Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and Lagos, with an estimated population that well exceeds ten million, is on the United Nations’ list of mega-cities. As the eleventh-biggest supplier of crude oil on earth, Nigeria by rights should be Africa’s economic giant. It has also had the reputation for centuries of being one of the world’s most chaotic and dangerous places; a warning to early sailors to the region was ‘Beware, take care of the Bight of Benin. Few come out though many go in.’ To put it plainly, as travel destinations go, Nigeria is far from the most pleasant west African country to travel in – it’s impoverished and the majority of the population lives on under US$4 a day. It’s dirty and an environmental nightmare, with piles of rubbish literally everywhere, and its natural resources have been stripped bare. Nothing works and everything is seriously dilapidated, the infrastructure is totally inadequate, there are frequent shortages of fuel, electricity and water, and vehicle traffic and human congestion are tremendous.
The country has a history of despot military dictators, and corruption at all levels of society, and has witnessed overwhelming political upheavals. In the north, there’s an ongoing religious and ethnic conflict that has killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people since 1999 – a conflict that is so primal that Nigerian people are killing each other in hand-to-hand fighting and mob violence. In the south, the creeks of the Niger Delta are controlled by militia warlords who are attacking Nigeria’s oil industry, and over 340 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped since 2006. To the international community Nigeria is still sometimes regarded as a pariah nation, run by a government that is largely incapable of controlling the largest population in Africa.
Nigeria offers the opportunity to see the country in its raw and naked state. Travel is challenging and exciting and your experiences will be memorable and educational.
Everywhere in Nigeria contrasts abound. Step outside Le Méridien Hotel in Port Harcourt, one of the most luxurious hotels in the country, and you’ll see people selling yams from wheelbarrows at the gate; outside the Virgin airline offices, you’ll see goats in the car park. From 24-hour internet cafés to dead bodies in the street; from roadblocks where the policemen wear bandanas and mirrored sunglasses to the ladies going to church in the most beautiful dresses you’ve ever seen; from plane-loads of wealthy Nigerians going to Dubai on shopping trips to people so poor they resort to eating rats and maggots; from black-magic markets full of unexplainable fetishes and charms in a country where there are still rumours of human sacrifice going on, to more people carrying cell phones than perhaps anywhere else in the world. It’s appalling and awful, fascinating and appealing, and funny and sad, all at the same time; Nigeria is that extreme.
In his Ghana guide, my colleague at Bradt, Philip Briggs, describes Ghana as ‘Africa for beginners’. Well, by the same token, I would describe Nigeria as ‘Africa for the very experienced’. It is simply one of the world’s most difficult places to travel in and the notion of travelling here conjures up a horrific reaction. It’s far from a holiday destination, there’s very little to see in the way of conventional sightseeing, and it’s an environmental disaster. Nigerians themselves have little interest in conserving and preserving their natural or historical legacies, and there is no tourism industry to support the national parks or historic sites.
So why go to Nigeria? Well, it’s impossible to deny its pride of place among the potential travel destinations of the world, and there are undeniably few of these left as the world gets increasingly smaller. For the adventurous traveller, Nigeria offers the opportunity to see the country in its raw and naked state. Travel is challenging and exciting and your experiences will be memorable and educational. Alternatively, you may be reading this because you intend to work there. Nigeria has wide market opportunities, and there are many foreign companies operating in industries such as pharmaceuticals, oil, roadbuilding and telecommunications. There is a large expat community – especially in Lagos – which has successfully made Nigeria its home. And if you are going to work there, you will find that there are effectively two Nigerias: one is the expat world of Lagos with its yacht clubs, societies, posh restaurants and supermarkets selling imported items, and the other is the rest of the country. I encourage you also to explore the latter.
Love it or hate it, Lagos has to be seen to be believed: nowhere on earth will you experience such mind-boggling, vibrant chaos as in this mass of humanity. In the waterlogged south of the country are deltas and lagoons where people’s lives haven’t changed for hundreds of years, and in the north are ancient kingdoms and walled cities, even today ruled by sultans and emirs. Nigeria has a fascinating and turbulent history, and the cultural assets of the nation are universally recognised, with more than 250 rich and diverse ethnic groups, several religions, and the warm-hearted hospitality of 155 million people. The highlight of travelling in Nigeria is meeting these culturally rich people; practically any person in any corner of Nigeria will offer a moment of their time to say ‘Welcome’. For the traveller with an open mind and friendly demeanour, meeting the people is an overwhelming experience – they are colourful, intelligent, curious, creative, imaginative and generous.
Travel in Nigeria can sometimes be stressful and is frequently stalled by inconvenience and inefficiency; not every experience will be pleasant. Away from the expat suburbs of Lagos, Westerners are a rare sight indeed, and without exception the Nigerians are absolutely dumbfounded to see oyibos (whites) walking along the streets, sitting in the local bush taxis, and eating in the local restaurants or food stalls. It just doesn’t happen here. But if you’re up to the challenge, it’s one of the most exciting and engaging countries in the world and I have been treated with nothing but friendliness and helpfulness at all times. I have written for other guidebook publishers before, but the joy of writing for Bradt is that their authors are encouraged to write much more personally. Quite frankly there is no other way to write about Nigeria than personally. It’s a destination that’s not about Eiffel Towers or Serengeti Plains, but about a conversation or a unique moment. Every traveller to the country will experience a very personal and distinctive trip.
Bradt is the only publisher to devote an entire guide to this little-understood country, and is well known for giving its authors relative freedom to write as they see fit, especially in destinations that are difficult to travel in, such as Nigeria. When I wrote the first edition in 2005, Nigeria had only recently emerged from 16 years of military dictatorship and I was told by one Nigerian tourism official that, during that period, the secretive military discouraged tourism so foreigners wouldn’t see what was going on in the country.
Since then, what has surprised and delighted me is to see what an impact the existence of a guidebook on Nigeria has had on encouraging people to visit the country. I’ve had an overwhelming response from readers who have shared their experiences in Nigeria with me, and these haven’t just been hardy expats and adventurous backpackers, who, admittedly, were the only people I had expected to buy the book. They have been people who spent their childhood in Nigeria when it was still under colonial rule, a group of ex-Peace Corps volunteers that served in Nigeria in the 1960s and wanted to revisit their old haunting grounds, a 19-year-old Slovenian girl who wanted to visit her Nigerian boyfriend and whose father would only let her go after he read the book, parents of people who have married Nigerians visiting their grandchildren for the first time, and one poor chap who had succumbed to 419 fraud; and went to Nigeria to try and recover his stolen money.
Totally unexpectedly many Nigerians bought the book too. After reading it, some have returned to Nigeria for a visit after living overseas for decades. One reader, who is half Nigerian and half British, and hasn’t been to Nigeria since he was a small child in the 1980s, has made five visits in the last three years and has now moved to Lagos permanently. He has paid me the greatest compliment by saying, ‘You showed me a side of Nigeria I had almost forgotten about. Thank you.’