On the highway to hell a.k.a Lagos…………….
To be honest, I had been dreading this part of the trip from the get go! Not Lagos per se, but having to cross the border between Benin and Nigeria. It is apparently one of the most corrupt and stressful border crossings in the world.
I had done my homework – there is nothing but bad blog posts describing the harassment and compulsory bribery and random detention that is part of the experience. All of the guide books recommended taking an international inter-city bus, as while expensive, they deal with the formalities at the border so you don’t have to. Ok, so that had been my plan.
So, when I arrived in Cotonou, I headed up to the ABC bus company to buy a ticket. It was expensive, but that wasn’t the problem. The only bus they had going was going to leave Cotonou at 5pm (which means 7pm) and arrive in Lagos sometime around 10pm (which means probably 1am). The schedule makes sense to them because these buses actually come from Accra at 6am and pass through Cotonou on the way to Lagos. But, like hell was I willing to be dropped at a dodgy bus park 10k from downtown lagos in the middle of the night. Not to mention, the drivers here aren’t safe during the day time (they trust god to keep them safe rather than vehicular maintenance and defensive driving), but they are totally nuts at night-time. I rang a few other recommended bus companies, and same problem – all late afternoon departures. When I did some research later, apparently many of the passengers sleep in the terminal when they arrive to avoid having to navigate Lagos at night. I don’t want to sleep in the bus terminal.
OK, so next option is take shared taxis all the way to Lagos. This would entail getting up at 4am and heading to Dankopta and waiting for a full taxi. This is not the fast way and the driving normally isn’t particularly safe. A bit of googling later and I had read quite a few reports of Yovos (white people) not being able to get in the shared taxis, as the drivers find us a pain. Fair enough, we take longer at the border and expose them to more risk of bribes – and the driver has to pay the bribe. So that is out.
Next option, hire a private car to take me all the way there. Hmmmmm, I emailed 8 agencies and called 4 and no-one is keen to take that job on. Apparently the customs issue of taking cars in and out is bonkers. Even the shared taxis don’t go all the way, instead they have a mate meet them on the other side and exchange the passengers. The beninese don’t like the Nigerians so no one wants to go there.
I also considered flying, but the only direct flight (it is only 110km) is with the highly disreputable Arik Air.
Alright then – I am going to get a private taxi to the border and then see if I can find a not too dodgy fixer to get me across the border with a minimum of stress. I have figured out how to properly hide all my cash around my body with some safety pins and various bags, and will make sure I look as grubby and poor as possible. On the bright side, while lots of people have described the stress and harassment, it doesn’t appear to be actually dangerous, just difficult. I will keep telling myself that. Once on the other side, I am sure I can pay someone to take me to Lagos. Fingers crossed!
After the fact!
I was up early getting ready! Most of my cash went down my bra, and my spare passports went down the back of my pants. I prepared a wodge of $1 bills ready for bribes.
Things started well when the car was early. When you book a taxi in Africa I only calculate a 50% probability they will arrive. We headed off and I was surprised by his speed. The car had seriously misaligned wheels so every time we went above 50 we wibble wobbled like crazy. And then he started going 30. Bizarre – I have never been in a west African taxi that went slowly. Then I figured out we were running out of gas. So we stopped to buy some off a lady with bottles on the side of the street. Apparently the fuel at the border is 30% cheaper than town and so he had deliberately kept it on empty so he could stock up when we got there. He redeemed himself by helping me navigate the bonkers town to Seme and helping me change money. We pulled up at a spanking new Benin immigration building but apparently it wasn’t yet operational. So we headed down some dodgy dusty back streets to the variety of tin shacks that still make up the frontier and I braced myself for an ordeal.
30 minutes later I was clear of both sides of immigration and had found a private driver to take me direct to my hotel in Lagos at a reasonable rate of $40, given it was 80k and took 3 hours. Most anticlimactic border crossing ever!!!! I did get asked for three bribes (phrased as ‘what do you have for me?’ Or ‘it’s Christmas, do you have a present for me?’) and to save myself time I gave them each $1, which was more than enough. There were two more steps to go through than normal as the police register you also and some other random shack took my details. There was also some negotiation about only giving me a 24 hours on the visa, but when the senior guy left the junior guy gave me two weeks. I did lie about my profession – I am going with teacher these days as it sounds vaguely respectable but not wealthy! I was also very smiley and respectful – a ‘good morning sir, how are you?’ always goes a long way in Africa
My new friend Emmanuel – the driver of a very beat up car with a cracked windscreen and windows that didn’t close (all the better to make us look like a poor target for thieves) was a pro and managed to negotiate all 27 checkpoints between the border and Badagry (about 15k), without paying a single naira – impressive, particularly given he has a yovo in the car. My favourite of his responses to the question ‘what do you have for me?’ was ‘I have gods blessings for you!’ Some of the checkpoint guys were pretty serious, they all had guns or sticks or hammers. I saw one guy smash a pretty big dent in the side of a minibus who he wasn’t happy with.
Emmanuel eschewed the normal road to Lagos and took me on a circuitous 3 hour journey skirting the outskirts of town, getting as far north as the airport, but he assured me he was an expert at avoiding the notorious ‘go slow’ traffic jams in Lagos. I amused myself on the journey by marvelling at the varied goods on sale from the guys at the traffic jams. My favourites were a fire extinguisher and a blender. I understand the hats, water, food, watches and dvds. Bug bombs and new windscreen wipers were also pretty practical buys. Even the Christmas trees made sense! But who the hell goes out for a drive and randomly buys a blender. Thankfully once we got on the expressway which floats above Lagos and the lagoon and heads out to the posh islands the traffic moved.
Am now happily ensconced in the lobby bar drinking a cappuccino as am too early for check in!
Lagos, December 22, 2016
Note: I am far to sensible to take photos anywhere near a border, that is a recipe for ending up detained in a dingy shack. All of these photos are from google images.
Note 2 – some of the blog posts