Goldland Investment Ltd. was a pyramid scheme that had gone bust in early ’94. Their warehouse on FGGC Road, about three electric poles from Ochuko’s place, had been locked up for months because Goldland’s customers—upset that their investments did not yield the promised fruit—took the company to court. The investment company did not dish out cash. What they had offered in exchange for a few months of cooking your miniscule investment were household items like refrigerators, microwave ovens and stereos. A few friends had been burnt by promises of cheap goods and we heard that the operators had upped and left the country. The place, which we observed on Saturday evenings from Ochuko’s balcony, was overgrown with weeds and had a rusty ‘Do Not Trespass’ sign hanging skewed off its iron gate.
When we got to Goldland that morning the warehouse was like a shopping mall from hell. Cars drove down the street, away from the compound, the boots full, rear ends almost touching the ground, with fridges, sewing machines, and gas-cookers. We passed a girl with a freezer on her head. She had a determined frown on her face and ignored us when we greeted her with a joke. As we passed Ochuko’s apartment building, we saw him on his first storey balcony sipping red wine from a glass as he watched the show.
He hailed us, “Efe! KO! Una too like free things!”
“You nko? We are sure you’ve already been there,” Harry shouted back. He had. Ochuko already had three fridges and a deep freezer upstairs in his apartment.
One of us started it, the running. And by the time we knew it, we were sprinting headlong into the place of madness. People were pulling down burglary-proofing with their bare hands, chanting, asheobey! asheobey! It was everyman for himself; a tacit agreement reached without words.
KO leapt over the waist-high fence first; he walked to a couple of boys trying to load a fridge into the back seat of an impossibly small Datsun and asked them something. I reached KO just as they were telling him that all the radios and other small stuff were already finished. They pointed to the first floor of the warehouse. I followed the directions and ran ahead of KO.
There were stairs at the back of the building. There was heavy traffic on the stairs, students and area boys helped each other down the steps with loot. There was a dark boy, a student, beside me and as we squirmed up the steps he asked that we cooperate so that he would help me with mine and I would help with his. O yes, as long as we got mine down first, I said. Dark Boy and I followed the trail of polyurethane chippings and torn cartons to a room that was almost empty apart from a few unopened cartons. Even the ceiling fan had been ripped from the ceiling. We walked to the locked door of another room. We were crowded on every side by other looters; pushing, sweating, cursing. The place was unbearably hot. I was sweating and cursing under my breath as I struck the padlock again and again with an iron bar that Dark Boy handed to me. With each clang, I asked myself questions.
What was I doing here?
Where the hell were the police? It was almost nine, three hours since Harry said the looting started. They will come; I know the police will come!
What if I get caught? What if we all get caught?
Oh, to get a brand new fridge for our parlour. What about a lucky strike at a brand new sound system?
The padlock broke. The cacophony around me slowly receded and changed into Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Da da da da… da da da da!
Dark Boy and I rushed in followed by a thousand others. We loaded laundry irons, deep fryers, and boiling rings into a small freezer and headed for the fence.
Back on the lawn, I saw Ejiro and Fra pushing a sewing machine with three electric stoves balanced on it down the street towards Ochuko’s house. Preppa saw me and shouted that I should take my things there. He was bent double with a freezer on his back. Dark Boy and I put the stuff under Ochuko’s staircase and ran back to the warehouse. A fight had broken out on the bushy lawn. Three guys were in a free for all. A small crowd of satisfied looters not in the mood to brave the heat and gloom inside, sat on the fence and wagered on which of the three would go away with the freezer.
It was like a carnival, this place. Local women, mothers with children on their backs, fought over electric cookers and sewing machines. KO was coming down the steps with Efe. They had a freezer between them and were shouting at a hanger-on to leave them alone. They weren’t sharing. As I followed Dark Boy past them, I patted KO’s back. He turned and smiled and said, “Hurry up o. Everything go soon finish.”
We had just got out when I heard the first sirens. Luckily, Dark Boy’s place was not far. A kid with a wheelbarrow offered to carry his fridge and sewing machine for thirty naira and off they went.
We watched from Ochuko’s balcony. Harry had jumped into the boot of a Peugeot with his new fridge and hitched a ride back to Estate. The first police pickup had appeared thirty minutes before, screeching to a halt in a cloud of dust. Out jumped its occupants: baton-wielding policemen in the regular uniform of black on black. These guys had proceeded to trash everything and everyone in their path. They cut a wide swath through the rapidly thinning crowd but curiously had not arrested anyone. We watched open-mouthed with the bravest of the stragglers. The policemen loaded their truck with goods. They went about coolly and were joined by two other vans. Those who could not fit into the full trucks mounted a guard. Some of the brave stragglers heckled and shouted abuses at the remaining officers. The policemen had seemed unperturbed and one of them popped a teargas grenade and threw it. It bounced on the street coming to rest just at Ochuko’s fence. We had run into the apartment and with the windows closed continued watching.
Thirty minutes later, the stinging gas had cleared and we were back on the balcony. Ochuko served drinks and we were watching an amazing thing. The looters and the police were working together to empty Goldland. I saw Dark Boy and hailed him from the balcony. He smiled and gave me the thumbs up. The vans came back and left again, not as full as before, thus all the policemen were able to leave with them. Goldland was spirit land, quiet and empty. We started discussing what to do with our loot.
“But you guys know that as the owner of this de-facto warehouse I’m entitled to a fraction of what you collected,” Ochuko said.
“My friend, stop that.” Efe knew him best and handled the haggling well. “I plan to put that freezer in our parlour. What do you want more for? Look at your own parlour.”
I sipped my beer and watched a few students, late to hear about the goldmine at Goldland, turn over cartons and polyurethane bars. The place was empty. It seemed most of the good things were here in our friend’s apartment. Ochuko’s parlour had acquired a new stereo, recently defaced with soup stains and a nail file, he said, to convince any inspector that he bought it months before. And his kitchen had a microwave oven with a thawing bowl of soup from his filled-to-the-brim second freezer. He bought all of them last month. No, he had not heard the rioting and looting. Yes, he was a heavy sleeper. They would believe him, he was the Chief’s son.
A police van came back. The latest failed looters ignored it at first, thinking it was the same looting policemen. But mobile police officers with khaki trousers and AK47 rifles drove this van, and they were not in a good mood. We watched as everybody started running. The new policemen chased the loiterers. I rushed in from the balcony, closed the sliding windows and called out to my friends. Soon we were all standing at the window, noses pressed against the tinted glass, watching the spectacle outside. The policemen used gun-butts, horsewhips and belts and sticks to beat the shit out of anyone they caught. I saw one run after Dark Boy; what was the fool still doing here? I saw the policeman reach after the running boy and catch him by his trousers. Dark Boy pulled away, swung free like a slippery fish and started running again. The police officer threw his club, his mouth open in a snarl. The club struck Dark Boy on the back of his head and my co-looter dropped to the ground. He was in midstride, just gathering pace when the solid three-feet long two-by-four caught up with him. He fell down awkwardly, and lay still. I was not the only one who noticed this, KO gasped beside me, his quick breathing steamed up the window. I turned away from the scene outside and my eyes met KO’s. I looked back to see the mobile policeman stroll towards where Dark Boy lay. He picked up the stick and swung. Dark Boy jerked with each thwack on his back and buttocks, not from a reaction to the pain, but from the force of the strikes. After the fourth hit, I thought I saw the policeman hesitate. Around him, other officers dragged back protesting students, some of whom had stayed behind to watch, some were just passing by, some were from flats nearby. The mobile policeman reached down and touched Dark Boy, it was a light touch, tentative. Another walked over to him and without speaking, they reached down and caught my new friend, my co-looter, under his armpits and dragged the unconscious boy to the back of their van. They threw him in, at the feet of crouching students the mobile police officers had already caught. They drove away.
I barely remember Dark Boy’s face now. I would wonder for years to come if he survived. I never caught his name.