“Such is life” – Nigeria

Those were the words painted on the once white fender of a Mack truck standing off a main road in Benue State.



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The semi brimming with rusted metal heading for some sort of recycling had seen better days but it was not an uncommon sight. An infusion of half-a-billion USD was according to estimates needed to get the domestic steel production going, so this truckload and the profits with it would go elsewhere. If only more of the oil revenue would be stay in country rather than in the pocket of multi-nationals and a few nationals. Sadly the sentiment seemed to acknowledge the current state of affairs and a level of fatalism or a resignation to the long uphill battle to change the attitudes and spread the country’s wealth to a broader swath of the population. The clock is ticking and as the world’s oil glut may decline Nigeria’s population is growing fast. For those in power this is a challenge, a challenge to channel the energy of a fast growing population with a median age of 18. It is estimated that todays 204 million Nigerians will exceed the US population in just one generation. The challenges are formidable.

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Cash is king

After maxing out the limits of cash withdrawal at a few ATMs we (foreigners) had met up with two police officers and an additional driver at a gas station in Abuja earlier in the morning. We in shorts and sandals, the officers in body armor, Kevlar helmets armed with AK-47s. The 500 km journey would take us south through three states to Ogoja. We passed State Universities, an Airbase, crossed a river, drove parallel to a Chinese highway expansion project and watched boys rolling old motorcycle tires with sticks. Much of it seen through tinted windows from an air conditioned car passing at breakneck speeds perhaps a safety feature or just Nigerian driving. There was a sense that the further south we drove the amount of checkpoints increased. Some legitimate with sand filled drums and camo nets outside military and police installations, some with home-made retractable nail beds and others just tree trunks across the road to slow traffic down. Many manned by young men with AKs. A going rate in the fake checkpoints was 500-1500 Naira’s (1.50 – 4.50 USD) and we had loosely counted over three dozen on the way. Thanks to Sunday the police officer in the front seat we passed without pay. He occasionally wound down the window to shout at the rag-tag in the checkpoints but mostly kept the window closed staring sternly and in between singing along to a multitude of “Praise the Lord” variants with his AK 47 between his legs. What provided the most protection is left unsaid.

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First shots

As we approached Agoja one of our guides DeeZee (phonetic), a media representative for the governor in Cross River State took us off road and into a small village. We parked under massive Mango trees (not ripe for another month a lady lauded as I touched a low hanging fruit) and were soon inundated with smiling children and joined by an older man. A quote from a book and an arm pointing up-hill indicated where the first shots had been fired during the Biafra civil war in 1967, a war synonymous with African starvation in the late sixties.  A few posed pictures at the foot of the hill for the local media man before the journey continued to Ogoja where an audience with a local king awaited. Our welcome was a big deal and accompanied by three dancers in traditional garb as well as a band keeping the drum beat. Behind a tall wall and steel gates awaited so the king in his palace, a villa with a veranda where he held audience. We were seated in a semicircle facing a large wooden chair and asked to stand as the king made an entrance through a beaded drape and took his seat. We had been tipped off to bring a bottle of good brandy which was presented to his highness, a sizable man carrying a large sculpted walking stick and a red hat. He sat listening in his chair as other local leaders praised him in front of us. One of them a now retired university professor who had been living in Canada translated to English. When afterwards asked why the professors own son had not returned to Nigeria, he said “it was too dangerous”. Before leaving the king blessed each of us by blowing into our cupped hands. A whisper of a financial contribution towards the transportation costs of the lesser chiefs was suggested and obliged to. As the steel gates closed, the dancers reemerged to send us off to the hotel.


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Teaching moments

The following morning we had asked to meet with a Catholic priest who runs a furniture making workshop, a café and a large school and orphanage out of town. A quick visit to the industries showed an impressive ambition and dedication to grow local production. The road to the school went through a village where a few local goons with sticks and sunglasses manned a checkpoint. With the heavies in-front we passed through without a hitch, even if they later appeared a bit nervous when we stopped at the school.


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The visit at the school was a joy. No mobile phones, pupils listening to their teachers and so much enthusiasm. One can only hope that most of this energy will be well channeled and serve the kids in this tough country.

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Natural resources

An enormous sculpted Buffalo head crowned the gate to the former cattle ranch turned mountain resort which was our final stop. We started at the bottom viewing an impressive cable car, with the capacity to lift visitors 850 meters and 11 km away in just fifteen minutes. This capacity, however, was voided by a two year strike by the unpaid engineers. There would be several similar stories at the top where we arrive by the means of a long and winding road. The well maintained asphalt was lined with storm drains probably stopping it from falling off the mountainside. It was almost empty but for the occasional two or three person laden motorcycle, would take us to the plateau at 1600 meters above sea level.


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As visitors were few and far between the check-in carried some sort of Jurassic Park feel with the front office personnel somewhat rusty in their procedures. Eventually the keys to two of the Finnish designed Mountain Lodge houses were in our hands. That in itself was another Nigerian story. A foreign company designed and imported the material wood (mostly Scandinavian pine) and went belly up in the midst of construction. Luckily skilled local craftsmen were able to complete the build some fifteen years ago. The then Governor Donald Duke who had been considered one of the least corrupt officials in the country had driven the project along with the construction of an airstrip (named after him) with zest only to have his replacement abandoning the entire endeavor. The villas and the extensive Convention Center and Spa facilities had fallen into disrepair ever since. Electricity was patchy and only available after six PM, the first two hours allocated to pump water to a gravity tank after which the power was used to shed some light in the pitch black African night. Atop the hill lay the Presidential Villa equipped with armored glass and thickened walls also disused since a decade and a half.  


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As we were settling in Chef Henry came by to take dinner reservations. Cash strapped he could offer us a freshly slaughtered chicken, cabbage, rice, a local soup and some sauces. With this he and his staff performed a miracle and kept us well fed and happy for the duration of our stay.


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The grandest draw of the resort, its nature had not been hampered by a shortage of funding. Even during the dry season the greenery in its abundance could be explored on nature trails. There was even a canopy walk into the forest which occasionally housed monkeys, it was said. Even without the primates it was a treat to walk high above ground at arms-length of moss laden tree branches. One could surmise the lushness following the rainy season. It was a treat for birdwatches and others just listening to the sounds never heard at home. During the following mornings early birdwatching excursion it was rejuvenating to soak up the fragrances of plants and soil carried by early morning dew, the calls of birds some in mating season, some on vacation from Northern Europe and some just warning of intruders like us.  


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At breakfast we heard about and talked to a European couple who had arrived late last night without a Police escort. Between two checkpoints they had been stopped in a fake ditto and robbed of all their cash. Luckily they still had their car and credit cards. Travelling at night without an escort had been their loss.


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“Show some love”

On Valentine’s Day a man who can barely put one foot ahead of another to a beat had been called out to judge a dance competition. The man was I, and the task was to choose one woman over another with a prize of 5000 Naira’s in the pot. The backdrop was a roaring bonfire and African rhythms mixed with more familiar tunes by a local DJ. One after another the competitors were voted off by an enthusiastic crowd until only two girls remained. Both very good dancers but with an age difference and there had to be a way to get out of the conundrum to proclaim one winner over the other. In the end I proclaimed both winners, one in the youth and the other in the adult category. I had saved mine and their faces.


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Our final day was spent hiking by a holy mountain, peaking into neighboring Cameroun and swimming in a mountain stream along with a bunch of local kids. As the morning turned towards lunch the outing was transformed into a pick-nick with the help of a couple of motorcycle borne youth who was hired to get beer, fruit, nuts and local palm wine. The beverages were upon arrival placed in the stream of cool fresh water. The whitish milky local wine was derived from the sap of palm trees and quickly fermented within a few hours to a sweetish beverage with a slight zing. A bit of a sour acquired taste, my preference remained the cool beer. The refreshing clear mountain runoff and the daredevil kids stayed with me.


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The Hustle

We doubled back towards the capital we again passed through the town of Gboko on the worst two kilometers of road we travelled. Not even a washboard but rather a few deep winding trails cut into the red dusty soil. Had there ever been an underlying road bank? The irony lay in the large industrial plant, contoured immediately west of the “road”. The Dangote Cement Plant is owned by the richest man in Africa Aliko Dangote whose name is associated with beyond cement food products such as sugar, flour, seasonings and vegetable oil. The Dangote group is also putting money into sponsoring new Police cars and most recently a mega billion USD investment in a domestic state of the art oil refinery and chemical complex due to open in 2020. Hopefully this will keep and spread the oil wealth in-country and stimulating the rebuild of Nigeria using domestic means and resources rather than relying on a Chinese state owned company to get it done.  Nigeria has so much positive human energy and if there is a political will the result will surely come their way.


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The journey ended at the same gas-station in Abuja where the police officers and drivers were payed the remainder of the beforehand agreed amount. Suddenly the previous agreement became negotiable. The police officers wanted some more cash, as they had counted the days wrong. Explanations, arguments and perceived misunderstandings were haggled down to a compromise at the gasoline reeking corner lot in the capital. We had never during our journey been stopped or shook down for cash but here it was blatantly confirmed why the Nigerian police was considered the most corrupt institution in the country. It was nothing personal and would likely be forgotten in a few days, however the colloquial for "show some love” had just been translated. The future lies in a different interpretation.

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