The story I am about to tell you remains painful to recollect till this day. For as long as I can remember, Tokunbo has always been my best-friend. He lived in the magnificent house that looked just like a palace—right across from my home. Although he was 2 years older, we were together all the time. Then at about 8 years old he went to school in England but came home every summer and Christmas loaded with gifts for me. Tokunbo is the spitting image of his enterprising father. He knew since childhood that he wanted to be a businessman and make truckloads of money, just like his dad.
But his old man was also known for his unimpeachable integrity, being a devout Muslim. In character, Tokunbo was exactly like his dad too. That was why everyone trusted him, and he was able to raise the funds he needed for a business venture that an old classmate from his English boarding school had proposed to him. Tokunbo had respected Claude at Mayfield College and so about five years after they’d both graduated and relocated to Lagos, he’d been excited to receive a call from him to meet at his hotel. As a kid my dad would say Tokunbo was my man Friday in a teasing way. I guess we were partners in crime so to speak, that was why whenever something went down both our parents automatically assumed that the “other half” was involved too—we were like two peas in a pod.
Tokunbo, which is Yoruba for “hails from overseas” was excited when he told me about the business opportunity which his friend, Claude from abroad was offering him—it was a chance to literally make millions. Claude and his associates had over 100 million dollars’ worth of fragrances and electronics stuck at the Apapa wharf in Lagos. The catch—they had no money to clear them. If Claude could quickly raise the cash to release the goods he showed to Tokunbo at the port, he’d make a fortune from the merchants eagerly waiting to distribute the foreign brands.
Tokunbo saw an opportunity to get in on the business, by asking for a stake instead of simply lending Claude the 10,000 dollars he’d requested. Claude acceded on condition that Tokunbo’s stake in the business had to be about 500,000 dollars to get a share in the 100-million-dollar venture. This was the too good to be true offer my starry-eyed best-friend made to me. But I sniffed it out as a scam. I have never believed in easy money. I have never bought a lottery ticket, never played poker, and when I was given Powerball tickets at work, I immediately dumped them in the trash next to my desk.
I not only told my best friend that I did not want in on the deal, but also refused to lend him money for the venture. We both had uncles and friends we could borrow from for an important business opportunity. Thus, Tokunbo decided to tap into that network.
Tokunbo was driving and I was in the passenger seat while his cousin, Debo sat in the back. Tokunbo and I were supposed to be going to a party, but he told me he was going to make a quick dash running an errand for his cousin. As Debo and I chatted away, he revealed that he was going to an aunt’s place to borrow money for Tokunbo’s venture.
“Don’t do it,” I warned Debo. “Tokunbo’s friend is a con artist and he’s using him. Money does not come easily.”
“Oi, mind your own business will you!” My enraged best-friend remonstrated. But Debo listened to me, and asked Tokunbo to take him back home.
“Brother Tokunbo, Rotimi is right. I don’t have a good feeling about this. Besides, if something goes wrong, mommy will kill me.”
“What? See what you’ve done? Get out of my car. I’m taking you back home,” exploded Tokunbo in frustration.
It was one of our fights, but he was back at my place again and we were inseparable painting Lagos red as usual. But as time went on, I saw less of my best-friend.
“She’s the most gorgeous girl in the world. We’ve been going out. But she’s playing hard to get.” Tokunbo explained that he was spending time trying to woo a girl he’d fallen for and that was why I hardly saw him anymore. I was busy studying for exams anyway, since I was getting ready for university in America.
Then one day, my neighbor asked me if I’d seen Tokunbo. He wanted to know when next he’d be around. And then with a worried look on his face, he asked, “Do you trust Tokunbo?”
“Absolutely. What sort of question is that?” I replied in surprise.
“Could he be into 419?” Kola asked.
Kola owned one of the most successful catering businesses in Lagos. His was a cash business. “419” is slang for advance-fee fraud and the number refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code criminalizing fraud scams. Kola informed me that he had loaned Tokunbo a huge sum of money. He trusted Tokunbo because he was my friend and he promised him 60 percent return on the loan. Now Kola wanted me to take him to his house because he had not heard from him for a while. This was about four months after my row with Tokunbo, warning him that he was falling for a scam. But Tokunbo had told me then that he’d known this dude throughout secondary school in the U.K. and he was well respected in school.
Tokunbo asked me to come to the back of their house when I arrived. Kola had waited at the gate but I was asked to tell him to leave. As I approached my best-friend whose back was turned to me with his arms raised up, hands wrapping his dazed head, he jumped suddenly, terrified out of his wits when he heard the sound of the gravel under my footsteps.
“I’m in deep shit!” Tokunbo whispered as if scared someone would hear us in his secluded curtilage. I try to calm my best-friend down. I had never seen him look so confused, terrified, or as shaken.
“I went to Claude’s hotel. He’s gone. The concierge said nobody by his name was ever there. They said he was never staying at the hotel. I’m dead Rotimi,” grimaced Tokunbo, water welling up in his eyes.
“Maybe he used another name. Ask for the person who stayed in his room.”
“I did. He was never staying at the hotel.”
“What do you mean? Didn’t you meet him at the hotel?” I inquired.
“We met at the restaurant of the hotel. Or at the club. I’m dead Rotimi. All the money is gone. Their money is gone.”
“What money? Whose? Kola’s?” I queried my best-friend.
Tokunbo’s security guard informed him that a car was parked in front of his gate and the occupants refused to leave. My friend is in tears, and his asthma is setting in—he needs his inhaler. He has not had an asthma attack since he was a kid. I go to the gate to see who it is. I know one of the guys. They belonged to a university cult in Lagos. It was not good. They leave me a message. They want their money by next week or else…
“Tokunbo how did you ask that guy for money? You know he’s in a cult!”
But Tokunbo is dazed on the ground just staring into space. I had never seen him like this.
“How much did you borrow?” I demanded.
Tokunbo’s dad would end up paying an aggregate of 400,000 U.S. dollars to the various people he had borrowed money from. Tokunbo was safe. His reputation and his family’s name were intact. But mine became dented in his parents’ eyes. His father who’d once shopped for matching clothes for Tokunbo and I—so we would appear like siblings—no longer wanted his son around me. Why?
As Tokunbo remained in a stupor, after his dad arrived I rushed in to tell him what had happened. Tokunbo came to, once he learned I’d told his dad.
“What the hell did you tell him for? I was going to handle it myself.” My revived best-friend snapped at me. “You have no idea what you’ve caused!” Raged Tokunbo.
I believed I had done the best thing informing his dad and letting the people who loved him the most get involved at a time, he looked desperate and vulnerable. I sincerely feared my friend whom I had never seen frightened, was getting ready to harm himself. Perhaps even taking his own life. For a person whose life had been scandal-free, owing 400,000 dollars in debt incurred from a scam was a lot. The damage to his reputation could shatter him, I surmised. And his reputation always meant everything to him.
About two weeks later Tokunbo’s dad summoned me. As I walked around to the side entrance cloistered along the granite pathway, for the last time I admired the corral embroidered wall that was the exterior of their domed mosque, which suspended the plaid fresco terrace built by an old Italian construction company. Tokunbo’s dad had class. I saw Tokunbo on the elevated balcony looking boisterous and playful again. He was back to his normal self.
“Oi bad boy what’s up?” His cheeky grin cracked his dark face once more. His siblings had all called him baba dudu—black man.
“What does your dad want to see me for?” Then he beams wider, grinning like a Cheshire cat, and folds over holding his tummy. He looks like Eddie Murphy when he can’t contain his mirth.
“You know what’s funny? He thinks you set the whole thing up!”
“What?” I ask grimly. “So, did you tell him I was never involved in this shady business?”
“I did, but he doesn’t believe me. He thinks you got into trouble borrowing all the money, and I am taking the fall and covering up for you because I am always saving your ass,” Tokunbo continues, while still laughing.
“You’re lying,” I reacted, hoping he was just being silly. But Tokunbo shook his head and walked back in. And moments later his dad came out in a blue kaftan.
“Rotimi, you can tell your associates I will pay them all up tomorrow.”
And that was the last time I saw Tokunbo’s father. Everyone tried to appeal to Tokunbo’s parents and convince them that I was innocent and tried to dissuade him. They tried to change their wrong opinion of me. But as Tokunbo said, they were always going to suspect wrongly that I was involved because we were like two peas in a pod.
I was glad my best-friend had found his humor again.
“Oi, you know as kids, he always used to praise your intelligence and wonder why I was not as smart as you. Now he does not want me to be anywhere near you. He thinks you’re a bad boy,” Tokunbo holds his stomach to calm the ache from his laughter.
He continues, “He thinks it was virtuous of me to have taken the fall for my best-friend,” still chuckling deliriously like Eddie Murphy.
Tokunbo was one friend that I knew was never my rival. Merely always protective and true—ours was a pristine friendship. A few months after my best-friend’s dad paid off all the debts his son had been swindled of, his father decided Nigeria was not the best environment for the credulous, easy-going young man that schooled in England since he was 8, and whose English mannerisms were still awkward for the kinetic Lagos. About 3 months after my best-friend went back to live permanently in England to continue his education, I left for the United States.
Last year after not seeing my best friend for so long, we were together again in London. For a month we went everywhere together. And just like old times, his parents could not separate us.
Nigeria is now synonymous with fraud, as its government is one of the most corrupt and most incompetent in the world and its politicians tend to promote fraud.
Olustories © 2020 All Rights Reserved
*Names and places have been altered to protect people from persecution.