“Close your eye,” mother shouted in Igbo when we drove past the dead body lying in the middle of the street. She reached across the seat and covered my brother’s face with her right hand, her left clutching the steering wheel. But we had both already seen it: a faceless man lying by the side of the road, patches of red flesh glistening against fire-blackened skin.
It was 1999 or 2000, which made me four or five. My mother had come to pick us up from school much earlier than usual. She wasn’t the only parent there. The excitement in the air that day: I could breathe it and see it in people’s faces, almost touch it. There were flowers and green leaves affixed to vehicles like my mother’s, a signal that the vehicle’s owner wasn’t among the rioters running in a murderous rage through the streets of Aba, the commercial city in southeastern Nigeria where I grew up.
It took me years to recognise Aba’s madness, to understand that her hauntedness, her perpetual dysfunction, wasn’t normal. For over two decades, Aba was all I knew, the stretch of my existence beginning within the walls of my mother’s room and ending in my grandmother’s home in Enugu, some three hours away. I saw the whole world through the city’s eyes, but I never really understood her.
The rioting had begun when some Igbos—who are predominantly Christian—set out to avenge the recent killings of their kinsmen in northern Nigeria by Hausa-Fulanis, who are predominantly Muslim. The Central Mosque, meters away from the city’s Catholic cathedral, was set on fire and several Hausas were killed in two days, burned or cut down.
The Igbos wanted, they said, to send a message that they wouldn’t allow for a repetition of the attacks of 1967 that had led to the Nigerian civil war. With a war-torn Nigeria in living memory, state forces quickly deployed to Aba, harassing residents in the name of peacekeeping. Aba, once the capital of the short-lived secessionist Biafran state, had gone mad. Everyone was running for safety, again.
Leaving the school, we scrambled into mother’s beat-up car, the green leaf dangling from the bonnet. My brother and I watched as the deserted streets of Aba glided by.
I think now of what we must have looked like to the soldiers manning the checkpoints we passed through so easily: a scared woman and her wide-eyed children, ignorant of the severity of the situation, frightened and excited by the welcome excuse to stay away from school.
I came to recognize the smell of dead bodies. It is imprinted on my memory; I recall it just the same way I do colours and patterns and events. In the years after those first riots, the streets roiled with crime and desperation and poverty. Dead bodies lay on the pavement, sometimes right in the middle of the road. People would keep a straight face, hold their noses up and walk right by as if there weren’t a body there. Parents would roll up their car windows to block out the smell, order their children to look straight ahead, to ignore the hum of giant flies communing with the bodies of the dead or the flocks of vultures that would hover above.
At times we recognized the dead, like the mentally-impaired man who had wandered the streets of our neighbourhood for years. Sometimes the bodies were dumped in front of the cemetery grounds near our home, name and face unknown, as if they had never truly lived. As the years rolled by, the cemetery became a huge food market, aptly called Cemetery Market. Its morbid past faded away, hundreds of shops built on the bones of the forgotten and unknown dead.
Often enough, on our way back from town, we’d see a dead body in front of the General Hospital where I was born, a month before Nigeria’s Super Eagles soared high at the 1994 FIFA World Cup and General Abacha tightened his dictatorial grip on Nigeria.
Often the dead body lying in front of the cemetery or the General Hospital would belong to a thief or some other petty criminal. We knew this—everyone knew this—because of the way the corpse had been treated, or because a close friend, a family member, had been there, witnessing and perhaps even participating in the event.
A tire would be slung over the neck of the accused. After beating them blue-black, someone would pour fuel and light a match. The crowd would watch the body burn, green-blue-yellow tongues of flames eating skin, the air thick with the smell of burnt hair and flesh. The stench would hang in the air for days to come—reminding me, strangely, of Christmas and the death that often accompanied the celebrations.
If the burnt body was missing a head, it suggested the work of the Bakassi Boys.
Anger at the government’s failure to act on the crime wave had given rise to the brute justice meted out by the Bakassi Boys. Drunk on power, the Boys were the manifestation of communal fear, a diabolical power that armed and protected them. Bakassi Boys took what they wanted and became the law, which they alone made, adjudicated, and enforced.
The Bakassi Boys had not always been killers disguised as a vigilante group. They had started out as a group of shoemakers and traders at the gigantic Ariaria Market, the home territory for generations of dreamers who migrate to Aba with hearts full of hope. The Boys’ origins lay in the self-defence group that banded together to fight the criminals violently robbing their market stores and workshops. The strategy worked where generations of corrupt police officers and government officials had failed; soon, Bakassi-style self-defence groups had sprung up across the city.
My daring brother, brave enough to flout my mother’s rule against mingling with other children from our neighbourhood, would sneak off to play and I, ever his shadow, tagged along. We divided ourselves into groups: criminals and Bakassi Boys. We saw the Boys as brave, strong and, according to rumours, possessed of supernatural abilities. They could vanish into thin air whenever they wished; they were completely immune to bullets or machete cuts.
In our play, we re-enacted stories of notorious criminals being caught and publicly executed, pantomiming gun shots and machetes clashing against each other. We hissed to mimic sharp blades cutting through flesh and bone, separating head from body in one deft move. We sang the songs of the Bakassi Boys, imitated their swagger. We were proud of being chosen to play a Bakassi Boy—we knew death would never come for us. Death was for criminals—no one wanted to play them. Bakassi Boys were our comic book heroes, only they were real, flesh and blood, living among us.
In 2010, I was in boarding school when, the school closed suddenly, in the middle of the term. Aba was burning again and our parents were called to come and pick us up. Stories came to us through the whispered voices of the parishioners who worshipped at the school’s chapel: trailers loaded with fierce looking soldiers were arriving in Aba to flush out kidnappers and militants.
Aba was, once again, unsafe. The people that could, ran. Kidnappers—men and women hungry for a change of fortune and angry at the system—were everywhere: taking ransoms and killing their victims. Crime had increased, as it had in the 2000s. The soldiers had arrived to bring peace, but we knew their arrival meant more bloodshed.
I was home in a matter of hours—though I boarded, my school was only two or three bus drops from home. The next day we fled Aba, heading to the bus station on foot so as to avoid attracting the kidnappers’ attention. The streets were mostly deserted; everyone else we encountered was fleeing too. We hear stories of people being turned back by military men at Osisioma, the city entrance, forced to go back into the city’s burning belly. The soldiers had told them that Aba was safe. No need for panic. This was a lie, we knew. Everyone did. We prayed the soldiers wouldn’t turn us back too.
A few days later, the famed kidnapping kingpin Osisikankwu was killed and his network was purged by the military. We returned to the city. We didn’t know for sure how Osisikankwu died; none of us believed that he’d died in a “shootout” with the military, as the media reported. I returned to school, where my schoolmates claimed that he’d been assassinated by a military taskforce in his oil-rich hometown on the outskirts of Aba. Others claimed that Osisikankwu was captured by soldiers who then took him to their barracks, where he was tortured to death and shot.
Aba, her back broken again, never really recovered from Osisikankwu’s death. The streets lost their vitality and fear became our neighbour. Night, the enemy: by 8pm, the major roads in Aba would empty, doors would lock, transport would thin. Kidnappers began to stalk our shadows, night and day. Stories of kidnapping became a daily part of our lives—we would make rib-cracking jokes about them, though still we shuddered when hearing stories of people killed for not meeting their ransom, or for no reason at all. But that was all we could do. Laugh. Shudder. Pray. Thankful that it wasn’t us.
The soldiers never left. They stayed on, becoming a dreaded part of our society, building a love-hate relationship with the people. They made temporary camps around the city, particularly in our public schools. It didn’t take long for them to become the highest authority, a force more powerful than the police but just as corrupt, and meaner, too. These men and women sworn to protect the sovereignty of Nigeria became agents of settling domestic and personal disputes. When your neighbour vexes you, call one or two mean-looking army officials on him. We feared them, the soldiers—especially the command to “jump like a frog,” their sadistic punishment for erring citizens: we were made to crouch, place our fingers on our earlobes and jump. Up. Down. Repeat.
While Aba burns and eats itself from inside out, no one remembers even the possibility of water. The authorities respond with more fire, more force, hoping that one fire will suffocate the other. At most, the fire fades to a tiny blue glow, waiting for a wind to fan its silent embers. The response, when the wind comes—as it always does—is predictable. More force, more violence, more fire. Peace found only in the charred graveyard. Repeat cycle.
At seventeen, I was possessed with a growing hunger to leave Aba, to escape its walls and see what the rest of the world held. It wasn’t just the hunger to explore that gnawed at me, but also the realisation that Aba held little promise for an ambitious young person. Once, just like Lagos, Aba had been a city of commercial possibility, of immense artisanal ingenuity. Now, it is a shrivelling city, a shadow of what it once was, a city where every young person lives within her dreams of escape.
One day, traveling in a Keke Napep heading to St. Michaels Road, we hit a stretch of traffic—the warden had just given our lane the stop sign. A road preacher shouted into her microphone, her words spilling out of three gigantic speakers, blending into the roar of the city centre. Her words carried over into the blistering afternoon air where they hang over the traffic. Aba will never progress or prosper, she cried, because too much blood has been spilt on this land. The souls driven from their earthly bodies in Aba are calling for cleansing, for vengeance. The hands of Aba are soiled and stained with the blood of the innocent killed in the name of justice—the blind justice of the people, rendered without judge or law, without conscience.
The driver and other passengers began to argue. The driver agreed with the preacher—a lot of innocent people had been killed in the 2000s, he said. One of the passengers disagreed: the dead were all criminals. I sat and listened, partly amused by how serious the argument had become and how much faith we placed in the words of a mystic; how scared we were by the gravity and truth in her words.
When it rains, Aba floods. The roads are bad, and the drains clogged: there is no place for the water to go. When it rains, we take off our shoes and wade through the water, ignoring the fact that there are open sewers and refuse dumps tainting the swelling puddles. When we get home, we put our legs in warm water sprinkled with salt, and thank God for his mercies.
I left Aba as soon as I was able, seeking a whole new story and possibilities in Lagos. I wasn’t the only one to leave. Many other young graduates in Aba left too. Many of those who haven’t yet plan to run from the stagnation Aba has been in for decades now.
Operation Python Dance arrived to Aba in September, 2017. Though we had both left home by then, my brother had returned to the city of our birth for a visit when the soldiers arrived, armed and ready for war: a spirit of secession had been rising out of Aba, and they were there to quash it. That day, night fell at noon and whatever energy remained in the city evaporated, seeping out of side streets as if Aba had slit her wrists once again.
By then I was safely ensconced in Lagos, but still anger, like nausea, rose up my throat, spread throughout my body as I read my brother’s WhatsApp messages. He was stuck in Aba’s Ariaria market, forcing his way through, his body becoming one with thousands of others—traders and visitors alike—struggling to escape. That day, I sat down and began to write this, hoping to give voice to the fear and anger I felt, rethread a past that felt normal at the time but which, in hindsight, I now see wasn’t.
As I wrote, I imagined the smell of sweat and open sewers filling his nose and felt the fear crawling through his body, giving him the strength to run all the way home. I saw our mother, standing wearily at the veranda of our two-storey home, looking into the distance, hoping to find a glimpse of her son, returning to her unhurt. I felt relief, like a cold shudder, flush through her body upon sighting him.
When in 2015, the gospel of secession began to gain traction again in southeastern Nigeria, Aba—the city bursting with frustrated dreamers and hustlers—was fertile ground, full of angry, beaten men and women who have long been ignored, almost forgotten. It makes a certain sense that this famous trading city would find its belly swollen by citizens seeking secession from Nigeria, calling out for a new-old independent country, Biafra, and following Nnamdi Kanu, a young upstart who preaches a gospel of redemption and hope long denied Aba’s citizens. For them, Operation Python Dance—ostensibly set up to clamp down on “criminal activities” in the south-east—was a familiar response to the non-militant pro-Biafra activism at work.
When Aba burns, home is only a temporary safety. My mother and brother locked the doors and turned on the TV to watch the conflagration. But sometimes the fire reaches Aba’s innards, too, and then tentacles of fear-soaked heat begin to sneak around, reaching out and ensnaring everyone. At that point, the locked doors of home are no longer safe. Fleeing from Aba is the only choice. Run, if you can: to Enugu, to Lagos, to Port Harcourt. Anywhere else. It doesn’t matter where so long as it is far from Aba’s fire and heat. And so, once again, my mother and brother packed up and left.