The park itself was alive with scampering workers in caps and baggy clothes unloading tubers of yam and baskets of tomatoes from a lorry. Another group of laborers were seen loading an enormous pile of clothes or kaya, as the Onitsha market women would call it, from a luxurious bus into a pickup van that had come to the park. They were small wiry men who looked more like Hausas than Ibos, wearing billed caps that almost made their faces inconspicuous. The loading and offloading went on as if it will never end. The park officials stationed themselves at strategic location, observing and noting everything noticeable, as laborers, covered in saline fluid secreted by the sweat gland of their skin, scurry in and out of the warehouse.
Down at the edge of the warehouse, not more than fifty metres away, a huge fellow was seen, wielding a Kalashnikov rifle. He was perambulating around the perimeter of the park in a manner that was as consistent as metronomes. He had a phlegmatic disposition; and at a point, he paused for a jiffy to light a wrap of dope he had fished out from the breast pocket of his khaki shirt. Puffing at the lighted stick between his fingertips, he surveyed the entire premises nay his territory, and exhaled a very thick smoke from his mouth and nostril simultaneously, giving the eerie air of a voodoo oracle. How he managed to achieve such fit was sort of mysterious to me. I wouldn’t know, since I have always loved to keep myself as a non-smoking teetotaler.
Three other guys appeared from a building closed by. They were carrying a partially concealed cut-to-size or what the Mafiosi called Lupara, the ever present Sicilian short gun. The Kalashnikov man walked towards them, and with each step he took, they seem to loosen to spread away from each other as if to envelope him in their greeting. His domineering height, like the Trajan hero in Iliad seem to have dwarfed the three fellows as he stood in their midst. They walked together and made no menacing sign towards the crowd of passengers and traders that were entering and leaving the park premises. In fact, they ignored everyone.
A man came out from an office that doubled as the receipt counter and as a waiting hall. He was an average sized man with mustache thicker than the hair on his head. He greeted the four gun men like he was the capo di tutti capi (the boss of all bosses) and walked towards the direction where I was standing. I nudged Michael and Bayo who were standing by my side. They understood the signal and braced themselves for the confrontation with this mustache fellow. The man introduced himself as the chief controller of the park; and that introduction almost made me laugh, but I had to show some respect to this big fellow who was dressed in an ostentatiously magnificent way. Despite his pompous appearance, he was extremely kind hearted, genteel and easily entreated—an attribute I considered atypical of those who work in motor parks.
Michael did not make any attempt at concealing his curiosity, or I should say our curiosity.
“Please pardon my inquisitiveness” he said. “But who are the guys with guns over there?” Michael asked, pointing his index finger in the direction where the Kalashnikov guy and his men were standing, minding their own “business”.
The mustache man gave a self-gratifying smile like one who had anticipated the question and armed with a well-rehearsed answer. He also made a lot of calculated effort to sound like one who was intellectually fecund, as he prefaced his answer with a brief lecture.
“You don’t have to be apologetic for asking a sincere and necessary question” he said, keeping his face focused on Michael. “After all, it is said that the only thing that qualifies you for an answer is a question”. He observed a momentary silence and lowered his voice as if avoiding being heard by a third party and said, “Talking about the men over there, bureaucrats call them thugs or something relating to that, but I tell you the truth, those guys are the reason why we are still in business”. He gave further explanation on the importance of the armed men in the park with little jokes and colorful anecdotes that made them seem more like adventurers or some fun seeking jolly fellows in a techno coloured movie, than what they really were.
And in my mind, I was like: what about the police or security agencies? But that was a question I was not too willing to ask a man who was reported to have had faith in the police in the past, but was disappointed during critical moments of need. It suddenly dawned on me that these folks had succeeded in establishing their own kind of security force that seem to function more effectively than our local police.
“But sir,” Bayo cut in. “these guys are not constitutionally empowered to wield firearm” he protested.
The mustache man shrugged and said very calmly yet with a sardonic smile, “Look young man, I can give you the list of folks in this country who possesses things that they are not constitutionally empowered to own. So you can quote all the constitutional jargons if you like, but in this place…in our microcosm, we have our rules…and anyone who gives those men up to the government would have committed an infermita”
“infa what?” I interjected
“infermita…the breaking of the law of omerta, the Sicilian code for silence” he explained with regal pride, and gave a brief history on the operations of the Mafiosi and their different coscas, like one who was born and bred in Southern Italy—Sicily.
He was full of cliché, but then, like they say, a cliché is not a cliché if you have never heard it before. And since we have never heard those terms before, it was very easy for us to greet each one of the terms with the same ecstasy it must have produced when it was first coined. Indeed, cliché is but pauperized ecstasy.
I soon learnt that infermita, the breaking of the law of omerta, was an offence punishable by maiming or death. In ancient Sicily, the Mafia was a secrete organization that sprang up to fight against the rulers that had crushed the country and its people. Justice had never been forth coming from the authorities and so the people had always gone to the Robin Hood Mafia. People turn to their capo-Mafiosi for help in every emergency. They learned that the Carabinieri, the police, who were being perceived as the instrument of the rich against the poor, were not their friend. And so when they sought redress for wrongs done them, they went to the Mafia. And the Mafia consolidated on its power by originating the law of silence—omerta. So the greatest crime any member of the community could commit would be to tell the police the name of the man who committed a crime.
The mustache man snapped and said, “my friends, please do not take me for the son of belier… I still love this country as much as you do” his countenance fell. “But having been robbed severally by hoodlums and intimidated by tarts and with the police not coming forth with any concrete solution except to make frivolous arrest and demand for petrol money to do the job that they are already being paid for, I just suddenly realized that nature will not give to anyone that which is obtainable in the wild. It was then I decided to take my future into my hand. I decided to become dogged like Al Capone…”
While he was still talking, a black jeep pulled into a corner in the park, and from it preceded a fat young lady who from her facial appearance should be in her early thirties, though her body size says otherwise. The mustache man, seeing the young lady, bid us farewell and offered to pay for our transportation from Onitsha to Benin City. An offer we gladly accepted
The man swayed in a Capo-Mafioso style and cringe to the young lady, while they both take their seat in the office. They laid out the food and opened the bottle of wine that had been served. The lady rested her head on his shoulder and patted him in a comradely way. Her face glowed with happiness and she seems to welcome his every word with a smile of satisfaction.
My journey from Onitsha to Benin City that night was filled with reminiscences. I thought intently about our little encounter with the mustache man at the park. I couldn’t help but admit the fact that our little conversation with the man taught me a lifelong lesson:
“the denial of justice is a form of stimulant to lawlessness”.
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