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  • 1. Bar Beach Show

    By E. C. Osondu

    “What is your most treasured possession?” the award-winning Nigerian writer E. C. Osondu was once asked. “Ah I’m not gonna reveal that one,” he responded, then added, slyly:
    O, make dem no thief am.

    The gifts he possesses are on rich and plain display in his new collection, Voice of America, chief among them an ability to write of childhood rivalries and fatherly disappointment and debates over symbolism in nature even in the midst of a brutal tale of ritualized public execution. His vision is stark, yet relieved by its pure, leveling humanity.

    And, with that, welcome to Year Three! Many treasures in store.

    The year I turned thirteen, my father took me and my elder brother, Yemi, to Lagos’s Bar Beach to witness the death by firing squad of the notorious armed robber Lawrence “The Law” Anini and his gang of seven robbers. A few years later my brother Yemi was also to die by firing squad as an armed robber.

    Anini and his gang had held Lagos hostage for over three months, so much so that the head of state had asked the inspector general of police on national television how soon the robber was going to be arrested.

    We did not hate The Law; he did not bother us. He only stole from the very rich and from the banks. On one occasion when the police were after him and his gang, he had torn open a bag of naira currency notes and flung fistful after fistful into the air. There had been a stampede as the people on the street ran into the road to pick up the money. In the ensuing melee, he had escaped with his gang, and the next day the Lagos Daily Times ran the headline “The Law Beats Police Once Again.”

    My mother objected to our going to witness the shooting of the robbers, but my father paid her no heed. He told her that these days some robbers were as young as twelve, and that he wanted us to see with our eyes what happened to those who did not obey the laws of the land.

    “Did you not see the ten-year-old boy nicknamed Smallie who was shown on television the other night? The robbers said he was the one who crawled in through the air conditioner chute into most of the homes they robbed. They said he ran away from the Lagos Remand Home at six and was a hardened marijuana smoker.”

    “But think of all that blood, Baba Yemi. I don’t think it is something that the children should see. There are other means you could use to persuade them. Besides, the beach is usually filled with people smoking and drinking on execution days.”

    My mother said this while looking at me and my brother Yemi for support, but none was forthcoming. I was looking forward to attending the executions. My friend in school who had attended one told me there were suya sellers hawking barbecued meat on sticks and itinerant bata drummers drumming for a gift of pennies. I was not about to miss this because of Mama’s squeamishness and misgivings. My brother Yemi was silent as usual. He was busy polishing his sandals. First he applied very little polish to the sandal’s leather surface; then he took it out beyond the concrete steps to dry in the sun. He then brought it back indoors and began rubbing the leather tenderly with a piece of clean rag. Dad had once remarked that if only Yemi paid as much attention to his books as he paid to polishing his sandals, he would come out tops in his class.

    The Lagos Bar Beach, which was formerly named Victoria Beach in honor of Queen Victoria of England, had lots of myths surrounding it. It was said that once every seven years a large animal that was neither fish nor fowl was cast on the beach by the furious waters of the Atlantic. A crowd would gather from the length and breadth of Lagos armed with knives and baskets to get a piece of meat for their cooking pots. The most amazing thing, according to those who had witnessed this event, was that no matter how much each person cut, there was always enough for the next person. This was why the meat was called the inexhaustible Bar Beach meat. It was said that just as mysteriously as the animal had appeared, the inhabitants of the city would wake up one morning to discover the big animal had disappeared.

    It was also said that a beautiful mermaid would lie naked on this beach every full moon during the seventh month of the year and admire its own beauty as reflected on the water, that whoever was lucky enough to see the mermaid naked could ask for anything that he wished for and his desire would be granted. It was said that the mermaid called Mamiwata was the one that gave a guitar to the legendary guitarist Sir Victor Uwaifo.

    We were going to the beach in Dad’s brown Lada car. It was still new then. That was before he was retrenched in the confectionary factory where he worked and began to use the car for kabukabu, ferrying baskets of decaying tomatoes and half-rotten yams from distant places for market women. Dad was wearing his favorite milk-colored French suit, and his hair was dyed and neatly combed. He was pointing out different places to Yemi as he drove, but Yemi was as surly as an unhappy dog and only twisted his handkerchief around his fingers.

    “This road used to be the only road that ran through Lagos. It was narrower than this then, and very few cars plied it.” He turned to Yemi, leaning his neck back, his eyes darting to the road in front and back to look at him.

    “Even back then, CMS Grammar School was already in existence. It is the oldest school in Lagos; that was why I was so happy when you got in.”

    Yemi was silent. I was embarrassed for Dad, but Yemi was always making me feel this way. Creating big silences never embarrassed him. Street hawkers were poking cones of ice cream and multicolored candy sticks into the open window of the car for us to buy, but Yemi only glared at them.

    “That used to be Fela’s former house and nightclub; it was burned down by soldiers from Abalti barracks,” Yemi said to me. It was the only time anything had excited him since we left the house. He was interested in music and was learning to play the guitar, which was a sore point between him and Dad.

    “You cannot fight the government—he was harboring miscreants in his club, and his girls were smoking marijuana and moving around half naked all over the street. He should have known that you cannot challenge soldiers and get away with it,” Dad says.

    “He was fighting for the people with his music,” Yemi insisted. “The soldiers threw down his mother from a six-story building, which was what led to her death.”

    “A stubborn child always brings disgrace and sorrow to his parents. This is why I keep telling you children to always listen to me and your mother because we want the best for you.” Dad said this in a tone that suggested the argument would go no further.

    Yemi became silent again and only stared into the lagoon that we were driving past, from which a decayed smell of shit and garbage wafted into our nostrils.

    We could hardly find a place to park the car as we approached the Bar Beach. There was a large crowd of people on foot walking toward the beach. There were hawkers carrying plastic buckets filled with block ice and soft drinks, screaming, “Buy cold minerals, cold 7 Up, and Pepsi here.”

    Dad took my hand and Yemi’s hand, but Yemi snatched his hand away and made to walk ahead of us. Dad shouted at him to stay close to us.

    The robbers were already tied to tall metal drums buried in the sand by the time we got to the beach. They were tied so tightly the blue nylon rope was cutting into their skin. Their leader, Lawrence Anini, was puffing a cigarette. He held the cigarette with his teeth because his hands were tied by his side and blew out the smoke through his nostrils and one side of his mouth. Sweat was running down his face, which looked ashen, as if coated with a thin film of powder. He was wearing a deep frown. As the cigarette burned down and he spat it away into the sand, people began to scramble to pick up the cigarette butt. A police guard picked it up, pinched dead the burning end, and put it in his pocket. I heard someone in the crowd say that the cigarette was a good luck charm; he said anything from the body of a dead man was powerful, but Dad only sniffed.

    Soon the soldiers who were to carry out the execution arrived in an olive green truck. Policemen wielding horsewhips created space within the crowd, and the soldiers began to take crouching positions before the robbers. A woman screamed that someone had snatched her purse, which led to a discussion among some people in the crowd.

    “Can you imagine? In a place like this somebody is stealing. You know the best thing for thieves is just to shoot them like this gabadaya.”

    “I hear The Law’s native doctor is somewhere around, casting spells and mouthing incantations so that no bullet can penetrate his body,” someone in the crowd said.

    “I heard he shot and killed his native doctor some time ago so that she cannot prepare the same juju she made for him for someone else.”

    “Let them start, I want to see their blood flow, we shall see today whether it is not the same red blood that flows in the veins of law-abiding citizens that flows in theirs.”

    “Ah, look, one of them is crying like a baby already; look at the crocodile tears, the way they are flowing out of his eyes.”

    One of the robbers, his name was Victor Osunbor, was actually crying. He was said to be the best shot of all the robbers and could shoot accurately while steering their getaway car with one hand. His teardrops mixed with the sweat that was running down his face and the mucus from his nose, turning his face into a dark slippery mess.

    “Most robbers, especially the hardened ones, will always weep before their execution; they want you to pity them but they themselves have no single pity in them,” Dad said to a man who was standing beside us. The man was tugging at his little beard, and his eyes darted from one side of the crowd to the other.

    “Oh yes, they always weep. I have seen all of them weep, from Oyenusi to Omopupa to The Boyisgood to Shina Rambo, all the robbers that have been shot here at Bar Beach, the strong ones are the ones who weep most.”

    “They do not deserve any pity. I know that if they are released now the very next night they will return to the only job they can do well—robbery. Don’t you agree?” Dad said, turning to the man, who had gone back to tugging at his beard.

    “Yes, oh robbers deserve to die, no mercy at all is what I believe in fact this new military government should allow us to stone them to death like they do in Saudi Arabia, I swear to God if they let us stone them, I will pick up the heaviest piece of stone in this Bar Beach and smash it gbosa on their heads,” the man said, smiling, his bloodshot eyes glinting.

    Yemi was talking with one of the itinerant musicians who were working the crowd. For a little penny you could request a song that they would sing for you while strumming on their guitar. Yemi was telling the musician to play him a rock number by AC/DC, but the musician laughed and told Yemi that he did not play such songs, that they were not popular and were hardly requested. Yemi asked to borrow the man’s guitar, but the man refused, telling Yemi that he was looking for money right now and was busy. As the man moved away, Dad turned to Yemi and smiled in a dry way.

    “You see now for yourself how a so-called musician is no better than a beggar, look at all of them in their uncombed hair and unwashed jeans begging for pennies from everybody, after this how can you still want to be a musician?”

    “Is it not better to beg with your guitar than to become an armed robber?” Yemi responded. Dad opened his mouth to say something, but closed it and began to mop his face with his damp handkerchief.

    “Aha, they will soon start,” the man beside us said. “The Reverend Father and the Imam are both here now.” A priest was walking from one of the men at the stake to the next and whispering into their ears. He spent a long time with Victor Osunbor, who was heaving dry sobs. The priest gave him rosary beads, which he quickly wrapped around his fingers, and began to make signs of the cross on his forehead and chest.

    The leader of the soldiers, a warrant officer, blew his whistle. “Take your positions,” he bellowed. “Get ready. Fire! Fire! Fire!” he screamed. As the shots rang out, the crowd screamed.

    Suddenly it began to rain. Fat dollops of rain were cascading from the open skies, drenching everyone quickly and making people turn to each other with accusatory looks. The rain washed away the pool of blood that gathered by the executed men. Men wearing yellow overalls with the inscription “Lagos Island Local Government” began untying the bodies and throwing them into the back of an open tipper lorry.

    A debate had broken out among the crowd as the people dispersed. Some people among them said the rain symbolized something. The man with the darting eyes said to Dad that The Law was a great man for rain to have fallen on the day he died, but Dad hissed, “No, not at all. The rain is cleaning away everything, sweeping away their memory so that the country can be clean once again.”

    “Rain only falls when important people die, like when kings die it rains. The Law was the king of robbers; that is why it is raining,” the man said, looking around triumphantly.

    Dad took us by the hand, and we began to walk toward his car. Just as the rain had started, it suddenly stopped. Humid vapors rose from the beach as we walked toward the car. We drove to the ice cream stand of Leventis Stores, and Dad got us some Wall’s ice cream and Gala sausage rolls. I ate my ice cream halfway and dozed off. When I woke up, we were home, and my melted ice cream had formed a banana-colored puddle on the car’s floormat. Yemi had finished his and was chewing the flat stick that had held the ice cream.

    The newspapers reported that later that night some people went to the unmarked graves where the robbers were buried at Atan Cemetery and cut their chests open and removed their hearts. They said that they used them to prepare powerful charms that would make them fearless.


    We came back from school one day and saw Dad holding a piece of paper and supporting his head on his hand. Mama was sitting beside him and occasionally muttered, “You must take heart and be strong. It is not the end of the world; when one road closes another will open.”

    “This is the handiwork of my enemies,” Dad said. “They have been praying for my downfall, and now they have succeeded, the enemies have done their worst, what am I going to do?”

    “What about the other people who were retrenched? I thought you said there were others that were laid off too?”

    “Yes, they said it is the government’s austerity measure that has made everything so difficult. But why me? There are so many other people that were asked to go, what did I do? I am always the first person to get to the factory, and now . . . who is going to pay the children’s school fees and the rent and our feeding?”

    “I will leave for the village soon to go and start doing some little farming and trading. At least that will be bringing in a little something, and you can start some business with the little money you were paid.”

    Mama left for her ancestral village. She had extended family there. We only heard from her once in a very long while. Dad began to dabble in different businesses that left him with less and less money. I recall one that had to do with the production of emery paper, but nothing came out of it. What I remember was that for a long time the corridor that led to my room was piled high with cartons of the stuff. Dad had tried selling it to the local welders and motor mechanics, but they told him the quality was poor. Meanwhile the man who had gone into the business with him had disappeared. Other ventures followed that involved Dad coming up with the start-up money, and sometimes there was a lot of activity and buying of materials and then nothing. This went on for a long time, till Dad was left with nothing and began to use his car as an unlicensed, unpainted taxi at night.

    One day I came back from school and saw one of Yemi’s teachers who lived down the road from us talking with Dad. He told Dad that Yemi had stopped attending classes and had been placed on suspension twice. He said Yemi had been running with a gang that hung out on Pepple Street, where Fela now had his new nightclub. He told Dad that he had heard that some of the boys carried miniature axes and locally made pistols in their schoolbags.

    When Yemi came in that night, Dad screamed at him, calling him a shameless and ungrateful son who was working hard at spoiling the family’s good name. And then Dad relented and began to plead with Yemi to have pity on him and not to allow himself to be contaminated by bad boys.

    The next morning when we woke up, Yemi had gone from his room, taking a few clothes and his beloved pair of sandals with him. He did not forget to take along his LPs by Fela. When I told Dad that Yemi had left, he cursed him and swore that Yemi was no longer his son.

    Occasionally on my way to school I would see Yemi on the street corner with some tough-looking boys, smoking marijuana. He would wave to me and give me a crumpled ten-naira note. One day one of his friends extended the marijuana to me, but Yemi got very angry and snatched it from him and threw it into the black stinking open drain beside us.

    A few months later I came back from school and met a policeman from the Panti police station waiting for Dad. He told Dad that Yemi had been arrested for armed robbery and was awaiting trial with the members of his gang. He said that a member of their gang had informed Yemi and the other members of the gang that his sister was visiting the country from America and that she had come back with lots of dollars. In the course of the robbery the boy had called out to a member of his gang to hurry up, and his sister, who was lying facedown on the floor, had recognized his voice and had screamed and torn away the mask from his face. The leader of the gang had shot her, and they had fled. The police later tracked them to their hideout and arrested them. Dad listened to the policeman and for a long time did not speak; then, pointing at me, he said to the policeman, “This is the only son I have, my other son died many years ago.”

    Yemi was later executed at the Lagos Bar Beach with other members of the gang. For a week I did not go to school and Dad did not drive his taxi, and when I returned to school, people would point at me on my way to school and whisper.


    © 2010 by E. C. Osondu. From the Harper collection Voice of America.

    Browse inside the collection here!

    Read a BBC interview with Osondu here.

    And another one here.

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    • Hollywoodgrafix

      wonder if you witnessed your brothers execution.

    • Nuddo 911.

      Anini was executed at the valley of death in Ekewan Road Benin City not at the Lagos Bar Beach.

    • Mrs. F. Arukwe

      Lawrence Anini operated in the defunct Bendel State, not Lagos, he was popularly known as “The Law” Ovigbo. He was captured, tried and killed by firing squad in Benin City, in the defunct Bendel State.

    • Anon-234

      You guys are boring, it’s only a story.

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