Photo from Flickr.
In Lagos, Nigeria, where legendary traffic regularly clogs the city’s arteries, street children, in small groups and sometimes as old as teenagers, regularly knock on bus windows, demanding payment. Escape is impossible. The Area Boys, some of them with eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep and drug use, some of them clad in ill-fitting uniforms and masquerading as phantom police officers, collect their money and are on their way.
Area Boys, or agberos, began in the 1980s as bands of bullies who roamed the central business district of Lagos. But the contraction of Nigeria’s labor market shrank after loans from the IMF and the World Bank became more difficult to get and unemployment swelled. Soon after, the boys, and girls, began to populate bus stops, major highways and markets. By the mid-90s, they had become ubiquitous throughout Nigeria’s most populous city.
Landlords often co-opt groups to prey on Igbo merchants. Accusations abound that Area Boys often work for local State Governors, besieging vehicles that have broken down or waylaying unsuspecting customers and demanding money. Area Boys have been known to guide vehicles safely through Lagos’s potholed streets as well as wash windows. But more often than not, there is only the demand for money with no services offered.
Few are proud to be Area Boys, and many often find themselves on those street corners or knocking on car windows due to financial hardship. Their parents are unable to pay their secondary school tuition or they have been expelled. Shame keeps them from returning home, and they eventually find themselves in the employ of an Area Father. These leaders, almost always men rising from the largely, though not exclusively, male pool of their generation’s Area Boys, function as the head of the Area Boys in their locality and a conduit between the Area Boys and local politicians.
In the 90s, then-Colonel Mohammed Buba Marwa instituted the Direct Labour Agency, which employed the Area Boys in state infrastructure projects to repair roads and clear drains, with a zero-tolerance program that soon after quieted the pervasive threat to public and personal safety the Area Boys posed. However, subsequent administrations, for reasons of cheap politics and others unfathomable to citizens, dismantled the rehabilitative DLA, offering nothing to replace it.
Youth unemployment across the country brings more and more young people from rural areas into Lagos. Worry looms large that Area Boys have become a potential tool for local government, and that it is only a matter of time before those political paymasters focus their lawlessness towards increasingly distinct targets of sectarian violence.