Sitting in a corner of the cell where he had been detained for the past 48 hours, elbows on raised knees, left hand holding a cigarette to his mouth, Elvis inhaled deeply, his cheeks sucked in, lost in thought and wondered if life was fair at all.
How could he have done someone good only to be locked up as a criminal, incarcerated as a suspect for an offence he knew nothing about?
Yes, criminals get punished for what they have done, Elvis thought, and not what they might do. It is even more absurd to punish someone for a crime that has not been established against him.
And yet, here he was in a 10 by 12ft fetid jail, along with smelly, scabby, hard-eyed criminals, spending his second night, with no hope he would be out anytime soon or, worse still, that he might even go to jail. Looking around him, he thought gloomily, this might just be the beginning of his ordeal. He sucked on the cigarette harder as if to reassure himself that, despite his confinement, there was this one luxury left and he was determined to make the most of it.
A well-built, coffee-coloured, spirited 43-year-old from Bayelsa State, Elvis runs an employment agency at Ikorodu in Lagos. A man about town with a matching bonhomie, he has a bubbly disposition common to those of his age from the Niger Delta.
“Instead make good liquor waste,” Elvis used to joke with friends at watering holes, “make belle bust,” meaning that he would see to the last dregs as long as an offer was made. He has lived in as many places in Lagos, according to him, as he has changed jobs.
He came to the city with only the shirt on his back, a fistful of naira notes and hope. From being a bus boy, he has worked in construction sites, hawked odds and ends on the street, apprenticed himself to a lugubrious mechanic whose two wives terrorized him at home.
The mechanic could simply not understand why “his boy,” an ordinary apprentice was full of so much zest while he (Oga) didn’t experience any such thing at home or at work. One day, Elvis came to work and was told by the senior apprentice that “Oga don travel and e no go come back soon.”
Elvis got the hint. He moved on with his fate in his palm like a mendicant with an empty bowl, uncertain of the future.
From that moment, Elvis swore he would one day be his own boss, and so worked assiduously towards it. First, he enrolled in a part-time school, “to fill up the gaps in my education.” In no time, he got a diploma certificate. He never aspired to be a professor anyway, just something to mix with the right crowd – the ability to speak English and not falteringly as he used to as an insecure bus boy or an apprehensive apprentice.
The right crowd happened to be somewhere in Ajah in Lagos where, by chance, he met an old friend, David, also from Bayelsa. David, it turned out, was a facilitator, a tout, in street parlance, for visa seekers to Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom. He did not work in any embassy or high commission. Still, he made things possible for visa seekers.
For Elvis, it was not a respectable profession, not something you can boast of at village meetings but it was better, better than being at the mercy of cursing commuters and a disdainful driver, better than being looked down on by a frustrated mechanic. Besides, to the teeming number of young men and women emigrants, middlemen like David and Elvis were seen as messiahs because, somehow, they got the visas. By word of mouth alone, it got around that you could trust the pair because they always came with the genuine stuff.
Through that Elvis made money, more than he ever thought possible. He worked as a visa tout for one year and six months. By now street savvy and determined to set up his own business, he saved like a newly established snuff seller at Orile fearful of the future and lived sparingly like a monk in seclusion. He avoided parties and any such places for wasteful spending. True to his word, Elvis saved enough to start his own business – an employment agency where he recommends job seekers to employers.
“I never wanted to start a business where I would have to worry about salaries,” Elvis once told a friend. He worked alone, in a one-room office at Ikorodu. “The road to the future starts here,” a sign on his table announced to visitors.
The choice of Ikorodu was not without its advantages. A fast-developing suburb of Lagos with a corresponding rising population, Elvis reckoned it would be an ideal spot to find unemployed young people. He was right.
They came to him from the moment he opened his office, young school leavers wanting to become waitresses in hotels, teenage girls looking to be house helps or domestic servants, sturdy young boys hoping to be security personnel in private homes or hotels. Elvis had the connections from his stay in Ajah, and so recommended potential employees after close scrutiny.
“Where do you live? Who do you live with? What qualifications do you have, age and who are your closest relatives in Lagos? Where do you come from?” Telephone numbers and email addresses were also required.
Those questions, apart from building a profile of potential employees, are meant to guard against fraudulent acts or criminal disposition of the job seekers. Once registered, along with their photographs, Elvis can now recommend to employers, usually after receiving registration fees.
Recommendations sometimes come to Elvis through friends. In such cases he does not bother with questions, because the job seeker is the friend of a friend of a friend.
One day, a male job seeker came, Ajani, or so he called himself, a friend of a friend. He wanted a driving job. Someone needed one, a diplomat in Ajah Elvis knew. Calls were made, conclusions reached and soon Ajani was in the employ of Mr. Iyanda, the diplomat.
“I usually tell employers to carry out their own private inquiries about those I recommend,” Elvis later said in the course of investigation, “before employing them.”
Mr. Iyanda apparently forgot that or trusted Ajani so much since they are of the same race. Ajani drove the entire Iyanda family for three and a half months, to and from work, to shop, to parties, to and from church, and just about anywhere. He resumes work as early as six in the morning and leaves late at night.
From his first day at work, Ajani was all politeness, an obsequious smile ever in place, carrying Madam’s bag even before she steps out of the car, bowing straight down from the waist at the slightest opportunity and making the family feel like royalty.
“Driver yi, o nice sha, o ni respect,” Funmi told her husband, Iyanda, one afternoon. Ajani was within earshot and so heard what Madam said. He redoubled his effort at subservience, literally becoming a Jeeeves, an intelligent interpreter of his master’s and madam’s every wish, spoken or not.
One Friday afternoon, the diplomat went out with his driver as they used to. The last place they visited was a bank because Iyanda came with a large parcel which he deposited on the back seat with him. On their way home, Iyanda asked Ajani to drive to his favourite eatery. He went in alone to place his orders while Ajani waited in the car.
A quarter of an hour later, Iyanda came out and Ajani was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared, gone like the wind. Of course, police investigations led right to the doorstep of Elvis. He called Ajani’s phone. It was switched off. A frenzied trip to Ajani’s residence proved worthless. The driver had moved, along with his pregnant wife.
That was how Elvis landed in a squalid cell, bemoaning his fate for a crime he alone knew he had not committed.
-Based on a true story. However, names of characters and places have been changed to protect their privacy.