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A Corpse and its Jurisdiction – a letter from Lagos

Akin Adesokan tropes on the detective genre after he stumbles on an unidentified corpse in Oko-Oba. Who does the body belong to? And more importantly who is going to take responsibility for it in a society where bureaucracy and apathy have usurped common human decency?

I had some housekeeping assignments around Oko-Oba, near the Abattoir at Agege. Just past PEN Cinema, inside the median on the dual carriageway (Old Agege Motor Road) leading to Abule Egba, a dead body lay. People stared at the covered bundle from the distance of their stalls on either side of the road, shook their heads, and went back to their business. I was in great haste – I had earmarked a total of two hours for the present assignment and half of that budget was spent. But I have felt personally outraged each time I have seen a corpse lying by the roadside, and considered it mindless to just spit and walk away.

Ten years ago at Oshodi, where I stood with a colleague waiting to catch a bus to Ikeja, I watched a man knocked down flat by a speeding bus, and the body fell to me and my friend to take to the general hospital at Ikeja. I later mentioned this incident to an older writer, who is also a medical professional, and he thought it was the right thing to do: “Don’t become denatured like the rest of us”, he had said. As I contemplated the covered body inside the median on Agege Motor Road, I was thinking what a good idea it would be to ring up my friend and ask him to act.

I took a long, close look at the body. It was covered, with only an arm and the two feet showing. It was difficult to know whether it was male or female, although since what looked like a scarf jutted out from where the head was, I decided that it was a woman. I listened for a hint of groan or whine, something to assure me that this body was not gone, only resting and in need of urgent medical attention. The scrawny hand advertised a body wasted by disease or hunger, and there was probably something left in it to stand it up for a dose of eba and Pure Water. But the din of this huge terminus, the reckless banter of Okada cyclists, and the Tannoy-powered croaky voice of the hawker of sexual-performance-enhancing drugs effectively neutralised whatever sound I wished to tease out of the body. Having watched long enough to conclude that life had left it, I walked across the street to recharge my handset and then placed a call to the writer friend.

I saw him last two years ago; my previous attempts to drop in on him had not fructified. For the next quarter-hour I made several futile attempts to dial the number I got from him in 2002. Had he changed the number? Shut it off? Was he holidaying somewhere GSM could not access? At last I gave up and resolved to pursue this matter to the home of remedy. Across the road, directly opposite the spot where the body lay, was a police post. In fact, the post stood on the strip of land running parallel to the road and the rail-track. I went in and reported to the officer at the front counter. She did not miss a beat: “That’s not our jurisdiction. You have to go to Elere police station. It’s at the other side.”

I strutted out, taking another look at the body. If traffic on this road were to cease for a moment, anyone standing at the gate of the police post and looking out into the street would see the corpse before anything else. About 500m off, tucked away inside the rabbit warrens of Agege, was the Elere police station. The cops, male and female, were languid – incredible for a Thursday morning. The woman who insisted I talk to her was resting on her paunch, her arms a pillow, feet piled atop a thick bundle of logbooks in active retirement as footstool. A careless posture.

“Na you kill am?”

My smile was easy, reassuring: “No.”

“So which one be your own? Just a good citizen?”

“Yes.”

Another of her colleagues, a man, said: “Where you see the body?”

Again I made a map, from the spot where I stood to the spot where the body lay.

“Oh, okay. I see.”

Silence. Momentary loss of concentration recuperated in the effort of adjusting to the comfort of a day without work. Until this. This woman probably had some power here, for no one else would say a word, while she crossed and uncrossed her legs on the padded ledgers.

“Who are you?”

“Nobody. Just walking along the road.”

“Then you better keep on walking. Because if you waste time, dem fit talk say na you kill am.”

Then, silence.

“I’m just trying to help you.”

I looked at the faces around to be sure that I had heard right. They all stared at me, sheepish, non-committal.

“Ha, you still dey wait?” It was the man who had asked where I had found the body. “Just go on your own. You get work to do, abi? If the body begin to smell, the people in the vicinity will act.”

I was walking out of the complex when voices began to call me back. Another woman, the lapels on her shoulders suggesting very high rank, repeated all the questions I had answered. I repeated all the answers too. Given where on the road the body lay, it must be the jurisdiction of Agege Local Government. She was gracious enough to describe the location of the local council.

A tuck shop stood to the left of the entrance to the council headquarters. Going to the gate man, I inquired of the health department and he directed me to a man sitting on a plastic chair next to the tuck shop. He looked sick, or just getting well; his feet were swollen and chapped, and the shrunken skin around his neck peeled leisurely. He was using the telephone, taking his time to crack jokes, while the woman inside the shop was eager to terminate the call. Frustrated, she snatched the handset from him, forcing him to resort to the Starcomm line. He was now desperate to end the conversation. When I narrated what had brought me, he eyed my handset covetously. I tightened my grip on the telephone. But he did not delay in informing me that I was at the wrong place.

“It was in the median, right? In that case, it was in the jurisdiction of Iju-Ifako Local Government. Had it been on the right side of the road, then it will be our case.”

I wanted to say that the feet were pointing to the right side of the road, but my teeth bit the lower lip.

“Go to Iju-Ifako LG,” he said. “It’s their business. When the thing starts to smell, they will act. Their SEMU will handle it.”

“Their what?”

“SEMU. State Environmental Monitoring Unit.”

That was new. Lagos and its endless proliferation of acronyms. LAWMA. LASTMA. MOT. PSP. NAPEP. This fascination with bureaucracies and capital letters.

The headquarters of Iju-Ifako council were off Iju Road, further down the same stretch. I got on another taxi, my reason for leaving home completely forgotten. My time budget was in serious deficit. The SEMU was not at the council proper, but in another place, on College Road, several blocks away. The security man who had volunteered this information was also detailed in his descriptions, like the female officer at Elere, and I found the place just as I was about to give up. I was directed to a man sitting under a tree on a side-street, dressed in the white and khaki of Lagos health officials, eating peanuts and drinking La Casera. He offered me the bag of groundnuts. Declining just as graciously, I repeated the same story I had told at least four times in the past two hours.

Nodding as I spoke, Mr. X (he was the first person I had heard addressed by name all day) took a pen and began to draw a diagram on a sheet of paper that came out of his breast-pocket. He was concerned to know where precisely I had found the body. In his hand, which betrayed a rudimentary familiarity with technical drawing, the structural details of Old Agege Motor Road stood out, a possible model for a future road resurfacing project. But it came down to the same thing: the fact that the body lay in the median. By a rather curious logic, the median – that strip of earth separating the two sides of a dual carriageway – had become a no-man’s-land, a free state for which only the next person was responsible. Mr. X elegantly marked the spot in the median with a rough sketch of what could be the corpse. Then he turned to me and said that that spot, contrary to what I had been told at Agege, really belonged to Ijaye-Ojokoro Local Government. There was nothing in it for him. What he could do, what he would do, was to telephone his SEMU colleagues at that council and inform them about the case. I could go home; he would handle the rest.

I was tired. I had left home at ten in the morning. It was now close to two. I had not had my breakfast. I had not even solved the problem that had brought me out. I had learnt something, though: in all this buck-passing, this staggering indifference, it struck me that some structures existed to respond to the scandalous presence of human bodies on metropolitan streets. These structures were inefficient, to be sure, but they existed.

Later, at eight that night, on my way to another part of Lagos, I made a deliberate detour at PEN Cinema to test out Mr. X’s promise. The body was still there.

 

 

“A Corpse And Its Jurisdiction” was first CHRONIC ISSUE 2published in Chronic Books, the literary supplement to our pan African quarterly, the Chronic.

To read other letters and articles, including artist Dave McKenzie‘s letter from New York and Fiston Nasser Mwanza‘s letter from Kinshasa, as well as a wide range of more stories order a copy from our online shop (print or PDF) or visit your nearest stockists.

Akin Adesokan is the author of Roots in the Sky, a novel, and a collection of essays, Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. He is a contributing editor of Chimurenga.

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