48 hours in Nigeria

I wrote this 12 years ago, just a month after the event

This is a story about how I could have easily been killed in Nigeria. It’s not as morbid as it sounds. I wasn’t seriously injured, barely even scratched in fact, but I hope by sharing it, it may give people some insight as to my experiences of travelling to Nigeria and stop anyone from ever travelling on the same fateful road that I travelled on.

I flew to Nigeria on 16th June 2008 exactly a week after my 27th birthday. I was working for the University of Wolverhampton and on a recruitment trip to the former English colony, as the UK is a very popular destination for educated children of wealthy Nigerian parents and sponsors, to continue into Higher Education. It was my second trip to Nigeria the first having been a few months back in February when I visited Lagos and Abuja on an enjoyable and drama-free 6 day recruitment trip.

When I arrived at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, the check-in desk was like the check-out in ALDI, ie, there was one long queue with one desk. I had to have my passport checked twice, the first occasion was fine and they handed it straight back and asked me to join another queue. When I arrived at the second desk, I handed my passport to the attendants who were dealing with a few passports. After 5 minutes or so when they didn’t appear to be doing anything, I asked if my passport was ready to be returned to me. They asked me my name, I replied, then my passport was handed back to me and I shoved it in my pocket and headed over to the baggage carousel which was just behind the desk and down three steps. My luggage shortly arrived and I was literally on my way out of the airport when I heard a voice, booming, “Roberts! Roberts!”

I turned on my heels to see a huge Nigerian Police Guard walking around with my passport! Panicked, I quickly identified myself to him and after checking the photo in the passport he agreed, it was mine. I then fished out the passport I had put in my pocket to find that it belonged to a middle-aged, bald English man, who was no-doubt now and extremely irate middle-aged, bald English man at the check-in counter. We exchanged passports like a pair of dodgy dealers and I headed out of the airport into the hot Lagos evening.

My Nigerian colleague collected me in a taxi and took me to my hotel – the Hilton, Lagos. Whenever we travelled to Nigeria we always stayed in the most expensive hotels. This wasn’t through indulgence, but because the British Council recommended it on account that only the security in place at the top hotels was sufficient a guarantee of safety. My colleague, Eze, on the other hand didn’t have the same security fears being a native so stayed in a cheaper hotel across town. This was much to his credit as he was just as welcome and encouraged to stay at the Hilton.

We agreed on a departure time for the next morning. If memory serves, it was to be 9am, as we had a meeting arranged the next day in the city of Ibadan, around 3 hours away on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway.

The next day I was ready at 9am. There was no sign of Eze. My memory fails me as to how many times we got in touch with each other but clearly he was stuck in the most horrendous traffic the other side of town. In the end, he arrived at 11.30am. Lagos traffic, incidentally, is always horrendous. Traffic crawls everywhere and you would generally be just as quick to walk from one-side of the city to the other when it is really bad, which from my experience, was always. The plus side is that, it appears, punctuality doesn’t appear to matter a great deal in Nigeria. One of my colleagues says that time is ‘elastic’ in Nigeria. I know exactly what he means.

Eze arrived over 2 hours late, which meant were two hours late arriving for our meeting in Ibadan, but no-one really cared. The drive to Ibadan was pleasant enough. We were in a 4×4 Mitsubishi Pajero and the traffic wasn’t too bad once we had negotiated ourselves onto the Expressway. The road was fairly rough with quite a few potholes, but none that we couldn’t spot and avoid easily in the clear light of day.

We arrived at Ibadan and drove through the streets of the city to our destination, which was a fairly upmarket hotel. Rumour has it at the time of Nigerian Independence Ibadan was the most populous city in Nigeria and third on the continent behind Cairo and Johannesberg. The parts of Ibadan we saw en route were probably on the edges of the city and they looked tired, run-down and like they had seen better days.

Despite the fact we were over 2 hours late for our meeting, when we arrived the room was still full. No student had gone home and there were no dissenting voices the kind of which you might expect after being so late for a similar event back at home. We did our presentation and met some charming and very well-mannered students the likes of whom were perfectly qualified to come to the UK to continue their studies. We had a great time chatting away one-to-one with students after we had done our presentation but I couldn’t help notice the skies outside beginning to darken as we were beginning to wind up. We had set off late which meant we were going to be returning late and this went against general guidance which was to not travel long distances in Nigeria in the dark. However, this didn’t worry me unduly and anyway even if it did, we had to get back to Lagos that evening as we had other things to do the following day and we had a driver who also had other things to do.

We must have set off back to Lagos at around 6pm. This is when the story actually starts to get interesting. I was in the back of the car with Eze and the front passenger seat was vacant. I can’t remember when it started raining, but it started and got progressively heavier. Tired after a long-day at work and with the spacious back-seat of the Pajero, I drifted off to sleep, aided by the hum of the engine and the patter of rain on the body of the car………

………the driver yelled an expletive and slammed the steering wheel to the right without a care as to what might be beside us or behind us. I saw through a blurry, sodden screen two rear lights alarmingly close to us then flash by to the left as we swung round like a child’s carousel. The driver’s shouting had woken me up and only a second later I was shouting too as we pivoted 180 degrees on the Lagos-Ibadan highway at high-speed. The reason the driver had had to take such evasive action, I think, was because the traffic in front had unexpectedly stopped, probably due to a pot-hole causing a further accident ahead. On reflection we were in what accident investigators might call, phase two of an unfolding series of collisions.

We swung round unceremoniously into oncoming traffic. Right there and then I thought I was going to die. Simple as that. A large, luxury tour coach was hurtling towards us as we faced the traffic behind us. There was no avoiding it, we were going to get hit, front on, like a boxer would smash his opponent in the face. And so it came…. I don’t remember the noise or the trajectory the car took, or even what I was thinking. I just remember a blow to my body which could have been me slamming into the interior, or Eze, or both.

The next thing I knew we were in a ditch on the side of the road with pieces of window glass all over us. The passenger front seat was effectively no longer there. If either of us had been sitting there, we would have been killed no question. A quick diagnosis determined that the coach had tried to avoid us, hit the passenger seat on its way and sent us spinning and rolling into a ditch. We soon established that, remarkably, none of us had been seriously injured though I recall that Eze was bleeding from around his eyebrow.

We checked on each other to make sure we were ok and then Eze and the driver got out of the car. I tried to get out and was forcibly told to stay in the car. Only later did I realise that we were on a road infamous for its highway-robbers and being a vulnerable white face, wasn’t a good look in such an environment. I sat in the car, jibbering and shaking. I looked through the back window, which had been part smashed, to see the coach on the other side of the road having careered into an area of trees. It was upright and as far as I could make out it looked like everyone was ok on there.

I think there was a moment when I reflected on my current situation. I was involved in a car-crash in Nigeria in the pouring rain on a poor, dangerous road at night. I was helpless, completely in the hands of Eze, our driver and the prevailing circumstances. I had no idea what to do or what would happen next.

As it sat in the car Eze and the driver were outside trying to wave down other drivers to help. There was no attempt to call the police or to check on the coach. It became quite clear to me that the aim from here on in was to ditch the car and get back to Lagos however we could before any bandits came along to take advantage of our perilous situation. I can’t remember how long we were waiting, but then suddenly Eze called me over and said we were to get into a white van, which had pulled over.

I recall questioning whether this was a wise decision, but in the circumstances, I guess we had no other choice. Eze and the driver had vetted this guy as best they could in the driving rain and established that this was our best option. On reflection, I owe Eze a lot for this decision – it was his call and he got it right. I was ushered into the front seat and behind me in an open area of the van, in amongst tools and bits of machinery, Eze and the driver sat on the floor. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but I soon established that the man who had pulled over, had done so purely as a good Samaritan. He had no other purpose other than to help people who he could see were in need. He told us that the road was infamous for bandits setting up road-blocks. A quite simple method of blocking the road with a line of cars, walking up to people’s car windows with a gun and demanding cash, before letting them go on their way. He said he was getting fed up with these ferrell highwaymen and a couple of days earlier had driven through a road-block at high speed. This accounted for the scratches on his car as he had swerved through a tight gap in the barrier and the bullet holes which peppered his van. You’d think this hearing this story would have made me anxious, but you have to understand that when you have just been involved in a crash that for a second you thought my kill you, then paralysed by fear at the predicament you’re in, to actually be back on the road was a huge blessing.

We continued back to Lagos and as we did we passed harrowing scenes. There had been multiple car crashes along the road. We drove, at snail-pace (which suited me fine) passed over-turned cars and  trucks that had jack-knifed. There were intermittent scenes of this kind of chaos all the way home.

We managed to direct our driver to the hotel I was staying at. We arrived and I stepped out of the van, thanking our new friend profusely. I can’t remember what I said but I hope the sincerity of gratitude I was feeling came across. I think it did. Had he not stopped to collect us, we could have been in serious danger of being robbed, kidnapped or worse, or crashed into again as we sat, open to the elements. I managed to pull out some cash from my wallet, £100 – all that I had, and gave it to him by way of a token of my gratitude. A small price to pay.

I returned to my hotel room, instinctively called my family and girlfriend (now my wife).  Rambling on the phone to them that I was alright, then explaining what had happened. I also called my manager back at home. He was horrified and urged me to come home as soon as possible and abort the trip on day 2 of the 10 day excursion. He was (and still is) a very kind man, had a fatherly instinct about him and was only concerned for my safety and nothing else. Him telling me to come home, without me having to ask was hugely appreciated by me and my family.

To cut a long story mercifully short, I checked out the following day and after a short visit to the British Council to meet some more students, headed back to the airport where my tickets were awaiting me which had been hastily rearranged by the highly efficient office back in Wolverhampton.

So, there you go. That’s my story. I have written this as much for myself as anyone else, as it is one of those events that probably gets hazier in your memory as time goes on, so I wanted to capture it now before it gets any worse. Fortunately the episode didn’t really affect me beyond a bit of neck whiplash and a bruised hip. There were no longer term effects, although I do recall the next time I was driving on the motorway in the dark and it began to rain I suddenly felt extremely vulnerable and had to pull over to a service station and wait for it to stop raining before I continued on. Strange how the mind works.

I’ve never been back to Nigeria, though have been to other countries since where the road safety is poor and do not enjoy travelling by car in these places one little bit. Prior to this accident I had tolerated poor driving and just accepted it as part of the job when travelling, or part of the experience when on holiday . These days I don’t accept it and ensure I make my feelings quite clear to any taxi driver who thinks tail-gating at 70mph + is a good idea. I’ve never been to India, but people who have been to both China and India tell me that the Chinese are much better drivers. With this in mind, I may never actually go to India!

Final tip – don’t be put off going to Nigeria, but whatever you do NEVER travel on the Lagos-Ibadan Highway. I have since found out that two colleagues at other universities have run into similar difficulties on that stretch of road. One was lucky like me, sadly, the other lost his life.

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