When Gallant Police Restored Order At Troubled Lagos Estate

Not a motorcyclist in sight... The new look of Ajao Estate/Canoe Bridge 					                                                                                                        PHOTOS: FEMI ALABI ONIKEKU

Not a motorcyclist in sight… The new look of Ajao Estate/Canoe Bridge PHOTOS: FEMI ALABI ONIKEKU

SOMETHING was clearly not right at one of Lagos State’s busy thoroughfares. Words filtered into the newsroom that a riot had broken out between commercial motorcyclists (Okada) and policemen. “All hell has broken loose! A policeman has been killed! An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) has been burnt! Be careful if you have to pass through the place! It is very serious o!”

All but one of the above proved to be true in perhaps the worst of fracases to have happened at the Ajao Estate/Canoe intersection: no policemen died as reported. One policeman, however, asked a disturbing question after the dust had settled; it was a pregnant interrogation.

The area was ‘soaked’ with armed policemen. They had stormed the place in about a dozen vehicles. The atmosphere was tense. Utmost caution was finest wisdom. Hands held high in the air, the reporter walked to retrieve his vehicle, parked there earlier during the day. In the darkness, an armed police officer drew near.

“Identify yourself!” he barked.
“I am a journalist. I want to pick my car, there (pointing).
“Do you speak Hausa?”
“Yes, I do. But I am not Hausa; I am Yoruba.”

Along came another policeman. They pondered the bag-carrying, shoe-wearing, newspaper-clutching reporter. Satisfied, perhaps, that he didn’t look exactly like what they were watching for, they gave the pass. But the scream and mercy pleas of another man who passed the spot barely seven seconds after showed not everyone went lucky.

To ask what ‘speaking Hausa’ has to do with a riot, a burnt police APC, and tens of trigger-anxious officers on a scary Lagos night is to understand ‘Operation Ba Bahaushe’ – the police crackdown on activities of notoriously lawless Okada riders; a clear-out that has restored sanity to Ajao Estate. But how did the madness sink its fangs into what used to be a quiet residential/ industrial layout? And where had the police been all the while when the motorcyclists unleashed brazen chaos on other road users and dared them to go to hell?

Motorists who have had the misfortune of driving through the Ajao Estate/Canoe intersection, especially during peak periods, mouth a similar story: frustrating standstill or slow-down caused by nothing else but hundreds of motorcyclists picking passengers, dropping them off, and turning around for another trip – right in the middle of the road! They park in their dozens on a quarter of the road awaiting prospective customers, amid honking, shouting, revving. Menace is an understatement.

Following a war-like clash early this year between factions in the lucrative transport hub, the police had deployed the APC to the intersection. The blue carrier served as quarters for the officers; in its spacious ‘belly’ they ate, slept and did ‘bookkeeping’. For months, the huge, towering but stationary vehicle looked down on the lawless intersection – a metallic symbol of motionless, powerless and complicit policing.

Then came an Alausa-backed, Okada-seizing, rider-incarcerating taskforce on the last day of October that swooped down on the riders, packing man and machine. There was no doubt, this task force was unprepared (at least that day) to do ‘deals’ with any bike man; deals that had long perpetrated an annoying menace. Taut emotions snapped. The furious motorcyclists turned against the ‘friends’ that had, all the while, turned a blind eye to their excesses, and destroyed the APC. A policeman was also reportedly beaten badly.

Past investigations by The Guardian into the disorderliness at Ajao Estate had revealed a profiteering racket where many motorcyclists operated under protective umbrella of the police. Besides, it is commonplace knowledge that law enforcers make massive returns from transport operators in the axis, receiving in broad daylight mandatory ‘kola-nuts’ in exchange for permission to drive one-way. It goes without saying that until the recent crisis, Ajao Estate was one of the most rewarding posts for unscrupulous officers.

When The Guardian visited the place 10am Wednesday, there was no police presence. There was no commercial motorcyclist either. The ripples of ‘Operation Ba Bahaushe’ were still active. But as the reporter made to leave the area, three men beckoned, offering to “carry you anywhere”. Their path led through a street to a spot perfectly hidden behind a wall. Here was the new Okada theatre.

“You want the police to shoot me,” said one motorcyclist, when he was asked why he wasn’t working in his former zone. From this point, they pick passengers to their destinations and also drop them.

The Okada riders who once ruled the Ajao Estate/Canoe intersection actually come from every sector of the Nigerian society. There was, however, one class that stood out in intimidating numerical strength. And although there are reports that some members of this class are from the Republic of Niger and Chad, The Guardian reliably gathers that many are persons displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency. These, Chadian, Nigeriens and all, have one thing in common: they share the Hausa dialect. And a Hausa man is a Bahaushe, just like one would call a British man a Briton.

With Operation Ba (No) Bahaushe, the police might have restored sanity to a once-troubled Lagos Estate, sweeping away everything Okada, and depriving some commuters of their favourite and quicker means of transportation. But a question still remains: where were the police during those chaotic days when Okada riders haunted the area?

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