If I could skip one country while traversing the West Coast of Africa, it would be Nigeria. Overlanders speak of Nigeria only in whispers, and they rarely have encouraging things to say. Big, fast, loud and more than a little unpredictable, Nigeria is not on many bucket lists.
I have recently heard a few reports of attacks on the roads involving fake police roadblocks and spike strips. Speaking of police roadblocks, Nigeria is famous for theirs. In their number, their unfriendliness and in bribery, Nigeria apparently holds the record.
Skirting Nigeria by land is currently impossible, as it means driving North around Lake Chad through Niger, Chad and Northern Cameroon − all of which are seriously off-limits because of Boko Haram. If I am to traverse the West Coast of Africa, I must drive the width of Nigeria. It is as simple as that.
With safety the number one priority, I plan to drive as far as possible each day, and I will always stay in hotels. The hotels will preferably have high fences and armed guards. I also want to avoid lingering in the Niger Delta if possible − it’s the current kidnapping hotspot due to the ease in which a getaway can be made in the maze of swampy channels there.
So, the plan is set − and my Benin visa is expiring. I can delay no more.
It’s time to dive in.
Nigeria’s currency is the Naira; and because of severe inflation, there is a thriving black market exchange-rate that is 50% better than the official one. After a lot of back-and-forward at the border, I exchange all my Central African Francs for around 300 000 Naira, in a huge stack of small, grubby bills.
Inside Nigerian Immigration, I meet three men, and it’s quickly clear that the largest is the boss − and he is not to be trifled with. His shirt is blotchy and untucked, though it’s difficult to see behind the wall of medals on display. After some pleasantries − which, I must say, are amazingly easy in English − the large man begins to examine my visa very closely.
The Nigerian tourist visa is notoriously hard to get − currently the hardest on the whole West Coast of Africa. Typically a one-month visa is issued, and one is allowed three months from the date of issue to enter Nigeria. I got my visa back in Mali, and am nearing the end of the three-month window. For no apparent reason, I was issued a two-month visa; something that is very unusual.
The large man immediately points to my two months, and exclaims that it’s just not right. After throwing my passport down and complaining loudly, he demands to know where the visa was issued, and makes it very clear that it is not acceptable. Purely by luck, I have the ambassador’s card from Mali; when I hand it over, he is clearly not a happy man, and is apparently trying to bluff me. After some arguing, and my explanation that it’s simply what I was issued, he finally seems satisfied and tosses my passport to one of the lesser men to enter into the giant ledger.
He does make it clear, however, that he will grant me entry for only one month, because that’s what it should have been in the first place. I secretly want only one month anyway, but I’m happy to let him think that he’s won this round.
After an eternity of waiting for no clear reason, my passport is stamped, all the paperwork is complete and all the ledgers dutifully updated. The rotund man leans back with a huge grin, and says: “So. What did you bring for me?”
With an equally large grin, I say, ”A smile, all the way from Australia,” which I quickly follow with, “Let’s trade – you give me something, and I’ll give you something.”
He smiles, and eventually hands my passport back. “Enjoy your stay in Nigeria.”
At Customs, I hit a snag when I ask for a Temporary Import Permit. Without a Carnet de Passage, I need a TIP to make the transit in my Jeep legal. The head of Customs assures me repeatedly that I simply don’t need one. The Laissez-Passer (as it is called in French Africa) is only for vehicles returning to the same border. It’s not required because I’m driving through to Cameroon. I ask repeatedly to be issued one in the hopes of avoiding bribery, but after the tenth time that he says ‘No,’ I give up. He is shocked that I think there will be attempts at bribery, and assures me that it will not be the case.
I’m not sure I believe him.
I walk away from Customs empty-handed, and with the realisation that I will have to drive through Nigeria without any official Customs paperwork. After driving through more than 28 foreign countries in my two Jeeps, this will be a first for me.
I don’t like it at all.
For the full story, be sure to grab a copy of the may issue of SA4x4 magazine.