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Nigeria - Travel and visas
A passport (valid for at least six months and preferably with several blank pages) and a Nigerian visa are required for entry into the country. Visa exemptions are granted only to citizens of some of Nigeria’s neighbouring west African countries. Nigerian embassies or consulates are located in the capitals of most European, North American and African countries together with Hong Kong, Tokyo and Canberra.
Some countries may have several visa offices (for example Washington, New York and San Francisco in the USA). British consulates often represent Nigerian overseas missions if there is no Nigerian embassy in the country. The two visas visitors are likely to apply for are the short-term tourist visa, valid for a stay of not more than one month (though they are generally extendible to a maximum of three months in-country), or, for those going to work, a business visa, issued to expatriate ‘experts’ to work on specific projects, which is initially valid for three months but can be extended for up to a maximum of six months (if the expat stays long term it can be changed into a long-term residency visa).
When applying for a tourist visa, you need to produce (along with your passport) your return airline ticket, evidence of funds that you will spend in Nigeria (bank or credit card statements), one passport picture, evidence of a hotel booking or a letter from friends or family in Nigeria, a return or onward air ticket if flying on, and the non-refundable fee. The amount differs greatly depending on nationality, but at the time of writing it was US$144 for UK citizens and US$112 for US citizens and it also varies among the issuing authorities.
In most countries you are required to attend the embassy or high commission in person as part of the application for a visa. You also now need to make your application and visa fee payment online to the Nigerian Immigration Service (www.immigration.gov.ng) prior to going to the embassy. You will need to take both your printed online application and payment confirmation page as this has your unique ID number. Applications will only be processed with these documents. For business visas you will also need to produce a supporting letter from your employer stating the nature of your business and guaranteeing sufficient financial support for the visit, or alternatively have an invitation letter from the business you are dealing with in Nigeria.
For both visas, some embassies may also require to see your return airline ticket. Generally, visa turnaround is three to seven days but in many countries there’s now an express 24-hour service for an additional fee. For more general information visit www.nigeria.embassyhomepage.com.
Once you have a visa, ensure that you make a photocopy of it and the passport page with your photograph on it. Some travellers choose to scan and store them at their email address so you can always access your documentation and print it out. For security reasons it is advisable to detail all your important information on one document, photocopy it, leave a copy with family or friends at home and distribute copies through your luggage.
Details might include things like passport and visa number, travel insurance policy details, a 24-hour emergency contact number, and details of relatives or friends to be contacted in case of an emergency. Other guidebooks recommend that you also put credit card details and travellers’ cheque numbers on this document, but this is not the case for Nigeria – not because you aren’t going to be able to use either travellers’ cheques or credit cards anyway, but because of the prevalence of fraud.
If you are going to Nigeria to work or are staying a considerable time, it might be an idea to register with your embassy or high commission on arrival. Staff can advise you of travel warnings, keep records of next of kin, provide passport services, absentee voting arrangements and so on. They will also put you on what is referred to as the Warden System, which enables them to contact you in case of an emergency in Nigeria.
Should there be any possibility that you will want to drive in Nigeria, obtain an international driving licence (available at post offices in the UK, and from www.nationalautoclub.com in the USA, for a nominal fee). Although most expats have drivers, there are occasions at night and the weekends when they drive themselves. Overlanders will need additional paperwork for their vehicle, such as a carnet de passage, registration document and third-party insurance.
Nigeria’s international airports are Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos; Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano; Port Harcourt International Airport, Port Harcourt; and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. Many international airlines operate to and from Nigeria and there are a huge number of flights – not, unfortunately, because lots of tourists are visiting the country, but because many millions of Nigerians want to live anywhere else in the world but Nigeria.
Established airlines serving Nigeria include Air France, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Egypt Air, Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, South African Airways and Swiss (formerly Swissair), variously offering good connections with London, Paris and Dubai, and a number of Dutch and German cities, as well as with Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Johannesburg in east and southern Africa. From Lagos to London, it’s a six-hour flight. Most airlines fly to Lagos, but British Airways also flies to Abuja, KLM flies between Amsterdam and Abuja and Kano, and Air France flies between Paris and Port Harcourt. Travellers from North America have the option of going via Europe or Delta Air Lines offers a direct service between Atlanta and Lagos while United Airlines has just started direct flights between Houston, Washington DC and Lagos.
The Nigerian airline Arik Air is based at Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos with a second hub in Abuja. The carrier now operates both on domestic and regional routes and has direct services to London, New York, Istanbul and several African cities including Johannesburg, Accra, Monrovia, Dakar and Luanda. Air Nigeria (formerly Virgin Nigeria) has several domestic routes and destinations in west Africa such as Accra, Dakar, Sao Tome, Monrovia and Cotonou. With all these airlines serving Nigeria you should be able to get a competitively priced ticket from Europe, but be warned that the flights are very popular and fill up quickly. The Emirates and Kenya Airways (via Nairobi) flights from Lagos to Dubai are extremely popular with wealthy Nigerians on shopping trips. London especially has dozens of travel agents specialising in cheap flights to Africa, many of which can be combined for onward travel. Remember, it is essential that you have a return or onward ticket to get a visa for Nigeria.
You can get to Nigeria by boat or ferry from Cameroon, but this trip is not for the faint-hearted and I have heard stories about both ferries and motorboats packed full of people simply disappearing. I’ve had recent feedback that ferry trips have been running smoothly with attention given to passenger numbers, but you should still be very wary of potentially overloaded vessels. Ferries arrive and depart from Calabar while motorboats go from nearby Oron in Cross River State.
The major overland route from Europe through west Africa roughly runs through Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon. From Cameroon it’s sometimes possible to cross into east Africa via Chad and Sudan but this route is routinely closed because of the unrest in these countries. You can do all or part of this epic journey with an overland company or in your own vehicle, though of course you will have to be fully kitted out and self-sufficient, with a 4x4 and all the gear. For inspiration to start your own overland, visit www.africa-overland.net, the website for the Africa Overland Network, which has lots of useful information and links to over 200 websites of people’s individual trips by land, bicycle and motorbike. Also pick up a copy of Bradt’s Africa Overland for lots of practical advice.
You can enter Nigeria by road from Benin, Cameroon and Niger. The easiest and quickest route is from Zinder in Niger through to Kano, then west to Maiduguri, and into Cameroon at Mora. But it’s much more interesting to continue south to Jos and then on down to Calabar via perhaps Yankari National Park. The alternative overland route is from Benin along Nigeria’s coastal highway, the fastest route between Lagos and Cameroon. When crossing into Nigeria get rid of all money from the previous country as it’s hard to change once across the border. Also fill up with diesel, as diesel is not always available everywhere in Nigeria. Once in Nigeria fill jerrycans or water tanks whenever you can, as water is also hard to get (for a small fee you can fill up from public taps). Finally, if you’re not in your own vehicle, public transport links the closest cities in the neighbouring countries with the closest cities in Nigeria, so feasibly backpackers can move about from country to country.
There are 22 paved runways around the country and most of Nigeria’s state capitals have their own airports. Until a few years ago there used to be many more airlines, 30 or so, but following two fatal air crashes in Nigeria in 2005, the government got tougher with airline operators. The airlines were required to meet stricter standards of safety but many of them failed and their licences were revoked by the Ministry of Aviation. Unfortunately, despite this move, another fatal crash occurred in 2006, which killed the Sultan of Sokoto among many others. Nevertheless, despite this appalling aviation record, conditions in safety have improved overall lately and, to put it in perspective, it’s worth remembering that between seven and eight million Nigerians take domestic flights annually.
At the bigger airports such as Lagos and Abuja, you can just pitch up for a ticket at the airport, though in many cities some of the airlines have desks in local hotels where you can purchase a ticket. Domestic airfares vary slightly between the various airlines. Expect to pay roughly the following prices: Lagos–Abuja, US$100; Lagos–Warri, US$160; Lagos–Benin City, US$120; Lagos–Calabar, US$120; Lagos–Kano, US$160; Lagos–Sokoto, US$150; and Lagos–Enugu, US$110. There are scores of additional fares from Abuja to these destinations and between the other cities, but you can get an idea of price versus distance from the above. All domestic airlines now have websites listing full schedules. Several airlines now offer fares that are significantly cheaper if the ticket is booked and paid for in advance. Most operators offer online booking with several methods of payment, including local debit cards and cash transactions at certain banks.
Nigeria has over 3,500km of railways and the two main railways are from Lagos to Kano (via Ibadan–Oyo–Ogbombosho–Kaduna); and from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri (via Aba–Enugu–Makurdi–Jos). The railways are run by the Nigeria Railway Corporation (www.nrc-ng.org), which has been in and out of bankruptcy for the last 20 years. After a few years without a service, the Lagos–Kano line has been upgraded and it’s now possible to take a train from Lagos to Ilorin and from Minna through Kaduna to Kano. The full track between Lagos and Kano has reopened to varying reviews and more services will become available again, possibly including the Port Harcourt–Jos–Maiduguri line. There is a ‘light’ railway system being built in Lagos with seven lines proposed, mainly to serve the suburbs, which should be completed by 2015.
The national road system links all the main centres, and traffic drives on the right. Roads in Nigeria are generally very poor, causing damage to vehicles and contributing to hazardous driving conditions. Of Nigeria’s 200,000km of roads, only about 60,000km are paved, but many of these are in very bad shape and have been decaying for years. Some have lost their asphalt surface or have reverted to being gravel roads; many are barely usable, especially in high rainfall areas of the south. Excessive speed, unpredictable driving habits, and the lack of basic maintenance on many vehicles are additional hazards (as burnt-out wrecks and mangled vehicles along the road will attest). The rainy season from May to October is especially dangerous because of flooded roads. The worst roads are in the southeast of the country. There are few traffic lights or stop signs, and drivers seldom yield the right of way or give consideration to pedestrians and cyclists.
Road travel in Africa is generally erratic, but in Nigeria you will also have to get used to the whole ethos of ‘me first’ – each motorist has absolute power and authority over the road, regardless of whether a pedestrian is walking in front of his vehicle, whether he is on the wrong side of the road and a truck is heading down a hill towards him, or whether he wants to get from point A to point B via an embankment, a pavement or a central reservation. There is a good reason why hire cars come with a driver in Nigeria, and why the more comfortable front seats of a go-when-full minibus are often the last to fill – the views through the eyes of the driver can be very unnerving! Finally, driving without honking the horn is considered discourteous and dangerous.
By minibus and bush taxi
Except for the smallest of villages, every settlement in Nigeria has a motor park, and some of the larger cities have several. All public transport goes from these and you will inevitably spend a great deal of time hanging around them waiting for vehicles to go-when-full.
Sometimes you may be lucky and arrive at a motor park and find a vehicle with only a couple of seats left and depart almost immediately; at other times you may be the first to arrive and have to hang around for another 16 or so people who want to go in the same direction as you.
It’s best to go to a motor park early as the first vehicles of the day fill quickly. The exception is Sunday in the Christian cities, where nothing moves until church finishes about 13.00. Although they seem completely chaotic at first, motor parks are fairly organised and someone will point you in the right direction of the vehicle you want. Always look out for the men in the green and white uniform of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), who patrol the motor parks and take the fee paid by the drivers for the use of the motor park. One will take you straight to the right bus. There are queues of vehicles and the one that is filling up first will have a wooden pyramid sign on top with the first three letters of the town or city it’s going to. When the vehicle departs, this is simply plonked onto the top of the next one. In nearly all of the motor parks you can hire a porter with a wheelbarrow to carry your luggage.
No vehicle moves until the required amount of people are in place. In a minibus this means when two people are in the front plus the driver, five are on the back seat, four are across the middle seats (with another couple of additional people squashed onto the engine cover at the back of the front seat), and the conductor is sitting in the doorway. In a bush taxi (any kind of car), it’s when two people are on the front seat plus the driver and four are on the back seat. In the case of Peugeot 504s, another three are on the second back seat fixed into the boot.
Expect to be completely squashed and uncomfortable. There is not enough space for everyone to sit back on their seats so you will have to get used to frequently ‘shifting’ as the Nigerians like to call it – as in ‘shift up’, ‘shift back’ and so on. This means everyone in the vehicle takes random turns at sitting to the front of the seats while other passengers sit back, and arms and legs are routinely shifted to accommodate everyone else’s limbs.
By okadas and city transport
There must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of motorcycle taxis in Nigeria. In the south they are generally called okadas (after a defunct airline); in the north they are known as achabas. If you get stuck, just simply say ‘machine’. You’ll see the odd meaty Suzuki, but the majority of Nigerian okadas are Jinchengs imported from China. Millions of young men make a living as okada drivers and, if they are successful, as they get older and when they can afford to buy a car, they become taxi drivers. They usually carry one person on the back but it’s not uncommon to see two or more people plus an assortment of luggage. In the cities they are faster than regular taxis but are not for the faint-hearted, though you can always tell your driver to slow down.
You will always have to negotiate a ride, which will be as little as N30 for a short hop outside of Lagos, and N50 in Lagos, while a journey of a kilometre or two will cost upwards of N150. In Lagos okada drivers by law now have to wear a helmet and most should offer a passenger helmet too, which may or may not fit or have a working chinstrap.
Given that you might not have a crash helmet (which is already taking a real risk in Lagos traffic), it’s not a good idea to take okadas on busy expressways where the traffic is moving fast. Accidents are common and in the large cities in particular okadas are driven very aggressively. Finally, if you ask an okada driver to take you somewhere and they hesitate at all it means that they don’t know the place. Rather than admitting this, they will drive around randomly until you catch on.
Taxis are available everywhere (though less so at night); although some are painted in specific colours, nearly all cars serve as taxis for the right price. Agree on the fare before getting in and remember that ‘a drop’ is when you specifically want the vehicle to yourself. Expect to pay about three times more for a drop in a car than you would pay for an okada, but remember if there are a few of you then a drop will work out cheaper than you all taking individual okadas. Minibuses and shared taxis operate along specific routes that you simply hail down on the side of the street in the general direction you want to go. The price for both is usually set at about N20–40 depending on the distance you travel in them. Pay the correct fare, and pay it only once, no matter how many times the conductor or driver goes around collecting.