By Tolu Ogunlesi
(originally published in the Weaverbird Collection, Kachifo, 2008)
I recall as though it were yesterday the events that almost made me a professional assassin. November fifteen or sixteen, I’m not too sure now, 1992. I was a Final year Industrial Chemistry student, at the University of Ibadan, and a freshman Marxist. I was at home in Lagos, during one of those strikes that regularly kept us away from school for as much time as we were in it.
I had just left my girlfriend’s house at Yaba, and was making my way on foot to the Texaco petrol station at Jibowu, three hundred metres away, where I had abandoned my mother’s car to take up space on the four-hour, four-hundred-vehicle queue.
I had to climb the Jibowu pedestrian bridge. I wove through the impatient mass of sellers, buyers, pickpockets and genuine road-crossers, the smell of fatigued sweat stinging my nose. From up there the view was dizzying. I looked at the cars hurtlingpast below us; amused that from this height, even the rickety danfos looked respectable.
A smell floated about. It reminded me of suya, only that if suya smelled like this I would hesitate before buying it. The smell was too sharp, too bloody, too bold for decent barbecue. At the foot of the bridge something was smouldering. It had a vaguely familiar look.
A crowd milled around and watched. I saw some people leaving, boredom on their faces. It was the boredom that came from either having had your fill, or being disappointed that that was all there was to the whole show. A boy of about five lay on the floor some distance away, while his friends gathered round him and made a show of striking matches and throwing them on him. Someone shooed them away.
What was burning was a woman, judging from what looked like a skirt on her, and a handbag and pair of black high-heeled shoes that lay some distance away. To put it more accurately – what was burning used to be a woman. Her palms were outstretched, slightly raised above her prone body. She had begged her way to eternity. Where her mouth used to be was a charred, bony “O”.
A police car screeched to a halt beside me, sending everyone scampering wildly all over the place. I alone stood, frozen in horror. A policeman came out and moved over to inspect the body. He looked at me, as though debating what to do. He poked at it with his shoes, spat thrice, and returned to the car, with a bored-schoolboy’s expression on his face.
I bent to get a closer look. People around stared at me, as though I was an alien. “She be thief,” someone – a girl who couldn’t have been more than seven – finally said, to me, as though I asked for an explanation. “She thief handbag”.
Just then, the noise of a siren filled the air. A convoy of cars emerged. Two Mercedes Jeeps, three Peugeot station wagons, and two Toyota buses. All brand new, gleaming angrily in the November sun. Four motorcycles flanked them, and they meandered through the traffic. It was the Local Government Council Chairman’s convoy.
I had once calculated it – it would have cost three quarters of the Council’s monthly allocation to buy those seven cars.
Not only that. In his three months in office, Mr. Chairman had completed his house. It had lain uncompleted, abandoned for years before he became Chairman. And his first two children had just cut short their studies at the University of Lagos and relocated to a university abroad. This was a man who, only a few months ago, had been a tailor with a modest shop on Salem Avenue. As the convoy passed, it slowed down and the Chairman rolled his windows down and threw wads of naira at the people. They hailed him, and sang praise songs. They cursed his enemies. I glanced at the woman who had been cremated alive for stealing a handbag. My gaze shifted back to the Chairman, and at that moment I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Eleven years have passed, yet …
I remember the policeman who poked at the burnt body, and the hordes of people singing the Chairman’s praise songs. I can’t help wondering where that policeman is now, or whether the blinded praise-singers, mostly street traders, have eventually attained the Nigerian Dream.
But as for the Chairman, I know where he is. Somewhere on a wheelchair in his mansion in Ikoyi, waiting to die and be released from his misery. I know because I sent him there. I didn’t mean to do that, of course. I meant to kill. Completely. But things don’t always go according to plan, do they? The one-more-bullet that might have settled everything refused to eject itself from the gun.
The Chairman had to step down from his position. He was in some hospital abroad for nine months, at government expense. Back then I cursed myself for a bungled job. I had planned that the only government expense on him would’ve been a state funeral, not a nine-month stay at some elite specialist hospital in Germany.
But we learn as we go on, don’t we?
I have had ties with politics and politicians for quite a while now. I have seen at close range what money and power can do, how they can eat malignantly at our conscience. I remember things really began to change for my family when Dad stopped being a Teacher and tried politics. Throughout his teaching career he had believed that his Reward was truly in Heaven. It wasn’t until he stopped believing that, and lowered his gaze a little, that things began to change. He picked up a form to contest for the post of Chairman of our Local Government. He was an independent candidate, vehemently refusing to join any party. And by some stroke of luck, it was that year that the people had finally had it up to their throats of all the thieving and lying career politicians who had been in power for so long. I was nine then. When people thought of a Teacher, they thought of Honesty, Gentleness, Humility, Knowledge – and of Heaven. So that was how Dad became the Chairman. That was when things began to change for us.
And that was when Dad began to have Ideas. One day, after we had adjusted to our new lives, I overheard Dad asking Baba Lanko, his bosom friend, how long it took for skeletons to completely crumble into dust. Baba Lanko scratched his bald head and mumbled something. Where I was hiding, I scratched my head too, wondering if this was what money did to people? What was Dad’s business with crumbling skeletons? A week later dad asked me to run down to the Undertaker’s and call him immediately. I eavesdropped on their conversation.
So that was what Dad was planning.
To dig up his father’s bones and rebury him. A Real, Decent burial, in Dad’s words. Grandpa died very long ago, when Dad was four or thereabouts. Dad wanted a burial for decades’ old bones. A real burial complete with big bands and plenty of food and beer. I was excited, but my excitement stemmed more from the prospect of seeing what a person looked like ages after their death. I told Simpa, my best friend. Simpa was so excited he told his father, the professional herbalist cum magician. He later told me what his father said. We both laughed.
I begged Dad to let me be there when they dug Grandpa up. He said no. That was the last I ever heard from him on the matter. I never heard him speak about reburying his father again. I waited in vain for the funeral, and the big party that would follow it.
It was months later that I heard what had happened.
It was Baba Lanko’s son who told me. He said he heard his father telling his mother that a terrible thing had befallen my father. The diggers had dug up Grandpa’s grave, and, as expected, they found a skeleton.
But the skeleton was not Grandpa’s. It couldn’t possibly have been Grandpa’s. It was the bones of a little child. And my grandfather was not a little child when he died. He was sixty-something.
I ran to Simpa’s house immediately. I told him what had happened. We both became very afraid. Afraid of his father. After all, hadn’t his father sworn that if my father thought money existed for the purpose of reburying long dead ancestors, then he deserved to be given a surprise. That was what Simpa and I had laughed at back then. He had sworn he would give Dad a big surprise. A very big surprise.
It was years later as an undergraduate that I dug that incident up from my mind, and reconsidered it, in the light of other memories. (I spent many moments in my university days brooding – feeling dirty, evil, as it dawned on me that most of what we were, and most of what we had in my family had been at the expense of others). I remembered the day I stumbled upon a carton of American dollars in my father’s closet. I was about twelve then. It was an obscene sight, worse than pornography. It reminded me of those mafia movies where some Don would open a suitcase and offer a judge or policeman or fellow mobster all the money in it – roll upon roll of crisp, light-green bills. My friends and I would swoon at the sight of the money, and take turns to suggest how we’d spend it if we had it. It never occurred to me, until that moment, that my father had money like those mobsters.
That’s how I started to feel intense hate for my father – a man who had chosen to forget his humble roots and instead squander his people’s money. I knew then that I’d one day visit India, and learn to be a magician too, like Simpa’s father, and put thieving politicians to shame – send cockroaches into their bank accounts and cause their potbellies to harden like stone.
Dad had gone on to be a Senator, he had served for two terms before he was killed in a car crash on his way from Abuja just after picking a form to contest for the Presidency. I later overheard a conversation between two of my uncles. They felt his death hadn’t been a “natural” one. Someone must have done him in with juju. Maybe someone who had seen him as a political threat. This made me think of the bloodstained cow-horn that Dad kept under his mattress. I had seen it once or twice while searching his room for the key to his Honda “Bullet”, which he always hid from me the moment I could drive. I wondered if that horn had anything to do with the barefooted, dread-locked men who were a regular feature in our house in those days, coming regularly to stay for days on end, conducting wild prayer sessions, prescribing dry fasts and supervising the regular slaughtering of cows whose meat never ended up in our pots.
Dad’s “protection” probably hadn’t protected him enough.
The day the handbag-thief incident occurred, it was my father whom I saw seated in that car, throwing money around. All the regret of decades finally raged forth and burst out. As Chairman, Dad had been exactly like that too. He saw no evil in his actions, and genuinely believed that the people loved him. It got to the point where he’d build chains of public toilets all around town (because he made more money from those contracts), and yet still believe he had changed the lot of his people, despite the fact that they obviously needed much more than public toilets.
Simpa’s father must have felt like I did then. But then, part of me now doubts the whole bones story. It really may have had nothing to do with the magician. Hell! A man who couldn’t conjure money to lift his family out of poverty. They might have dug the wrong grave. But I reckon that Dad, being the superstitious man he was, would not have entertained that fact. He’d have consulted his bloodshot-eyed, barefooted spiritual advisers. And what else would they have told him than that he should Abandon At Once all reburial plans – in order to avoid incurring the wrath of an offended spirit.
They’d have rebuked him for not consulting them before embarking on the “project”. They’d have said it was Grandpa’s Indignation that scuttled the digging. They’d have asked Dad for money to carry out the necessary sacrifices and rituals, and to speak with Grandpa’s spirit. And what else would the old man’s “ghost” have said, than that he was “disappointed at being disturbed in his grave by his son”. (No wonder Dad never spoke about the matter again). And Dad would have shelled out a minor fortune to “appease” his father’s spirit.
Today marks the eleventh year of my shooting the Chairman. (I shot him at 3:45 p.m. on June 8, 1993 – two weeks to my final exams). I find it difficult to believe I did that. Me – who hadn’t participated in any sport in secondary school because…well…I wasn’t cut out for rough play!
It’s amazing how much you can recreate yourself through your mind.
I’ll put it down to the reprint edition of 100 Remarkable Assassinations. I read it the way my mother used to read the Bible when I was a child. And that was every time. Anytime she wasn’t busy half-heartedly greeting Dad’s multitude of ‘Political Associates’. Anytime she wasn’t lecturing us on the importance of serving God.
100 Remarkable Assassinations was a University of Ibadan Library Book. Its Call Number had the same digits as my matriculation number. I smuggled it out page by page, leaving the cover behind. I left pages 77 – 79 behind too, which contained an account of the Kennedy Assassination. Someone had helped himself to those pages before me. There must be at least one other Aspiring Assassin out there, I remember thinking to myself then. I used to wonder who the folks were that s/he intended hitting.
When you read that kind of book the way my mother read her Bible, you begin to see the world in a new way. It isn’t only the Bible that makes you born again. I lived within the pages of that book. Only two chapters into the book I’d been inspired to calculate that it’d take forty-five seconds to race down from the Tower Clock that overlooked the Vice Chancellor’s office if I succeeded in hitting him from there with a silenced gun.
When General Isiaka Abdul-Malik, the then head of state was to visit U.I in March ’93, I configured an elaborate one-man mock plan to eliminate him. Of course, when the d-day came and he visited, whatever mock plans I had made vanished in a whirlwind of fear. When I saw the convoys of armored vehicles, rocket-launchers peeking from atop them; and the hundreds of blank-faced, fully armed security guys who swarmed around like an army of greedy ants, I knew that only a suicide killer stood a chance. Not someone like me who desperately wanted to live up to the one hundred and twenty years my mother said God had promised those who feared him.
But still, that event marked a new chapter in my development as an unpaid, self-inspired Assassin. I remember retiring to my hostel that day armed with a fair idea of how Presidential Security was organized, and I let my imagination loose on how it could be beaten. That’d be the epoch of my career. That was the day I took “Dimka” as my middle name. It was a real honour to share names with Nigeria’s most popular (and only successful) Presidential Assassin.
We learn as we go, don’t we? If anyone had told me that I would quit being an assassin with only one bungled job under my belt, I’d have disbelieved them. After I shot the Chairman and made good my escape (not one soul alive or dead today knows I was the hitman, I will carry that to the grave with me) – which was even easier than I thought – I ruminated on my failure. I needed to prove myself.
But plans changed. Suddenly.
No, nothing spiritual. I didn’t have a religious awakening. I simply came across another book in the 100 People and Events series.
100 Remarkable Ex-Convicts. I stumbled on it in some second-hand bookshop at Agbowo, just outside the University gate. I had left U.I then, and was only returning every now and then to see if my certificate was ready.
I was intrigued by the story of some British guy, whose name I forget now, who in his twenties had risen up the ranks of the Mafia (and had been responsible for the sensational murders of some Judges in the late fifties in Rome), but later in life headed the Royal Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, got an OBE and became a Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was only in his memoirs, published posthumously, that he made those claims about his past. He had reinvented his life most sensationally.
I decided to toe his path, and reinvent myself even before I had fully invented myself as an assassin. I gave up my dreams of working for the CIA or Mossad, and burnt 100 Remarkable Assassinations.
Next week, by the grace of God I shall be finishing my first term as Chairman of Jibowu Local Government. From Chairman–Assassin to Executive Chairman, within eleven years. Reinvention. I intend to contest for another term, after which I hope I’d have gained enough clout to run for governor.
These days I sometimes feel some tinge of regret for shooting the former chairman. I think I have seen first hand the temptations he (and my father too) must have faced – temptations that will reduce the strongest of wills to whimpering, snot-nosed wrecks.
You have very few choices when money stares at you, and the whole world expects you to help yourself to it. When all sorts of people seek appointments with you only to ask you to “lend” them money that is more than your entire four-year’s salary. When your fellow Chairmen in other Local Governments laugh at you for using a “schoolboy’s” cell phone, and for keeping your kids in kindergarten in Nigeria. When self-styled Prophets and Marabouts see all sorts of visions about you, for you and against you, and suggest absurd rituals to ward off evil, potions to counter poisons, amulets to win a second term; when even the “suffering masses” who elected you expect you to hand out gifts of cash whenever they chance upon you in public.
When your mother dies a week to the elections and people advise you to bury her quickly just in case you don’t get a second term, the same people who once told you – halfway into your first term – that if your mother were to die while you were in office, you’d need to keep her in the mortuary for as long as it took to organize a befitting burial and pay for a special pullout on her life and times in The Guardian.
It’s a losers’ game, really.
Tomorrow, my cabinet and I are paying a visit to the former Chairman. To inform him that the new Local Government Secretariat, and the Civic Center are to be named after him, in recognition of his “contributions to the development of the Local Government.” It’s the least I can do, short of rewinding time to before ‘93.
I will shake hands with him, deliver an extempore speech, and hand him a cheque for his upkeep. And my mind will definitely flash back to that day, eleven years ago, when I pointed a gun at him, and pulled the trigger with the ambivalence of an amateur.
And I wonder what thoughts would fill his mind, were he to realise that the young man standing in front of him, lavishing honours upon him, is the same young man who sentenced him to the wheelchair he now lives in.