Mafoluko- Oshodi — Lasisi Banjoko, 21, appears to have spent his childhood awkwardly, as reflected by his many scars mostly straight lines around his upper arms from street fights. At age 16, he became an ‘Agbero‘, or area boy, in local slang.
Here in Lagos, a coastal city in West Africa of over 20 million inhabitants, which is said to be the economic nerve of West Africa and the fastest developing city in Africa, there are still thousands of teenagers eking out an existence on the busy streets of Lagos.
Lasisi Banjoko was only 11 when he left his village; Tetede – 30 miles from Lagos by himself; in search of a means of survival.
“My father married four women,” he said, speaking in Yoruba. “I have 20 brothers and sisters. My father was a civil servant. But when he retired, he did not receive his pension immediately. When I saw young people from my village coming back from Lagos with fancy cars and a lot of money . . . I wanted to be like them.”
When I got to Lagos, my first job was as a bus conductor. I would canvass for passengers for commercial bus drivers at motor parks. At the end of the day I earned some money to eat and survive on the streets. Two years after, I joined the company of money collectors. We position ourselves at bus stops, imposing ridiculous levies on bus drivers, tricycles and motorcycle riders. We imposed levies such as: ‘Owó weekend, Owó loading,’ ‘Owó olopa,’ ‘Owó task force,’ ‘Owó organizing,’ ‘Owó traffic,’ ‘Owó environmental;’ to mention but a few. We were fierce and feared. I loved it. We were often under the influence of alcohol and drugs; we were always brutal to commercial bus conductors, who hesitate to part with money we demand. I was the most diligent as I delivered over N80, 000 daily to our egbons (seniors). I went home with at least N10, 000 for myself.
My head was turned by the glamour of my egbons (seniors) who worked closely with politicians. I desperately wanted to grow in the ranks; I wanted to be a senior too. I began to supply my seniors with daily herm wraps for their pleasure to enable them buy into me. I did this for close to two years on my daily earnings. Soon after, they grew to like me so I was promoted into the political thug team.
The money started rolling in and I enjoyed the lifestyle. I suppose we were in a gang, but to me they were my hood peps; I loved them.
Guns were readily available as part of our day-to-day life. We were young and foolish, and a silly accident was bound to happen. One day, my friend was playing around with a gun, aiming it at me as a joke. He assumed it wasn’t loaded but there was still a bullet in the chamber and when he pulled the trigger, I got shot in the head. I was terrified, as was he. I was rushed to hospital and the doctors discovered that the bullet had travelled only a few millimetres inside my skull – they thought that because it was from a replica air rifle, it hadn’t made the impact a bullet from a real gun would have done. Amazingly, I was absolutely fine. After 24 hours I was discharged, with the bullet still in there – removing it may cause nerve damage, so it will probably be there for the rest of my life.
At the time, it didn’t really bother me. In my world I often came into contact with danger especially during elections and inter-party clashes so I’d learned not to let it wash over me. I felt fine and within days I was back on the streets. Instead of seeing my gunshot wound as a warning about my precarious lifestyle, I chose to carry on as usual. I felt that I was living the high life. My parents were devote Muslims and were very shocked when they discovered what I’d been up to, but I didn’t give it a second thought.
With hindsight, I realised that the future held only two options for me: death or jail. Unfortunately, I couldn’t decide my fate. Aged 21, I was the leader of the city’s most notorious ‘Agbero‘ gang. We were political enforcers – a free-wheeling gang providing security for our candidate at public meetings or intimidating their opponents. Occasionally we burnt houses and fought with opposing political parties’ ‘agberos’. Few months to the state election; we were given a task to take out our governorship candidate’s opponent at his family home in Lekki Peninsula.
We arrived at his apartment masked and dressed in black. We had settled the police in the area heavily. There we stood, for a second; vacuous men so deeply wounded who had replaced a need for love with a lust for money and acceptance. We called it “respect,” but that given in fear can never be such. Respect is given to the loved; a cowering deference is given to the ones who take by force.
So we are nothing but youngsters bleeding behind stoic masks. Yes truthfully we are not as strong as you think. Our weakness was masqueraded by our aggression; in the sense that it announces the fear of loss of control. I was really frightened by what awaited us. I remembered my grandpa’s favorite adage; “do not expect to be offered a chair when you bring a cutlass to your neighbour’s house.” Aggression is a fear-based response to an event. Nothing is weaker than operating from a base of fear. Monsters are weak.