Chioma Okezie-Okeh, Lawrence Enyoghasu and Elizabeth Ogunbamowo
“Iku ti de bami saaju akoko mi” (Death has come to me before my time). That was the cry of a 64-year-old woman who wailed as she ran down the street. She was among residents running helter skelter on a day the Ogungbade community in Ogun State was thrown into pandemonium.
An eyewitness who asked her why everyone was in flight got this response: “They said bad boys with guns are killing and robbing people at the junction. I only went to collect N1000 from my friend, God will not allow me die in the hands of these children from hell.”
Few minutes later, the cause of the stampede was evident for all: members of a new vigilante organised by the neighbourhood to keep the area safe were passing through and mistaken for brigands that had taken over the cities in the past few days.
This is the new reality in parts of Lagos and Ogun where miscreants unleashed terror on residents during the past weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown. Within Lagos, affected areas include Abule-Egba, Baruwa, Egbeda, Isheri Idimu, Dalemo, Akinde, Dopemu, Ogba, Iyana Ipaja, Meiran and Alakuko. The blight also spilled to some Lagos-Ogun border communities like Akute, Agbado, Alakuko, Ojokoro, Ota, Ogungbade, Imise, Agoro, Solu and Kajola in Ifo local government.
To stem the tide of this urban banditry, terrified citizens in affected areas resorted to convoking vigilance committee to protect themselves during the day and at night. Earlier in the week, several videos that went viral showed Lagosians keeping vigil, wielding dangerous weapons such as guns, machetes and axes for self-defence. In one of the videos, a young man raised a rifle and fired three shots into the air to the cheers of those around him.
A Saturday Sun survey conducted across the Lagos metropolis and parts of Ogun recorded gloom responses from those interviewed in different locations. While some expressed hopes of stemming the tide, others vented fears about the situation deteriorating further in the days ahead.
Titi, a respondent in Ogungbade said, “these days, we no longer sleep during the day for fear that they will return again. The tension has reduced because all the landlords, including my son, are now doing vigilante work.” According to her, the men in their locality gather at 12 am and stay awake till 4 am. “This is the normal routine now in our area,” she affirmed.
However, incidence of false alarm is rampant and a source of the frequent hysteria. “We are always on the run and when you stop running, you discover that the pandemonium was triggered by false alarm,” said Titi who also commended the police for increased patrol in their area.
Nonetheless, the situation has created a dangerous atmosphere whereby everyone has to move with caution.
“It is almost a taboo now to walk around in my area. Any teenager seen outside is automatically a suspect,” she said.
Sarafa street in Ogungbade community, does not use vigilante but instead invoked the deities they worship, she claimed. “They have started their Oro festival and this will continue till the lockdown expires, and I tell you, no thief dare attack any there and come out alive.”
Several other communities too resorted to supernatural means of wading off attacks from the rapacious packs rampaging through the state. Residents in the Badagry axis who spoke with Saturday Sun claimed there was no such attack in their neighbourhood.
They attributed the calm to the invocation of Oro from dusk to dawn to undertake spiritual cleansing of their domain. “Since government announced the lockdown, traditionalists declared Oro. No one is allowed to step out of the house from 11pm till dawn. I assume that is why the area is peaceful, I have not heard of any attack by miscreants since the lockdown,” Disu, a media practitioner said.
Mushin, a melting pot of disorder
While order seemed to have been restored in most parts of the states, residents in Mushin still insist that the miscreants are very much around and still terrorizing them.
Saturday Sun spoke to some victims who had close encounter with the gangs, including two ladies within minutes of being dispossessed of their valuables a few metres from Jocassion Hotel. The taller of the girls who introduced herself as Olami Ojo, said she also lost her Tecno phone to the miscreants.
She narrated her ordeal: “When the lockdown started, some of our family members told my mother that they were hungry. Their cry reached my uncle in United Kingdom who sent some money for relief packages for family members and other residents. After sharing for the ones on our street, we continued to Olu Aina Street then Papa Ajao. We were about to exit Papa Ajao when we met those boys. It was scary. They were carrying machetes, planks and rubber stands. We could not run. They had seen us and the phones were popping from the bags. We tried to beg for our phones. They took the bags and the other relief materials meant for the residents. They said that they also need the food. It was a small bag filled with rice and beans. They wanted to fumble with my body but was left alone after one of them pleaded with the others.”
Aisha, the second victim could not utter much word but kept pointing towards the direction where their assailants disappeared. “I just need my SIM card and ATM. This is the second phone I am losing in two months here in Mushin,” she lamented.
According to multiple sources, most of the crimes are being perpetrated by the No Manners gang, an unruly and vicious pack dressed in yellow knickers and open-necked shirt. While it is not associated with cultism, the gang is a crime syndicate that affiliates with Naira Marley fans. Damilola Aragbede, a resident, claimed the gang did not spare the General Hospital in Mushin.
“They came to General Hospital Mushin robbing patients and healthcare givers. A friend of mine who lost his mother was also robbed because he was still waiting for the hospital to clear his mother who had died earlier in the day. The hospital was conducting an autopsy on the late woman known as Iya Ayo. He was sent outside the hospital because he refused the doctors to test his mother for possible coronavirus.”
Ayo was reportedly attacked outside the hospital premises where he was still wailing over his mother’s death. Aragbede added: “We saw about 20 boys passed at the same time and that was how they raided him. They were about five groups of twenty each.”
The gangs that scavenged Mushin on Easter Monday had wreaked mayhem along Ishaga Road where a victim was reportedly stabbed multiple times and left for dead. The gang, numbering almost 50, at first swooped on Adekunle Street, while some branched to Shittu Street, others continued on Igbehinadun Street till they met at Papa Ajao
“These boys have someone that gives them the go-ahead,” Ayo Adeleke, a resident on Igbehinadun, lamented noting that the axis has become a black spot since the lockdown started.
“Sometimes, they come in through Pako Road then disperse at the junction, the next moment, they had regrouped in another place. Once they clustered, they would rob anybody. They do it so often that when we see two or three boys passing together that are not our residents, we quickly alert each other and clear off the road for them,” Adeleke said.
A landlord who identified himself as Segun, claimed he was robbed on Wednesday. He lamented the absence of police presence on his street wailing, “We are on our own around this area.”
He supported his assertion that daylight robbery goes on daily in the neighbourhood with a recount of his experience: “I came out around 7am to walk around as a form of exercise. It was as if they were waiting for me. My phone and N1000 were snatched by this group of boys who came out from nowhere and in less than two minutes they were done and disappeared.”
Many persons, especially market women, had been attacked in this manner, according to him. “Policemen should come and shake them small so that they will leave us alone,” he pleaded.
Terrifying tales of roving crime gangs
Across the city, residents are taking precaution for their safety as well as responding proactively to threat, real or imagined, in their areas.
A tensed atmosphere prevailed in Gloryland Estate, Idimu, as rumours circulated about an imminent raid by the notorious One Million Boys.
Young men in their numbers trooped out of their houses with cutlasses and crates of empty bottles while some brought out their dogs. Traders in the neighborhood moved about securing their stalls with extra padlocks as commercial activities were hastily terminated.
In Yaba, a resident told Saturday Sun she could not sleep at night because of fear of being attacked in her home.
“What I know about the One Million Boys is quite scary. They terrorized Ikorodu for a while and before they could be stopped, many lives were lost. It is a very powerful gang and I hope they do not get here,” she said.
Despite the efforts of the young men to safeguard the areas, the respondent who gave her name as Damola, said she still wasn’t confident that robbers would not exploit the situation. “It might not even be the One Million Boys that would come now, it might even be the thieves within that would be using this opportunity to rob others,” said Damola who commended the effort of the vigilantes who took it upon themselves to protect others.
In Abule Egba, the climate of fear persisted. Iyin Babatunde who is resident on Olaniyi street told Saturday Sun: “It is very terrifying. We couldn’t just sleep at all. Everytime we notice strange movements, especially when a large number of unknown people pass by, residents take cover. But now we are regrouping with weapons such as axes, cutlasses and daggers, to protect ourselves.”
He added that the robbers are always more than 50 and are armed to the teeth with weapons including locally made guns.
He avowed that the robbers attack during the daytime and at night. “Prior to the time residents took up their security, the robbers did go from house to house to steal from people. There was even a report of a woman whom they raped.”
A respondent, who gave his name as David, recounted a harrowing tale of how his friend was attacked by machete-wielding hoodlums on Tuesday around Paiko, in Idimu. “I just received a call this morning that my friend was attacked when he went to withdraw money via Paga. The most horrific part is that he was hacked on the head and had to be rushed to the hospital. As we speak, he is in critical condition. I hope he recovers soon.”
In Iyana Ipaja, young men constitute themselves into ad hoc vigilantes to ward off attacks from a roving pack of hoodlums that had been on a robbing spree in adjoining communities. One of them, Olamilekan, affirmed: “When we saw that they were robbing in other streets, we just had to lay ambush for them in this area so they were not allowed to come in.”
Other suburbs, including Agege, also staved off attack with the aid of neighbourhood vigilante. Olaide gave Saturday Sun a rundown of the situation in the part of Agege where she lives.
“Yesterday, they got to the area but they couldn’t raid my street because a combination of street boys, Awawa boys and the vigilante group were all armed protecting the street, so the robbers moved to other places.”
She complained that she had been deprived of decent night rest for the past two days after she heard gunshots in the night. She spent her nights watching the vigilance group burning tires from the window of her room.
Reports also coming in from Agbotikuyo in Agege indicate that the area was also one of those raided by the One million boys but the young men in the community were on standby to put a stop to the activities of the robbers. A source revealed that some landlords were quite unfortunate and lost their lives to the robbery though this is yet to be verified.
A resident who had gone to make purchase of some perishable edibles on Wednesday, Ayobami Michael told Saturday Sun that he was going back to his house when he saw some men with weapons and took to his heels to save himself from harm.
“We just exhausted the eggs we stocked up so I decided to get some in the next street but the woman didn’t have anymore but after going round, I got from the third Street and as I was going back, when I saw guys with machetes, axes and they didn’t look familiar. I didn’t even know where I threw the egg because I ran like a dog.” He said that he was just fortunate to have noticed and ran because the story would have been different if he had not.
For Chidi, the presence of the street ad-hoc vigilantes waiting and at alert was a saving grace for the rest of the residents at Agbotikuyo, Agege.
“The robbers got to some areas with very few boys who could not take them up, especially those areas where everyone is always indoors and they robbed them with ease. They robbed each house, collected valuables. They are many so that probably explains why they refer to themselves as “One million boys”. They got to Arigbanla area, succeeded there too, and they proceeded to Alaramimo where there were guys to stop them. They exchanged blows with those ones and left.”
He stated that the robbers had then moved to Papa Ashafa, Agege where he was seated outside with his friends and everyone had to scamper to safety but the activities of the robbers were curtailed when people started coming out of their homes with weapons.
In some other parts, the gangs of urban bandits were as audacious as to move from house to house. This is the experience of Kingsley who lives in Ojerinde Street in Akute area of Ogun state. He told Saturday Sun the robbers visited their house on Monday around 2 am. “They came here banging on our gate. They asked us to open the gate and threatened that we would be worse for it if they had to force it open. We didn’t open the gate for them. After their effort ended in vain, they moved to the next house where they succeeded,” he narrated.
To forestall such happening again, an informal security group formed by young men in the neighborhood now spend the night burning tires while other residents remain vigilant indoor.
Police calls for calm
In the last few days, police visibility has however increased on the streets of Lagos. More checkpoints have been set up and patrol vehicles stationed at strategic points waiting to attend to distress calls.
A senior police officer on patrol told Saturday Sun their major challenge is the inability of residents to differentiate between those who claim to protect them and the real miscreants.
“The initial hoodlums that dared to disturb the peace of Lagosians have been arrested, but despite police assurance, everyone is wielding cutlass and stick in the name of vigilante. The sight of such persons moving in groups cause panic that set everyone off running. The problem with all these is that in the future those communities will beg police to disarm their vigilantes who are no longer under their control.”
He continued: “For the past two days, I close at work by 4 am because of distress calls and all the places that policemen were deployed, we got there and discovered that the calls were due to false alarm. They will tell you that they got information that thieves were coming.”
He, however, confirmed that there had indeed been random cases of goons who came from nowhere and set up blockades on the road and extorted money from people. In such cases, by the time police got to the spot, the brigands had dispersed.
“They struck and ran away. The vehicle that was attacked in front of Ajao Estate was not a case of armed robbery. The boys stopped the car and stole food stuffs especially yams,” he stated.
Meanwhile, Lagos State Police Command spokesman, Bala Elkana assured residents there is no cause for alarm in the state. “The special forces that were deployed by the Inspector General of Police are on ground and efficiently deployed. The distress calls have reduced and those burning tyres have stopped because they are part of the causes of panic. Our deployments are quite massive, the patrols are quite effective all night and day. Confidence has been restored. The distress call has reduced because they have seen police all over , they are no longer afraid of being attacked,” he said.