For the first Saturday of the year, the Akowonjo Youths Association was having a New Year Street Jam–an all first letter capitalized party. The event was featuring DJ Sholly, Big Bode, and Femo, amongst others.
The youths approached the local government chairman for donations for the party but after trying to schedule an appointment with him for three weeks, they realised he was avoiding them.
To fund the party, the organizers came up with the ingenious idea of blocking the roads in their community and taxing people who drove through during the busy holiday season.
The young men created makeshift barricades of stacked tyres, cement blocks and wooden planks with nails jutting out of all sides. They manned the roadblocks in groups of four to six carrying placards for the party, stopping cars and shaking collection tins at the drivers.
On Christmas eve, Eneyi Akpan, a bus driver registered with the Lagos state chapter of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, drove through Akowonjo. It was a dry evening. There was a low rumble in the air that is common on Friday afternoons or on the day before a public holiday, of people packing up, a low pre-celebration buzzing. It was not dark yet but he had decided to close early today to be with his wife and two sons. He paid out his conductor for the day and set off homeward bound. Rather than run an empty bus all the way home, he stopped at Ogba and picked up passengers going to Iyana Ipaja. As they they got in, he said, “Please, I don’t have a conductor because I have closed for today. Help me pass your money forward.” The passengers gathered their money together, made change amongst themselves, and gave him the final fare.
At Iyana Ipaja, he contemplated going the rest of the way alone, but there was a throng of people at the bus stop waving him down. He leaned his head out of the window. “Iyana Iba two hundred! Two hundred, Iyana Iba.”
When he stopped, they rushed to the bus and made a big fuss after getting in. “Two hundred? Which kind nonsense be that? Na because of Christmas you dey do us like this.”
He ignored their cries and collected their fares. When traffic slowed down, he bought bread from a hawker. “My pikin, den they chop bread like say na water.”
He was making good time. The bread was wrapped in nylon. He wedged it between the front seats And when he got impatient waiting for a traffic light or a warden to pass him, he would drum his fingers on the steering, then reach over to stroke the bread for his boys as if to make sure it was still there. He was thinking, it would be nice to get home before night for once and four of them could go for Christmas eve mass together.
On the Ipaja road, he saw what looked like a traffic jam ahead and without pause, he turned off the main road, onto Water board road and ran into a set of New Year party planning youths.
They dropped a nail studded plank across the road and their leader, wearing a red plastic Christmas hat with a golden bell attached to it, danced without music to the driver’s side window. He was holding up a tin of milk with a slit at the top.
Eneyi lied. “I just left home. These are my first passengers today. I am just starting evening.” After a few minutes of begging, the group let him through without collecting any money. The man danced away. Eneyi chuckled. “Christmas don come, everybody wan collect money. They for no let me pass.”
He patted some confidence into his chest. His passengers laughed. A woman in the back hissed. “Lazy people. Don’t pay them anything.”
Water board road turns into Alhaji Masha street at the intersection of Tender Tots nursery and primary school. Eneyi met a second roadblock there. “Ah ah! Again?” He pointed behind him. “I just paid your people now now.” The leader of this band did not dance or do anything festive. He said, “Wetin consign us? To pass, pay white.” He signalled one of his boys who pulled a cement block into the middle of the road.
They argued back and forth. The passengers started to complain. “Driver, it is getting late. Abeg, pay him let us go.” Eneyi peeled out a fifty naira note and passed it to the man.
Alhaji Masha street runs past the Apostolic Cathedral. Ahead of the church is a collection of massive portholes cutting off the road. To get across, you have to turn into Adeniyi Adedoyin crescent and loop back beyond the bad patch, which he did. That tiny detour had two roadblocks. Eneyi could not believe it. He attempted to bluff his way through the first one. He failed. They collected one hundred and fifty naira.
At the second roadblock, which was visible from the first, he got choked up as soon as he started to speak and they let him through.
He got back on Alhaji Masha and approached another checkpoint. Incredible.
This one had a metal drum on the side of the road and one in the middle. There were fires burning in the drums. The collector at the checkpoint walked to the bus. He looked at Eneyi, then cocked his head and peered into the bus, moving his lips as he counted the passengers.
He had bloodshot eyes. His teeth were the same colour as his skin.
Eneyi said, “What! Do you know how many times they stopped me before I reached here?”
The collector repeated, “Three hundred.”
Eneyi shook his head. “You don’t understand. I paid before. Almost ten times. See my hand.” He stuck his empty palms out of the window to show the man. The passengers murmured their assent. “Yes na.”
The sun was setting now. The flickering fires reflected off the collector’s face. He blinked for the first time during that exchange. He moved closer to the bus.
“I?” He said, touching his chest, “don’t understand?”
He raised his eyebrows, pressed his lips together, and clenched his jaw. The muscles on the sides of his face expanded.
He pulled his head back and tilted his body away from the bus. He tapped his chest three times. “I don’t understand, ehn?”
He did a half-turn and punched the driver’s side mirror. The glass in the mirror shattered. The frame broke off the bus and clattered onto the road.
The collector took a step back from the bus, his clenched fist dripped blood onto the road. He nodded and two of his men pushed the burning drum aside.
The bus rolled through in silence.
A few minutes passed then a voice from the back said, “I told you you should have paid him.”
The driver said nothing. Then he jerked the steering wheel to the right, parking the bus off the road. He turned to face the passengers, his shoulders shaking. “Who said that! Who?”
The passengers stared out of the window, up at the roof, down at their shoes, blankly into the distance, all avoiding making eye contact with him.
One of them whistled a tuneless song.