Monday, April 22, 2019

Vulnerability and the art of conversation: Between a SARS arrest and a street fight

Vulnerability and the art of conversation: Between a SARS arrest and a street fight
July 23
08:34 2018


Lagos is often depicted as a lawless city of faceless crimes on the front pages. And don’t get me wrong, Lagos is scary. But that’s because everything is transactional, so everyday interactions seem to be plagued with the potential for gain and the fear of loss.

What the news won’t tell you is that the possibility of getting in an unsavoury situation because someone tried to outsmart you is likelier than the chance of actually randomly walking into a street-corner scam. Recently, aggression on innocent citizens by the Special Anti-Robbery Response Squad (SARS) has increased the city’s general anxiety and insecurity. But any SARS survivor knows these men are simply everyday Nigerians outsmarting other everyday Nigerians.

To avoid understating SARS’ advantage of force without consequence, seeing a group of men in black shirts takes me back to being slapped, punched in the gut and shoved in the back of the van with the butt of a gun. But I also know that initial brutishness is a scare tactic. The real crime is a negotiation of freedom.

“You better just cooperate”

The aggressive loudmouth who assaulted me had the street smarts script, his partner— a calmer officer with only occasional outbursts —said these words with empathy. During my arrest, the loudmouth entertained my initial protests the most because he knew I would try desperately to talk my way out of my predicament. Every problem he found with my backstory—no matter how ridiculous—became statements against me in the jungle court of SARS. If I pushed my luck by trying to corner him into acknowledging the legal or jurisdictional contradictions, his response was a daunting slap(I stopped counting on the second). Pain and the threat of it became the language of our conversation.

“Once we leave this place, we’re going to our station to detain you. Better tell us the truth”

From past experience dealing with Nigerian police officers, I know most of them will never initiate bribery until you ask: “What do you want me to do?”. In a SARS arrest, this dilemma is the metaphor of dead man and the noose. The dead man can either accept his destiny or die painfully; the skin around his neck swelling from bruising, as he dangles in a frenzy until the last breath escapes his flailing body. In my case, the calmer officer who I thought my ally, was the one who wisely offered me this option of truth in exchange for leniency—even as he turned a blind eye to the abuse his partner meted on me with no actual criminal charge. Amidst panic and unprocessed emotions, I had to decide if I wanted to follow these dangerous men to whatever pit of hell they came from or open a bargaining session.

“When he [the loudmouth] comes back, just talk to him”

After my assailants grew tired from trying to rope me into an argument, I regained some composure and grew impatient. Before I was nicked by SARS, I’d actually taken a break from writing to buy the best puff-puff in the area, so I was more upset than shocked. Before now, I had heard tales of people who didn’t go down without a fight, who dared to stand up to SARS until the men eventually gave up what I call the “waiting game”. The waiting game is the first sign you can now deal. Instead of taking me to a police station, we cruised around the neighbourhood, harassing passers-by and other motorists. Eventually, we pulled up near a local gin shack on a street with light foot-traffic. The van emptied out, and I was left with the calmer officer who was designated to keep me from running away. As soon as we were alone, he began convincing me to ‘talk’ to his colleague.


I witnessed a moment of casual Lagosian horror while sitting in traffic one day. Two men—one a conductor, the other a young passenger—squared off by a bus park, one wrangling the other by his collar over N50. A police officer on the scene is morosely watching the shoving contest. His presence inspired no restraint in the fighters, who perhaps, already sensed a street brawl was probably out of his depths. Eventually, the policeman joins the testosterone-fueled shouting contest, as the fighters locked grips, threatening blood flow as a small crowd began to encircle the free entertainment. The atmosphere got hotter. All seemed destined for escalation until driver from another bus approached the commotion with a raised whip. An instant calm followed. The policeman returned to his stance, the fighters released each other and began exchanging only verbal insults.

As the green light took the snapshot from view, I had questions about the whip and the fighting men. Whips are symbolic to the black man for a lot of reasons ranging from parenting to slavery. But something fundamentally human happened to the fighters as the whip flew backwards in the air: the sudden presence of vulnerability in the threat of pain made words meaningless.

In a street fight, the big talker is assumed as the weaker/offended party, because it’s unlikely the recipient of his verbal attacks doesn’t know why he’s been riled up. Chances are, the big talker is fighting a losing battle against the calmer, seemingly reasonable one. For Mr Reasonable, not allowing the big talker have his way is a matter of principle: it would mean giving in to someone who has disrespected him. Luckily, the big talker’s preemptive offensive is a counteractive measure to lure his transgressor into letting his guard down. Once he successfully gets his opponent on the defensive, punches can now land until a resolution is achieved.

We are complex beings who weaponise pride to mask our vulnerabilities because truly, bare soul honesty can lead to dastardly consequences. Modes of assimilation and self-expression are guided by wants, insecurities and adopted attitudes that make up our personalities. So it’s plausible for anyone to unwittingly become a master manipulator by merely giving in to impulses.

In spite of my SARS experience the hard lesson from the past few weeks is that the most productive conversations are an interaction of vulnerabilities. The calm SARS officer who eventually helped negotiate my release with his mates was part of a long con that resolved at uniformed men asking an innocent citizen for money they did nothing to earn. On the flipside, if the SARS officers had randomly stopped me in the street for money with no force or threat of arrest, I would have walked right past them.

Good communication is key but because it gives room for context as long as all parties involved can listen, ask questions and work within responses—without preset expectations, bias or agendas. Since we are prewired to filter everything through our internal processes, people who can predict how we internalise the world (even subconsciously)” will always have the upper hand. But anyone who has ever had an “I like you” thrown on their laps from an unexpected person knows we have no control over how people react to having emotions dumped at their doorstep. Cassanovas, cast wide nets across the lot to reduce error margins, because simply saying how you feel doesn’t always bring positive results.

To improve our everyday interactions, we need to learn patience in conversations and let go of the temptation to error-control reactions. Surrendering our hearts to the unknown that comes with opening up should never be manipulation presented as self-preservation, that’s just bullying.


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