We left our hotel in Benin and headed to the border with Kevin and Steph. The border was only an hour drive from where we were staying and it was a nice highway all the way, until it just stopped very suddenly at the border and the road was blocked by large concrete barriers. We checked our information and realized we had to take a side road that led to the ‘service area’ for the border guards and officials for both sides. The road to this area was appalling and was just dirt with large puddles and sections of mud you would expect to find on a 4x4 track rather than an international border but it was still lined with shops and business that operated in the filth, dirt, dust and people that the road bought. After numerous stops by random un-uniformed people we made it to the first actual border official, the Benin exit stamp chap. He collected our 4 passports and announced that the stamp will cost us 1000CFA each. We had a discussion (argument) with him with both Kevin and me telling him in not so many words that the best thing would be to just stamp us out without fee. We said he can collect all the money he wanted from his own people but we were not paying anything and if we were not allowed to pass, we would call our consulate. We also blocked his window so nobody else could get to him. Sadly this guy was the first and only border guard that would eventually do his job without demanding a bribe of some sort that day!
It took us more than 4 hours to pass through to Nigeria, that is to move around 500 meters through the maze of gates and checks. We had to show our details to more than 7 or 8 officials from the time we passed the Benin exit stamp guy, and each one wanted to try to extract as much money as they could from us. The first of these was the Benin armed forces who wanted 500CFA each for recording our name and passport number in a large book. We then moved on to the Benin Police who wanted 1000N (Nigerian currency) to do exactly the same thing. Then to the Nigerian side, first police and immigration, then to the customs people who wanted money which was split between the guards that did all the paperwork. At each station we of course complained and attempted to get out of paying but a steady stream of local people passed through each one paying the guards for the paperwork to be done. Each time we moved the car even a few meters, we had a police or army or special forces or anti robbery squad or quick response squad officer want to look at our documents. It was insane. I cannot believe that any country can operate like this, but here we are in Nigeria.
Just before the last immigration stop and 20 meters from some previous police stops, I was waved at by a man with a machine gun. He had no uniform and wanted me to stop and pull right off the road and park. As we had just seen the police and gone through a very non police process of paying them I was not at all in the mood for more stops that were going to cost money so I just said no and kept going. Problem was he was now standing in front of the car and each time I tooted the horn and moved forward, he would lift his gun and wave it in my direction. This went on for a few minutes with both of us yelling at him to get out of the way and him quietly telling me to park. He was asking for my vehicle papers that were with a fixer up the road. We had only just received these papers and if he had been looking he would have been able to actually see them being handed to us by the officials not more than 20 meters away. At no stage did he ask for my passport or to look at the entry visa so I am not too sure what he was wanting to check but eventually the border helper (fixer) came back and told us that he was Nigerian police and we should listen to him. He took the paperwork and my license and had a very quick look then came to the driver’s side window and started to ask us about New Zealand and if this is how we talk to police in New Zealand. We were both pretty quick to tell him that police in New Zealand don’t act the way he was acting and I then (still quite mad) asked him what this had to do with New Zealand and to just give me back my things so we can get on with our business. After getting back our things we drove off to yet another checkpoint. It was then that Christine wondered out loud if we now have to stop for any un-uniformed person standing in the middle of the road holding a gun? Not a nice thought, especially in Nigeria.
We exited the border area and onto the main road into Lagos, the main city in Nigeria. We had planned to drive through the city to a hotel that was around 2 hours drive from the border but the immigration circus had taken hours longer than we expected and we were strongly advised to not travel at night but it was onlyaround 4pm so we still had the time to make it, we thought… The next 10kms took us more than 1 hour to drive. Not because of the road conditions, but because of the road blocks. In the 10km stretch from the border, we passed through 19 road blocks and at each and every one we had to show all of our documents and passports. We had federal police, state police, immigration officials, anti-robbery patrol, smuggling patrol, army, special forces.. and the list goes on and on. These people didn’t ask for money, rather they would always say ‘and what do you have for me?’ Sometimes we would give them water if they had been nice but usually we would answer the question by saying we had ‘a smile and friendship’ We would get a dry smile in return and be sent on our way to the next stop. I have to say at this stage, we were only asked for actual money at one checkpoint after leaving the border (and we didn’t pay.) We soon realized we were never going to make it to the hotel we had planned to stay at so Kevin found The Seaview Hotel off the main road and we stopped for the night. Turned out that this hotel was where quite a few of the border police and immigration officials stay and other than them, we were the only other guests. It was of course a complete shit hole but it did a good job of setting the standards for the rest of the places we stayed at in Nigeria.
We were never going to be tourists in Nigeria as it’s not such a safe country but driving through the place we still got a good feel for how life is for the residents. Nigeria has major oil reserves off the coast in the delta region and selling the oil via the OPEC cartel brings in an astonishing amount of cash and wealth, but it seems only to a very select few. To say I was surprised at the poverty I saw is an understatement. As an oil producing nation, I was expecting to see shining buildings and good infrastructure. It is in fact totally disgusting that a country with such massive revenue from natural resources is in such a state. We do see, of course, a lot of roads in our travels and the roads in this country are in very poor condition overall. We also noticed that most of the buildings are in a poor state of repair and apart from a few places out of the cities, people generally live in very poor conditions with no reliable power or clean water. This is a country that can pipe oil for miles and miles but cannot pipe water down the road to its people. In fact, this country is well placed to provide things like unlimited clean drinking water and electricity, universal health care, free education, build universities for free advanced education, in fact it could do all of these things and still have billions of dollars left but before any of this is even considered the elites have to gorge themselves with cash and luxury goods, ivy league education for their children and homes in London and New York while the rest of the population lives in squalor and poverty. They are in effect committing a crime against humanity and no one is even looking. Well, not at least while they have cheap oil to sell us…
We moved through the country and stayed a night in a cheap hotel in Calabar which is a port city that services the oil industry in the (still very beautiful) delta region. We followed Kevin and Steph out of town and towards the mountains. We were going to our only indulgence in Nigeria, the Afi Mountain Sanctuary for the endangered Mandrill primates called the Drill Ranch. The Mandrills are only found in a small part of Nigeria and Cameroon and with 90% of their habitat lost to logging and farming, this is their last stronghold. The ‘Ranch’ is on the edge of one on the 2 national parks in Nigeria and a little off the main roads and highways. We had been travelling together for a while and when they stopped to do a small job at the side of the road, we said we would go on for a while and stop for lunch. We went on for further than we expected and when we pulled over for lunch we were not seen by them and they passed us and kept going towards the Ranch. We waited for more than 30 minutes and then guessing they had passed, we carried on. We were stopped by the police at a check point just outside of Four Corners township and Sargent Sampson, the officer on duty confirmed that they were ahead of us. OK we thought, if they have any problems, we will see them on the road. The roads were in pretty bad condition so I decided to slow down and enjoy the forest scenery we were travelling into and we continued on at a more relaxed pace. We had become a little complacent with this country and were not travelling together as we had planned to all along! It didn’t take long for us to be reminded how dangerous Nigeria can be. About 10kms outside of Four Corners we had 3 men on a motorbike overtake us and motion us to pull over. After months in Africa and countless stops, we automatically slowed and were going to stop, but seeing they were not in uniform I didn’t want to stop and we swerved around the bike, now parked in the middle of the road and carried on, still at a rather leisurely pace on the rough roads but now a bit faster. I didn’t like what had just happened and then seeing that they had got back on the bike and were coming after us, at pace, we started to wonder what was going on. Maybe we had something wrong with the car they had spotted or they really wanted to warn us about road conditions. The road in this section is very bad with car sized pot holes every few hundred meters and I of course had to slow down to pass through them and in no time they were back again and I couldn’t stop them passing us and blocking our path. It was then we saw they had masks covering their faces and they were all waving knives and machetes. At this stage, we were stopped in the middle of the road. A car coming the other way was making its way through a large pothole and with the car and the bike in the way, right then I had nowhere to go. They jumped off the bike and two of them made their way to the left side of the car with the driver of the bike running to the front. I managed to swerve past the motorbike again but now I had a masked man with a knife standing in front of the car. Everything slowed down! I went to drive forward and pretty much right over him but stopped just short of doing that for reasons I cannot explain. Instinct to not harm someone? I might have just touched him though and he slammed his hands down hard on the bonnet and one of them was wrapped around a large double edged dagger. This was no tool, it was clearly a weapon and we realized their intent very clearly. I gunned the engine and dropped the clutch. How he made it out of the way I don’t know but he did and in the rearview mirror I could see they were back on the bike and we had a race on our hands. The roads are tough going for a car but a motorbike can easily weave between the potholes at good speed but this time they had no chance of catching us and I put the Hilux and everything inside to the ultimate test by driving at very high speed over the appalling roads until we reached our destination and relative safety. Right at that moment, I was concerned only with our safety and if the car was destroyed in the process, it would have been OK if we stayed safe. At times, we were driving over 140kph, slowing only for the worst of the potholes. We don’t know if they wanted us, the car or just money but kidnapping for ransom is a daily occurrence all over Nigeria, even in the ‘safe’ zones and for criminals with very low IQ it’s a good way of making money without having a brain. When we could collect our thoughts a bit we looked at the dashcam thinking we had it all on film only to see the stupid thing displaying a message ‘card read error’ and the last footage we had was when we were having lunch at the side of the road.. We didn’t report this to the police as we were told that they wouldn’t normally investigate without first having a payment and as ‘nothing happened’ and we didn’t have the evidence we thought our chances of any action from them were pretty low. The staff at the ranch were keen to play it down as the only extra income they have is from the tourists that use the road and they don’t want to discourage people visiting. The director said that in 20 years this was the first time anything like this has happened but I have a nagging suspicion that’s not the case as Kevin and Steph were also stopped by some locals wanting payments for keeping the road clear and wouldn’t move a fallen tree until they were paid. They managed to get through without paying but only after 15 minutes of waiting around and discussions. The staff at the ranch admitted that this sort of attempted extortion is not uncommon.
However, we did have a lot of fun at the Drill Ranch and the animals were interesting to see and the people are doing a great job of preserving the remaining Mandrills in the area. It’s a shame that it took an American that was overlanding to see the plight of these animals and save them from certain extinction. The ranch receives only a small amount of funding from the local government and at some stage the Nigerian people will have to pick up where the current directors will leave off. But the way Nigeria is cutting down the forest and modifying the environment I don’t think this will be a high priority for them. After 2 nights at the ranch, we headed back down the same road we came in on and towards the Cameroon border. Yes, we were nervous about the trip but this time we never let Kevin and Steph out of our sight and the trip was thankfully uneventful.
So, Nigeria lived up to the hype of being a wild, rugged and lawless place and we experienced all it had to offer even though we could have done without some of the excitement. To me and clearly just my opinion, I think the police, military and other numerous government departments that we encountered are quite simply the government getting support by employing people who in turn enforce control and stop any potential uprising of the population against them. It’s not just Nigeria we have seen this. It’s been the same all the way down West Africa. Even the countries where the government is elected by normal ballot, we often see a powerful military (or royal family in Morocco) with a long serving head that is the puppet-master overall. Some places are close to breaking this cycle and even though Nigeria has attempted to crack down on some areas especially where corruption controlled the way of life, they still have a long way to becoming a normal society. We never did encounter the many police doing what we would call normal policing.
We are all the wiser for having been here but it was a relief to leave and I have to admit to taking out my frustration on some of the senior border officials when we were leaving by asking all the non-uniform people to produce ID. Not something they liked to do as this made them look weak in front of their staff. Sure was fun though and especially funny when we encountered a guy who said he was ‘secret’ police and therefore didn’t carry ID. We walked away from him without completing the ‘required’ paperwork and he just went back to sleeping at his desk…
Just 1 photo of our great Toyota Hilux that did the wonderful job of getting us away from the bad people under amazingly tough conditions loaded to its maximum weight limit. Sometimes when overlanding, you really need to be able to be able to make your ride preform. Consider this fact when choosing your vehicle.
(Photo NOT taken in Nigeria....)
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!