The International Writers Magazine:
When Bombs go off
in Lagos - Fiction from Nigeria
'It dawns on me that Lagos is in trouble again, the moment the Toyota
symbol on the Cressida wheel cover disappears
these were no professional fishermen
Angling for monster fishes,
They were daddies and mummies
And sons and daughters sinking
In swimsuits woven
From survival instincts,
Pockets weighed down
By bombs they never saw
There are six or
seven of us. Most have been to church and back, to confess another installment
of sins and receive some anointing for the next few days. We are seated
around a table that seems to be shrinking our beer bottles are
finding it increasingly difficult to find space on the table
until one of us has a brainwave and suggests we put emptied bottles
on the floor. But unanimously agreeing on which bottles are empty and
which are not is getting increasingly harder than we imagined.
It is better to drink in daylight than under the cover of darkness.
In daylight you are far less likely to be labeled a drunkard. Night
drinkers are viewed far less sympathetically than their daytime brethren.
Think of it Darkness and Drunkard seem to belong together.
Someone has just finished cracking a joke about another difference between
the two species of drinkers when the rain starts. It just pours suddenly,
as though someone up there were absentmindedly emptying a huge basin
of water. No prior warning. In some odd way, I am quite relieved. Some
part of me has been imagining hearing fresh blasts in commemoration
of the first year anniversary of last years explosions; so when
the rain starts I am relieved that the forces of evil have on this occasion
settled for a low-keyed re-enactment.
We refuse to relocate from our table on the verandah of Mama Nnedis
Cool Spot, despite the fact that the rain is fierce, and sudden gusts
of wind are regularly spraying us rudely with rainwater. We are not
so bothered. We politely turn down Mama Nnedis offer of space
for us within the cramped confines of her buka. Its amazing what
beer emboldens you to endure. The rain forces our voices to rise, till
we are practically screaming. The intensity of our voices succeeds in
causing us to veer off into coarse jokes. And we decide to play a game.
One by one every member of the circle has to supply a Very Lewd Joke,
and we are to do it in quick succession of one another. No breaks, no
hesitations, no variants of the same joke.
Predictably, Im the first to drop out. I switch off and content
myself with watching the growing flood, using the tyres of a Toyota
Cressida parked across the road as a benchmark. The Cool Spot is perched
on an elevation, so we are still somewhat comfortably detached from
the rising flood.
doesnt take too long for it to hit me hard that Lagos is in
trouble. What I find hard to acknowledge is the fact that I seem
to consider myself absolutely qualified to have that premonition.
*Barely a year ago, Lagos was torn from its roots by a series of
When the explosions started, they were like a joke, a cosmic prank
in fact. Im alive to recount all this because I am a fairly
good swimmer. NUGA Gold Medallist for the University of Jos in 83.
Some time ago, I would have said I remain alive because God blah
But I think it really has nothing to do with him.
bodies. Thrashing bodies, still bodies, baby bodies, elderly bodies,
those memories travel with you like a blob of
saliva on the other side of your car glass. You cant wipe it off,
at least not while youre still driving. So you stop looking at
it, at least till you cant help but stare again
That afternoon (it was a Sunday too), we were seated at a table, like
we are now, discussing politics and sports. Back then I didnt
have a single bottle of beer standing in front of me, as I do now. I
declined while everyone else increased their number of empty bottles
with gusto. Drinking and smoking were sins I considered beneath me.
I didnt believe in them at all. They were too crude.
When we heard the first explosion, no one said anything about it. At
that point in time, I remember we were in a Very Heated Argument about
who the richest man in Nigeria was. How did we even get into that particular
argument? Some ignoramus had brought up that crap again about the fact
that the poorest man in America being better off than the richest man
in Nigeria. I first heard that blasphemy when I was in Primary Two,
and I have heard it countless times since then. Ive stopped believing
it since I was in Primary Five.
Various folks were swearing with their fathers private parts that
so-and-so was the richest Nigerian, No! Lailai! Na so-and-so! Evidence
flew back and forth, every once in a while someone knew someone who
knew one Accountant who managed so-and-sos wealth, or who knew
someone who had been so-and-sos personal driver who used to drive
him (never her) to his Swiss bank.
I was about to start querying if retired Generals had any moral right
to be included in our local Forbes Top 10, when the very first explosion
came. It wasnt at all alarming as I remember I was still able
to complete my question and flag off a side-debate on the propriety
or otherwise of including any Nigerian of whatsoever profession. Yknow,
the All Have Sinned and Fallen Short kind of stuff
The second one came about thirty minutes later, and sounded more insistent
than the first. The ground stirred beneath us. Someone dived after his
fallen half-empty bottle of beer, cursing.
After that, I lost count. The explosions came in more frequent successions,
like once every five to ten minutes, till they were too present for
comfort. By now all of us had joined in diving for the bottles, even
I the teetotaler.
Folks were beginning to gather on the street, discussing in loud tones.
I began to notice people gathering excitedly around the white garment
church some distance down the road. I thought I could see them periodically
nodding in our direction. I guessed their excitement had to do with
the fact that they were finally going to be vindicated. I remembered
my Sunday School Lessons of many years ago, when our Teacher would paint
a very vivid picture of The Rapture, and White Horses and The Mark of
the Beast and Trumpets, and how everybody Jesus found in a beer-parlor
would immediately be dispatched by some kind of speed-post to the Lake
of Fire. We kids would listen attentively, partly in excitement, and
partly benumbed by fear, and we would pray fervently not to be caught
in a beer parlour when Jesus came back.
Now here I was.
Jesus himself would more like should know that I hadnt
been drinking. He was omni-everything, wasnt he? I recited (tried
to) the Lords Prayer, and then realized I was muddling it up.
Forgive us this day our trespasses, as it is done in Heaven
deliver us from all evil for surely goodness and mercy shall follow
give us this day our daily bread, as we forgive
those who trespass against us
Some people suggested an earthquake. Others swore it was a coup detat,
and instantly began to regale us with tales of how they lived in Obalende
close to Dodan Barracks those days when it used to be the seat of power
and how exciting those days used to be when coup plotters struck.
"I saw Orkar with my koro-koro eyes," I remember hearing one
man say. As expected a small crowd assembled around him instantly. He
continued, his voice now more assured, insistent. "
himself o! He sat on an armored tank and blasted straight through the
Dodan Barracks Gate, heading for Babangidas bedroom
very private bedroom, the one even Maryam was not permitted to enter
Babangida and the Israeli engineers who built it knew what the inside
it had this secret door hidden under the coat of arms
on the floor in the center of the room that led into a tunnel which
opened out at the Airport
I at once began to imagine a scared-off-his-pants Babangida looking
over his shoulders endlessly as he ran, sweated and stumbled along in
an air-conditioned, carpeted tunnel, remembering that the last time
he was subjected to such an exertion was decades ago in the military
"Ojoo Cantonment nko
Did Orkar capture it?" someone had
asked, more in show-off of his knowledge of military formations in Lagos
than in genuine curiosity.
"Alfa jona, o n bere irugbon!" the mouth whose eyes had seen
Orkar replied. "You should know that Bonny Camp is the powerhouse
of the army in Lagos state. That is where all the Colonels and above
are. Ojoo is for recruits and so on
At this point I was tempted to bash the man over the head for his barefaced
misinformation. Besides I didnt think a coup was likely, not at
this time when the politicians hadnt convincingly proved just
how adept they were at ruining us.
But if I had any such thoughts (denting the mans head), they quickly
vanished in the face of another hypothesis, one that emerged as a slight
stammer from a tall, thin, baby-faced man that Lagos, albeit
Nigeria was being bombed.
Now that seemed likely.
We began to brainstorm on possible invaders, and theories. In between
two explosions (that means in a space of about five minutes), if I remember
well, we had come up with an impressive list of Conspiracy Theories.
I was getting excited. This reminded me of the heated discussions we
used to have in POS 411 The Cold War and Theories of Global Conflict
in A New World Order in Jos back then. Someone mentioned Cameroon.
Reason the conflict over the Bakassi Peninsula. As doubtful as
we all were of that postulation, we half hoped it was true. The Coup
plot veteran rose to the occasion to voice out our reason:
"Cameroon cannot stand a chance beside Nigeria. We have the best
military capability south of the Sahara
Except for South Africa," I chipped in.
The man frowned to show that he didnt entertain interruptions;
only the respectful questions of ignoramuses. He continued. "Imagine,
Nigeria has sixteen MIG-29s, Cameroon has only four. We have a combat
strength of eighty thousand soldiers
. Cameroons army is
less than thirty thousand
He would have continued if the next explosion werent especially
intense. We heard the sound of breaking glass, and felt the earth rumble
like diarrhoead bowels. By then panic was beginning to break forth amidst
All of a sudden someone mentioned Osama. We permitted the name to sink,
and were shocked to find that it chose instead to crash wickedly onto
the floors of our minds. Things were getting clearer. Osama bin Laden,
The Terrorist, who had single-handedly brought America to her face in
the dust of ground zero; that same Osama had turned on Nigeria. Why
he did that was not far-fetched. Our President had publicly railed against
Al Qaeda and called Osama an idiot. In addition he had placed a reward
of twenty five million American dollars upon Osamas head, for
the very fact that countless Nigerians had perished in the Sept 11 US
We all knew the party was over at that point.
We were just marching on, sometimes breaking into a half-trot. Every
now and then a crazy driver would hoot furiously and weave through the
snaking line of refugees. But most people were walking. There were abandoned
cars at every point on the road, some with the doors wide open, others
with their engines still running. The explosions were crazy now. Sometimes
they would come in a volley, three four seven explosions, all as though
they came from the ground beneath us. Then they might cease for a while,
then a single one, and all of a sudden another volley.
The crowd was getting confused. Some folks would just break out and
run. Somebody would suddenly postulate that the explosions seemed to
be coming from, say, Ikoyi, and we would change direction.
We clustered around the few men who clutched transistor radios, in a
bid to catch some information from
anybody! Virtually all the stations were playing hip-hop, the
few that were not were either about to shut down to rest their generators
or hooking in to BBC or VOA to bring us foreign news. One man tossed
his radio into the drainage. Someone waited for him to move ahead and
then dived after it.
I thought of my family. I eventually decided to go home and find them.
Finding a taxi or okada was impossible, so I decided Id have to
jog home. I slipped out of the crowd, and decided on the fastest way
home, dragging along my guilt at not immediately going home when the
Everywhere I passed through, people were headed in all directions. Yet
we were all running from the same thing. Even more strangely, we didnt
know what we were running from. Somewhere around Ikotun, I saw a danfo
calling passengers who were interested in heading for Badagry, enroute
the border Nigeria shares with the Republic of Benin. The danfo was
Our street was deserted. The landlords twenty-something year old
son emerged from the building clutching some electronics. I asked about
"Dem don comot. Everybody comot," he said.
"All of them? My wife and all the children?
where did they
say they were going?"
"I no sabe," he said. "Even Iya Agba no wait," That
last statement was supposed to put an end to what I presumed he had
concluded was my silly questioning. Iya Agba was the oldest occupant
of our building. She claimed to be a hundred and two years, and, well,
I didnt doubt her. She looked that old. If Iya Agba could disappear,
then I should know everyone else had too.
The landlords son was about disappearing too, and he immediately
did, into the alley beside the house, still clutching his loot. I entered
the building, the long corridor which all our apartments shared, knocking
on the doors one by one. I entered our own apartment and could picture
the scene just before my family moved out. There was a half-eaten bowl
of eba on the center-table, with efo - elegusi beside it, but without
the meat. They had forgotten to put the stove off, and it still burned
brightly in its corner. Blessings (our youngest daughter) shoes
lay scattered where she usually played, together with a half-eaten packet
of biscuit, meaning her mother hurriedly snatched her from play
or sleep, and carried her off in her arms.
I switched the TV on. I had to fiddle with it at the controls on the
panel itself. The remote control was nowhere to be found. Samuel must
have been clutching it when he ran after his mother.
Only one station was on air, and it just displayed its logo, while Shina
Peters crooned on.
Ninety percent, bribery and corruption
Caused by men
Ninety percent, motor accident
Caused by men
Na wa o
Another time, Id have stopped all I was doing to dance, and engage
my wife in an argument over the veracity of male culpability in the
fallen state of society. Maybe tomorrow, wed do that again.
I looked at my mattress, and was tempted, Im ashamed to say, by
the thought of lying down and sleeping. Id wake up the next morning
to see my wife beside me, in the favourite iro she wore to bed; and
my children sprawled out on their mattresses, in the very familiar,
varying stages of what I had come to term nakedness-in-progress.
Besides, I always slept on Sunday afternoons.
I wasnt so sure what to do next. Was I to go in search of my family
at my mother-in-laws? No one is at home in Lagos, I argued with
myself. Everybody is on the run. Even the rich, I thought, remembering
that a significant percentage of the abandoned vehicles we had come
across on the streets were glossy SUVs. Someone had even pointed out
a 2003 model Lexus that sped past. I decided to get back onto the streets
and join the crowd. If something evil had to happen to us, I might as
well be in the midst of other victims. Dying is more pleasant by the
dozen. And who knows, all this might just be a nightmare; an extended
hallucination I (and we) needed to endure first in order to get rid
of. The consolation was that this was a nightmare or hallucination that
seemed to chose not to discriminate between the psyches of the rich
and the hopeful. We were all in it together.*I decided to take my car.
Usually the engine never started at the first attempt. Countless mornings
the neighborhood had to help in pushing it while I manipulated the pedals.
But this afternoon was different. It roared into life without hesitation,
without even the dark cloud of jubilant smoke that usually heralded
I made my way out of the compound, and decided to head for my in-laws.
I guessed my wife might also have decided that perishing was nicer when
you did it with family. That was the least privilege you could accord
yourself when you didnt know what you were going to perish from.
I soon discovered that I couldnt ignore the growing mass of refugees
on the roads. So I decided to fill my car with fellow sojourners. It
was unthinkable that Id drive an empty car to oblivion when so
many folks were walking.
By now the explosions were very intense, and they seemed to have lost
their sense of timing. And I noticed I was getting accustomed to their
presence, such that I was able to conveniently miss hearing one or two.
My passengers expressed the same sentiments.
The radio still had nothing to say. My car radio brought forth crisp,
static-free sound, another highly unusual occurrence. In the absence
of any hints about the goings-on, we polished our conspiracy theories.
"The Osama story sounds most plausible," said the man sitting
beside me. We hadnt bothered to introduce ourselves; and in these
strange times that didnt appear too odd to us. "Our president
has succeeded in bringing us this final dividend of democracy
annihilation by a man half our population wouldnt even recognize
if they saw him"
"The man has loosed what he cant tight," echoed the
only lady, who looked like she was midway into extensive renovation
work on her hair and make-up when the explosions started.
"You mean the president, or Osama?"
"Na president o," she replied.
"You are right! Osama is not a man who will tamper justice with
"That our President is a very stew-pid man. Very very stew-pid.
Now we all gonna pay for his big mouth
I stamped on the brakes. Purely by instinct. Ordinarily I shouldnt
have bothered to obey the lights. The car in front of mine had raced
past in disobedience. And from those behind me I could feel the irritation
that burned towards me for halting. But since I had stopped, they had
little choice. A minute later the red light disappeared. In its place
the light panel glowed meekly like a dying bulb and died out. In irritation
I started the engine and as I made to move, the green light came on.
I let my foot down impatiently on the throttle, unaware that the leading
driver approaching at a right angle to me from the left had chosen the
same response. We met in a messy metallic tangle at the junction, like
the tight-clasping embrace of long lost friends. We would have had a
vicious fight if not for some observant genius who pointed out that
it wasnt any of our faults. The traffic light-box had apparently
shown green to both of us at the same time.
*My in-laws family house was (still is) a crumbling eighteenth
century colonial structure in Isolo, with the words NOT FOR SALE, CAVEAT
EMPTOR graffitied all over its façade. Some peace came over me
as I spotted it from a distance. I could see my wife and children huddled
on the 100-year old Arabic mat that formed the sole furniture in the
cobwebbed living room. Only that they would be worried about my whereabouts.
I dont know if I may say I was very surprised when I met the house
empty. It was puzzling, I must confess, since this was a house that
held, at any point in time, sixty inhabitants at the least. Now the
only living creature I saw was Kekere, my mother-in-laws lame,
slightly deaf and perpetually pregnant mongrel.
I entered the rooms one by one, remembering the many moments I had spent
in the house, right from the time my wife and I were courting. A smile
came to me when I remembered the times we used to steal kisses off each
other under my wifes grandmothers nose, in the one-windowed
room that opened out from the living room. The old woman spent all her
days in the room, and since she was extremely shortsighted, we took
advantage of her to carry out our slightly-less-than-chaste liaisons
in her presence, at a carefully calculated distance of course. We couldnt
afford to do that in any other room, where normal-sighted folks were
bound to be. We would just lock ourselves in with the old woman, and
experiment with kisses
(nothing more, God knows). It used
to amuse me that such an easy means existed of outwitting my father-in-law
who was a perfect epitome of that personality type Nigerians love to
interpret (mostly in the obituary notices of their beloved patriarchs
and matriarchs) as "Strict Disciplinarian".
Somehow I got to hear that people were trooping towards the weed-choked,
rubbish-choked canal that ran through Isolo, all the way to the other
end of Lagos. I joined the crowd. It was at this point that I started
to feel some panic rising in me. I madly hoped my wife hadnt chosen
this moment to repress her morbid fear of water. I just had the feeling
that this canal news was bad news.
I arrived at the canal and saw human beings plunging into the dark,
slimy depths, attempting to head for God-knows-where. The canal looked
like a lush soccer pitch, thanks to the fertile water hyacinth that
had annexed the entire surface.
I plunged too, only realizing that I had done so after the fact. It
was as though I had been pushed. Now I imagine it was like that for
every other person too who entered those murky depths that Sunday. But
in truth, I have come to the conclusion that it was a Final Act of desperation
by a people for whom desperation had become the sole ticket to a continued
I think there were about six or seven folks who plunged with me. No
symbolism intended in my numerology, I swear. It just strikes me.
As I was saying, I plunged.
In actual fact, We plunged. Lagos plunged!
I think its clear now why I have (and feel qualified to have)
that hollow, sucked out feeling that today is another festival of Death.
Another Death by Immersion. One difference is that last year, we went
to meet the water. This time around, one year after, the water has chosen
to come to meet us, to save us the trouble. *I have recently read about
Closure; its supposed to be psychologese for some kind of coming
to terms with life-altering events in ones life. And Im
beginning to feel that seeing and touching those mass graves one year
after might bring some sense of much-needed closure. Especially since
I wasnt present that day they lowered the 1000-strong flag-draped
coffin congregation into the moist tomb on the banks of the canal. I
refused to go because my pastor said going would mean doubting God.
That if I went, I was more or less declaring that God had failed, and
Devil was the victor. His argument sounded plausible. Since I hadnt
identified my wife or kids amidst the bloated corpses stacked in the
fourteen or so mortuaries, I just had to wait on God and not do anything
that would challenge his ability to handle the situation; that would
For lots of folks, seeing their loved ones corpses meant closure.
For others it meant every other thing but closure. For me? I dont
know what it would have meant. Thats the truth.
Lagos is in deep s**t!
I can imagine the Atlantic greedily rolling its eyes as its stomach
bloats with water, waiting for that perfect moment when it would in
one bowel movement belch the water onto an unsuspecting Lagos. My friends
are soon forced to suspend their game and acknowledge that Lagos is
indeed in for it. We watch in silence as the tires of the Toyota disappear.
We are all soaked, and we dont bother. I dont think it dawns
on anyone that it is almost exactly a year now since we last consigned
a Sunday to the dustbin of tragedy. And I certainly do not feel like
letting them know.
Soon no fingers reach onto the table any longer to caress a bottle.
Just the silence. Our silence, of course, for the storm is nothing near
We have no radios to switch on. Good riddance.
One man begins to worry aloud about the wife and week-old baby girl
he left at home. My heart goes to him. He lives in a mansion in Lekki,
built upon a plot of land that has been snatched and re-snatched countless
times from the ocean.
In the absence of such worries, my mind is free. Free to commiserate
with the many who will this year take their turn to wade through bloated
bodies stacked on mortuary floors, awaiting that Aha! that comes when
you recognize a face, or even three.
I don't know why I'm saving this till the very end. Maybe it's because
I have always felt that a good story should be told like a good joke
- with one-hell-of-a-punchline.
Hours after Lagos plunged, and wove a mausoleum out of seaweed, we learnt
that Osama was innocent. The explosions we thought were his, turned
out to be ours.
They came from the tonnes of explosives warehoused in the ammo depot
of the Ikeja Cantonment, stockpiled by our second-best-in-africa army
because they didn't want us to be helpless in the event of an attack
by such enemies as Osama (and Cameroon).
Whether the explosions were accidentally set off, or an act of sabotage
(possibly by one of the thousands of unpaid army pensioners who
daily roam the streets of Lagos), only the Good Lord knows.
And maybe the victims too would know. I have always reckoned that the
dead are closer to possessing God's omniscience than we the living.
© Tolu Ogunlesi Nov 2 2004
Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria, and works
as an intern pharmacist. He is the author of a collection of poetry LISTEN
TO THE GECKOS SINGING FROM A BALCONY (Jacobyte Books, Australia). He is
an aspiring photographer and novelist - an
intern pharmacist in Lagos. He is the author of a collection of poetry
LISTEN TO THE GECKOS SINGING FROM A BALCONY, (Jacobyte Books, Australia).
His work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Melody of Stones (PEN Anthology
of New Nigerian Writing 2003), Olongo, Times Arts Review, Sable, Hackwriters,
Eclectica, InkPot, Mississippi Review, amongst others.
He is at work on a collection of stories, and at the same time saving
the courage to start work on his first novel.
Author, LISTEN TO THE GECKOS SINGING FROM A BALCONY, Jacobyte Books, Australia
Africa Editor MINDFIRE RENEWED http://www.mindfirerenew.com/tolustaff.html
http://omoalagbede.blogspot.com Author, LISTEN TO THE GECKOS SINGING
FROM A BALCONY, Bewrite Books, UK tel: +234 803 337 6685 e: firstname.lastname@example.org
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