Area Boys -- a growing menace on the streets of Lagos

After buying a new television in a popular market in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos, Ade Ojelabi was wending his way home when four unkempt young men suddenly surrounded his taxi.

“You will have to pay money for the ground,” growled one of the youths, with bloodshot eyes, leaning in at the window where Ojelabi sat.

“Otherwise I will stab you in the eye,” barked another with yellowing teeth from the opposite side of the car, as he brandished a large screwdriver.

With the car stuck fast in traffic that clogs Lagos' streets on a daily basis, a speedy escape was not an option.

As passers-by watched from a safe distance, fearful of intervening, the taxi driver advised Ojelabi that he would have to part with some cash.

His initial offer of 200 naira (US $1.5) was rejected. But when he increased it to 500 naira (US $3.7), the youths grabbed the banknotes and went on their way.

“More blessings to you!” they said, smiling as they scarpered off.

“May your son never be like us,” one of them added.

Ojelabi's ordeal is one played out every day on the streets of Lagos.

For the past two decades, the 13 million residents of Nigeria's biggest city have run the gauntlet of several thousand delinquent youths who roam the streets extorting money.

Known as Area Boys -- although a few are female -- they sprang up in the early 1980s.

To begin with they were just small bands of bullies who roamed the slums adjoining the central business district. But since then their numbers have burgeoned, fed by the steady flood of unemployed people that migrates constantly into Lagos from elsewhere in the country.

Daylight robbery

The Area Boys are now rampant all over the city. Their favourite hangouts are bus stops, major highways and markets.

In broad daylight, they levy tolls on bus drivers, they demand bribes from market women wanting to set up stalls for the day, they patrol potential car-parking spaces and demand illegal fees from shoppers. They even threaten ordinary passer-bys, demanding "donations".

A study by the Nigerian branch of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime blamed their emergence on the “complex dynamics of socio-economic deprivation” that confronts young people in cities.

While other Nigerian cities have their own hoodlums, there is nothing as brazen or ubiquitous as the Area Boys of Lagos.

“The coercive and persuasive requests, petty crimes and sometimes-violent offences by the Area Boys to acquire resources, generally cash in the urban main business and crowded areas, has disturbed the civil society and defied the civic authority,” the 2002 UN report said.

Wale Adenaike, a self-confessed Area Boy, told IRIN how he had dropped out of secondary school at 16 after his father could no longer pay his fees. Swapping the classroom for the streets, the youngster quickly became addicted to drugs.

Now aged 25, he makes his living by claiming ownership of a space by a road junction in the central business district of Lagos and charging motorists to leave their cars there.

“Otherwise, I make a living out of trouble,” he said nonchalantly.

Adenaike went on to explain that he and his friends were also available to be hired as thugs and for “other odd jobs”.

This is something that worries the authorities who see the Area Boys as a pool of troublemakers ready to be recruited for the bouts of ethnic, religious and political violence that intermittently erupt in Lagos.

Past governments have made various attempts to get the Area Boys off the streets and rehabilitate them by teaching them artisan skills and trades.

Cleaning up the city

General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria's military ruler from 1985 to 1993, established a People's Bank, which extended micro-credits to many street boys and girls to help them start small businesses.

However, there was not enough money to go round. And many of those who benefited from the handouts simply returned to the streets when People’s Bank collapsed in the late 1990s.

Now Bola Tinubu, the governor of Lagos State since the return of democracy in 1999, has designed a new scheme to rid the city of the Area Boy scourge.

He has set up a skills training centre at Ita Oko, a disused island prison in Lagos lagoon, to the east of the city.

Area Boys will be taken there for six months of training, and will receive a certificate and a job placement at the end of it.

“We cannot continue to give them fish. We have decided to teach them how to catch fish,” Tinubu said during a recent visit to the training centre.

But he added sternly that all those who reject the offer of rehabilitation “must be ready to leave Lagos”.

Adenaike, the self-proclaimed Area Boy, said he would relish the chance to get on a rehabilitation programme that would help wean him off drugs, teach him some skills and give him the chance of a new life.

The scheme is due to be launched soon, but until then Adenaike must wait. So too must the citizens of Lagos who continue to suffer daily harassment.

In May, a group of Area Boys attacked and stabbed a soldier in the Oshodi district of Lagos after he challenged them for trying to extort money from a bus driver.

Raids and rights concerns

This attack prompted a series of reprisal raids by troops in different parts of the city over a two-week period. According to reports by eyewitnesses and local newspapers, dozens of Area Boys were killed in the crackdown. And more than 200 street boys arrested by the soldiers were handed over to the police.

For several weeks afterwards the Area Boys were noticeably absent from the streets. Market women and bus drivers staged public rallies in support of the soldiers.

Riding on the crest of a wave of apparent public approval, the police launched further raids and made more arrests.

“We can’t allow the Area Boys to continue being a nuisance to the public and harassing innocent citizens,” Ade Ajakaiye, the city's police commissioner, told reporters in June.

Human rights activists are not only worried about the soldiers’ heavy-handed tactics. They are also convinced that the recent crackdown by the security forces will only provide a temporary respite.

Already the local media is reporting a gradual return of the Area Boys to their streets, where they are resuming their old habits.

“From our perspective the military intervention did not follow due process,” said Joseph Amenaghawon of Social and Economic Rights Action (SERAC), a local non-governmental organisation.

“When soldiers feel threatened by the actions of civilians, they should not take the law into their hands but should lodge complaints with the police," he told IRIN.

Amenaghawon blamed the activities of the Area Boys on decades of misrule by a succession of military and civilian governments.

Although Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, more than two-thirds of its estimated 126 million people live below the poverty line.

“Area Boys are part of the offshoots of underlying problems,” said Amenaghawon. “If there is a real policy for dealing with youth unemployment, Area Boys will fizzle out over time. If not they will only multiply.”