On the morning of the 7th of May, 2018, Muri was pronounced dead by a doctor at the emergency ward of the Lagos Island General Hospital. He was forty-nine.
He was survived by his frail mother, whom no one was brave enough to tell. Alhaja just knew, somehow, that her son had died. He was survived by two siblings – an older brother and sister, who were secretly relieved it was over.
Before his death, Muri lived in his mother’s small apartment in a busy corner of Lagos Island – a single room where everything was aged or ageing poorly. The only natural light source was through the domot – a screen door attached to an old door that creaked at the slightest disturbance.
Everything in this room doubled as storage for old bags and broken things. Under the king-sized bed, on top of the shelf which hung above the bed. To the right stood an old fridge that had seen more use as a cupboard than as cooling storage. In the other corner, a chair dressed in heaps of clothes Alhaja couldn’t find a bag for.
There was barely enough standing room for three people at once in the room, and the ceiling fan hanging above, heavy with dust, spun so close to the bulb that the room got only minor interruptions of light.
The dim lighting was why the morning Alhaja heard the loud thud that jolted her awake, she couldn’t tell what had happened. But the sound had been loud enough for a neighbour, who thought Alhaja had fallen, to come hurrying. Through the screen door, she found Muri’s body contorted on the floor.
Muri had suffered a stroke.
The compound they lived in had ten similar-sized apartments. A small gutter boarded with planks doubled as the only pathway through the compound ran from the communal bathroom to the main entrance. There, it joined a bigger channel on the street.
As Muri lay on the floor, limp on one part of his body, no one in the compound knew what to do. The neighbours had very few options regarding who to call. First, they’d barely seen Muri’s sister, Iya Muti, since her husband died months prior. The second option was Muri’s brother, Jamiu, but he lived on the outskirts of Lagos, several hours away. So they called the one person who’d left his number for everyone to reach for times like this – Bodun, Jamiu’s son.
A stroke happens when blood supply to the brain is interrupted or when the brain is bleeding. In a few minutes, brain cells start dying. The first few hours after a stroke is critical, and after four hours, the risk of disability climbs if treatment doesn’t begin. Every year, up to 200,000 people suffer strokes in Nigeria. 6 in 10 of them will die within the first six months.
From when Muri first hit the ground to when Bodun finally arrived, six hours had passed. But Muri, a fighter, wasn’t dead yet.
Bodun reached there just as the private ambulance service he’d called in advance arrived, and Muri was taken to the A&E ward of the Lagos Island General Hospital. There, Jamiu joined them.
A few hours later, Muri was in the back of an ambulance again, heading to a lab to have multiple tests carried out – the doctors had other concerns.
After the tests and as they rode back to the hospital, the driver whispered to Jamiu, “Sir, whatever money the doctors tell you to spend on medicine, don’t bother.” Jamiu looked back at his brother and prayed silently, “Ọlọrun, bámi fi Ikú bó làṣírí.” God, please use death as a shroud for his secrets.
When the test results finally came, the doctors were looking at multiple organ failures. Muri was placed in intensive care. No one told Alhaja anything.
By the next day, Iya Muti’s kids were by his bedside. A few months prior, they were standing by this same bed, with their own ill father in it.
“When my sons told me he was on the same bed that my husband was,” Iya Muti told me, “I knew I was never going to visit that hospital. I couldn’t bear to go through what I went through with my husband first and then with my little brother.”
Her husband died less than two days after being admitted, and Muri had stood by his brother-in-law’s grave saying, inna lillahi, wa inna ilayhi raji'un. But Muri spent more than two days on that bed with his brother by his bedside.
At the Accident and Emergency ward of a general hospital, there’s hardly ever any place to sit, not to talk of sleep. So Jamiu walked around when he got tired of standing. He pounced on it whenever there was a free seat and rested his head on the wall for a quick nap. But when someone came in with an emergency – a broken arm here, a knife in the stomach there, he’d take a walk.
Jamiu emptied Muri’s catheter every time it filled with brown piss. Then, when Muri’s mouth filled with spit, Jamiu wiped it with a towel so he wouldn’t choke on it.
By the third night at the hospital, Jamiu needed a real bed and a shower, so he paid an overnight cleaner to check on Muri every few minutes.
When Jamiu returned early the following day, Muri’s body was in the mortuary. That evening, Muri was buried at the Sura Cemetery, a few tombstones from his brother-in-law. Everyone who stood by his grave said inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.
Muri was about 5’7, slouched and skinny. Burn scars ran from the right side of his face down his neck.
When he was alive, Muri started most mornings to the sound of the Muaddhin calling to prayer just before dawn. At the mosque, he stood toe to toe and shoulder to shoulder, with other people present. Finally, he’d finish his salah, first with a greeting to Allah, then to the people to his left and right.
His next stop was a small corner close to the mosque, where he'd pay homage to grass, gin and Rothmans’.
“A few months before he died,” Jamiu said, “I went to see Alhaja, and I saw Muri just sitting on the floor outside. I don’t know whether he drank scoochies or smoked, but he was drooling from one side of his mouth. He was also trying to eat, but he couldn’t lift the spoon in his hand to his mouth.”
Jamiu saw him like this often, too high to walk or eat, almost vegetative. Some days, he was violent. The last time anyone remembers him losing control, he turned on the most constant presence in his life, his mother. No one knows what led to it, but on the last night of Ramadan in 2017, he broke a bottle on her head.
By the time Bodun reached the apartment to take Alhaja to a hospital, a neighbourhood mob had descended on Muri. Bodun found him on the ground, still surrounded by a few men. A cut above his right eye had flooded his face with blood, and his left eye had been punched shut. Muri just sat there, unmoved.
Muri’s siblings believed that he was the overindulged lastborn.
“When we were children,” Muri’s sister, Iya Muti said, “Jamiu and I went to live with our aunty. Muri was the only one who grew up with Alhaja. He grew up like an only child.”
Every night before the bottle incident, Alhaja made sure of one thing; every time Muri returned home, whenever he returned home, there was always soup at home for Rice or Eba. She also never locked the aged door.
Whenever her other kids complained, she’d say, “But I’m his mother,” in an accent that reminded you of Ileya in Ijebu. A mother loves her child and hopes for the best.
This sense of hope sent her to Ijebu in search of a wife for her son in 2007. Alhaja thought, perhaps, a marriage would bring a sense of responsibility into Muri’s life. She found him a wife, but nothing from the marriage lasted. Not the child Muri’s wife bore, who died a few hours after he was born. Not the marriage itself, because she left soon after her baby passed.
Even before the marriage attempt, that hope also made Alhaja, with the support of Jamiu and Iya Muti, buy an okada for Muri in 2001. Then, perhaps, earning a livelihood would give him a sense of stability. But, one day, a few weeks after he got the okada, he didn't return home with it. This okada episode didn’t surprise Jamiu.
“After he came back from Ikoyi Prison in 1999,” Jamiu said, “I knew he’d reached his point of no return. It was inside that prison that he started taking everything without control.”
Ikoyi Prison was the first time Muri had access to drugs he could afford with zero consequences. No brother or sister to disappoint. No mother to be heartbroken.
In 2019, the prison officer-in-charge made it clear that 83% of 2,937 inmates held at the prison were awaiting trial. Overpopulation makes for a perfect breeding ground for the spread of diseases, competition for fewer resources, and perhaps worst of all, an incubation chamber for new vices.
Muri’s journey to Ikoyi Prison began when he was 22 in 1991, at the Muritala Muhammad International Airport.
He’d gotten an American hospital invitation to receive free treatment for his burns after multiple letters and pleas.
“We were all so happy and hopeful,” Iya Muti said. “Because of his injury, he was always in and out of hospitals for treatment and didn’t have much else happening with him.” So the family raised money for Muri’s flight ticket to get treatment abroad. But Muri had other plans.
It wasn't uncommon to find Muri wrapped in bandages in 1991, but on the day he was to fly to the US, he was covered in more bandages than usual, which wasn’t much of a problem for the Nigerian airport security.
“At first, we didn’t hear from Muri when he reached America,” Iya Muti said. “Our family in the US who was going to receive him also couldn’t confirm he’d arrived.” That’s when the worrying began.
“In that time when we couldn’t reach him, Alhaja had a dream,” she said. “In the dream, as she handed Muri his passport, it fell inside water and got destroyed.”
It took finding a friend of a friend at the Nigerian Embassy to learn about Muri’s fate: while he’d successfully left Nigeria without incident, Muri never left the airport in the US – not as a free man at least.
Underneath his bandages, wrapped tightly around his torso, were kilos of cocaine.
“We tried to understand what was happening, looked for who to blame,” Iya Muti said. “The person he was going to deliver the drugs to, we heard that he got killed in a raid.”
He spent the next three years in an American prison, never getting the treatment that made him travel in the first place. By early 1995, he was deported to Nigeria in the back of a plane and received by the rough hands of the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA.
Muri spent the next nine months at an NDLEA-run detention centre at their no-visitors-allowed head office in Ikoyi. Then, finally, some respite came for him when, for some extra cash pressed into the palm of an officer, his brother was allowed to visit him between 11 pm and 1 am, the only time they were guaranteed that the senior, stricter officers wouldn't show up.
Until the officers did, a few weeks later.
“The night the NDLEA chairman Bamaiyi came, we hid in a gutter,” Jamiu laughed, “and we crawled on all fours to an adjacent street before jumping out and taking off. The visitors Bamaiyi caught that night spent the next month in detention with the people they came to visit.”
Cocaine made its big entry into the Nigerian zeitgeist in the eighties. In 2020, an Uber driver told me about his days working at the international airport in those years. “People used to tell us that they were carrying amala flour abroad,” he said. “They said they didn’t like Oyinbo food.”
They thought nothing of it “until Idiagbon opened our eyes.” On behalf of his commander-in-chief, Tunde Idiagbon showed up at the airport to give the staff a short speech about the ‘amala flour’. Idiagbon was General Muhammadu Buhari’s second-in-command and Chief of Staff from the New Year’s Eve coup in 1983 till a Babangida-led coup ousted their government in August 1985.
In a 2012 interview with Ifreke Inyang, Buhari said about cocaine, “Wee-wee (weed) is planted here, but the hard drug, cocaine, most Nigerians don’t know what cocaine is. They (traffickers) just made Nigeria a transit point, and these people did it just to make money.”
Buhari’s justification for the crackdown was that “this drug is so potent that it destroys people, especially intelligent people.”
The government’s response to the cocaine deluge was capital punishment by way of Decree 20. One Wednesday in 1985, outside the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, an airport worker and two other men faced a firing squad of six men.
The airport worker, Bartholomew Azubike Owoh, 26, smiled and said a prayer as the bullets plucked life out of him violently. Bartholomew was survived by a heartbroken family, one of them, Nkem Owoh aka Osuofia, one of the most iconic Nollywood actors of the last 30 years.
Decree 20 was supposed to be a deterrent, but it turns out that when you execute people for a drug that makes people high or supposedly rich or both, you build attention. People who didn’t know what cocaine was at the time now knew about the white powder that got people shot at Kirikiri.
Mukaila Ojuloge, a man relatively famous in the commerce-heavy Oke Arin corner of Lagos Island where his father had sold meat, and his mother ran a small shop, was one of the people executed by the decree.
Muri was a teenager who spent a lot of his days in Oke Arin when Mukaila was killed. “I think he started picking up bad habits from the friends he was following in the area,” Iya Muti said.
At the time, Alhaja was the matriarch of their prosperous family business, a wholesale depot that connected stockfish from Iceland to willing eaters across Nigeria.
From the proceeds of this business, Muri found the cash to fund his new itch. “We’d count the money we made by the end of the day, only to find the money short and Muri nowhere to be found,” Jamiu said.
“On one particular day – this was in 1987 – I counted the money, and it wasn’t balancing. Ah, I was angry ehn. I just knew it was Muri.”
So, he went looking for Muri, and he knew exactly where to go: Woro Scott. An alley off Nnamdi Azikiwe Street, Woro Scott was a short walk from the then-to-be-completed Lagos Central Mosque.
There, for ₦5, you could get a punch; a rolled-up piece of paper about the size of a rizla with enough cocaine wrapped in it for one snort. Jamiu knew where to go because his old classmates from secondary school ran the darkest corners in that alley.
“I’m not the one that sold it to him o,” one of the dealers protested as Jamiu approached him, raging.
It didn’t take long to make out the face of a boy sitting on the ground, leaning against a wall in a dark corner; his baby brother. At 18, and even though he already smoked everything possible, cocaine was when Jamiu first felt like they’d completely lost control of Muri.
In October of that year, Pablo Escobar made his first appearance on the Forbes list. His 40% stake in the Medellin cartel, which controlled up to 80% of the global market, put his net worth at over $2 billion. A piece of this market was along West Africa’s coast, which quickly became a transit route for cocaine and heroin heading to Europe. It’s also how some of that cocaine ended up in Nigeria, in Lagos, in Oke Arin, for mules to carry and others to snort at Woro Scott.
“I thought it was just igbo,” Jamiu said. Cocaine wasn’t new to Jamiu, at least the knowledge of it. He’d attended the tribunal hearings of at least two people he knew personally.
“Every time people were caught carrying,” Jamiu said, “it shocked us because those who knew them weren’t told anything. So we just found out when they got arrested.”
Jamiu punctuates every sentence with “Muri was spoiled” or “Our mother didn’t let anyone discipline him or say harsh things to him.” Iya Muti agrees, but disagrees with how Jamiu expressed his reproach. “One time,” she said, “Jamiu was so angry that he picked up a stool and flung it at Muri. If Muri didn’t dodge, he would have ended up at the hospital that day.”
When I asked them about a time before this Muri, they agreed on one thing: January 1984, things changed when the burns happened.
Muri was a Form Three student when he had an accident in the chemistry lab. During a class on acids, someone didn’t place a reagent container properly, and before anyone could catch it, it fell off the shelf and spilt. When sulphuric acid spills on the skin, it dehydrates the skin cells, then destroys it like fire destroys flesh. What starts off feeling like a prick becomes a burn very quickly.
Risi, one of Muri’s friends, was in the splash line, and her arms got burned. Nureni, another friend of Muri’s, got burned on his arms and part of his back. But it was Muri, who was directly in the line of the splash, that had the most severe burns.
The acid got to the side of his face, his neck, and most of his torso.
“The only part of his body we could touch that wasn’t open flesh was his head,” Iya Muti said.
A few weeks later, Risi and Nureni were back at school, but Muri’s return would take longer. So, Alhaja brought him back to Lagos to get better care at the teaching hospital and spent all her time caring for Muri, leaving her children to worry about the family business.
She stayed by Muri’s bed every day, cleaning his shit, wiping his behind, and emptying his catheter whenever it filled with piss. With the help of nurses, she turned him gently several times a day to reduce the bedsores. She was there every time they had to change his bandages. She’d leave only to get food or other supplies.
“Every time I visited,” Jamiu said with a touch of affection, “he’d crack jokes. He never stopped cracking jokes.”
Muri spent all of that year in bed. His whole world was the hospital, medical staff, other patients, the occasional family visitors, and his mother. All he knew of the outside world came from hospital banter and the few times he could lay his hands on a radio.
Outside, 1984 was an eventful year in Nigeria. Major General Muhammadu Buhari had not only seized power from the civilian government but he also passed laws – decrees, in fact – that were a reflection of his regime’s goals. Decrees that punished everything that looked like a threat to state security, gave unlimitable power to the military to arrest and detain and made it legal to purge the civil service – 200,000 civil servants fired. That stifled press freedom. 1984 saw Fela get detained at the airport for alleged currency smuggling.
But 1984 was also a good year for football, with Nigeria reaching the Nations Cup final.
“We spent so much money in the hospital that year,” Iya Muti said, “that we started pleading for anyone to support us. We even wrote a plea to the government. Finally, one man came forward to help. Ah, all of us went to his house to thank him.”
Ajanaku, that’s what everyone called the man, was larger than life – socialite, community benefactor. When the family came to thank him for his generosity, he responded with “Ah, it’s nothing”. But it was, in fact, something.
“Remember that cocaine they caught Muri with,” Iya Muti sighed. “It was Ajanaku that gave him to carry all those years later.”
When Muri left the hospital at 16, he realised that life would never be the way it used to be. “It’s like because of the accident, he just suddenly became uninterested in everything,” Iya Muti said.
People look at the injured with pity or repulsion, and it’s worse when you’re a teenager. Muri wasn’t only burned on over two-thirds of his body, he’d also just lost a year of his life while the world outside kept going.
“It was a few months after he left the hospital I first saw him with weed,” Jamiu said.
Despite coming to terms with the great difficulty Muri experienced in the year of the burn, it was difficult for Muri’s brother and sister, now 59 and 61 respectively, to make sense of why he turned out the way he did. Jamiu couldn’t see past his drug life. Iya Muti couldn’t see much past his bad company. And for his ex-wife, no one knows where she is or cares.
The person who saw him from a larger perspective was his mother, the one who loved him through all of it. “Alhaja never really recovered from what happened to Muri,” Bodun said. Hearing his body drop in the dark, helpless as he lay there for hours, in and out of consciousness, waiting.
Seeing her other children return home without her son and knowing she’d never see him again – at least not on this side – something changed, but not rapidly in the way a thing breaks, but gradually in the way butter melts. Over the following year, after Muri died, she lost things. The first thing was her memory. She’d hold on to objects tightly when she tried to remember things as if the memory was this tangible thing trying to slip away. The next thing she lost was her sight – that one she lost utterly.
But it was when she lost her hearing that she started to disappear faster. Her body shrunk to over half of what it used to be in her days when she ran a flourishing business.
Alhaja’s caretaker, the one her family hired to care for her as her condition deteriorated, was the one who called this time after she’d died in the middle of 2019. That evening, she was buried on the piece of land she bought a few months before Muri’s accident.
“When you take out jewellery, it’s the last major asset she bought, and she never used it,” Jamiu said. She paid for the land and got a grave.
Bodun, too, saw Muri through a slightly wider lens.
“Muri didn’t die well,” he said pitifully. “But even with all his problems, the times that we spoke when his head was clear, you could feel like it was coming from a place of intelligence. The way he picked his words when he was calm and argued his points when he wasn’t asking you for some change.”
Muri was a bright man, but his life never really shone. Was it because of the trauma of the burns or the ensuing drug problems? Was it timing, because why did cocaine choose that year to show up at Woro Scott? Was it his recklessness? No one knows, but everyone agrees on this; whatever course was set for Muri before the lab accident had been changed forever.
Muri was born January 4, 1969. He wanted to be things that no one remembers. In January 1985, he had a lab accident. It’s like being 15, standing at the top of a flight of stairs, and one accident pushes you down. For the next 33 years, he rolls down these stairs. At the bottom of the stairs is his grave, and he fell into it on the 7th of May, 2018. Muri never found his footing.
I’m sitting in Iya Muti’s tiny living room in Lagos Island as she shares her memories of Muri. The sun is setting outside, a masquerade downstairs asks people for money politely, with a cane.
“I didn’t see my brother before he died,” Iya Muti said, “but after he died, I had a dream.”
It’s at a busy junction, somewhere in Lagos Island too, and the street is thick with a harmattan haze. Iya Muti can see Muri in the distance, and he looks lost.
“He started calling my name,” Iya Muti said as she got out of her chair and started pacing across her tiny living room. “But he couldn’t see me. And so, I hid. I just hid. I still don’t know what that dream means.”
Ruka for editing this through five drafts.
Mariam for the art direction.
The little 500-words-a-day Whatsapp group (feat. Ope, Hummer) that got the first draft out.
Esther for the fact-checking.
The over half-a-dozen people who I spoke to, and who also helped me with (mostly) early feedback for this. (feat. Hassan, Sunshine, Toheeb, Eruke, Samson)
Nana Banana, for allowing me stay up late (sometimes).
One more thing:
I’m actively considering publishing more frequently. It requires a lot of time and resources. So, I’m wondering if you’d be open to making me write more frequently. I’m talking twice a month at least.
Brilliant brilliant work! 👏🏾 And a beautiful ode to Muri and his mum. May their souls rest in peace, bi idhnillah.
Great writing made for a breezy read and packed punches of social commentary!!