Lagosians can hardly forget the bygone days when Oshodi, a sprawling part of the city defined by a vortex of commerce and traffic was a turf under the control of miscreants who terrorized commuters in the early hours of the day and by night transformed into daring robbers that rampaged through the neighbourhood.
For years, security agencies battled in vain to rid the district of these hooligans. With waves of arrests, demolition of shanties around the Oshodi Bridge and visibility of police units and CCTV to Alausa, former Lagos governor Babatunde Fashola during his time reined in the criminal gangs and restored sanity to the environment.
The Oshodi landscape gained some respectability when the jobless young men who constituted the corps of the rapacious gangs terrorizing the area were allegedly absorbed into the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) scheme mostly as drivers and other state empowerment initiatives.
The remaining physical vestige of their legacy was uprooted by Governor Akinwunmi Amobode who redefined the Oshodi skyline when he commenced construction of a massive transport hub which the public hoped would finally consign the era of a blighted Oshodi to the past. While the current administration is continuing the project, the situation in Oshodi and its environs, unfortunately, has retrogressed.
A recent investigation by Saturday Sun showed bleak findings: the streets have been reinvaded by a roving pack of hooligans, most of them teenagers, who like mongrels without owners, descend on the streets daily to perpetrate crimes. As a result, Oshodi is gradually reclaiming its former notoriety as an enclave where mugging is rife, exploitation rampant and protection racket thriving.
The streets of Oshodi resonate with tales of frightening encounters. Some victims shared their experiences with Saturday Sun. “They dragged my bag along Bolade while I was heading to board a bus to the Island where I work,” Chidinma recounted the misfortune that befell her a few days ago.
She continued: “ It was around 7 am, and they were about 10 of them. They pushed me and then fled with my bag. I screamed. The people around told me I was wasting my energy.”
The second victim, a young man, briefly summarized the raw treatment meted out to him by a vicious gang. “I work in the bank and I had to leave home early. I was under the bridge with other persons when they came. I guess it was my suit that attracted them. They took the little money I had on me and when I tried to resist them, I was beaten up. No one came to my aid until they were gone.”
Yet another account by Abigail says, “I was driving to work in Ilupeju around 2pm in broad daylight and shortly before the Oshodi bridge, a few boys mobbed my car in a mild traffic to snatch my jewelries and other valuables, I had to bite the dirty arm of the one trying to snatch my wrist watch with my bare teeth before they could let me go.”
Faces of the new miscreants
Saturday Sun had informal chats with some of the boys scrounging the streets.
One of them, Femi, told this paper: “I was born and brought up in Ilasa by my mother who is late. She took ill and died. My father who had three other wives left us to provide for ourselves. Since my mother was no longer alive, I had no other choice but to run away from home. Then I was nine years old. Naturally, I joined the street boys to find ways to survive.
“I sold sachet water and Gala (sausage rolls) in traffic. The crime I know that I have ever committed was that sometimes I joined my friends to snatch phones or bags from people. I normally throw the SIM card at them before I run away with their phones. I have never in my life used a gun or knife to attack anyone because I had been warned that if police catch you with a gun, they would kill you. I prefer serving union people as their boys and in return, they will find us some money, especially during the election period. This was how I regained my freedom about four times that police arrested me during their usual raid.”
On why he and his peers sleep under the bridges, Femi said: “We have nowhere to stay and no one has money to pay for house rent. My father left Lagos about nine years ago without me. I have heard them say that I am from Ilorin but I don’t know where exactly. I see myself as a Lagosian. In fact, I am from Ilasa, because that was where I was born. We must survive.”
Another miscreant interviewed by Saturday Sun is popularly known as Uncle in Mafoluku area. He admitted that he had been arrested more than 10 times.
“We own Oshodi,” he started. “Most of the boys you see there do not know who their parents are. They call me Omo Ibo because they assume that my father was an Igbo man. I can speak Igbo because there are many Igbo in Oshodi. I like their girls and I will surely marry one of them if they agree. I am popularly known as Uncle because there are so many children in the area and I am nice to them. Everyone started calling me Uncle.”
To survive, Uncle prowled the market as a hired “strong-arm” to help in the collection of tolls in the market. “It is not easy to survive in Lagos without a decent job,” he lamented. “I am a tout and I rely on selling tickets at the market to survive. Gone are the days that I snatched bags. I am tired of going to Kirikiri prison, that is why I have kept my hand clean for some months.”
Most of the boys causing the problem in Oshodi, he alleged, are not residents. “They come from Mushin and Ilasa to hustle in the rush hours of the morning. It’s only very few of us that still go out at night to hustle in the traffic.” Majority of his peers in Oshodi, he insisted, engage in a legitimate hustle. “It is those cultists from Mushin that spoil things here. Oshodi belongs to us and no one can move us away from here,” he stated.
Females among the gangs
It is not uncommon to find some young girls––aged 10 to 20––among the gangs rampaging through Oshodi. A few of them interviewed in police custody were arrested during recent raids in the area. When approached, one of them, Yemi, aged 18, snarled at the reporter: “Is it a crime to be poor; where do you want us to stay since we cannot afford to rent a room in Oshodi?”
She had no qualms giving the reporter her background, which was not in any way illustrious. “I don’t even know where my mother is because I ran out of the house. My mother was 15 years when one agbero (tout) impregnated her. She couldn’t abort me because it was already late when she knew that she was pregnant. She didn’t even know who got her pregnant and because of that she married one Muslim cleric at Shogunle who is already old.”
She was a runaway kid. “I left home when I was nine because my mother was suffering and she couldn’t feed me well. I joined some friends and relocated to Ilasa where we were hustling by selling sachet water and sausage rolls popularly known as Gala. We normally sleep in any uncompleted building. The alternative is to find a boyfriend that has a room. This is how we survived till 2018 when we relocated to Oshodi because of the election,” she narrated.
She continued: “I have a friend who is a member of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). He is the one that rented the house where we now live in Oshodi. To survive, we normally sell stuff on the road in any traffic close to us.” Like any other of her ilk, she had been arrested a number of times.
She spoke of her recent arrest. “The day I was arrested, many of us including my friend were outside resting and smoking cigarettes,” she recalled. “The weather was hot and since we don’t have a generator, we normally stay outside till 2 am. Then these policemen suddenly came and arrested every young man and woman in sight. If you do not have any identity card they will arrest you. Where can a sachet water seller get identity card? If I am a thief, I will not lie down outside and wait for the police to arrest me. Is it now a crime to be poor?”
The 18-year-old did not dispute the fact that some of her peers engaged in criminality, especially robbery. “It is very common but I am not one of them. All they do is to break windows and steal from cars. They rape girls anyhow here, but some of us are exempted because we already have a man in our lives. It is hard to live on the streets because police always assume that we are prostitutes and our men are thieves,” she said.
The story of Chidinma, 17, further shed light on how some of these girls ended up among the ‘rootless’ gangs of Oshodi. She was one of those caught in police’s net during a raid. She said: “I am from Ebonyi State. My family sent me to Lagos to serve one woman when I was 12 years old. She maltreated me so much and her husband wanted to sleep with me. Because I refused, I was thrown out of the house. Luckily, one woman accepted me and from her, I learnt how to prepare pap, which I sell in Oshodi market every morning. Unfortunately, she relocated to her village and I had no choice but to stay alone and hustle on my own. I am sharing a room with three other girls in the area.”
Chidinma who claimed that she was seized at 11 pm, while she was preparing pap for the next day, agreed that they were arrested because “we were girlfriends to criminals.” Said she: “Maybe they thought they would find guns with us. Thank God they did not find any gun in our room, but still they arrested us because none of us in that room is married. Is it a crime to be single in this country again? My roommates are all selling one thing or the other, it’s just that they cannot raise enough money to pay for a house.”
She also opened an aperture on the activities of the touts in the area.
“I know so many of them. This is why the police will never believe us. The lazy ones amongst them, especially the club boys and those that are Agbero (touts) don’t work. They sell drugs here anyhow; when they are high, they enter the streets and rob people anyhow. There are many of them in this area, even if police should arrest them, they will come back after some weeks and continue where they stopped. There was a time police raided our area and my boyfriend was arrested because he was found with a wrap of Indian hemp.”
Backed by NURTW?
A few of the residents who live and trade in the neighbourhood expressed their concerns. Mama Shade, a lace seller, after lamenting about the problem the street boys constitute, forewarned the reporter on the need to hold unto her bags very well.
“They have a gang made up of men and women. Most of the people you see moving about are thieves. Even if you catch them, their members will quickly assemble as those who want to settle the matter. They recover your property for you and indiscreetly allow the culprit to run away.”
She alleged: “As for those boys, they are all members of NURTW. They don’t wear uniform but they have identity cards. If you arrest them, especially in this Oshodi, the NURTW bigwigs will surely secure their bail.”
She drew the attention of the reporter to a noisy crowd a few metres away. Just as she alleged, the crowd was trying to settle a fight between two women. The older of the two alleged that the younger one stole her N10, 000. After much argument, both were asked to empty their purses and pockets. Although the said N10, 000 was found in the bag of the other woman, the group of men who gathered prevailed over the situation as they calmly collected the money and handed it over to the true owner.
The thief was asked to leave the scene before the matter draws the attention of the policemen on patrol. When asked why she was not beaten up or reprimanded, a lady who was selling clothes by the roadside said: “Na dem dem (They are all thieves). If she had succeeded in stealing that money without the owner raising alarm, she would give a percentage to them. They know themselves. They saw her when she did it; that’s why they all surrounded her when the matter started and quickly ended it before it escalated. Madam, hold your bag very well because they carry scissors and knife with them.”
Seun, a young man who owns a betting house, lives farther from the Oshodi epicentre, yet he is not immune from the scourge of the Oshodi gang. He told Saturday Sun the only way to continue his business in Shogunle area is to pay a certain fee to touts that rule the area.
“Every area in Oshodi has a group that controls them and they are mostly cultists,” said the bet shop owner who prefers to pay them the N500 they collect every day rather than report them to the police.
“Even if the police should arrest them today, they will surely return and come after you,” he stated. “We look forward to the election period when most of them are either killed or packed to areas far away from here where they are needed.”
He continued: “These boys do not have a home or family. Their number increases every day. I have lived almost my whole life in this area, so I know how they operate.”
Noting, “almost all of them except the children have been arrested by the police and charged to court,” Seun suggested that government should create a camp and rehabilitate them. “If the government does not rehabilitate them, they will still come back. And they usually return worse,” he said.
Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu in a recent media briefing disclosed that a Special Strike Force on social miscreants had successfully mopped up at least 383 suspects in Ikorodu, Agege, Itire, Isheri-Oshun and Oshodi some weeks ago.
In addition, 447 other hoodlums were arrested during raids at known hideouts. Dangerous weapons recovered from the operations included two locally made pistols with thirty unexpended cartridges, bags of weeds, cutlasses and axes.
The raid, Odumosu assured, will be a continuous exercise until sanity is restored.