By Chinelo Eze
In the bustling metropolis of Lagos, you cannot escape the sight of faces etched with scars, chipped teeth, and an air of menace. They are street touts, often referred to as ‘agberos’. These individuals have earned a notorious reputation for intimidating passengers, terrorising neighbourhoods and collecting unofficial taxes.
The tales of their actions are often recounted by the average Lagosian, who has either had a personal encounter with an ‘agbero’ or witnessed their bullying on the city’s streets.
However, beyond the stereotypes, there are untold stories of these ‘agberos’ — stories that shed light on the dire circumstances that lead many to take up this role. How did these individuals find themselves in such roles, often deemed unworthy by society?
This cover story delves into the lives of these ‘agberos’ under the umbrella of the National Road Transport Union of Nigeria (NURTW) and uncovers harsh realities of Nigeria’s youth unemployment crisis, offering a unique perspective on their struggles and the complex factors that drive them into this profession.
The Unseen Faces of Agberos
To many Lagosians, ‘agberos’ are often perceived as criminals or thugs who wreak havoc on the streets. Yet, behind these fearsome appearances are stories of individuals who never dreamt of becoming ‘agberos’ but found themselves at this crossroads due to circumstances beyond their control.
Under the numerous bridges of Lagos, we encounter Olatubosun, not his real name, a trained artisan, who shares his quest for financial stability. As a trained artisan, he described his journey into the world of ‘agberos’ as a quest for financial growth. He recounts the challenges faced by artisans in a country where instability is the norm.
“The status of the country is not helping any artisan. Today, I will have money, tomorrow you will face another problem, and because the government is not helping the situation, it exposes us to pick up cheap work that we struggle with just to survive,” he explains.
Olatubosun’s story is a stark reminder of the harsh realities faced by many young Nigerians who, like him, aspired to lead a life of financial stability and independence but found themselves grappling with economic uncertainties.
Despite his secondary school education, he sought to combine his studies with a welding apprenticeship, hoping to achieve financial stability and provide for his loved ones.
However, after eight to 10 years of welding, traveling across states for various manual jobs, he found himself facing a financial dead-end. The unpredictability of work and the constant threat of task forces and local government demands left him with meager earnings, leading to frustration and a constant struggle for survival.
Struggles Of The Unemployed Youth
Youth unemployment is a severe issue in Nigeria, where an increasing number of young individuals are seeking stable employment. According to data from 2022, Nigeria’s youth unemployment rate is a staggering 53 per cent, making it the second-highest in the world. These statistics are deeply troubling and expose the stark realities of Nigerian youth who are caught in the throes of an unforgiving job market.
Ola’s experience paints a poignant picture of these challenges. He narrates his struggle to establish himself in a career that would allow him to support his family and fulfill his dreams. However, the economic uncertainties and limited opportunities in Nigeria left him disillusioned.
“If you cannot fight for yourself by any means in this country, you will end up as nothing, and people around you will benefit,” he laments. Ola’s story highlights the lack of support systems and the uphill battle faced by young Nigerians in their pursuit of financial independence.
The Harsh Realities Of Council Work
In his pursuit of financial stability, Olatubosun transitioned to council work, believing it would offer a more reliable source of income. However, he soon discovered that council work had its own set of challenges. He found himself breaking chairs belonging to shop owners, exacerbating their problems. This labour-intensive work came without a salary or substantial income, leaving Olatubosun to wonder about the point of it all.
On a good day, they might earn a paltry 2,000 to 3,000 Naira, a sum that hardly justified the stress and effort involved.
“You find out you are creating a problem to the environment and you yourself your problem is not yet solved and you are going around creating another problem and we don’t have a choice when they tell us to go and scatter people shop and you don’t have a choice because you want to survive and no salary, nothing just that if you need two thousand we have to call them,” he says.
Becoming An ‘Agbero’: A Last Resort
For Olatubosun, like many others, the decision in 2022 to become an ‘agbero’ was not one made willingly. The promise of better income and daily allowances, ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 Naira, depending on one’s hustling skills, became an appealing option.
The meagre income from his welding job failed to make a significant impact on his life. Paid just 700 to 1,000 naira for a day’s work, he began to consider alternative means of survival.
“I decided to join because of the little money I was getting from being an Agbero,” he admits. “I have tried to survive in different means but I have found out that in this country If you can’t try to create a means of survival for yourself to be able to raise the little you can, there will be nobody to help. You need to do your own thing not minding anybody, just do your own because the country isnt helping anybody.”
Olatubosun, however, acknowledges the challenges of being an Agbero. The work carries a stigma that often overshadows the financial gains. “I found it difficult to even tell my mother because when she knew about it, she cried and gave lots of advice, but won’t I eat ?” he asks, “it’s not easy; man just need to eat, Sallah comes I can’t go to greet my mother, Newyear comes the same thing all because of the status where there is no helper in the family that you can ask for five thousand Naira. Except my colleagues come together and make contributions.”
The foundation of the profession lacks comfort, and public perception can be harsh. Nevertheless, Olatubosun persists, finding solace in having control over his source of income and the freedom to be his own boss.
Ola’s story sheds light on how unemployment and desperation can lead individuals down paths they had never imagined. The lure of daily earnings, albeit meager, became a means to feed himself and assist those around him.
Chinonye, a transport worker and a member of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), says he initially aspired to be a businessperson selling spare parts. However, economic difficulties in the country forced him to explore alternative avenues. He entered the world of ‘agberos’ and found it to be more financially rewarding than his previous spare parts business.
Despite the challenges he faces on the street, including confrontations with task forces and the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA), Chinonye does not see himself leaving the job soon. He believes that the NURTW has curbed the involvement of hoodlums and touts, making the environment safer and more organised.
Chinonye encourages people to invest in buses and start their businesses, which, in turn, benefits him. His journey demonstrates the interconnectedness of opportunities within the NURTW, providing a sense of financial stability.
45-year-old Baba Aliyah, also known as Aliu, is a father of four children who previously held a slow-paced job. Dissatisfied with the financial returns, he found himself turning to the life of an ‘agbero’. His journey of five years in this profession has been financially rewarding, with daily earnings ranging from three to five thousand Naira daily.
Aliu’s story reflects the determination of individuals like him who have found financial stability in an unconventional profession. His aspirations for his family and his ability to meet their needs drive his dedication to the work.
At 25 years old, Mohammed, an aspiring footballer, shares his journey as an ‘agbero’, a role that his family remains unaware of. He transitioned from a printing job to become an ‘agbero’, emphasising the benefits provided by the NURTW. However, he said: “I would like to become a footballer and the work before used to be sweet it’s just the fuel problem that is making things very bad.”
A Complex Portrait of Agberos
The stories of Olatubosun and others offer a complex perspective on Agberos. Behind the intimidating appearances and the stereotypical portrayal of ‘agberos’ as “born throways” are young individuals who once had dreams, hopes, and aspirations. Their journeys into this profession are fraught with challenges and reflect the broader issue of youth unemployment in Nigeria.
In a society that often dismisses ‘agberos’ as mere nuisances, it is essential to recognise that these individuals are products of their environment, shaped by the harsh realities of a country grappling with unemployment and economic instability. Their stories reflect the larger crisis of youth unemployment in Nigeria and the urgent need for comprehensive solutions that empower the country’s young population, rather than forcing them into the margins of society. These untold stories provide a poignant reminder of the untapped potential that could drive the nation’s progress and prosperity if given the opportunity.
The stories of Olatubosun, Chinonye, Aliu, and Mohammed shed light on the untold narratives of ‘agberos’ in Lagos before adopting this path. In a city where the pursuit of financial security can be an arduous journey, their lives were filled with prospects, and many had families to care for. Now, they find themselves in the unique world of ‘agberos’, a world few fully understand however, offering a semblance of stability.
These stories of Lagos’ ‘agberos’ serve as a testament to the complexity of human lives and the multifaceted nature of survival in an ever-evolving urban landscape.