– “You won’t cycle 20 km in Nigeria before they attack you.”
– “You plan to go camping there? Haha, they’ll find your body and sell your organs.”
– “Don’t you think you experience enough Africa in other countries? You should go around Nigeria because the danger there is real.”
– “Who will tell your parents that you have been found beheaded next to your bicycle?”
– “When I was there we used to travel by helicopter to avoid the roads. When we had to drive, we had an armed escort at all times. So you, alone on a bicycle … “,
– “Those people have no respect for the human life, do ex3pect the worst!”
… are examples of feedback I received when mentioning my plans to go on with cycling into Nigeria. And those are not feedbacks from the average person watching news on TV and warning the world against everything that could happen, but from people with a deeper knowledge, including the French Embassy and Nigerians themselves. So in the case of this country, there really seems to be no reason to go there but for a suicide.
However, there are not many options to avoid Nigeria: there is no ferry line from Benin or Togo until Cameroon. And the road north of Nigeria through Niger and Chad is a desert at the center of the recent Malian and Lybian conflicts, so even if it is quiet in the news, it is natural to think it’s not a recommendable place. That leaves flying over Nigeria the only option for safety. Intra-African flights are often more expensive than flights between Europe and Africa and I don’t want to have my bike mishandled in a dodgy African airport (apart from Joburg OR Tambo, they all look like tiny secondary airports to me, even in big capitals).
On the other hand, I remember how peaceful was Mauritania despite all the warnings. And since the beginning of the year, I know of two female cyclists who traveled on the Nigerian roads and left the country alive, including CyclingCindy who wrote to me that “Nigeria is not more dangerous than the other countries” and even enjoyable.
Not only because it is what I wanted to hear, but also because the advice of someone who cycled a place is a thousand times more relevant than any other advice, I decided to cycle through Nigeria.
The North is a no-go region because of the Boko Haram mass killings that can be followed weekly in the news, and the Delta region is where oil expats are kidnapped (apparently it doesn’t happen anymore, but maybe it is because all expats going there are under armed escort). And I also want to avoid the Lagos area. An African city with 1 million inhabitants is already a nightmare to cycle through alive, so I definitely want to avoid the 20 million lawless megalopolis.
That leaves a narrow corridor in the south of the country, ending in Calabar where there is fortunately a consulate of Cameroon, so I don’t need to make a trip to Lagos or Abuja. To avoid Lagos, I pick up a secondary border crossing 100 km north of the coast and I leave Cotonou.
I actually wanted to leave Cotonou before 6 am to speed through the empty city center like I did in Accra, but it doesn’t work and I’m finally packed and gone only around noon. Even though, the traffic seems alright. Or maybe I got used to the nonsense momentum of unpredictable traffic, where everyone moves brainlessly but somehow makes his way through, and became part of it.
The road to Porto-Novo is straightforward and has a lane reserved for the motorbikers, which I take. Still, it is quite busy, especially inside the dusty official Beninese capital city. I don’t stop anywhere else but for lunch and end up with 90 km cycled for half a day.
By the way, while at lunch, I was translating for a Nigerian struggling to speak french with the cafeteria lady. I translated but also asked the man “Can’t you speak Yoruba together?“. The man tries and it works. “You saved my life” he says. Actually, the eastern part of Benin is occupied by Yoruba people, just like in southwestern Nigeria. And on the roads, I hear as many Oyihbo as Yovo (names for the White man in Yoruba and Fon).
The names of businesses are not very original and always made up around the religion. My lunch was at the cafeteria “Dieu te voit” and my night at the hotel “Dieu merci”. My legs are hard, it is a tough restart after 20 days idle.
As I cycle to the north until the border post near Kétou, the actual border with Nigeria is just 5 km to my right. There is nothing much to see on the road except for the Lafarge cement plant in Onigbolo. It is very very hot and I reach Kétou, an ancient Yoruba kingdom capital, early enough to find a guesthouse, and get ready to face the seemingly most feared border of Africa the next morning. My face feels completely burnt and I am constantly thirsty.
But, without really searching, I don’t find a guesthouse in Kétou and decide to cycle until the border town, Ilara, and stop somewhere on the way. Unfortunately, 17 km later I am still on the saddle and already at the border. I am only stopped by a Nigerian flag in the middle of the road. The town of Ilara is across the border, and the two immigration posts are right in the town center. Yet, the currency used on the Benin side is already the Nigerian Naira and the people speak English. I receive more unwanted attention than usual, people from the road side shouting things at me.
I return to the police of Benin and ask where I can sleep. They mandate the money-changer to take me to a hotel room and to report the room number to them. “With us you are safe” they say, but I don’t like it, because when a place is actually safe, no one talks about security.
The next day, after a smooth administrative Benin exit and more cash change from CFA to nairas, Augustin the money-changer takes me to the Nigerian immigration in the north of Ilara town. Their office is quite remote and at the very end of a bad sand track. I was told “border posts never sleep, they work 24/24” (the most improbable thing). Once inside their office, we have to wake them up. It is not 8 am yet and the chief shows up in underwear, just to tell me to wait. Another agent then comes to me, still sleepy, to register my entrance.
Even if I have a 3-month visa, I am stamped for less. I am given 2 months, which is plenty of time to cross Nigeria anyway. Regarding visa durations, one must work with the strategy of asking for the most as things get reduced on the way. My cycling intention is simple: cross Nigeria as fast as possible and arrive alive in Cameroon, stopping in hotels in the afternoon to avoid the risk of being wandering in unknown locations at dusk, not stopping on the road for too long, and sticking to main roads with enough traffic to decrease the risk of being confronted with bandits.
The “safe” route away from the North and the Delta takes me to Abeokuta, Ibadan, Benin City, Onitsha, Enugu and Calabar for 1000 km of busy roads.
Augustin’s phone number has 11 digits: welcome to the most populous country of Africa with over 160 million people! One African out of 6 is Nigerian. And with a magical growth rate over the last years (over 8%) and a population still on the rise, Nigeria is for investors one of the successors of the BRIC countries.
Before leaving Benin, I breakfast with the bouillie and receive a last warning from the policeman: “Don’t go to the north, there they will remove your eyes like this…“. A few meters ahead and I am now in this land that scares everyone.
Ilara is not that big and I am soon on a small road in the bush. By avoiding the main border crossing in the south, I can maybe avoid those many checkpoints where travelers get asked 10 bribes in a row and report that the Nigerian policemen are worse than criminals. But it starts for me two kilometers later with 3 checkpoints in a row: health, SSS and immigration.
The men at the first checkpoint are very fun and talkative. I ask them to teach me the greetings in Yoruba and now I can’t stop them talking. The man at the second one introduces himself with: “I am the SSS: secret services. We are like the CIA for Nigeria“. He doesn’t like the fact that I don’t know where I sleep tonight in Abeokuta and we agree that I will let him know later when I get a local SIM card. “You don’t know us, but we know you“. He means that the SSS is all over the country watching for me. And the third checkpoint is the immigration, where I learn some more Yoruba words and where the young officer tells me to visit his hometown that features warm springs.
It went much better that expected and I was not asked to dash a bribe at all. But I lost almost an hour and must make sure I reach Abeokuta, the first big town, early enough to find a hotel.
The problem is that after those initial checkpoints, there are more, turn after turn. Their road blocks stopped me 10 times within 30 kilometers, and I stopped only when asked to. When they didn’t hear me coming and I can pass through before they shout at me, I don’t come back. I have seen cars doing that and it works. Rather than the bad moments that I expected, it is much more fun to take pictures with agents, to tell my story, to become Facebook friends, etc, but if I have to stop 10 minutes every 3 km, I will never complete the 100 km today.
Fortunately, the checkpoint frequency decreases as I cycle away from the border area. In total, there would be about 20 between Ilara and Abeokuta, including 5 for immigration, 1 for the army with a machine gun, and several for the police and customs. Most were “nice” ones. There was this one where I was stopped by a huge man in the middle of the road, swirling a wooden stick in the air, just like a troll ambushing a caravan of traders. But we just shook hands with the cool finger’s snap. There was this other one where a crowd of excited young people surrounded me. It was quite scary as I had in mind “they’ll steal everything from you before you can cycle 20 km”, but and old man in the shade of a tree told them to let me go. I guess it was something like a fee collection for the okada’s organization, the moto-taxis.
All in all, every checkpoint experience was very joyful and courteous, and I was only once lightly asked for a bribe. An immigration agent was too lazy to copy my passport details and wanted a photocopy (which can indeed, like in Western Sahara, speed up the waiting time at checkpoints). But most of them offered me water and said there is no danger in Nigeria. My experience is the exact opposite of all what can people write about it (we only meet on the fact that the concentration of checkpoints is ridiculously huge). But I don’t guarantee the same would happen to a group of businessmen in a fancy 4×4 …
The few villages on the road cook food but no one there speak English. I hear occasionally “Bonne arrivée” or “Bonsoir“. In a rush to make it to Abeokuta before the night, I skip my food stops. The biggest enemy of the day is the sun, my forearms are now flashy red and my forehead feels the same color. I don’t feel like taking my camera out to look even more like a tourist, so there will be less pictures for this country.
Abeokuta is the biggest city of the Ogun state with over 500’000 inhabitants. It may be small for Nigeria but it is well worth a capital’s mess. The main bridge on the river that cuts the city in almost half is under repair, which creates a huge waiting queue on each side. Everyone wants to go faster but the density of the traffic, in conjunction with the market stalls on the side, make it difficult. I zigzag through the cars like the motorbikers and have to watch everywhere, for who is crossing, who is speeding up, who is opening his door, etc.
The only two laws that prevail are that 1) the biggest vehicle has priority and 2) the more you honk, the more legitimate your enterprise becomes. None of them are helping me so I must be extra cautious that nothing happens to me and get out of this main road as soon as I pass the bridge. While struggling in the traffic, I am still an object of attention. People ask me how I am, want to start a chat from their driver’s seat, a policewoman grabs my arm for I don’t know which reason … it is more than intense, it is insane.
When I get inside Abeokuta’s center, I have two hours of daylight available to find a place to stay. Well managed, I thought. I roam around the Olumo rock, the historical and tourist sight of the city. It has a certain charm, with huge boulders on the top of a hill (Abeokuta means “under the rock” in Yoruba) and old houses half destroyed, covered with rusty iron sheets, all around.
As I spot no hotel or guesthouse signs, I axe at a police station for recommendations. They want me to go to business hotels with A/C and all the unnecessary comfort for as cheap as 5000 or 7000 naira (25-30 €). I want a guesthouse instead, as long as it is safe. So they point at an old building across the street. It is written “hotel” on a tiny sign at the entrance. And when I ask the police “What about the safety?“, they simply reply “God is your safety“. That reminds me of all the bush taxis wrecks on the road side I have passed since Senegal, on which can still be read “Al’hamdulilah” or something saying that God is protecting the crazy driver from accidents.
Anyway, the landlord of this old house says there is no room available. I am then back on the streets and make a full circle in town, to come back to the Olumo tourist complex in despair, having found nothing. The police had mentioned I can sleep at this tourist complex, and even if that will probably be a high end solution, it is better than being still on the streets at night. Even now, in the evening, I feel the people are getting crazier. I was fine out in the bush but the situation in the city is becoming scary. Road-watchers and passersby used to shout at me really loud, like “STOP!” or “Come here!” as if I was running away after stealing something. Now, some are jumping in front of me, trying to physically stop me. It looks like I am the only White man in town and the first one who catches me gets a prize. I am also called sometimes Chinese. Maybe the Chinese are building the new bridge and bypass highway here, as they are involved in almost every civil works project I have seen in West Africa.
Sadly, the guard of the tourist complex says I cannot stay inside overnight. But shortly after, a well dressed lady asked an employee to take me to a nearby guesthouse. He rides an okada and I have to follow him. After two trials, we find a guesthouse on a main road, just when it gets dark. They are not easy to find at all, as they have no signs. Similarly, the roads often have no signs and no directions to the next cities.
At 2500 naira for a basic room, the price is the double than the average in West Africa, but I knew Nigeria is relatively expensive. Once checked-in, Alessandwo, who took me here, says we must find food. I agree and I was thinking of going to the nearest street food stall, but we take a taxi across town instead, as he is taking me to a chain restaurant making street food but in a clean way. It takes an hour to make a few kilometers in the traffic and then I am finally back at the guesthouse, with food and a room that locks.
As Alessandwo is about to leave, he instructs me not to leave the guesthouse. He also instructs the staff not to let me go out. Then the staff turns to me to repeat once again that I shall not leave my room. Is it that dangerous for me outside here? Among them, there is also a lady, deaf and mute, who communicates in sign language with the rest of the staff. Now she addresses directly to me, making signs “go out – NO” and “you – shower – sleep”. Okay, I get the message very well …
Well, I don’t need to go out and I had enough adventure for this long day. I am now fine and should be happy to have survived for my first day in Nigeria.
Unfortunately, this very long day is not over yet: an hour later, Alessandwo comes back saying the place is not safe for me and I must move out to a safer hotel. What does that mean? And why would I now follow at night a man that I just met earlier? I am not even sure he works at the Olumo rock.
He is insisting, and understanding that I won’t be able to sleep if people keep worrying about me safety around me, we take a taxi to a hotel out of town. It has a high gate, barbed wire on the walls and security staff. The price is 5000 and that is what they call “a safe hotel”.
Now in the “safe room”, my only worry is that my bicycle left at the original guesthouse will still be there tomorrow morning. One of the few channels working on the TV screens a soap opera. Nigerian soaps are popular all over Africa. They tell stories of problems happening in rural villages where there is no electricity nor water, or problems of people tied between modern lifestyles and traditions, kingdoms, spirits, etc. I understand it is easier to identify to these ones, than to what appears on CNN and France24. Those foreign channels are broadcasting all over Africa philosophical debates about the foundation of Europe, or news of the first world that nobody care about. When Africa makes the news, it’s bad news.
Nollywood is the 3rd biggest cinema industry in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. I have even seen in figures that it produces more movies a year than the USA and India together. The principal support is the DVD, not theaters. But it doesn’t mean it is the 3rd best quality at all … the movie I watch is very bad and tells the story of a lady kidnapping twins to sell them to a slave house, in parallel with the story of a man doing a human sacrifice (the beheading is shown very explicitly) to be promised wealth by a local marabout. I am afraid those can be real stories in nowadays Nigeria (babies for 250 USD or 6400 USD). Well, I have had way too much “safety stories” for the day, it is stressing and exhausting. Nigeria is indeed intense and insane.
I feel better with the daylight. The first task in the morning is to fetch my bicycle, and Alessandwo comes to help me. We find no taxis at 7 am as they are all full and all going into town. We have to take an okada, the crazy moto-taxi that speeds in the traffic. I try to keep stable on the bumpy roads while my 20 kg of luggage in Ortlieb bags are strapped around my body. There is no time to relax or to do something easily here!
The secret service officer from the Ilara border also calls me as he wants to meet. He was waiting for me at the original guesthouse where I told him I was staying, but didn’t find me there. So we ride again across town to visit him at his house. He says the original guesthouse was fine and not unsafe, but a man was arrested in front of the door two months ago. He reiterates that I should stick to those “safe hotels” with a fence and security guards and that I should report daily to him. “You won’t see us, but we will know wherever you go“. It makes me feel a bit safer to do like this, but I have heard enough stories of fake Nigerian police that I might as well being dealing with a professionally organized kidnapper. Well well … at this point, where no laws are followed and where truth is an abstract concept, I understand why people are so deeply religious. God is the only one to trust.
Finally free from all safety concerns and after recovering all my belongings, I can finally enjoy this Olumo rock of Abeokuta. The tourist complex had been extended in 2007 with three huge towers containing elevators to make the rock accessible to all. It looks sophisticated, but hey, this is Africa, so the elevators are not working.
A guide takes me to the top of the rock, which overlooks the city at 137 meters a.s.l. It is where the Egba people have hidden for three years during the war with the Dahomey warriors, the present-day Beninese. If they were captured, they would have probably ended in the slave trade. From the top of rock, they could see the enemy far away. In a way, I have the other side of the story of the museum of Abomey which explained the history of the kingdom, in which each king had to conquer more land to leave a bigger kingdom to his successor.
The visit is interesting and the presence of those huge boulders on the top of the hill is intriguing. With the old architecture all over town, it makes Abeokuta a special city.
It is easy to fall from the top of the rock and have 10 or 20 meters of free fall, but the spirit of Olumo didn’t allow anyone to do so: the guide says no one has ever been injured here.
The river crossing Abeokuta is called Ogun, like the name of the state. Abeokuta has the oldest mosque (to be pronounced “mox“, just like “to ask” becomes “to axe”. There is a serious problem with the “sk” sound here) in Ogun state and the oldest church in Nigeria.
The well-dressed lady from yesterday is in fact the manager of the complex and Alessandwo works for her. They actually took care of me very well, and Alessandwo sends me off until the road to Ibadan, my destination for the evening. He opens the streets with an okada and I just have to follow.
As a result, I don’t have to stop and look at my map, and it is better like this. All around the streets, the people scream at me: “HEY HEY HEY“, very loud. This happens everywhere else too, I have to accept that a White man on a bicycle is an attraction, but never as loud and crazy as it is in Nigeria. There was also never as much people outside as there is here. I feel like a gladiator entering the arena, surrounded by crowd cheering and excited at seeing who will win the fight, the gladiator or the lions. It is really intense and intimidating, as I have no clue what will happen if someone stops me and gathers a group around me. Most people smile and greet me though. But I’d rather get out of town to make my breakfast stop.