It’s fair to say that Nigerians get a bad rep. Mention Nigeria in most Western countries and it won’t be long before someone starts cracking jokes about that prince who ‘just really needs your help to rescue his millions of dollars’. Their reputation in the rest of Africa is if anything worse. There is an undeniably racist, yet oft repeated saying, that 1 in 5 Africans is a criminal and 1 in 5 Africans is a Nigerian. I have lost count of the amount of times people told us not to go to Nigeria, that it is not like (whichever country they happen to be from); that it is dangerous and corrupt; that we will probably be robbed by the locals and will definitely be robbed by the police. In fact, just as we were about to cross the border, a fixer from Benin rushed over to warn us earnestly that ‘Nigeria n’est pas bon!!!’ It is because of these kind of warnings that many overlanders chose to ship round Nigeria, often at great expense (we read of one family who paid more than 6000 euros to ship from Benin to Cameroon!) Despite knowing most of the cautionary tales were at best exaggerations and at worst, racists stereotypes, on some level they must have sunk in because waiting in line at immigration I’ll admit, I was starting to feel pretty nervous.
Our first experiences of Nigeria however, could not have been further from the ominous warnings. It took us well over an hour to get through immigration but only because everyone (the border officials, passers by, the man selling ‘Fan Milk’ ice lollies) wanted to stop and chat to us at length about our journey. As we would find out, Nigerian’s can be many things, but unfriendly they are not (unless that is, they happen to be manning a checkpoint). Our first real test came when we tried to leave the car park. Leon (as you may know) can be a little hot headed and doesn’t have the greatest respect for authority. Before we entered Nigeria I had lectured him at length about staying calm at the (notoriously corrupt) checkpoints and taking a zen Buddhist approach. Unfortunately after the 3rd time the officious little twat at the security gate jabbed his finger in my face (he did not point at Leon once) asking if I understood why he could not let us leave; I was the one who completely lost my cool, muttering darkly about what, exactly, would happen to him if he pointed at me again, whilst Leon smugly reminded to ‘take some deep breaths.’ Not off the greatest start! In the end it all worked out, we went back and got our Carnet stamped (we had, apparently incorrectly, been informed we did not need to do this) the official had a gloat about the fact he knew the correct procedure, before subjecting us to a ‘random’ search of our panniers and then we carried on our way.
The F100 road from the Seme border of Benin to Lagos was busy, chaotic and full of potholes. It was not a fun ride, with vehicles suddenly swerving or slamming on their breaks (no one in Nigeria has break lights) in a bid to avoid craters in the road big enough to sink a small car.
The first thing we noticed about Nigeria is how crowded it is; there are just under 200 million inhabitants, to put this into perspective, the US which is 10 times the size, has a population of 325 million. According to a UN report, by 2050 Nigeria will have overtaken the US to become the third most populous country in the world. Driving through Southern Nigeria is to drive through endless towns, the outskirts of one merging seamlessly into the next. The next thing we noticed was the checkpoints, it was hard not to; during our first 20km on Nigerian soil we passed through 19 checkpoints! We had been warned by other travellers to expect them, but nothing quite prepares you for the reality. The main problem seemed to be the bewildering number of different ‘units’ ‘teams’ and ‘special task forces’ all which insist on having their own checkpoint (rampant corruption means checkpoints are a lucrative business). Here are just a few we had the pleasure of passing: The Nigeria Police Force, The Nigerian Armed Forces, The Nigerian Airforce, The Department of State Service (DSS), The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Customs Service, Immigration Service, Strike Force Team, The Rapid Response Unit, Anti-robbery team, Anti-kidnapping team, Anti-corruption team, Police anti-crime division, Police Mobile Force, Police Special Force, Highway Safety, Highway Response, Vehicle Inspection Officer and Operation Zenda.
On our first night we stopped in Badagry, which, despite being some 65km kilometres from the centre of Lagos, is officially the start of the city. After driving around aimlessly for a while and attracting a lot of curious stares, we came across a small hotel. The owner, a portly man, wearing a white khamis and an embroidered skullcap, was enormously friendly, repeatedly welcoming us to Nigeria and responding to each of our statements with a sincere ‘wonderful, wonderful!’ whilst clapping his hands together. Later he dispatched one of the young boys working in the hotel to accompany us to a restaurant and afterwards a bar, he was a nice kid and I liked him a lot, apart from when he earnestly informed me ‘you are very pretty, but you walk like a man.’
The following day we set off for Lagos. Lagos is a city which has always loomed large in my imagination. I worked as an immigration lawyer in London and represented many people from Nigeria, so I have spent a lot of time reading about the high crime rates and the gangs, the sex trafficking and prostitution and the enormous disparities between the rich and poor. But Lagos is also Nigeria’s economic and cultural powerhouse, the centre of ‘Nollywood’ and Nigeria’s arts and music scene and a city I knew I had to see for myself.
To avoid what promised to be a nightmarish drive we thought we would stay in the North of the city and travel in by taxi. Unfortunately due to a mixup on booking.com I managed to book us into a hotel slap, bang in the middle of things (the only time I have ever complained about a hotel being too central). The drive took us 3 hours; 1 hour to cover 40km and 2 hours to cover the remaining 20km. The further we drove the more apocalyptic the scenes became. Slum housing and stinking rubbish piled into heaps the size of small mountains. Recent refugees from Northern Nigeria, huddled next to makeshift shelters, clutching babies and giant laundry bags containing all their worldly possessions. Fierce heat and bumper to bumper cars, thick black smoke belching from passing buses and trucks. The traffic was like nothing I had ever seen, vehicles packed together so tightly there wasn’t a chance of the bike getting through; it reminded me of that scene in Independence Day when the whole of New York City is trying to flee the alien spaceship. As soon as they spotted us, people would start shouting and gesticulating wildly, a chorus of ‘Oyinbo’ (white person) followed us. They were welcoming if a little misguided, as in the case of the guy who shouted at me (a white woman) “hello chinaman!” Interestingly this would not be the last time in Nigeria my (supposed) Chinese heritage was remarked upon, a few times I heard a passing shout of “Ching Chong China Man”, one kid even went so far as to pull down the corners of his eyelids to make ‘squinty’ eyes at me.
Our hotel in Lagos (for which we were paying 30 euros a night – a significant sum on our budget), turned out to be located at the end of a stinking, rubbish filled side street. To get there we had to negotiate our way around an enormous fetid puddle and the herd of cows that were causally drinking from it. Our room was amongst the worst we have ever stayed in (which is saying something, considering we regularly stay in rooms we rent by the hour), a broken bucket left to replace the broken shower, a view through a broken window, of yet another rubbish dump. The piece de resistance was the breakfast, delivered (whether you wanted it or not) at 7am, consisting of two pieces of bread mashed together and placed in a waffle iron, two boiled eggs and one cup of cold, heavily stewed black tea. The hotel itself was like a fortress, surrounded by heavy steel gates and an armed guard. Even the swimming pool had a gate, which the staff somewhat ominously locked behind us as soon as we entered.
The following day we decided to head to Lagos Island. We spotted that Uber had made it to Nigeria, “how convenient” we thought. No sooner had the driver pulled up than he started demanding payment in cash, the exchange that followed was exasperating to say the least, us: “we’ve paid through the app,” driver: “but I need to buy gas” us: “that’s not our problem, we can’t pay you twice” driver (sighing deeply) “where d’you wanna go? us: “Lagos Island” driver “yaw!! That is far!’ “That is where we have paid to go!”, driver “but I don’t get any of that money” us “take it up with Uber” and so on and so on until we eventually gave up and went to find another taxi.
Scenes of Lagos flashed past the taxi’s windows; skyscrapers and sprawling, single story buildings, yellow buses and blue taxis, children playing beneath a flyover, a young girl climbing a mountain of rubbish and leaping off, her plaits flying behind her. The city is vast, already more than double the size of London and New York, it’s population grows by 77 people per hour. Accurate figures are hard to come by but in 2016 it was estimated that there were 21 million people living in Lagos and many people believe it has now overtaken Shanghai to become biggest city in the world. After paying a visit to the Cameroon Embassy, where we collected our visas and have lunch at one of Lagos’s ubiquitous fast food restaurants, we jumped into one of Lagos’s many tuktuks, and headed to the Nike Art Gallery. On the way we got our first experience of the ‘area boys’, the notorious gangs of street children and young men, who (amongst other nefarious activities) extort money from passers-by, public transporters and traders. At a busy intersection a group of youths blocked the street, directing all public transport vehicles to pull over. When out time came, we watched as our driver handed over a fistful of crumpled notes to a frighting looking man with a bright red, bloodshot eye.
The gallery was an amazing place, a 4 story high treasure trove of art pieces from both contemporary and traditional Nigerian artists. We were lucky enough to meet Nike Okundaye, the founder of the gallery and one of Nigeria’s most important artists. Upon meeting her we knew at once we were in the presence of a true celebrity; she exuded an effortless sense of style and grace. The gallery had been due to close at 6pm, so we were surprised when half way through our tour we heard a bell sounding to signal it was closing early. As we were leaving, the security guards told us it was because they had heard that rioters were attacking nearby South African businesses in retaliation for xenophobic attacks against Nigerians living in the country (12 people were killed in Johannesburg by mobs attacking foreign owned businesses). We quickly ordered an Uber, checking the news on our phones as we waited. It seemed that rioters had stormed the shoprite supermarket at circle mall, in Lekki, the police had arrived, forcing them out of the mall and onto the Lekki-epe expressway where they were reportedly burning tyres and setting fire to cars. The Nike gallery was located just off the Lekki-epe expressway and this was the road we would need to take back to out hotel. We quickly calculated that the rioters were around 3km away and figured there wasn’t anything too much to worry about.
Half an hour passed and our taxi still hadn’t arrived, we were checking his progress on the app and could see he was nearby so decided to wonder down to the junction to try and locate him. As soon as we arrived on the expressway, it was clear why our driver was having trouble reaching us. It was complete chaos, 4 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic stretching as far as the eye could see, with cars trying to execute u-turns in the middle of it. Suddenly a group of guys starting yelling at us, ‘South African! South African!’ ‘No’ I shouted “We are English! English!’ But they didn’t seem satisfied. I turned to look at them, one of the guys was pulling on his t shirt and pointing excitedly towards Leon, ‘South African! South African!’ I followed his gaze and realised Leon was wearing (for this first time) his newly purchased Benin football jersey. The jersey is bright yellow and from a distance (or perhaps to angry mob) looked a lot like the South African jersey… “No” I quickly explained “It’s from Benin, not South Africa.” The guys relaxed a bit, but shouted at us that we should leave. At that moment a woman rounded the corner in a 4×4 and screeched to a halt next to us, she looked terrified, ‘you must go!’ she shouted ‘they are attacking foreigners.’ Not more than a few seconds had passed when another woman pulled up, ‘you should leave, quickly. It is not safe for you, they are looking for white people and they are coming this way.’
A man came running over, ‘you shouldn’t be here’ he said, ‘they are attacking foreigners, quickly run over there to the security guard, he will protect you.’ It was at this point that my thin veneer of calm vanished and a wave of cold panic swept over me. Jim, who had (as usual) completely failed to grasp the severity of the situation, was complaining he would still have to pay for the Uber, while the rest of us began running in the direction the man had pointed. The security it turned out, was actually petrol station guard. We stood around awkwardly for a while, eyeing up the guys truncheon and wishing he had something with a bit more firepower, before deciding that protecting us from an angry mob was probably well above his pay grade and that is was better to try and find our own way out. We had completely given up on our Uber, more than 50 minutes had passed and (given our previous experiences) we didn’t think it was likely our driver would persevere in trying to find us for long. We attempted to flag down a tuktuk, but they drove straight past, obviously having decided that the risks of carrying 4 white people in the middle of a riot, was not worth even the massively inflated fare they could charge. Deciding we would try and find another taxi, we ran back to the junction.
The shouting started again as soon as we arrived, “South African! South African!” as we ran between the backed up cars trying to find a taxi, people were screaming at us to go back, that it wasn’t safe. Feeling the panic starting to rise again, I stared around in desperation and spotted Jim waving at me from behind an open car door, he had found our Uber! We negotiated our way across 3 lanes of traffic to where our driver was attempting to execute a u turn and jumped in. We had expected remonstrations about the delay, the traffic, the risks in transporting us, mentally I was preparing for a sit in demo, there was no way in hell I was getting out of that car. But our taxi driver, it turned out, was remarkably chill, as we relayed recent events he responded with a reassuring, ‘don worry…you safe’ before, almost as an afterthought, locking the doors. He slotted CD into the player and the car was filled with the sounds of Dolly Parton singing about her coat of many colours. It was a surreal moment, the calming sounds of country music broken only by the blare of dozens of riot vans speeding past, as our heroic taxi driver whisked us away. For 2 hours we drove through Lagos, singing along to Marvin Gaye and Henrique Inglesias. In an (unsuccessfully) bid to avoid the traffic, we found ourselves on a detour through the slums of Lagos island; narrow, potholed, traffic logged streets, lined with tin shacks, crumbling apartment blocks, people everywhere. By this time, our driver had appointed himself our official Lagos guide ‘they like to close the road and have parties here’ he said, ‘you never know if roads will be open or not.’ He pointed to the plastic chairs, which were stacked in long rows along the streets, ‘they are ready for parties.’ ‘Everyone lives on the streets’ he continued ‘you eat on the street, you sit on the street, that is how it is here, people don’t spend time in their houses.’
By the time we got back to out hotel it was dark. We decided to head straight for food, but we had not gone more than a few steps before a group of young guys started pointing and shouting ‘South African, South African!’ I grabbed Leon’s shirt, “Benin, Benin” one guy smiled, but another continued muttering darkly. We continued, but the same thing kept happening, in less than 5 minutes 4 different groups had shouted at us. We decided to head back, as we waited to cross the road a tuktuk sailed past, a man hanging off the side began screaming at us, ‘South African!’ An old man passed and seeing Leon shouted, ‘what are you doing you stupid white man, get out of here.’ At the same time a big group of young men walked past, all were shouting at us, one reached out to touch my skin. The atmosphere was like nothing else I have experienced in Africa. It reminded me of a time, when I was working on the highest floor of a tower block during a thunderstorm. For the entire day, the atmosphere was heavy, thick with static charge. It took only slightest movement, an accidental brush of a sleeve, to cause a violent jolt of electricity to shoot between you, ripping through the air with an audible ‘crack.’ I thought back to something a biker we met in Benin had told us, ‘Nigeria is different, it’s not like Benin, it’s hot.’ At that moment, it felt like an apt description.
We headed back to the hotel where Leon wasted no time changing into a less controversial T shirt. Afterwards we sat around the pool drinking beers, for once glad of the steel gates that surrounded it. We were grateful for our narrow escape, but increasingly fearful of what was to come.