Hello from Lagos in corruption-ridden Nigeria,
I left Nairobi on Kenya Airways flight #432 on 12 September, the day after the NY-Washington terrorist attack. All flights out of Nairobi that day left late. In the confusion they over booked our flight and assigned two people my seat in the economy section. When told I must to squeeze into an inside seat, I protested noting I had deliberately arrived three hours early to make sure I'd get an aisle seat for the long flight. The Purser asked me to stand by while they got things sorted out. Finally as we were about ready to take off, he motioned me to follow him into the first class cabin.
What a joy. Much later I wondered if my U.S. nationality might not have been a factor in deciding who would get the upgrade. Seated next to me in first class sat the manager of a Lagos supermarket. During our long conversations he invited me to visit his store should I need assistance from someone local while in the country. Needless to say, first class is easy on the psyche and I arrived in Lagos ready for anything... or so I thought.
Nigeria is a haven for corrupt officials, confidence men and opportunists of all kinds. First, there are the now well publicized money laundering schemes-scams involving supposedly frozen Nigerian oil company assets. I and many of you have gotten letters or e-mail messages offering us unbelievably large sums of money for merely allowing our domestic bank accounts to be conduits for all these asserted ¨frozen account¨ funds. I don't know any one stupid or gullible enough to have fallen for them. The CIA reportedly gets a hundred calls a day from American victims or would-be victims.
Then, there are the illegal entry schemes leading to extortion payments ¨required¨ to arrange exit from the country. I made sure I had an appropriate visa before going in. That did not eliminate hassles at the airport, however. First, the immigration officer was playing some sort of game with me that involved setting my passport aside for twenty minutes while he processed all the other travelers on the pretext of calling my name without response... as I stood expectantly and directly in front of him the whole time.
Next, the gauntlet outside the baggage area for arriving passengers surpassed even the horror stories I'd been hearing. Money changers, taxi touts, would-be "friends," hotel "representatives," and the menacing curious swarmed around me, so close to my body I felt certain someone had managed to pull something from my pockets. Twisting, turning, slipping this way and that, all the while trying to make it clear in poor French and English that I wanted no help from any of the scruffy and menacing. Even that didn't seem to discourage the more determined of the hoard.
Finally, a heavyset woman approached me and the crowd thinned a bit. She claimed to be a government employee... yea sure. I asked to see some identification and she had none (on her), but asked me to follow her back to her "desk" where she kept it. Reluctantly, I followed. As it turns out, she actually did manage a sort of government Travelers Aid service for confused foreigners. I consider myself an experienced traveler who has seen almost everything, but her help in locating my new friend, Sanjeev in the airport bedlam could not have been more welcome in this country. Thinking back on the experience I realize the most intense sense of any actual danger only lasted a few minutes. My own mind magnified the whole intense affair.
I'd met Sanjeev Kamar, an Indian oil worker while waiting for the flight to board in Nairobi. Upon learning I had no one waiting for me, nor even a local contact in Nigeria, he insisted on giving me a ride into town from the Lagos Airport. He had told me vivid horror stories about the dangers of unlicensed taxi drivers who never get you to your destination, of people who disappeared while walking alone in Lagos and of the hassles to expect at the airport. He also told me that ex-pats of all nations look out for one another while in Lagos.
I quickly discovered first hand his predictions about the airport proved to be right on. He had his driver meet us at the curb in a Mercedes limousine and we were off in minutes. The half hour ride to town included an attempted detour around some traffic congestion. As our driver deftly wound his way through back streets and finally under an unpaved section of the on-ramp, some guys had blocked the way with a ten foot log and demanded tribute to pass. Without a second thought the driver swung his car around and zipped back out the way he had come, muttering about extortion and worse in the city. The driver spoke English and corroborated all I had been hearing about Lagos street crime.
Later at the U.S. Embassy I got the same advice with graphic descriptions of some actual recent killings of Americans. Carjacking, muggings and simple robberies all figure in the colorful stories everyone is anxious to tell new comers. Apparently, well-informed foreign visitors don't come to Nigeria with out solid contacts in the country to look after them, often police or military escorts in the case of diplomatic employees.
When we finally reached Victoria Island Sanjeev had his driver take us around to several of the better hotels, all of which were fully booked. Desperate, I settled for the first over priced ($90 cash only) rattrap we had seen with a vacancy. As we parted, Sanjeev urged me to I take his phone number in case I got into any trouble and needed a local contact. Grateful as hell I thanked him for all his assistance and gladly took the slip on which he had scratched his phone number.
At breakfast the next morning I shared a table with Gerado who works for the Spanish Embassy in Lagos. Again, he inquired about who my local contacts, my "protectors" were. When I told him of my carefree expedition of serendipity across Africa, he shook his head in disbelief adding that Nigeria might not be the best place in Africa for that sort of free wheeling travel. As I described my plans for the day he insisted I make use of his car and driver until lunchtime (14:00 for the Spanish in Nigeria). Trying to find another hotel, get around to all the consulates on my list and investigate onward travel options should not be attempted on foot, or even by taxi he told me. Again, he gave me his phone number in case I got into trouble and needed a local contact. With all this very welcome assistance I found it difficult to find fresh ways to express my extreme appreciation.
I did find another hotel, the Kuramo Lodge ($100), an inexpensive annex to the more expensive Meridian Hotel. Immediately after saying "good-bye" to Gerado's driver I began exploring on foot, first in the vicinity of the four star hotel, but later farther afoot. Eventually, I left the relatively safe confines of the island and ventured out into the "dangerous" surrounding areas. Frankly, I saw nothing more hazardous than crazy drivers. Near the hotel itself of course, there were the usual predators and opportunists. But, even these were far tamer than many others I've seen elsewhere in African. Eventually I wandered with impunity. Nothing in my personal experience suggested I need be any more vigilant than in any other normally dangerous large city. I did notice that few people on the streets seemed to be happy, a lot of somber faces as I passed.
The few cyber cafes I checked wanted the equivalent of $8 to $13 per hour for Internet access. The English language newspapers published in Nigeria all seemed to be written by scribblers who definitely would have flunked my sixth grade English Composition classes. I couldn't believe how illiterate the writers were. Embarrassingly so!
All efforts to get visas proved fruitless. The representative in the Ghana consulate told me directly that visas for Americans could only be obtained in their home country. That effectively blocked my onward ground travel north along the west coast of Africa. Consulates for the other countries I intended to visit in West Africa were all closed on the day I had use of the borrowed car. As they were all located far from my hotel, I never did manage to actually check them for visa availability.
None of the travel agents I contacted had modern information systems and none could help me with flight alternatives. Finally, I resolved to just go to the airport and take the first flight heading north. By now, I felt fed up with the whole country and determined to get out as soon as I could manage it. At the airport, airline offices open for only a few hours on the day of a flight. I sat around the airport for most of the day waiting for someone to sell me a ticket. With great relief I managed to snag a short flight to Abidjan Ivory Coast later that same day. (cont.)
Lagos Nigeria: This is Sanjeev Kamar, an Indian oil worker who took pity on me and gave me a ride into town from the Lagos Airport. I met him on the plane and he told me graphic horror stories about the dangers of walking alone in Lagos and the hassles to expect at the airport. His predictions about the airport proved to be right on.