Welcome to Nigeria, December 16 - 18, 2007
Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
85Trip End Jan 05, 2008
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With vast oil reserves and nearly fifty years since independence as a major oil producer, Nigeria should have great potential for development as a nation. However, its people have suffered under one of the world's most corrupt governments which has left most of them in deep poverty while hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue have gone unaccounted for. Meanwhile, acid rain from sulfurous fumes of natural gas flared off as a byproduct of oil extraction has poisoned what little remains of its tropical rain forests
Transparency International once ranked Nigeria as the most corrupt nation in world. When it dropped to third place below Chad and Bangladesh the following year, the joke was that Nigeria had just paid off those two countries to appear more corrupt to improve its own standing.
Nigeria's epic chaos, that of Lagos and the Niger River Delta in particular, has reached near mythic status. Hardly a week goes by where major western publications don't run a story on some aspect of the mess that Nigeria is in, whether it's armed gunmen breaking into restaurants and taking all the patrons hostage, thieves in trucks driving under and stealing bags from taxiing airplanes at Lagos Airport, insurgent armies raiding police stations and oil workers being kidnapped in the delta, makeshift "toll booths" across roads in the form of wooden boards with nails sticking out, or hundreds being incinerated in an oil pipeline explosion. National Geographic magazine even ran a major article on strife in Nigeria's oil-producing delta region in its February 2007 issue. It all sounds like some apocalyptic version of hell. Can it really be that bad?
Long before we got to Nigeria, Dave began telling us his horror stories from a previous independent voyage there four years ago. Our experience with Nigeria actually began in Bamako, Mali where we applied for our visas at the Nigerian embassy, a process Dave warned us could take up to a week depending on how intent the officials were on extorting some money for themselves in the process
The rest of us remained in the broiling hot truck outside the embassy while Dave took our passports, visa applications, and payments in for processing, fees which varied by with our nationalities but were in the $100 range for each of us. Dave returned an hour or so later with stories of the abuses the embassy staff had hurled at him:
"Get out of here, you smelly British man."
"The consul is very busy. It may take until next week."
"The consul is very displeased with you. I suggest you go before he sees you."
"You want to enter our country in that old piece of rubbish?"
Dave further fanned our fears about what to expect in Nigeria at the joining meeting in Accra, Ghana with tales of dead bodies from gang warfare in the streets, constant hassle from corrupt official on the make
Regarding bush camping Dave gave us specific instructions to make a quick escape during the night if we were to be attacked. "I'm serious, people have been killed in Nigeria," Dave warned us, although qualified it that no Dragoman passengers have been killed there. Tents would face inward towards truck in tight a formation (kind of like circling the wagons, I suppose). If we heard the truck start in middle of night or hear the horn blow, we would run for the truck and leave everything behind. Wow, this sounds like the Wild Wild West! How exciting! I kept wondering but saw no sign that Dave might just be "taking a piss" at us (to use a British expression).
The reality at the border post and our subsequent experiences was nowhere near as exciting. The border post that was supposed to be so scary that we'd all be locked in the truck turned out to be a small building in a grassy field where three friendly men greeted us. After Dave scoped out the territory for dangers, he suggested we set up a lunch table beside the truck while our passports were being stamped in
There were seven additional checkpoints for various things over the next few miles - customs, fruit/produce inspection, drug interdiction - all apparently official and legitimate. Yes, they were a time-consuming nuisance but not the fright we were promised.
We hit our first big city, Abeokuta, hometown of President Obasanjo, at dusk. Abeokuta is only 40 miles north of Lagos, the mother of all chaos. Everything is big in Nigeria, especially traffic jams and the markets, and Itoku market in Abeokuta looked like a never-ending sea of human squalor, minibuses, and mud in the dwindling light. We had no luck finding a cheap hotel in an area too heavily populated to safely bush camp, so we headed for a golf club where previous Dragoman groups had camped.
I was responsible for dinner - rabbits I bought in Benin, cooked with boiled potatoes and beer mustard cream sauce and cauliflower with cheese sauce. Later on in the evening the course's manager showed up and gave us all a tour around the club. This guy was a real live Nigerian "Big Man", big in importance I suppose as well as physical stature, dressed in a long flowing robe and white skull cap, and speaking perfect English with a pronounced British accent. He proudly told us about how popular golf has become in Nigeria (more than 80 courses) and how expensive memberships are at his club
There actually are expressways in Nigeria, and we were on the main Lagos-Ibadan Expressway connecting Nigeria's largest city with its second or third largest (depending on which source you read) city. Nigerian's must be the world's most reckless drivers, as evidenced by highway median and side strips littered with the remains of horrific accidents - burnt oil tankers, buses look like been in firey crashes, multi car pileups. A new accident, an overturned oil tanker, created another massive traffic jam while we were on the road, as did roadwork further on which shut down the expressway in one direction, resulting in both directions of traffic and millions of mini vans on one side of the road all playing chicken with each other.
It was inevitable that sooner or later we'd run into a police stop populated by cops on the make. The fabricated infraction warranting an on-the-spot fine in this case was for operating a British-style right hand drive vehicle. The following is Dave's transcript of a more entertaining part of his argument with the cop:
Cop: It is illegal to have a right hand drive vehicle in Nigeria!
Dave: So why did they allow me to enter the country?
Cop: The Douane do not do their job properly. This is why!
Dave: So there are a lot of people breaking the law in Nigeria, because I have seen a lot of right hand drive vehicles here!
Cop: And we will catch them all eventually!
Ibadan was an even bigger scene of chaos with even more enormous outdoor markets with corrugated metal cover stalls than Abeokuta. I thought it was a particularly ugly and spread out city and suppose the area of tall buildings I could see a few miles towards the left as we passed through must be its downtown. The city seemed to have a fair amount of industrial enterprises, all spewing out noxious fumes and choking smoke. Perhaps it's a sign of progress in Nigeria since other groups passed through in recent years, but Ibadan was the site of the only dead body we saw in the streets, apparently someone run over by a motor vehicle.
As we moved slowly through the chaos of crowded markets in Abeokuta, Ibadan, Akure, Benin City, and other towns, the strange white people in an unusual orange and white truck captured quite a lot of attention
One of the characteristics I noticed about Nigerians is that most have somewhat aggressive mannerisms that can seem threatening even when they're being friendly. You often feel like you're being yelled at, but the words are welcoming. The prevailing tone in Nigeria was in particular contrast to the gracious quiet mannerisms of most Ghanaians. Past Ibadan we stopped for lunch and marketing in Ife where I noticed a sign for an Internet cafe. After I finished checking my e-mail on the top floor of a construction site of a building with an outdoor staircase that looked like something out of an Escher painting, I was confronted by two young men. "Hey, Oyibo. What you doing here?" one barked in a voice that made me shiver in my shoes. "I see you and your friends. Welcome to Ife! Where you from?" The contrast between his tone and his words was extraordinary.
A second aspect about Nigerians that tends to make them intimidating is their physical statue. The physical appearance of people differs greatly throughout Africa and often tribal groups living in close proximity to each other have very different appearances. I recall when I was young sometimes hearing white adults in America say, "Black people all look the same." Man, were they wrong! Pastoralist tribes like the Fulani in the Sahel and also the Maasai and Samburu in East Africa tend to be tall and lanky. The Touareg desert nomads are very large while the Dogon in general seemed rather slight. Also in Africa are the famously tall Tutsis and, of course, the very short Pygmies. While Africans are by and large tall and strong looking, among many Nigerians this is an extreme. I thought most of the men look like boxers and the women exude similar strength and power. I'm about 6'1" and 230 pounds, but there were times in Nigeria when even I felt small.