In June of 1998, I was working the night shift at a soap manufacturing company in the Alakija, Satellite Town area of Lagos, just off the Mile 2-Badagry expressway.
I was a scrawny little kid who had just completed secondary school and who had come to Lagos to hustle. Dad lived in the suburbs of Okokomaiko and we had joined him after secondary education in rural Cross River.
In June of 1998, I always wore overalls around Satellite Town when I wasn’t funneling chemicals into a soap production line. My overalls were over-sized because management didn’t think that anyone my age would want to work in a factory full of middle-aged people.
I was the tiniest and youngest worker on the factory floor. My nickname around the factory was ‘last born’.
The day before June 8, 1998, the day Nigeria's military ruler, General Sani Abacha died I had offered to do two shifts because that meant extra bucks. I had just finished the day shift on the back of the night shift when I stepped on the Badagry expressway in my over-sized overalls to catch a bus to Okokomaiko.
I was reeking of soap.
I often changed clothes—from overalls to a Fubu T-Shirt and Jeans (or something like that)—when I was ready to head home, but on this day, for some reason, I decided to make the journey home in my overalls reeking of chemicals and soap. All of Lagos would have to share in the soap smell for once, I reckoned. They had to bear with me this once.
As I made a dash to Alakija Bus Stop (just after Agboju) on the opposite side of the road, I saw a group of people chanting and dancing under a shed carved out of tarpaulin.
“Abacha ti ku…Abacha ti ku…(Abacha is dead…Abacha is dead).”
They were chanting and gyrating furiously. They were visibly elated.
"Abacha werey ti ku…Abacha werey ti ku oooo….(Abacha, the mad man is dead)".
In the distance, someone was approaching with drinks in an ice bucket. There was Coca Cola and Fanta and Limca and there was Gulder and Star. A party was happening right beside a busy expressway in Lagos.
I had two options at this point. Join the party or head home. God knows I was thirsty as hell and it was a hot afternoon. Free drinks never hurt any….
It turned out someone in that small group was in the spirit.
“Wetin you dey drink? Oya…come…come take”. A man who looked like a vulcanizer was frantically motioning to me.
I needed no second invitation. You only die once. If it was my destiny they wanted, they could as well have it all, I muttered to myself.
“Abeg wetin happen?”, I asked after a generous gulp from my bottle of Limca. I was painfully curious.
“Ahhh…you never hear? Abacha don die. Abacha don die oooo. Abacha don die….oooo”.
Thankfully, someone fetched a transistor radio and knocked the little box into life. Abacha's passing was breaking news repeated every other minute on Radio Nigeria.
Our little tarpaulin shade had about 7 persons when I joined. Now we were as many as 15 persons cramped in a small space. The lady who was selling food beside the vulcanizer was dishing out meals to everyone for free.
“Oya ooo…make una chop…Abacha don die…praise the Lord!!”
Free lunch and one more bottle of Limca after, I returned to the Badagry expressway in my over-sized overalls to hitch a ride to Okokomaiko. I was walking in slow motion from too much free food.
From Mile 2 and Agboju, the bus conductors were singing and chanting: “Esu ti ku oooo (Satan is dead…)".
There were loud cheers as buses and cars weaved past me at frightening speed. It’s the first and only time I have seen people celebrate a man’s death since I was born.
I eventually hopped into a Molue—me, my overalls and the stench of soap and chemicals. I was past caring at this point. Lagos would have to bear with me this once, after all, Abacha just died.
In the Molue, people were clapping and dancing.
“E think say e no go die? Devil is a liar…God pass all of them”, people were saying all at once. They were happy people. You could actually touch the excitement on each and every face.
And then the driver made the ground breaking announcement as we snaked toward the Ojo military barracks.
“Conductor”, he yelled, “no collect money from anybody o. Today, motor na free. Abacha don die!”
Cheers broke out again. “Praise the lord joor!", someone shouted. “Hallelujah jare!” everyone in the Molue chorused.
“Our God is good!”
“All the time!”
"All the time."
"Our God is good".
One of those guys who sold one of those drugs that can cure everything from the common cold to AIDS, began handing out his wares for free. The pastor in the over-sized jacket and trousers stood on the aisle of the Molue and began preaching about preparing for eternity and how we were all going to give an account of our lives before God.
"The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent now oh yee sinner! The last days are here...
“Look at Abacha today. He he killed Ken Saro-wiwa, he used soldiers to beat people, he jailed journalists….where is he today? I say where is he today? Brethren, where is the dark goggled one today? He forced 5 political parties to adopt him as their candidate. He wanted to rule forever. Where is he today? Only God can rule forever, brethren...."
I jumped off my Molue at Okokomaiko and commenced the trek home. Everywhere I turned, folks were celebrating Abacha’s death in groups. Some were hunched over radio sets, others were reading the newspapers with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks.
When I arrived home, Dad had purchased two newspapers proclaiming Abacha’s death in all black print. And then Dad pulled me over and handed me a bear hug--something he's never done since I came of age. On the table were copies of PM News and The Guardian (which had to print another edition late evening, all for Abacha).
I had more pieces of meat in my soup that night. After all, Abacha just died….