7 years ago, fresh out of NYSC and trying to find my way in Lagos, I found myself inside the editor’s office at the Kirikiri Canal headquarters of Vanguard Newspapers, looking for a job as a reporter. Despite a glowing recommendation, the editor at the time was unsure, and it didn’t quite happen for me. I ended up starting a career in Marketing Communications, eventually taking a roundabout route back to Journalism 5 years later.
I used to think that the experience of writing a regular column should always be enjoyable. Apart from my eulogy for my dear departed friend Binta Bhadmus, I have never not enjoyed writing every single one of the 100+ BusinessDay columns I have written over the past 2 years. Now however, I sit here writing this on a Friday evening, brooding darkly over the death of a young Nigerian whom I never met or knew.
There is no mitigation for the loss of a human life with the celebration of a productive life well lived. There is only the tragedy of a young life cut short in the most horrifying of circumstances, before it could even begin. Despite being a few thousand kilometres away from the giant crime scene that is the Federal Republic of Nigeria, once again I am writing a column about the country’s evil habit of eating its young.
A story from 2016
After leaving my marketing job 5 years ago and making my first unsuccessful attempt at entrepreneurship, I found myself driving an Uber to pay my bills and keep the lights on at home. I was barely 26, but I had a wife and her little brother as direct dependents. After criss-crossing Lagos during the day hopping from meeting to fruitless meeting trying to close deals, I would pick my wife up from work, drop her off at home, have a meal and then head out at 9PM for a night of Uber runs.
You either sit at home and die of (literal) hunger, or you get up and take the risk that Hinny Umoren took, on the off chance that it pays off
On one such night in September 2016, I got a request from Lekki Phase 1 around midnight. It was a couple going to Mile 12. For security reasons, I didn’t like going away from the Island, but pickings had been slim that night and I was nowhere near my N10,000 nightly target. Taking away the cost of the fuel I would buy the next morning, I was actually in the red for the night, so I needed the money. I agreed and the ride began. 20 minutes later as we went past Ogudu, I received a notification on the driver app – “Destination Updated.”
The new destination was “Owode Onirin.” Bear in mind that that was 2016, at the height of the ‘Badoo Gang’ ritual killing phenomenon in Ikorodu and environs – being anywhere near Ikorodu after dark was an invitation to get seriously hurt. I shook my head and pressed on. I needed the money. On getting past Mile 12, another destination change came in – “Agric Bus Stop.” I knew that this was in the heart of Ikorodu and at that point, I should have ended the trip and demanded payment. I looked at their pleading faces and shook my head again. I pressed on.
Finally as we neared Ikorodu, with my heart inside my mouth and my foot shaking on the accelerator pedal, one more destination change came in – Igbogbo. Just the night before, there had been a gruesome killing in Igbogbo, and I knew that I would be driving into the mouth of a tiger, unarmed, unprotected and potentially outnumbered by passengers who had been less than honest. I did a quick mental calculation of how much the ride from Lekki to Igbogbo would be worth – at least N7,000. If I cancelled the ride and they refused to pay, I would go home empty handed. My wife’s brother needed to pay his exam fees at UNILAG the next day, or potentially lose an academic year. If I didn’t make it happen, no one else would. There was too much riding on this trip.
I fixed them with a hard stare, gritted my teeth and pressed on to Igbogbo. I was utterly terrified out of my mind, but I could not go home without that money. No excuses would suffice. I needed the money.
Iniobong Umoren was just trying to survive – Like all of us
To read the story of Iniobong “Hiny” Umoren – who was raped and murdered after being lured by a fake job interview in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State – is to read the story of the quintessential young Nigerian struggling to make something of themselves. It is the story of Uche from Abriba who is willing to risk it all to travel 500KM to a city he has never been to so he can “hustle” and find success. It is the story of Josiah from Jos who is willing to leave everything he has ever known, move to Lagos with his family and obtain a motorcycle taxi via hire-purchase in hope of a better life.
It is the story of Itunu Babalola, who left Ibadan as a 19 year-old and moved 1,137KM to Bondoukou in Cote d’Ivoire in search of opportunities. All she wanted to do was find a way to provide for her aged parents, which she actually did against all odds, only for circumstances to conspire cruelly against her and leave her languishing in an Ivorian prison for an offense she knows nothing about. In her case, she was fortunate enough to have her story heard at the highest levels of government, leading to concerted moves by the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) to get her out. Thousands of young Nigerians languishing – forgotten – in prisons around the world due to accidents of circumstance are not so lucky.
It is the story of the personal assistant I hired back in 2018 who recently admitted to me that she at first feared I was a kidnapper. Here was a 28 year-old man with earrings in both ears who offered her a job with his infant business earning a salary she considered unthinkable, plus a free phone and mini laptop. He even showed up at her parents’ place in Iyana-Ipaja to take her to his office for a day of training. Looking back on it now, it is easy to see how the picture would have looked from her point of view.
And yet, she did not decline. She took the offer. She entered the car. Perhaps fearing I might have tampered with the AC if I was indeed a kidnapper, she requested that the windows stay down, and she sat there in silent terror all through the journey, hands flattened against her laps. As long as there was the 50-50 chance that this was a real job that was going to pay her N85,000 a month with which she could help herself and her family, she was ready to take that chance and risk being kidnapped and possibly raped or murdered.
These are the choices that are given to anyone under the age of 35 in Nigeria. You either sit at home and die of (literal) hunger, or you get up and take the risk that Hinny Umoren took, on the off chance that it pays off. Sometimes it turns out well, such as in the case of my former PA, who is now gainfully employed and moving up the career ladder at a financial institution. A lot of the time, it ends in tragedy, such as in Hinny’s case. She knew the risks involved and she even took due precautions including sharing her location with a trusted friend and updating her regularly. And yet…
First desperation, then despair, then…
Young Nigerians are told verbally and visually almost as soon as they learn how to talk, that Nigeria owes them nothing. If they don’t learn to swim very quickly, they will sink and die – and the world will keep on turning. It really is not an idle threat. Nigeria genuinely has no safety net of any kind. It is the country where it is possible to be a billionaire today and a pauper by next year at the stroke of a pen in Aso Rock. You must kill what you want to eat and prove yourself every day. Once you fall off the wagon, it crushes you mercilessly and keeps on moving. Being weak and fearful here is the biggest crime one can commit.
This emergency consciousness is inculcated in young Nigerians through primary and secondary school, where they are ranked not primarily based on objective knowledge and exam scores, but on their relative performance against each other. For those who have the luxury of aspiring to higher education, the process of getting into their desired institution or program – which can determine their entire life prospects – is another cage fight scenario. To avoid ending up on the scrap heap, they must be smart, lucky or connected. Or all 3.
Getting through university is the next obstacle course. The university system itself is designed to impede and destroy their ambitions, and the custodians such as lecturers are there to exploit them financially and sexually. The existence of violent confraternities offers the constant and real threat of getting an axe to the face or a bullet to the head over something as mundane as a love triangle. Finally, after making it through about 22 years of uninterrupted cage fighting to graduate from university, now comes the ultimate cage fight of the Nigerian job market, which is a jungle with no rules.
Hiny Umoren was at this stage when her life was brutally cut short. She had done everything the system said she should do. Despite being an orphan, she had made it through school and university, and she was trying to support herself until the start of her NYSC program. The name on her Twitter handle “Iron Lady” tells all there is to know about how she saw herself – not as a victim in search of sympathy, but a protagonist making things happen for herself. Instead of becoming yet another addition to Nigeria’s many problems, or even sitting down to complain about them, she went out and tried to find her own solution.
Now she is dead. The feeling of despair is absolute. There is no happy ending for her. There is especially no happy ending for her close friend who inadvertently witnessed the horrors of her final moments and must now live with the unthinkable pain of survivor’s guilt. The raw pain of Iniobong Umoren’s death has got through to most of us because we can relate with her story in some form or the other. We have all left the house to look for our daily bread before, and silently wondered whether we will return alive. We have all been in those situations like my Igbogbo roadtrip of 2016, where we know we probably shouldn’t do something, but the alternative to doing it is to go hungry or to let our dependents down.
We can all understand how this situation is every young Nigerian striver’s worst nightmare. The question now is, what shall we make of the situation? As the pain and despair rapidly morphs into fury, are we going to direct that fury toward the administration that has presided over the longest continuous expansion of youth unemployment in Nigeria’s history? Are we going to recognise that youth unemployment – the thing that put Hinny in the position that cost her life – is literally a life and death issue for us and not just an NBS statistic? Are we going to hold Muhammadu Buhari’s government just as responsible for Hinny’s murder as the murderer himself?
Or will we waste the moment engaging in gender wars and social media one-upmanship that benefits nobody?