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Mike Ekunno | Okada

Take off was ordinary enough – the return trip on a Thursday morning from the languid surroundings of Ahmadu Bello University’s main campus. Students were on break so what would have been a bustling environment was reduced to few workers sauntering across the tired lawns.

Inside the Toyota Sienna van earlier, Jane had taken position in the front passenger seat before it was suggested that a man was better for the position.

            “Why?” fired Dr Juliet who sat behind the driver.

            “Because in the event of anything, even if not an accident, a woman would panic and can even grab the driver which would now cause the accident very well,” explained the driver.

            “We don’t pray for that,” avowed Prof Okoh who sat beside Dr Juliet.

            Dr Juliet wasn’t convinced yet. “So a man would not panic in the event of such a thing,” she spoke sarcastically.

            The driver knew better than to engage a superior so he let the comment roll by like a bag on the carousel looking for its owner. It was Dr Nwosu who claimed ownership from the back seat where he sat alone. “Let’s just say a woman is likely to panic and distract the driver because she may have been suddenly woken up.”

            “And what would make her more likely to be sleeping than a man in the same position?” Dr Juliet returned.

            “Because she spent the night doing her duty in ‘za oza room.’”

            All began to guffaw to Prof’s allusion except Dr Juliet.

            “It takes two to tango. Why won’t the man also suffer tiredness from keeping awake in the other room?” she spat.

            “He can manage his lack of sleep better …”

            “Says who, though?” Dr Juliet fired back not waiting for Prof to finish. “So says patriarchy for sure,” she continued answering her own question.

Dr Juliet was proving more than a match for the two-man tag team of Prof Okoh and Dr Nwosu. Nor was she bound by the unwritten rule that made junior academics to defer to their superiors. She was of the University of Port Harcourt and came to hitch a ride with the Imo State University delegation to the just-ended conference.

The conference on ‘Contemporary Urban Realities – Challenges and Remedies’ had ended the previous evening with the drafting of the communique and dinner with the Vice Chancellor. It was dubbed an international conference. The only justification for that qualifier at the end of the day came from two Kenyans. The rest of the international community kept well away after visiting Google to search ‘Northern Nigeria, terrorism.’ For the non-international attendees, the turnout had been massive. There were Duty Tour Allowances to be earned and the chance to get away from station humdrum. These muffled any fears arising from the horrors of Nigerian road trips. Attendees were a mixed multitude drained from the vast social science river basin spanning urban and regional planning, sociology and geography. Some institutions managed to finagle attendees from as disparate a field as History: urban realities can benefit from a historical perspective from the time when the Early Man began to settle down with the Early Woman and their Early Family in bush hamlets, argued one History don.

As the Sienna made its way to the ABU main gate leaving behind the tree-lined approach, a momentary silence descended on its occupants. Jane had relocated to the back seat to join Dr Nwosu while the firestorm her front sitting ignited raged. They could glory in their attending the conference not for the money alone. Prof, himself a professor of urban planning had actually delivered a paper. His paper was: The Menace of Bi-peds in the Urban Transport Matrix. In the breakout session, Dr Juliet had insisted the simple title should have been: How the Elite Looks at the Okada Motorcycle as Fellow Road User. She was a sociology don specialising in urban sociology. Being the only attendee from her institution, she was quick to connect with the IMSU group who came in their faculty van and had a seat to spare.

Dr Isaac ‘Zack’ Nwosu was Prof’s faculty colleague and majored in transport management. Jane was a young graduate assistant who graduated in first class from the IMSU’s Urban and Regional Planning Department and had been retained in the faculty.

The van soon made its way past the perimeter walls of NCAT which serenaded the highway while its occupants lost count of signboards of research institutes on the other side of the road to Funtua.

            “Zack should be transferring his services to head that one,” teased Prof pointing towards the window to one signboard outside.

            “Eh, which?” enthused Dr Nwosu pressing his face to the window glass.

            “You didn’t see it?”

            “Something about transport technology,” offered Dr Juliet reading from the signboard.

            “Oh,” Dr Nwosu said nonchalantly, “those ones.”

            “But why?” Dr Juliet wanted to know.

            “They’re not likely to accept an outsider like me,” Dr Nwosu explained.

            “But there’s usually a lot of money in such places,” offered Prof.

            That got the others bemused before Zak spoke: “Prof has not known about the anti-corruption war of the federal government.”

            Silence fell again on the entourage as the driver stopped to fill his tank at the Kano – Kaduna expressway interchange. Thereafter, he drove up the interchange and headed out to Kaduna. Soon the rolling savannah on both sides of the highway lolled the egg heads to sleep – both men and women.

At Jaji, the van swerved suddenly as the tyres screeched on the tarmac. The sleeping gang was aroused in a jiffy with quizzical looks and words. Beside the highway on the shoulder, their curiosity was silently addressed by a basket of tomatoes sitting askance on an okada motorcycle with half its contents spilled like red confetti and the cyclist battling to prevent full fall. The cyclist had dangerously swerved in front of the van leading to the latter’s sudden braking. In the momentary slow down, the woken passengers turned to look at the little tumult around the okada and what remained of its cargo.

            “You see what I was saying?” Prof injected into the optics as if it was the caption to the still photo.

            In his conference paper, Prof had posited that the commercial motorcyclist was a blithe on the urban transportation mix of most Nigerian cities and should be outlawed. He had researched their street names in different localities – ‘okada,’ ‘achaba,’ ‘going,’ ‘akauke,’ – and concluded that the name, okada, enjoyed a more national spread. He reeled out statistics on the share of okada accidents in various hospital wards and emergency departments. The clan, he theorised, was united in the recklessness of the drivers. He argued further that the okada was the preferred transport mode of most criminal elements as it afforded a quick getaway and was not caught up in snarl-ups or limited by bad roads.

Prof’s paper had elicited critical attention at the various breakout groups. Dr Juliet was a foremost dissenter in her group. But the opportunity to give it back to Prof did not present itself as the rapporteurs glossed over most of the critical positions in their reports. Prof’s quip at the tomato basket incident was therefore like waving the red flag at a bull – and a seething one at that.

            “How do you mean, Prof?” Dr Juliet asked. Whether it was grogginess that made her tone to belie the boiling volcano underneath, it was hard to tell.

            “I mean that this is just a graphic display of my position about the nuisance value of the okada in the transport value chain,” Prof started. “Can’t you see what that one would have caused us?”

            “Prof, you should have asked for the minority report from our group,” Dr Juliet said. “That report at plenary was grossly watered down.”

            “And can I get it now?”

            The rest of the entourage who had been listening giggled before Dr Juliet responded.

            “Your position, Prof, is typical of your class – the bourgeoisie. Was there any okada rider at the conference to state the group’s position?”

A pause followed. Silence hung in the air briefly like dead air after the bans of marriage is published in a church. Then Prof’s sidekick tried to come to the rescue of his boss.

“Are you inviting them to address us in Hausa or Igbo?” asked Dr Nwosu alluding to the illiteracy of the okada-riding denizens.

            “There you are;” she began, “if the Chadian or Ivorian delegation featured at the conference, wouldn’t translators have been provided?”

            Nobody responded and she continued. “For Prof to reel out all the perceived offences of the okada rider is so much bourgeois-speak.”

            “So, can you give us the case for the proletariat?” It was from Zak.

            The lady don was ready and gave a disquisition on the class struggle inherent in the call to ban the okada. As far as she was concerned, the elites don’t need the okada to get around so they talk superciliously about their nuisance value. But the okada catered to the transport needs of the urban and rural poor. They were often the only means available when a pregnant woman goes into labour in the middle of the night in remote areas. What about indigent pupils who have to get to school timeously every school day? The farmer who has to transport produce from remote farmlands, too. Dr Juliet was going on about the contributions of the okada when Prof interjected.

            “So because they bring farm produce those vermin must cripple all their passengers with bone fractures first.”

            “So why can’t government see to their training and certify them like they do taxi and bus drivers?” returned the lady. “The police outriders to them VIPs – don’t they get trained to ride and kitted with helmets? Why is it that those who now cater to the masses are overlooked?”

            “Ma, those police types are not okada, abeg.” It was the first contribution of Jane.

            “Bi-ped is bi-ped, simple.” Dr Juliet quipped to general laughter.

            “So, what is to be done about the situation,” asked Prof the same way you’d ask a precocious child to tell you about the origin of the universe. But his interlocutor was not fazed. The joke was lost on her.

            “What’s to be done is to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude to the class wars because the bourgeoisie cannot live without the proletariat …”

            “And vice versa,” added Zak.

            “And vice versa, of course,” concurred Dr Juliet. “The bourgeois class has to recognise the economic importance of the okada rider in the ecosystem and forgive them for peaceful coexistence.”

            The van slowed down as it neared a military check point at Rigachikum. Whether that caused the silence that befell the entourage, is hard to tell. But after the checkpoint, no one debated again as the van made its way through Mando Road and the Nnamdi Azikiwe bypass. Soon Kaduna metropolis was behind and they headed to Abuja on the Kaduna-Abuja expressway. Time check showed 9:47 on the dashboard – early days on a long haul. As ambience commotion that went with skirting the city died down replaced by the soporific savannah on both sides of the road, sleep returned to embrace the passengers again. Only the driver and Jane who was awake could tell how far the journey had proceeded before they ran into an orchestra of gunshots. Vehicles ahead of them were reversing and riding backwards in a jiffy. Some veered into the bush. On the other side of the road, much the same things were happening. Inside the van, the occupants screamed a staccato of commands:

            “Driver!”

            “Follow them!”

            “Stop!”

            “Jesus!”

             In the melee, the driver backed the van into a muddy patch by the roadside and got stuck. There was no time to attempt coming out. The doors flung open in front and slid open at the side and everyone ran for it. It was a disorderly race like when a column of soldier ants has been disrupted. All the while, a hail of bullets rained from different directions.

xxx

Prof woke up in the belly of the bush. He had lost consciousness when his captors hit him on the head with the butt of their rifle. His corral had a motley assemblage of captives – men, women, young and not so young. There were about thirteen of them huddled in a shed. Away from the holding shed, another shed about thirty metres away was the kidnappers’ command headquarters. The booty from the extant operation was eight – six men and two women. Five inmates were carryovers from previous operations whose relatives had not come forward with their ransom payments. The one with the longest tenure, landlord, was three weeks old from Batch 3.

            Among his co-travellers, Prof could make out only Dr Juliet from the pack. My nightmare, he thought on sighting her in the mix. Even in kidnap, you wouldn’t go your way. Just then she looked up and their eyes met in acknowledgment. They nodded to each other. Prof could merely wonder at what became of the rest of the entourage: escaped? Shot dead?  Silence was not only enforced by the two stentorian guards in the shed, the gravity of their predicament auto-enforced it. Hudu Bakwai and the other guard, Adams, were the most deadly of the gang of five.

            Hudu Bakwai was fair complexioned and gaunt with statuesque facial features. He spoke no English and took his name from the Hausa numerals of his most favourite toy, the AK 47. He could kidnap even the most guarded person because enemy bullets meant nothing to him. The marabout who gave him amulets was not the gang’s official marabout. His came from Senegal.

The other guard, Adams, was charcoal black and dragged the left leg. The fib he promoted was that he used the leg for his protection juju but behind him his colleagues, who had seen the scar on his thigh when they bathed in the stream, say it was from a gunshot wound.

            Inside the command headquarters, Ustaz held sway as gang leader. A veteran of many conflicts in the Sahel, he claimed to have trained under late Muamar Ghadaffi. He was regarded with clerical deference within the gang and his word was law: who was released or not; who got which share of ransom; what quantum of ransom offer to accept from solicitous relatives of victims.

            There was Malama, the only female member of the group and the official minder of the group’s kitchen. She was also a medic of sorts since she could wield the syringe against a myriad of victims’ ailments and for whatever it was worth, they didn’t die. She ran errands for the gang and was both a good decoy and spy.

            Minista was the gang’s information and communications minister who conducted the negotiations on phone because he spoke English, Yoruba, and Igbo aside his Hausa and Ebira. Because service network wasn’t available in the remote bush, he was always on the move to avoid tracking and detection through GPS.

            After the extant captives arrived, Ustaz held court to document and debrief them. At his prompting, the next candidate would leave the corral and walk to Command HQ. After Prof came to, it was his turn to be documented. Arriving at the post, he was asked not to sit on the floor like the others but was given a chair. “Una no know say him be farafesar,” chided Ustaz. It was such acts of kindness that made them revere him the more.

            Prof was flabbergasted: how did he know? Then he felt his rear pocket for his wallet containing his ID and ATM cards – it was gone. His phone too.

            Then the questions started coming, benign at first: where was he headed; where did he live; how old; what medication was he on? Then it got more sinister: his next of kin and phone number; ATM card pins; how he viewed ‘this business’? Minista was on hand to translate the questions and answers back and forth. With the interrogation over, he would bid his time before making contact with the next of kin for ransom demand. Prof didn’t understand Hausa to hear when his ransom was set at fifty million naira. Ignorance indeed was bliss.

            The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Minister came to the corral to record the plea of one detainee for later use in the ransom negotiation. The young man was asked to fake distress but he wasn’t good at it so Hudu Bakwai had to prime him with some koboko rounds. The recording phone was placed close to the detainee’s back to capture the sibilant whiplash and the victim’s groans.

            When night came, the new inmates were already fagged out from the day’s high drama and slept on leaves used as floor mats. The corral suffused with the fragrance of incense lit to keep away mosquitoes. The incense was a welcome dilution for the aroma of Indian hemp which was the default aroma of daytime. Only the Ustaz didn’t smoke or drink alcohol because his faith forbade it.

            The next morning, Malama left in her perfect disguise of t-shirt on black tights shorn of her hijab. A wind of hope blew through the corral as the older inmates decoded what that meant: it’d be a breakfast day. Malama would walk to the highway in her disguise and her chauffeur would be waiting having arrived at exactly 7:25. His ignition key would be at the ready in the mouth of the okada. At her emergence, a curt “Ina kwana?” “ Lafia lou,” would be exchanged and she’d mount the back seat. The okada would speed off. Her customer at the next settlement always had enough loaves of bread. She’d pay and heave the supply unto the fuel tank of the machine to be minded by the rider on the return leg. Then she would climb the back and be dropped off at the same spot. She’d disappear with her cargo in a Ghana Must Go hold-all into the outer fringes of the forest.

            That morning however, she had a heavier cargo to contend with on account of the latest arrivals. She decided to breach Ustaz’s orders that no soul ever follows her beyond the highway. She offered her unlikely UBER extra cash to ferry her some more beyond the highway. From where he would drop her off to continue her walk through unmarked bush, it would still be impossible for any stranger to navigate the way to the command headquarters, Malama reasoned.

            The okada man had been wondering at what phantom community his cryptic customer fed with so many loaves of bread. Even Prophet Isa didn’t need so many loaves to feed his crowd. After his okada got out of sight that day, he killed the engine and cleared by the pathway. No soul was in sight anywhere. Then he looked for a tree to climb for a clear view behind him. From his elevated vantage point, he peered backwards to try make out his mystery customer’s trajectory. The bush had covered her and he drew blank. He was about to descend before suddenly noticing where the bush moved far away. Looking intently, he could make out the trajectory by the trail of parting bush.

xxx

It had been one week since Prof’s batch – Batch 5 – joined the bush detention camp. In that interval, Prof watched as the detainees thinned down – through ransomed releases and once, on compassionate grounds as the woman’s menstrual flow refused to stop. Ustaz was moved to warn his boys that it was a bad omen and promptly released the woman.

Prof had been told how his wife was offering them only N500,000. “That woman no like you at all,” Minista warned. “She wan mek we kill you mek another man de service am.”

Prof looked at him and felt like strangulating him. That afternoon, the commune noticed the strange hovering of a helicopter over the forest. It went and returned. Ustaz ordered Malama to stop her cooking to prevent the smoke becoming a give-away. Then evening came and they prepared for another uneventful night.

Minista had gone out since morning on one of his many sorties to locate service bars on his phone lines and hadn’t returned. From where he held court, Ustaz muttered something about biri, the proverbial monkey, one day going to the market and failing to return. The commune had wound down for the night when the mystery helicopter returned. This time it beamed powerful searchlights around the forest. On ground within the commune, the light was diffused by the foliage into a monochrome of leafy spots. But it got Ustaz flustered: What are they looking for? Then came what sounded like a signal and all hell was let loose. All around the command headquarters and the corral, explosions boomed and gunshots rang out. Pandemonium everywhere.

The invading joint military/police sting operation was underway after aerial surveillance had established the likely position of the kidnappers’ den from the clearing in the forest. As they stormed the target that evening, it was a coordinated air and ground assault. Placebo explosions were going off from the advancing troops while from the air, the helicopter kept the fleeing desperadoes distracted with false gunshot sounds.

xxx

Friday morning saw the former captives at the state police command headquarters. Prof had his first bath in one week and sat with Dr Juliet who was still in shock. News of the rescue was all over the airwaves and the morning newspapers. On the TV screen in the large hall where the rescued victims awaited their formal release, the Police Commissioner was in triumphant mood as he addressed a press conference on his command’s latest exploit. As the camera panned the room, Malama, Minista and Adams could be seen in handcuffs facing the press while the Commissioner spoke.

            “… and before I take your questions, gentlemen of the press, let me acknowledge the invaluable intelligence we received for this operation from one okada rider whom we identify simply as Zazu for security reasons. He will be recommended for a reward under the whistle blower policy of the Federal Government.

            Where they sat, Dr Juliet turned to look at Prof who gazed at the floor.

————–

Image: Claudia Pixabay remixed

Mike Ekunno
Mike Ekunno
Mike is the winner of the inaugural Harambee Literary Prize and his collection of short stories, Soul Lounge, has just been released. He is published in Rigorous, Bridge Eight, Mysterion, The First Line, Gambling the Aisle, Ebedi Review, Storymoja, Drunk Monkeys, Africa Roar Anthology and other places. He works as a freelance book editor and speechwriter.

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