By TER INJO LAWR.
It began like a joke. Aunde’s phone alarm roused him at 4am from the woman’s bed and he quickly dressed up and left her room before her neighbours awoke to notice he had spent the night there. He set out for home, hoping to get an Okada to avoid trekking the long distance.
At first he heard a dog bark but thought nothing of it. Then other dogs picked and sustained the barking; a sign that something had disturbed the night. Kpa! Kpa!! Kpa!!! He heard the sounds that rang out sharply like firework. But it was Christmas and nobody on School lane, Makurdi would have given such booming sounds serious thought, not particularly after several of such booms had reverberated all night escorting Christians from churches to the doorsteps of their homes.
Aunde assumed like most residents of School Lane, that mischievous youths were heralding the birth of Christ with Banger, the illegal but easily purchasable explosive the Police Public relations officer had warned the public of its illegality and possible prosecution for possession, use, or sale of.
He walked on, the bed at home his only thought; the irritating sound of the fireworks receded to the back of his mind. But the dogs barked relentlessly, until it became a clarion call on the Neighbourhood Vigilante who had endured the harsh tongues of residents for their laxity, and inability to exhibit the proactive measures they had promised at Christmas, to justify the monthly security tax every household on the lane paid.
Thief! Thief!! Aunde thought he heard from afar immediately after another explosion. Suddenly, a Motor-bike with no headlights raged perilously out of the bend he was about to take almost hitting him, he quickly jumped over the drainage satisfied for having crossed to safety, and happy to have avoided a second Motor-bike which more dangerously trailed the first. But the second bike hit a ditch and lost balance, and as its rider used his legs and brakes in a risky bid to maintain balance, its pillion passenger lost grip, and though the bike swerved and finally balanced, the passenger fell off and rolled roughly to a stop on the dirt road. The bike roared off, leaving smoke and a hail of dust which muffled the fallen man’s cry.
Aunde looked in the direction the bikes took, but he barely saw as no light showed on the streets; School lane residents having devised the energy saving strategy of putting out their security lights with the new Pre-Paid electricity metres. But as the bikes made the next turn, a lone security light briefly illuminated them and he saw clearly that had one man not fallen off the last bike, then both would have had a rider and two passengers each.
As the bikes faded into the night, Aunde heard the whimper of the injured man as he made a clumsy effort to rise from the pitch darkness ahead.
And then the shouts of ‘Thief!, Thief!!’ and the clatter of running feet echoed clearly in Aunde’s head; pierced the darkness, and stirred School Lane to an early dawn. He was shocked, in a completely strange place and had just sneaked out of a married woman’s house.
Meanwhile, the injured biker more conscious of the prevailing circumstance wobbled hastily away, while Aunde hesitated in confusion. But as the clattering feet and barking dogs got closer he sensed imminent danger. Suddenly, several security lights overcame the darkness and the corner in which he had stood illuminated like day, and he was caught in a spotlight; on sighting him the mob spurred into frenzy. He quickly jumped from the light into a dark corner, but just as he had seen the looming shadows, the mob equally sighted him before the darkness enveloped him. Even in the dark, he could outline sticks, planks, machetes and other implements in between the human silhouettes advancing him.
‘The instinct for self preservation is more deep rooted than reason, it is often said that a man does not make the decision to swim when he accidentally falls into a creek; he simply starts kicking.’ The change from darkness to light; the clatter of the approaching feet’s and the heavy pounding of heartbeats in his ears disoriented him leaving no time for decision. He ran.
This simple act of self-preservation was interpreted as proof of guilt and the mob hounded him. Aunde had run only forty metres when a man ambushed him out of the darkness ahead and roughly tackled him to the ground. It was no longer anything even near a bad joke.
Stones, sticks, planks, shoes, whips, canes hands and an occasional machete struck him all over, he was completely helpless where an alert neighbourhood angered by an increase in crime by Motor-bike gangs, had met prior to the Christmas and declared that anyone caught would be given a final lesson of life. And Aunde had been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
‘Ninety-nine days for the thief, One day for owner!’ Someone shouted, and a round of satisfied laughter followed, but the humour did little to deter the beating as more people arrived and dutifully took turns to hit the ‘thief’ with any object at hand.
Suddenly, a man brandished a wrought iron chair above his head, shouted harshly and charged furiously towards him, the mob deftly cleared way, and just before he struck Aunde sensed it and only the slight movement of his body saved his head and made his arm take the man’s rage. Aunde felt the crack of his bone, adding more to the excruciating pain that ravaged his body.
They surrounded him as he writhe in misery. Most of them had by this time struck him, and as a clandestine aside was being held to decide his fate, an elderly man gained advantage of the interlude and took charge. He moved towards Aunde, inclined his head closer to him and demanded.
‘Where your friends?’
He asked in a gentle tone that was however heard by all. The crowd deferred to him and attention focused on Aunde, apparently to hear his confession. ‘Where do we find your friends? Tell us your hideout and we will spare your life.’ Aunde had received so much beating that even hearing words tasked him, his eyes were puffed and swollen, his upper lip was cut up into two, and a very deep gash bled freely from the top of his head. All his injuries had occurred in less than three minutes of his encounter with the mob. His shirt was shredded, and what was left of his boxers only hid or exposed his genitals depending on his movement. When he raised his head to speak, some of the more humane people flinched and looked away from the hideousness of his face. A few horrified women scampered away.
‘I am not a thief! ‘Aunde whispered through a bloody mouth.
Oh hoo!, You see! I talk am! Them dey ever gree? A sense of doubt trickled through them, several people threw up their hands in justification as if to say; ‘I knew it.
‘A thief will never admit, or at most claim it’s his first time.’ The leader stated and then asked Aunde in a very pleading tone. ‘We are not calling you a thief, but why did you run?’ The fact he ran was proof of guilt to the mob.
Aunde was gathering strength to speak when someone revved noisily in on a Motor-bike; pushed to the centre and demanded. ‘Make I see im dirty face sef.’ Then pronounced what amounted to a death sentence. ‘The man wey una shoot just die for hospital.’
The mob took this news calmly, only with a little murmur. Aunde thought; is this end for me; is this punishment for fornication? Then he begged them ‘Abeg now! Abeg now!’ and looked up at them but seeing nothing humane in their eyes resigned to fate.
The mob became purposeful on hearing of their neighbours death, a disused motor tyre appeared, and someone with a rope began to fasten the tyre around Aunde’s neck, he tried to resist and earned a fresh machete cut and several blows.
Then, from a short distance away a cry emanated, followed by the commotion by the discovery of the man who had fallen off the Motor-bike. It happened that the bike gang man well experienced in the art of the underworld, on noticing the focus on Aunde had very cleverly hidden himself in vegetation. Someone in search of disused tyre had inadvertently stumbled upon him hiding in the bananas. He was immediately rooted out from the plants and roughly dragged out into the open, and for a brief while Aunde was forgotten.
It took the mob just three minutes to complicate the already injured man’s situation, at the end he was not a sight to behold. This suspect also had a camouflage on his face, evidence of criminal intent by the mob’s standard; he had painted his face in thick blue ink such that even with the several torch lights from numerous mobile phones that shone closely on his face, nobody could quite make out what he really looked like. His case was conclusive.
The already incensed mob wasted no time, the beatings gave him an instant inhuman look, his clothes were shredded off his body and a used tyre quickly fastened to his neck. He was dragged a few paces to where Aunde lay, and then asked if he knew Aunde. The man refused; he did not know Aunde. The mob felt justified, for they knew that thieves, even when caught red handed still lied and pretended not to know each other. Several people laughed and exchange banters over this.
Suddenly a uniformed police constable pushed into the centre of the mob took a vantage position and decreed. ‘It’s all right, this is the police, you can all go back to your homes now, and we are on top of the situation.’ As the policeman reached for his Walkie-Talkie, someone spat directly into his face; another struck the radio out of his hand and it fell far from where they stood; another grabbed very closely the collars of his uniform and two buttons fell off. For a moment it looked like the mob would push the policeman towards the suspects on the ground. The humbled policeman realised his mistake and shut his mouth. Fortunately for him, the leader of the mob intervened and rescued him from the vice like grip of his uniform, and quietly led him away.
It was almost 5.am by now, and most households had gotten to preparations for the Christmas day ahead. The gradually increasing mob of Okada riders took control. ‘Where your oda gang member dey? U no go talk ba? We don necklace u finish remain to fire u oh.’
Just then, a group ran in noisily from the direction in which the fallen bike man had been caught hiding, with the object of their excitement which sealed the fate of the suspects. ‘We found this where he was hiding in the Banana plantation.’ They announced gleefully to the delight of the mob, and it did not take them a second to connect the rough blue paint on the locally made pistol, to the rough blue paint the gang man had used on his face. It was irrefutable evidence of the robbery they stood charged.
Some petrol was immediately volunteered by the black marketers of petroleum products among them, and it was lavishly poured on Aunde and his colleague. Then someone asked, ‘Where the matches’?’
An ominous silence hung in the air like a miasma then Aunde gathered strength and using the name of the mother who had given up her life as she delivered him 25 years ago, shouted violently at the mob. ‘I swear by my mother. I am not a thief, I have never stolen One Naira, I have never stolen from anyone, I have never held a gun, your light will not burn me, if you insist kill me my blood will be on your soul, and the souls of your children, and the curse shall follow each and every one of you here present who have treated me like am not human, your children will suffer worse fate in their lives.’ And then he calmed down to the ground back to his pains, even his colleague who was sharing in the predicament, and some of the mob sobered, overwhelmed by the vehemence of his curse.
The supplier of the match box, a young father of two children suddenly dropped his hands at his sides, a confused look on his face. And the previously conspicuous box of matches was no longer in sight.
Then a defiant youth noticed the hesitation on the part of the match bearer, rushed and snatched the match box out of his hand, removed a stick and struck as he mocked. ‘I tink you say if you no be thief, the fire no fit burn you’.
‘Yes, I will not burn.’ Aunde’s distinct reply echoed succinctly through the mob, and for an instant the youth who had snatched the match box brought his face up and his eyes met Aunde’s, and for a while he too hesitated.
It was getting brighter by the minute, the earliest hint of the Sun’s rays appeared in the distant horizon, and some of the elderly members of the mob tactfully receded, it was quite easy now to make out people’s faces, and so, many people suddenly no longer feel like being a part of the lynching mob any more.
Then someone taunted the youth from the crowd. ‘You no get liver na im you wan necklace person? You tink say na christmas goat abi? The giggles that followed this taunt drowned the sound of the first strike of the match. But the flame guided by the youth’s cupped hands glowed in the early morning dawn for all to see, the youth threw the burning match at Aunde, it landed very close but did not ignite. The youth quickly struck, guided and sent another flaming match towards Aunde, the flame glowed and landed but did not ignite. Then another youth angrily snatched the match box and expertly guided the flame inched closer to Aunde and threw it, it landed smouldered a little and petered out.
A police siren blared from afar and almost immediately a police truck drove in, and very quickly the mob dispersed, until only Aunde and his colleague remained with the tyres hanging precariously on their necks.
The police arrested and pushed them unto the truck as they whimpered in pain. And as the policemen boarded the truck one of them said. ’Na una luck to chop this Christmas, na im make that adulterated petrol no quick catch, if not, una for don dance finish before we reach. Idiot! Ole!’