finally thought it wise to build a long overdue overhead bridge on that axis, the traffic situation has moved from that of chaos to mayhem.
It was amidst such chaos and mayhem recently that I was to find a sample of the sort of little acts of courage and altruism that I have always felt are not in enough supply, at crucial points at least, in our lives as Nigerians. It seems to me that, the good old certifiable agbero and others of the ilk apart, the rest of us are just content echoing Fela in singing “ I no won die, I no won quench, I never born… when we have to face any situation that demands us to speak out. The crucial acts of recognizing our rights and standing up to speak out for oneself and for others anytime anywhere are qualities I have always felt are missing in a lot of us. Before you even go there, everyone acts the hero when someone else is already on his or her way to the morgue, and that is not the one I’m talking about here. A policeman accosts you for no offence and all you do is plead and buy your way out. There is an unnecessary harassment of a fellow citizen by a policeman and all I can do is look on or walk away. I am no Jackie Chan myself and, I will, therefore, rather give up my bloody N20 than have my family come to claim my corpse in a mortuary.
But what happens when the policeman in question is armed with nothing but his baton, and you have the added advantage of being surrounded by fellow civilians together with whom you outnumber all the policemen around, plus the fact that you have the policeman’s ‘professional caution’ (however crazy they may appear, they think twice before they attack) on your side? This was the question a terrific group of women, mostly young women in their late teens and early twenties, provided an answer to recently at the Sango-Otta part of the Lagos-Abeokuta route. And the answer is not in what you are thinking of, so shed that thought.
I get the feeling that as I relate this experience, those who know me are already saying ‘he is one of them after all’. Well, maybe. My seemingly inexorable attraction to and association with feminine matters has invariably earned me a reputation that is not too far from sissyish or tomboyish or, what we call woman wrapper in Nigeria. For the record, I am a graduate of Secretarial Studies (a course widely regarded, in Nigeria at least, as exclusively for female) and was one of a paltry four male students in a class; from Whitney Houston’s and Onyeka Onwenu’s downwards, the songs that make the most meaning to me are those sung by female artistes; I have read more articles from female columnists than from their male counterparts; the novels that have made the most impression on me are either authored by female writers or have a female as their central character; and, unlike with men, I form acquaintances and friendships with women I meet faster than you can say, ‘pleased to meet you’. But before you are done calling me woman wrapper, allow Abbas Akande Obesere, the maverick fuji crooner, to say a thing or two to you on what shall or shall not happen to he who does not like women (koni … fun eni ti o like obirin, yes), thank you.
The journey from Pansheke Motor Park in Abeokuta to Sango-Otta that late Friday afternoon had been an uneventful one except for the constant cause to wonder if one would get to Lagos in one piece considering the suicidal, no, murderous manner our driver was driving. After pacing our way through the initial hold-up, we got to a point where a combination of traffic policemen, Bureau of Transport, BOT men and motor park big-wigs (whatever that means) were (pretending to be) enforcing traffic order. And for what seemed like eternity, our bus did not get the green light. However, as soon as we got permission to move, the driver not wanting to betray the agbero in him, slung the usual agbero-style curses at the nearest man on the road, who, interestingly (as we were to later discover) was a BOT director or some other ‘big man’ there. We were stopped pronto, as the policemen and BOT people besieged the bus, demanding the passengers in the front seats to get out for one of the policemen to get in for an onward trip to the nearest police station. The ‘offence’ here was obvious, but officially, the driver was being accused of moving without permission, and you could be sure this would necessitate a search for vehicle particulars and more. I was pondering this when suddenly, in a movement akin to the speed with which a ‘stray’ bullet from a policeman’s gun snuffs life out of an unfortunate victim on a Nigerian road, one of the policemen or BOT guys (he was in plain clothes) dealt the young man in one of the front passenger seats a slap and completed his act of cowardice with a quick punch. Now, a bus driver swearing at anyone at all is one thing but assaulting a blameless passenger is another, and if these people thought the ‘motley crew’ in that bus didn’t realize this, then they had something else coming. The lady in the front seat was first to react, almost punching the policewoman standing by the door whilst also attempting to pull Mr. Coward back. In steely voices, the rest of us followed, roaring in anger at this unprovoked assault on a fellow Nigerian. It was at this point I realized that all but three of the eighteen passengers in the bus were female. And there we were, a disparate set of characters, with little else in common previously beside (as I was to learn later) the fact that we all spoke one form of the Yoruba language or the other (my own Yoruba being a hybrid of the Egun, Ogbomoso, Ijesa and Lagos extractions), now bond by the necessity to fight this injustice, this common enemy called police and BOT.
The haggling and haranguing that followed must have lasted about forty minutes as those feisty ladies transformed from co-victims into heroes in my eyes. And for the first time in a long while, I saw ordinary citizens, without invoking the influence of any ‘big man’ succeed in reversing the trend and making policemen and their like apologize frantically to ‘ordinary people’. Policemen, BOT men and agberos together with other market people around were pleading with us as we raved and ranted. The mantra from the passengers seemed to be, “all for one, one for all. Not only was that bus not going to any police station, every passenger was willing to go with it if it came to that. Mr. Coward had long since disappeared by this time.
In the midst of those feisty characters I was able to experience the stealthily liberating feeling of knowing that someone infringed your right and there was plenty you could do about it. Through it all, the guy who had been slapped hardly uttered a word in protest while I was more like a mere back up singer compared to those ladies. As for the third man, I never noticed him. The lady who had been sharing the front passenger seats with the young man seemed more touched than the rest of us as she grew teary-eyed whilst still managing to lead our cavalry. And through those tear-filled eyes of hers, I saw glimpses of the Nigerian woman, all compassion, all hard work and ever so altruistic. I have been traveling that same route at least twice a month for the past seven years, and in this time, I have severally been part of the victims of such unprovoked harassment of road users by policemen. But I had never seen a group of passengers stand up to the police and defend their rights the way that group of young women did. I cannot forget how stupid and hopeless I felt when, sometime in 2001, a policeman slapped me and put another passenger to the frog jump while the other passengers just looked on and blamed me afterwards for delaying them by my ‘stupid’ comments against a policeman.
Now, the more cynical part of my mind is urging me to regard what happened that day as having been influenced by the fact that my co-travelers were mostly female and that the policemen and the BOT people were restrained by that singular factor. The less prejudiced part of my mind, the one that operates without consideration for primordial factors and which is stubbornly choosy about which norm to conform to, is screaming noooo! The ‘success’ of those gallant young women had little if anything at all to do with the size and shape of the mammary gland. Their exploits had little to do with the much-vaunted fragility of the female being. If our ‘enemies’ were forced to think twice it is because those ladies were women who had the courage to stand up to them. You may have a family name that ‘opens doors’ but you will still have to walk through those doors yourself.