Scott's Excellent Adventure in Nigeria

A travelogue/essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

The Emir of Bauchi in procession
The nation of Nigeria, in the heart of sub-saharan Africa, is noted for many things. It has vast oil reserves. It is the most populous nation in Africa, and it is one of the most industrious, yet one of the poorest countries in the world. But what it is increasingly known for, is corruption on a scale that is difficult to understand without experiencing it first hand. I had heard much about African corruption, but naively thought I understood until I was invited to go there. What I found surprised and shocked me.

It all began one winter day in December of 1990 when I was in San Diego, still living in my motorhome, and wondering how I was going to make enough money to survive for the next year. I'd been working for Raytheon as an electronics technician for three months, and had generated enough cash to make it through the summer, but the temp job at Raytheon was coming to an end and I hadn't found anything else. So, I started making phone calls.

One of the calls I made was to an old friend and co-worker from my days at Centro Corp. I'd heard he had a job working for some African company, and I thought it might be interesting to go there, but didn't know what he did or whether I might be qualified for whatever he was doing.

But on a whim, I gave him a call. He said, yes, he was working for a company called Nitec, the U.S. representative of Triax Kings Engineering, a company that was involved in the construction of television facilities in Nigeria, West Africa. Sounds interesting, I thought.

He was discouraging. He indicated that they rarely have openings, but if I was interested, he'd be happy to take an application, which I sent him. Then, out of the blue, just 3 days before Christmas, I got a call. If I was still interested, he indicated, they'd like to talk to me. No question about it, I wanted to go. By the end of January, 1991, it was settled. We'd agreed on a salary, and I was to prepare to travel as soon as possible. I already had a passport, so all I needed was a visa and shots, and I was on my way. By March, all was arranged.

On April Fools Day, 1991, I said good-bye to all of my friends in San Diego, and began driving north to Idaho to store my van. Within a week, I found myself in the London office of Triax, a company called Nanze International. Howard, the office manager helped me with the paperwork, and while I was working on it, the phone rang. It was one of the expatriates in Nigeria. Scot Kilgrow was one of the construction managers, and turned out to be a terrific fellow, a real party animal and a lot of fun. While I was getting acquainted with him, he made a remark that stuck in my mind: "Hold on to your hat, cowboy, 'cause you ain't never rode in a rodeo like this!"

The Black Sheep Squadron.
I'm in the back row, third from left.
Scot Kilgrow is second from the right.
Steve Snow is third from the right.
I landed in Kano, Nigeria well after dark. My first impression of Nigeria was how dark it was in Kano, a city of nearly a million, yet there were relatively few streetlights.

Waiting at the airport was one of the company's Nigerian drivers who put me up in the Daula Hotel. He went on to Katsina to pick up some equipment and indicated he would return for me by noon the next day. The Daula Hotel turned out to be a dive of a place that had bare wiring hanging out of the wall sockets, no hot water in the shower and clouds of mosquitoes. The lock on the door was insecure at best, so I barred the door with a rather rickety chair. I'm glad I did. At about 3AM, someone tried my door. Nice experience for your first night all alone in a strange country.

The next morning, Peter, the driver returned from Katsina to pick me up. We began the three hour drive to Bauchi, the Managing Director's headquarters, where I would spend the next month. Peter and I had a good time talking and getting acquainted on the trip to Bauchi. He proved to be a good friend who was helpful to me on many occasions in the next months.

The managing director, Steve Snow, proved to be the bush-hardened expat I'd heard he was. His radio call was "Boss Hogg" which fit him beautifully. Husky and with a no-nonsense attitude, he was a good man to have around in a fight. He'd lived in Nigeria for eight years, and knew most of the important people in it, and the ways of the country and how to get around. He drove a big, black Mercedes and was known everywhere as someone not to mess with. My first night in Bauchi was spent at the bar in the Bauchi Hotel, getting to know Steve and the expat community. Steve proved to be quite the drinker. That evening, he put away one and a half cases of 13% Nigerian beer. He walked out of the place without even looking like he'd had any at all. If I hadn't seen it, I would never have believed it.

The most important person in your life in such a place is your driver. His job isn't as much to drive you around, as it is to keep you out of trouble. If he has an accident while driving you (a serious hazard in traffic-choked Nigerian cities), he goes to jail and you drive home (and send another staff member to pry him out of jail with some money paid to the right people). I was extremely fortunate to get a good one.
Ibrahim Mohammed, my
driver extraordinaire
Ibrahim Mohammed was my driver and good friend all the time I was in Nigeria. He proved to be extremely loyal, generally very honest, and not hesitant to warn me of danger. He was an extremely skillful driver -- he could easily negotiate the densest traffic jams and never got a scratch on my brand spanking new Peugeot 504 -- made (not just assembled) in Nigeria and "Guaranteed for One Year." (Yeah, right. Just try getting warrantee work done.)

One of my first assignments was to design a satellite-based telecommunications system for the presidential complex being built in Abuja, the new capital of Nigeria. It was to prove to be an interesting experience indeed.

I traveled to Abuja to meet with some of the President's staff to find out just what they wanted.

The company put me up in one of the better suites of the Nicon Noga Hilton Hotel, one of only two four-star hotels in Nigeria. That evening, the staff member was ushered into my suite, and I proceeded to ask what sort of system they were interested in.

"The best!"

"The best what?"

"The best satellite system there is!"

"Do you want it for watching television, or carrying telephone calls, or computer data or what?"

"Whatever you think is best. We just want the best there is for Mr. President!"

I was getting nowhere quickly, and I could see that they didn't have a clue as to what they wanted. So I had to think fast and come up with everything I thought the president of a modern, progressive country could possibly need in terms of telecommunications facilities. I knew that whatever I'd propose would have to be included in the presidential complex construction, then underway, and so I'd need a set of plans. So I asked for a set of floor plans for the presidential complex.

"That's out of the question!"

"Well, you'll have to get the permissions you need, because I will have to plan for conduit runs, so that the proper cabling can be installed."

"I don't think I can arrange that."

"It will have to be arranged or we can't take the contract! I'll speak with our managing director about it"

I did, and eventually I got a set of plans and went to work. I got one set of bluelines, which didn't leave me anything to mark up, so I simply folded the drawings, put them in a box, took them down to the UPS office and sent them off to Salt Lake for duplication.

"What's in the box?" the agent asked.

"Drawings." I replied.

He looked at them. Yep. They were drawings all right. He never asked what they were of, and I wasn't about to volunteer. If he had taken them out and looked at the title block, he'd have been astonished. But, typically, he didn't. I knew he wouldn't. So back into the box they went, and a week later were in Salt Lake City. In a couple of weeks, they were returned to me, again, no questions asked.

What I proposed was a set of three dishes, one for transmitting television, one for receiving television, and one for telephone and data communications traffic. I put together all the requisite support equipment requirements, and a preliminary design for the conduit runs, dish layouts in the compound and went back to Abuja with it.

"Is it the best?"

"Yes, its the best. No one anywhere has better."

"Could you add a background music system?"

"Yes. No problem."

"How about a security system?"

That was a problem. I knew that the secret police where planning their own security system, and I didn't want to either duplicate their work or, worse by far, tread on their turf. I asked to meet with a representative of the secret police.

"That's impossible."

"Well, if we can't coordinate with them, maybe we should allow them to deal with their own security issues, and let them know that if they need help, they're welcome to deal with us."

"You are correct. I'll speak to them."

Whew! I was off the hook for that one! So it was back to work on the telecommunications systems I was familiar with.

It wasn't long before I was informed that, as a contractor, I had to meet with the supervising architect and the other contractors in the biweekly meetings that were held to coordinate the construction of the presidential complex. These meetings were hell in every sense of the word. The supervising architect was arrogant, overbearing, thoroughly full of himself, and very inconsiderate. He was totally intolerant of any delays, even if they were caused by his own incompetence or lassitude or failure to release funds. He used to berate the general contractor endlessly in those meetings, until finally without notice, he revoked their contract and without any kind of bidding process, awarded it to another firm that had been a subcontractor for a small part of the construction. The fact that the general contractor hadn't been getting paid for the work he had already done was no excuse in his opinion.

In the midst of all this confusion, I found it exceptionally difficult to do the research necessary to produce the engineering package it was my job to put together. There was no engineering library at all or reference material of any kind to research vendors from. So all I could do was work from memory, and when really stumped, try to call vendors in Europe and the States from the guest house in Port Harcourt where I was now staying. Making an international phone call in Nigeria could test the patience of Job, as it can sometimes take days to make a single call successfully. Add to that the fact that when you finally do get through, there's no guarantee that the secretary will let your call through or your party will be in. So doing research was almost impossible. Additionally, there was no drafting facilities at all, and so I had to make my own drafting board and scrounge some basic tools, and do my own drawings. The only way I could get bluelines made was to give my drawings to my driver with a few hundred Naira and tell him to go find someone in the Ministry of Works and Planning to bribe. He was usually, though not always, successful.

Working through all these problems, a job that would have taken a few days in the states ended up taking four months. Meanwhile, every other week, there were those project meetings from hell...

I grew to dread those meetings like a root canal. The fact that it was taking me months to get the engineering package out was difficult to explain well enough to keep the architect off my back. As meanspirited as he was, and the fact that our firm really wasn't prepared to do the project engineering meant I had to be exceptionally creative with excuses. I usually, though not always, managed to come up with something that sounded plausible.

The trips to Abuja were not without their compensations, though. The route to Abuja took me through Keffi, a site where we were building one of the tallest towers in Africa, and Scot Kilgrow was running the job. When I had time, I'd stop and visit. He and I became fast friends, trying to outdo each other with our war stories.

But one trip to Abuja made up for all the hell of those meetings. It was the day the ECOWAS summit came to town.

The Economic Community of West African States was headed at the time by the Nigerian president, Ibrahim Babangida. So when a summit was called, it was held in Nigeria, and was held at the only four-star hotel in Abuja, the Nicon Noga Hilton where I usually stayed. On one of my trips, the staff informed me that on my next visit I would have to stay elsewhere, because the ECOWAS summit would be held there during the time of my next meeting.

I asked if the hotel would be closed during the summit; no, it would be open, but all the rooms were reserved for the summit. I could still take my meals there. OK, I thought that was just great, so I planned my next trip to include my meals there, but I'd stay with Scot in Keffi.

Scot's compound guard at Keffi,
proudly standing at attention
with his blunderbuss
My arrival at Keffi the night before the meeting was not without its excitement. Scot was interested in guns, and he couldn't resist showing me the enormous musket owned and used his aging compound guard, both gun and owner being veterans of the Biafra War. It was a "bush" gun, meaning it had been locally hand made out of whatever materials were available. It was a front-loading musket that shot an enormous ball - about a half inch in diameter. Scot had him show me a ball and how it was loaded. After he had loaded the barrel with powder and the ball and tamped the load, we casually turned and walked away.

KaBOOM! While we weren't looking, the old boy fired his gun, shattering the peace with the loudest report I have ever heard, scaring me half out of my wits. My ears rang for half an hour, even though I was probably 30 feet away when it had gone off.

The next morning, I went into Abuja, arriving on time for the meeting, only to learn that the meeting had been canceled because of the Summit and I hadn't been informed. That suited me just fine. As it was close to noon, I decided to go for lunch at the Hilton.

Now, you've gotta understand that the bar in the lobby of the Hilton served the only decent cheeseburgers to be had in Nigeria, and I was quite ready for my biweekly burger. I knew this was going to be a challenge, but as I had nothing else to do that day, I decided to go for it.

I went the 20 kilometers back to Keffi and picked up Scot, and we went back to Abuja for our burgers. When we arrived at the Hilton, the usual front entrances were blocked, and the access to the front parking lots was also blocked. The reason was that the heads of state were using that entrance. The parking lots were full of black Mercedes stretch limos (I counted 137 of them). I didn't have my camera, but would have loved a picture of all those limos.

The security personnel waved us to the rear parking lot usually reserved for staff. We found the area reserved for hotel guests, parked and tried to go in.

The door was locked.

Now this is a really big hotel -- 700 rooms. We had no choice but to walk around and see if we could find an unlocked side entrance. Which involved a lot of walking. Finally, on the east side of the building, we found a locked gate, but there was an attendant there. We explained that we were guests and were trying to get into the hotel, and the attendant bought that, and let us in. He pointed to the entrance. When we got to it, we found it locked.

So we went back to the attendant. But he wasn't there. And the gate was locked. We were trapped.

We went back to entrance and tried to signal someone, anyone, to come over and push the crash bar to open the door and let us in. Finally, a security guard came by and let us in.

There were security guards everywhere. Honor guards, brass bands, flags hanging from every ceiling beam. It was obvious that this was big-time.

There was only one problem. We were on the east end of the lobby, and the bar where our burgers were calling us, is in the west end. Between us and our burgers were a lot of security guards. None looking too friendly.

We discussed this dilemma for a few minutes. We realized we couldn't get out, since that gate would still be locked and we'd be trapped again on the plaza. We couldn't stay there, because our loitering would draw attention. So we had no choice but to walk through the security guards like we knew what we were doing and see if we could get past them. So we did. We got a few hard looks, but no one challenged us. We made it to the bar.

Our burgers had never tasted so good. We felt like we'd really earned them.

Once we were done eating, and had satisfied ourselves with sitting around in the bar swapping war stories, the time came to leave. Now, we had a problem. We couldn't go out the way we came in, because there was no guarantee that we could get through that locked gate. We discussed the situation and decided to see if we could exit through one of the restaurants that adjoined the bar. I got up and walked towards the lobby to check out to see if the way was clear to get to the restaurants. No such luck. The security guards were thicker than ever, and now the brass bands were playing all those African national anthems, which meant that the heads of state were entering the hotel. No chance that the security guards would turn a blind eye to us this time.

It then occurred to me that there is a staircase leading to the second story that is located just outside the bar entrance. If we could get up there, we could possibly make it to a fire escape in some other part of the building.

We went up the staircase only to discover that the guards were blocking the way to the mezzanine. So our only option was to go down the only fire escape next to the main entrance to the hotel -- and that would surely be blocked at the bottom. So back to the bar. Except that by now, even that way had been blocked. We had no choice at all except to go down the fire escape that came out directly adjacent to the main entrance -- which miraculously wasn't blocked at our level. But we knew there would be hordes of security guards at the bottom of the staircase. We were trapped.

We couldn't loiter where we were with all those security guards giving us disapproving stares, so we went down the fire escape that ends at the main entrance. When we got to the bottom, we were extremely fortunate to find a small crowd of expatriate hotel guests standing around behind the line of security guards, gawking at the spectacle. So we just blended in.

After about ten or so heads of state we didn't recognize had made their entrances, and we had stood there listening to national anthems we had never heard before, a large motorcade of stretch Mercedes pulled into the entryway. Out steps president Babangida, president of Nigeria, and the band strikes up the Nigerian national anthem. All the security guards stood to even tighter attention, and president and his staff enter the hotel. Once they were all inside, the security guards started to relax and mill around, so we figured that we must have seen the last of the heads of state. We discussed our options.

I knew that there was a sidewalk that went around the east side of the hotel to the back parking lot, so we decided to chance it and see if we could get to the back lot. That meant walking through the crowd of security guards, but as there were a lot of other expats milling around, we decided it couldn't be that risky. So we went for it.

Once again, walking past the guards like we owned the place, they gave us disapproving glances, but we just kept walking, and they didn't challenge us. We got through the guards, and found the sidewalk to the rear lot was clear. We went to our cars, found our drivers and left without incident.

Work in Nigeria is the same as work anywhere, but it is spiced with the unique facts of life in that country. As you travel from one part of the country to another, there are problems you don't face elsewhere.

Looks intimidating with that
AK47, doesn't he? Read on...
For one, there is always some excitement in getting around in the country. When I returned from my one vacation while working there, I was asked to fly into Lagos, for reasons I never understood, and then take a domestic flight from Lagos to Jos, where my driver was to meet me at the airport. I arrived in Lagos late at night, and, as promised, the customs and immigration people had been "pre-bribed" so my getting through formalities was fast, easy and cheap. A night at a somewhat seedy hotel on Victoria Island, and the next morning, I was ready for my first experience with the domestic Nigerian airlines.

I had been warned, repeatedly, that when boarding a domestic flight in Nigeria, it is important to run, not walk to the plane immediately as soon as the flight is called and the gate is opened. Ticket agents are often bribed to sell far more tickets than seats (there is no reserved seating), and it ends up being first-come, first served. So once my flight was called, I jumped up out of my seat, grabbed my bag and ran for the door.

The plane waiting out on the tarmack was an ancient Boeing 727, a model retired from most airlines because of its rather high fuel consumption - which is not a problem in the fourth largest oil exporter in the world. Up the staircase and onto the plane. Well, finding a seat wasn't a problem, I'd made sure I was in the front of the herd. But squeezing into it was another matter altogether. I am not a particularly large man, and after barely managing to get my carry-on bag under the seat in front of me, I squeezed into my seat. And I do mean squeezed. The seats were positively tiny, and the rows very close together - not more than six inches between the front of my seat and the back of the one in front of me. And if they were more than 14 inches wide, I'd be surprised - I was barely able to fit, and it was a real struggle to retrieve my seat belt and fasten it.

I felt a certain sense of forboding as the ancient old jetliner rumbled down the runway and slowly climbed into the air. Once airborne, the sense of forboding was confirmed by a groaning, creaking sound from deep within the bowels of the airframe beneath my feet, every time we hit bumpy air.

After what seemed like an inordinate length of time for such a short flight, the pilot came on the intercom and asked the passengers to look down and see if they recognized their village down on the ground through the broken cloud layer, and notify a flight attendant if they did. After some minutes, an attendant alert somewhere behind me went off, and shortly afterward, the plane made a sweeping turn towards Jos and the safety of the ground. As promised, my ever-trusty driver was there waiting for me. He was a very welcome sight indeed.

In highway driving, there is the problem of roadblocks. The police, which are paid poorly, if at all, have found that a great way of making a living is to run an unauthorized roadblock and extract bribes from intimidated motorists. During one trip from Port Harcourt to Bauchi, a trip of about 300 miles, I counted 12 roadblocks, 10 operated by police, one operated by immigration and one operated by the Nigerian Drug Enforcement Administration. Of course, all had their hands out - the trip cost a lot more in dashes than in fuel. But that's nothing - another expat told me some months later he'd counted 21 on the same stretch of road.

Here's how it works: you drive up to the roadblock, and one of the cops walks up to the car. You roll your window down. The cop puts his elbows in the window so you can't drive off, and says, "Anything for me today?" You hand him a 20 Naira note (about U.S.$1 at the time), he says "Thank you! Have good journey!" withdraws his elbows and you're free to go.

What the cops don't tell you is that their AK47 clips maybe have five rounds in them, each one a different caliber. And to discourage them from firing their weapons needlessly, the police department requires them to buy their own ammunition. They know well and truly that if they fire their weapon, its apt to blow up in their face. So they're not inclined to; they'll fire them only in self-defense as a last resort.

Ibrahim, my driver knew this. So he often would pull up to a roadblock and slow almost to a stop. As the cop stepped out of the way of the car, he'd step on it and go right on through. The worst that ever happened was a cop once slapped the trunk of the car with his hand and dented the lid slightly.

I found another technique for dealing with roadblocks. The car assigned to me had a TKE logo painted on each door. TKE was famous all over Nigeria because its chairman's big, generous bribes. So we'd pull up to a roadblock, and when the cop asked if we had anything for him, I'd say "No, but the chairman is as about 20 minutes behind me, and when he gets here, he'll take care of you well, well!" That would invariably satisfy the cop, and he'd withdraw his elbows, and off we'd go. No problem with running into that same cop -- it never happened to me. They always move their roadblocks around, so the chances of encountering him again weren't all that great.

Speaking of our chairman, Prince Arthur Eze would "dash" (a small monetary gift or bribe) just about everybody and anybody. If you were someone who might prove useful to him, he'd dash you a substantial amount. But if he liked you, useful or not, you were almost sure to get something.

The expats working for TKE still talk about the time Prince Eze came to the Port Harcourt guesthouse, where the expats working for TKE in the south of the country stayed. One of the expats kept a young baboon chained to the front guardhouse as a pet.

As Prince Eze was leaving, he noticed the baboon.

"Whose monkey is that?" he asked the guard.

"That's Charlie's." the guard replied.

Prince Arthur Eze then reached into his pocket, took out a 20 Naira note, handed it to the baboon, and off he drove.

My Nigerian cook's
dietary preferences weren't...
quite the same as mine...
Other hazards and annoyances of living in Nigeria are the tropical diseases (Lassa fever is named after the Nigerian village where it was first discovered, not far from one of the television stations I refurbished), the poverty (Nigeria has a lower per-capita income than Haiti), but what grates on the expat living there more than anything is the squalor. It's everywhere. It's inescapable, and even living in a nice home well guarded and kept, you're still affected by it.

What really stands out is how that squalor has cheapened the respect for human life. Abandoned children crowd around cars at intersections, begging for coins or trying to sell packs of gum, small sandwich-bags of peanuts, rolls of toilet paper, combs, handkerchiefs, or just about anything else. The standard joke among expats there is that in Nigeria, you never have to go to the dime store, because it comes to you. Which all too sadly is true. A headpan of goods on the head of a child, one at a time.

The most disturbing aspect of this cheapness of life in Nigeria is that dead human bodies are not an uncommon sight along Nigerian roadways. Whether they were the bodies of unfortunate passengers of the "mammywagon" cargo trucks (drivers make an extra income by illegally selling passengers rides high atop the cargo, where they occasionally fall to their deaths), or victims of motor vehicle accidents (the largest cause of death in Nigeria), or just plain murder or disease victims, human bodies along side roadways often remain there, uncollected for days, even weeks.

One day, on the morning bush radio schedule, the managing director, "Boss Hogg," told me that he was expecting a presidential visit to his work site that day. He said that the president was in for an unpleasant surprise. I knew just what he was talking about.

"That wouldn't be a 'Delta Bravo,' would it?" I asked, meaning dead body.

Steve knew exactly what I meant. "That's a big ten-four!" he replied.

I said, "Well if it isn't gone by the time the president shows up, someone in the works department will be looking for a new job tomorrow!"

"That's a big ten-four!" he said, with a chuckle in his voice.

That night, on the evening schedule, I asked if the 'delta bravo' was still in place there when the president came.

"Ten-four!" he laughed.

Disease is a constant threat. Malaria is such a problem in Nigeria that it is a common test site for new pharmaceuticals intended to deal with the problem. All six species of the malaria parasite are present, and Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly is also the most common. Malaria and cholera are the most common causes of childhood mortality. Cholera claimed the lives of two of my driver's children while I was there. I was stricken with malaria a total of seven times during my residency there, the first with P. falciparum, and it almost killed me.

Besides malaria, the first six months I was there I was ill with diarrhea almost every week.

Typhoid fever is another big killer, mostly because its symptoms often mimic malaria, and it is therefore commonly misdiagnosed. A similar though less serious illness, paratyphoid, is so common almost everyone in the country contracts it at one time or another. Typhoid and cholera are spread by poor sanitary practices, which despite constant vigilance on the part of the visitor, almost certainly will cause illness at some time or another. Viral meningitis is common in the north of the country, especially at the end of the dry season, but it is seldom contracted by expats - it's mostly a problem in the villages among the very poor.

While I was in Nigeria, one of the expats I worked with was stricken with cerebral malaria, and had it not been properly treated, it would have certainly killed him. Fortunately, he contracted it just after the introduction of a new drug, and before that strain had become immune to the drug he was treated with. He was back on his feet in a few weeks.

Medical treatment is widely available, but generally of poor quality. Nearly every town of any size has a clinic. The bad news is that the clinic is probably poorly supplied, drugs inadequate or nonexistent, and training of the staff poor at best. Most expats don't rely on the regular state-owned and supported medical care system, but instead use the private clinics that exist in the major cities.

One of my co-workers suffered from a slipped disk while I was working with him in Port Harcourt. He was taken to a private clinic there, where he received proper, adequate treatment, including about two weeks of traction. While whiling away his time, without benefit of radio or TV, someone visiting him noticed that his bed was supported by some mahogany 2x6 boards. (Mahogany is so common there, it is frequently used even for concrete forms.) Ron commented that "its nice to know my back is being supported by a hundred dollars worth of mahogany."

Flame trees bloom through
much of the dry season. They're one of
many species with dramatic flower
displays that last for months.
Nigeria is a country of tremendous potential wealth. It is blessed with a surprisingly well-educated workforce (literacy of a sort is almost universal), there is surprisingly good infrastructure (paved roads, railroads and airlines connect all the major cities), and generally Nigerians are willing, hard workers if they feel they are being treated fairly.

Blessed with a climate that is perfect for the growth of a wide variety of crops, vast areas of unused land suitable for farming, soils that in many areas are naturally rich. With two of the great rivers of Africa, Nigeria should be quite capable of feeding not only its hundred million, but most of the rest of Africa as well. It is a country the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, with the climate of California's Imperial Valley. The Niger river flows through a mountain pass just north of Onitsha, which, if a dam were built there, the power generated could not only supply Nigeria, but most of West Africa too. The enormous amount of water in the Niger river that flows to the sea east of Port Harcourt is so vast, if even a small part of it were diverted north, it could turn vast areas of the Sahara desert into highly productive cropland. It wouldn't have to be lifted that far to be sent north, either.

A cashew fruit. The
nut is in the small appendage at
the bottom. The fruit is edible
though slightly astringent.
In the south, rubber, coffee, oil palm and cocoa plantations once flourished. Tropical hardwoods once were the source of much of the hardwood used in the British empire. In the Niger river delta, oil of such high quality is found that Nigeria is today the fourth largest oil exporter in the world, and its crude commands premium prices on world markets. In the savannas, cotton was once grown for export on a vast scale. In the north, wheat and sorghum was grown for feed grains and human consumption.

In Plateau state, tin mines and gemstone mines once were the basis of a flourishing international minerals trade. The first railroad to the interior was built to bring those minerals to the coast. The names brought to the region by imported Chinese labour still grace some of the local place names.

Along the coast, tin and copper was the source of the metal used for bronze casting by some of the greatest indigenous artists of pre-colonial Africa. Many of the Benin bronzes are among the most valuable indigenous art pieces ever produced. Even today, many of the woodcarvings are of exceptional quality.

The north of Nigeria around Sokoto (pronounced SO-koe-toe) was once the center of one of the most successful of the Islamic sultanates Africa has produced. The wisdom and fairness with which it was ruled is legendary, and the heroism of its defenders against the onslaught of the British colonialists in the face of overwhelming odds would make a great Hollywood epic. And before Islam, before even Christianity, the Nok culture of northwestern Plateau state had established a university whose scholarship was the envy of the European states of the time. Scholars once traveled from all over the world to study in what is now one of the poorest and most disadvantaged places on earth.

With all these rich cultural and economic resources, why is Nigeria so poor today? The answer is a complex one. But there are a few factors that stand out as the main reasons that this situation not only exists, but continues to grow worse with every passing year.

What every Nigerian will privately admit to you is that corruption, both public and private, is the most significant single problem that every African nation, not just Nigeria faces. And with few exceptions, nowhere in the world is it as bad as in Nigeria. The CBS television programme "60 minutes" recently did a piece on the corruption which flourishes on a scale that is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't experienced it.

There are other reasons, too, of course. Distance from international markets, poor communications and energy infrastructure, difficulty in attracting foreign investment, meddling by foreign powers (especially the United States), and an almost total disregard for the fate of the nation by its people are all reasons. Not to mention a harsh military dictatorship that in the three decades since independence has never once voluntarily submitted to an elected civilian government. But when you examine the problems, and why they continue to exist, the one overriding theme keeps coming back like a serial horror movie: corruption.

Corruption is a constant thread that has woven its way through the warp and weave of all Nigerian life. From the poorest rural village council chief or local market trader, right to the occupant of the presidential palace in Abuja, there is a pervasive materialism that puts getting and having above all else, no matter how ill gotten. Every Sunday, millions of Nigerian Christians attend Sunday services wearing gold jewelry obtained by dishonest and usually illegal means, and they think not a thing of it. A well-connected Nigerian once told me that there is no such thing as an honest Nigerian. I asked him if that included himself. "No, not me!" he said. "I'm honest. But there aren't any others who are!" I since found out that this man had embezzled about ten million Naira (at the time worth about U.S. $ 1 million) from his employer.

This is what 1 1/2
million Naira looks like. In three days it
was gone, mostly for bribes to state
bureaucrats. One briefcase at a time.
The corruption has become so pervasive that the whole economy has become organized around it. It begins at the highest level, where President Ibrahim Babangida, in power while I was there, was rumored to be worth about U.S.$ 5 billion, nearly all of which he accumulated while in office - on a general's salary.

It trickles down like an acid, seeping through the bureaucracy, eating its way into the state and local governments, where the governors and local government council chiefs nearly always take bribes from contractors who get awarded contracts on the basis of how generous they are with their "dashes" or local people needing favors. Every bureaucrat with any power, his secretary and even his driver have their hands out. The desirability of jobs in the government have nothing to do with salaries or prestige; all that matters is the opportunities for dash. The most desirable jobs are with Customs and Immigration, where large bribes can be routinely extracted from foreigners, or as managers in state-owned service businesses, such as the Nigeria Electric Power Authority or the Nigeria Telecommunications Company, where someone wanting electrical service or telephone service will have to pay big bribes, often in the thousands of dollars, to get reasonably prompt service. Even the technicians are on the take, expecting a bribe before they will do the actual install, or to overlook an illegal attachment to a power line or telephone extension.

The choking effect on the economy is overwhelming. The company I was working for sold its television facilities for three times what the equipment and labour to install it cost, yet it still had a hard time making a consistent profit. There is no way that anything but the most wildly profitable business plans can survive in such a business climate. The few large enterprises that do succeed there often involve the oil industry or are engaged in illegal or unethical enterprises, such as the arms trade or the drug trade or smuggling.

The obvious question, then, is how such a pervasive acceptance, and even encouragement of corruption came to exist in a group of cultures most of which unquestionably once valued honesty and civility above all else.

My observations are that there were numerous factors involved, some of which are continent-wide, some of which are peculiar to Nigeria, but all of which have conspired uniquely in Nigeria to create one of the most corrupt societies on earth.

To begin with, there was the slave trade. Portuguese navigators showed up on Nigerian shores nearly a half-century before Columbus traveled to America. And even before Columbus first arrived in the West Indies, European traders were taking slaves from the African coast.

What made this possible, of course, were the economic realities of 15th century Europe, combined with the Christian ethnocentrism that justified the enslavement of "heathens." The bigotry of European ethnocentrism encouraged by the newly introduced concept of materialism (in payment for the slaves), caused bigotry and the materialism it justified to sweep like a wildfire through coastal Africa.

This new materialism had an enormous impact. It quickly undermined the sense of egalitarianism, charity, and neighborly support that were hallmarks of many of the indigenous coastal cultures. Bigotry justified the enslavement of your fellow man, and if you could get rich in the process, that just proves that God is on your side.

This is not to suggest that slavery did not exist in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans along the coast. It certainly did. Indeed, many of Nigeria's northern cities today were established in the slave trade, Keffi, Bauchi and Sokoto among them. But there were very strong cultural taboos regarding the treatment of slaves that made their lives much more tolerable than the lives of slaves taken by the Europeans. The bigotry and materialism brought to Africa by the Europeans undermined those taboos, however. And it wasn't long before the treatment of slaves, both by European and African traders, became one of history's most shameful episodes.

By the time of the final British conquest of Nigeria by the British general Lugard and suppression of the Sultanate of Sokoto in 1904, materialism and the trend of undermining of local value systems that it caused, was well established. The end of the slave trade a half-century earlier did not end the trend towards materialism; by then it was too well entrenched. Once Africans had had a taste of European wealth, they wanted more, and many no longer had reason to care what they had to do to get it.

Add to this mix the influence of European missionaries. With not always the best of motives, missionaries came to Africa to convert the Africans, and many got rich in the process, having seen and seized the many obvious economic opportunities. This only furthered the spread of materialism, because they systematically undermined the African sense of religious values, and replaced it with what all-too-often was nothing more than a cynical materialistic hypocrisy. Believe in the white man's god, they were told, and he will make you rich, too. Seeing that the white men were rich, many Africans naively believed, having a magical worldview. This is an approach that is still to this day being used by many foreign religions, the Mormons and many Christian evangelical denominations among them. The appeal still works. Africans are still being converted in large numbers. The spiritual rape of Africa continues.

The end of the colonial era in Nigeria in 1960 set the stage for the conversion of materialism into corruption. Not long after independence, one of the first in what would become a long line of Nigerian military dictators was asked by a journalist friend why he was systematically looting the country's treasury. He replied, "The elephant has been killed, and now there's meat for the whole village!"

It was the attitude that the country was an elephant carcass to be butchered that allowed the hatred of colonial rulers to be transformed into a wholesale greed. The Africans felt that they had been deliberately kept poor by their European masters so that their riches could be plundered (which all too often was true), and now all they had to do was take what was rightfully theirs. There was no real sense of nationhood, because Africans had never experienced it, and patriotism was a totally foreign concept. There was no longer any religious proscriptions against robbing the community in which you live, because there was no real sense of community. So why not loot the treasury?

With independence came a horde of foreign businessmen and bankers, and cynical foreign bureaucrats who saw opportunity in the newly independent nations of Africa and were determined to cash in. The newly independent nations had no understanding at all as to how to go about governing themselves, and banking and commercial law was primitive or non-existent.

Corrupt businessmen and corrupt military dictators are a bad combination. If they see opportunity in each other, they will get together and set in motion a truly evil process. And in Nigeria, the seeds of corruption sown by that evil cartel fell on very fertile ground indeed.

It was oil in Nigeria that fertilized those seeds.

It has been said that the closer you get to the Niger river delta, the source of the oil, the more corrupt the society becomes. There's a lot of truth in that saying. Oil money and the opportunities for graft, bribery and extortion that it has made possible have caused the materialism to blossom into a form of corruption that has become legendary, even by African standards. The money has given the African materialism a basis for optimism that it can succeed in making the African rich, if he can bribe the right guy, organize the right scam, or shake down the right victim. And all too often, it succeeds.

Free enterprise runs rampant in Nigeria. There are few if any restraints on the free exercise of the pursuit of wealth. And where money rules, it makes the rules. If the average Nigerian were to try to pursue wealth through the creation of wealth, he'd find more roadblocks in his way than faced by ambitious people in tradition-bound societies such as China or Britain. The reason is simple -- the money that corrupt politicians and businessmen have accumulated bring with it the power to keep that wealth and accumulate more. And that means that the actual producers of wealth in Nigeria live with what the owners of that wealth decide to allow them to have.

In addition to the problems created by rampant, unregulated free enterprise, add the problems created by the economic imperialism of such organizations as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These organizations, along with the various UN charities and the Peace Corps, seek to impose upon African nations an economic system that simply isn't workable in the local conditions. This system has taken the form of what throughout West Africa is euphemistically called a "Structural Adjustment Programme." The reality is that it is a collection of idiotic economic theories imposed by often cynical and nearly always hopelessly ignorant foreign bureaucrats, who have no idea of why free enterprise can't and doesn't work in Africa.

Even worse is the evidence that it is part of a deliberate policy by the rich nations of the north to keep these nations poor and prevent them from becoming competitors for limited world resources. The extreme misery that such policies cause is apparently a deliberate tactic to suppress population growth and thereby stifle attempts by these nations to improve their economic and political status. The authors of these policies care not a whit about the moral crime these policies represent.

My favorite example is the bottled natural gas problem. Nigeria is awash in natural gas reserves. It has so much it has often been called the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas." Oil producers flare natural gas to get rid of it, even though doing so is illegal - but they can't avoid it, because there's just too much.

Yet the housewives of Nigeria don't use natural gas for cooking anymore.

They used to, but not anymore.

Instead, they cut down increasingly scarce fuelwood, much of which was planted by foreign charities in a vain attempt to halt the southward spread of the Sahara Desert. Use of fuelwood chokes their kitchens with smoke, causes much respiratory illness and takes hours each week to gather. But they don't use gas, even though there is plentiful supplies in the markets.

The reason is the International Monetary Fund. Loudly proclaiming the doctrine that 'Subsidies Are Always Evil,' the IMF came into Nigeria (and much of the rest of West Africa as well), and told the Nigerian government that in order to obtain financing for their external debts, they would have to end internal subsidies. So they did.

Women who once spent a few minutes and a few naira each week getting natural gas bottles filled, found they could no longer afford as much as 50 Naira for a refill, when their husband may be bringing home only 300 Naira in a month. So the only option for getting the food cooked and the water heated was to cut firewood. A time consuming process that is rapidly and relentlessly denuding the savanna woodlands that once graced this beautiful country. The natural gas subsidy didn't cost the Nigerian government anywhere near as much as deforestation is costing it. But it was a subsidy, so it had to go.

And this is but one of many, many examples that could be cited. The Africans are very much aware of this nonsense. The rhetoric used by the IMF and the World Bank to defend such policies is so illogical that they are forced to conclude that the West is colluding to subvert and control their economies. In the face of such idiocy, what other conclusion could they possibly draw? Their education may be limited, but they are not stupid. They see what is holding them back.

There are virtually no enforced labour laws in Nigeria. Sure, there are good laws are on the books, but they are unenforceable when a wealthy businessman can bribe a judge or policeman to have the law ignored. The result is that a tiny minority live in fabulous luxury, and the vast majority (especially the children) live in grinding poverty, well below what the minimum wage laws in Nigeria require. This suits the oligarchy and the foreign interests just fine; they're able to have access to vast amounts of cheap, docile labour and be accountable to no one for how it is repressed.

This brings up the last reason why Nigeria is so terribly poor. It is for a very simple, obvious reason.

You can't sell something to someone who has no money.

If you can't sell it, you aren't going to make it. And if you aren't going to make it, you're not going to hire someone to make it, and so you're not going to pay wages to someone to make it. You keep your money or spend it on cheap imported goods, rather than invest it in the local economy. Imported goods are cheap because the "Structural Adjustment Programme" has largely abolished All Those Terrible Tariffs so local entrepreneurs can't compete and don't try.

This is why the unrestrained, libertarian ideal of totally free enterprise simply doesn't work. Ultimately the accumulation of power that accompanies the accumulation of wealth causes the disenfranchisement of those who actually create that wealth. And with that disenfranchisement, invariably comes poverty, child labour, oppression and political corruption. That fact is painfully obvious to anyone who has ever lived in a place like Nigeria.

I've written elsewhere of how I think these enormously difficult problems can be solved. There are answers, but they are complex and difficult, and it will require enormous sacrifices and self discipline on the part of all Africans, rich and poor, powerful and disenfranchised alike, but I believe it can be done.

In brief, the answers have to come from the people, working at the local level to solve their own problems, and not relying on government to do it for them. A remarkable example of how this can be done, both from a technological and social point of view, is the experience of Gaviotas, Columbia. Taking the vision of a wealthy member of the oligarchy, a disparate group of farmers, campesinos, engineers, local Indians, college students and social dreamers have constructed a working community that is ecologically, socially and economically sustainable in any tropical environment, including Nigeria. Experiments such as Gaviotas are beginning to spring up in Africa, and if encouraged, offer real hope for places such as Nigeria.

There are some very serious lessons in all this for the developed nations to consider.

Much has been written by various authors about sub-Saharan Africa's plight, and one of the best is a controversial article that appeared in the February, 1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Entitled The Coming Anarchy, it discusses the results of this decay of civility, not just in Nigeria, but in all of West Africa. Robert D. Kaplan, the author, claims that what is happening in West Africa today is a portent of what will happen everywhere that overpopulation, increasingly scarce and squandered resources, tribalism, corruption and economic injustice are allowed to flourish.

He claims, with considerable experience to back him up, that conservatism in politics and a growing trend towards unregulated capitalism in America is planting the seeds that will cause the same disease which has led to such misery in sub-Saharan Africa, to spread in North America, particularly in the United States.

I'm not entirely convinced by his analysis that we will see the same extent of the destruction of society here within the next two or three decades he envisions. But I certainly believe, and have even before I read his article, that it will happen sooner or later. The end of our relatively egalitarian society, I believe, is inevitable unless we take some drastic steps, including some serious "social engineering."

Social engineering, in spite of the conservative aversion to it, is not only necessary, but vital. Canada, Australia, and Europe have all shown that it can and does work if applied properly; we need to get over our nervousness about it in the United States.

Whether one agrees with Kaplan or not, there are certain lessons that are nevertheless quite clear.

The first lesson, particularly for the United States, is that the model of the western, developed nation state doesn't necessarily translate across cultures. What works for America doesn't necessarily work for other cultures, where other value systems are operating. If western nations wish to help Africans help themselves, they had best get input from those Africans who know their situation far better than ignorant foreign theorists, many of whom have never really experienced the problems firsthand. America must get over its obsession with exporting its value system, which simply won't work in many other places.

Second is the vital importance of maintaining a strong cultural bias against corruption. Corruption feeds on itself, and, in the absence of cultural taboos, undermines economic development and technical progress, and encourages social decay that seems to have no end. It is absolutely imperative that we do this. Nothing less than the survival of our civilization is at stake.

Third, unrestrained free enterprise not only feeds corruption, it is counter-productive to economic progress. It encourages cultural decay and promotes social inequities. Would that every 'libertarian' could see what unrestrained free enterprise has done in Nigeria; then no-one would continue to harbour the illusion that unrestrained free enterprise is the best of economic models.

The fourth lesson is of the importance of civic education. Not blind nationalism or patriotism; that has caused much death and misery in this century, including a terrible civil war in Nigeria, but an understanding of what it means to be a responsible citizen of a functioning liberal democracy. Such teaching should begin in the earliest grades and continue throughout the period of education. It is obvious to everyone who has ever lived in a third-world country that democratic institutions simply cannot survive in an atmosphere of ignorance.

Finally, the fifth lesson is that the citizens of a democracy should not naively trust what their government says it is doing on their behalf in other parts of the world. If Americans understood what is being done by their government in Nigeria and elsewhere, they would be shocked. And if their government deceives them regarding foreign affairs, are they to be trusted when it comes to domestic affairs?

I'm gravely concerned that we are losing a sense of the importance of teaching civics in our public schools, not just in America, but in the developed world in general.

Combined with an aversion to social engineering and an increasing disregard for the problems of the poor and dispossessed, ignorance of the principles of democratic government do not auger well for the future of western society.

I've lived in that future.

It isn't very pretty.

Understanding What's Happening In Africa

America's predictably disastrous involvement in Somalia; the civil war in Rwanda and Burundi, which have spread to Zaire and threatens to become a major international conflict; corruption in Lagos so severe it led the U.S. to sever direct air connections to that airport; the rise of Islamic and Christian extremism in what are essentially secular nations; what is going on here?

The problems of Africa have seemed so complicated and so intractable, that the post-colonial west has traditionally turned its back and has given up even trying to understand what is happening there.

But when the fundamental problems of Africa are understood, the problems seen in the news aren't hard to understand at all. It all becomes clear. And what becomes even more clear, is that there is a lesson for the West in Africa's dilemma.

There are two excellent books which have been written in recent years about the situation in Africa and the third-world, which offer penetrating analyses of the problems that have been discussed in this essay.

The first is a book written by a United Nations aid official, whose travels in Equatorial Guinea (next door to Nigeria), are the basis for a fascinating travelogue about how thoroughly corruption has undermined daily life in Africa. "Tropical Gangsters" by Robert Klitgaard (ISBN 0-465-087604) is one of the best travelogues I have found that describe what life in Africa is really like. An interesting, easy read, it is highly recommended.

Robert Kaplan, mentioned earlier in connection with The Coming Anarchy, recently has written a book in response to the controversy his article generated. To gather more evidence for his thesis, Kaplan revisited some of the areas he talked about in that article, and several more, and has expanded on the article's thesis into an entire theory on the fate of western civilization. I could not recommend it more -- I think Kaplan is right on target with his theories of where we are headed, even if I do not always agree with his analysis of the causes. "The Ends Of The Earth: A Journey At The Dawn Of The 21st Century" (ISBN 0-679-43148-9) is more of a travelogue than a scholarly treatise, and is highly readable and entertaining. But this does not at all detract from the seriousness of its message; the words of warning are serious and meaningful, and should be carefully considered by the west.

If you're planning a trip to Africa, and what you've read here hasn't dissuaded you, here's a file that has my practical advice for travelers to Nigeria and West Africa. In fact, much of the advice is useful for travel anywhere in the third world.

And finally, this...

~ ~

This sign, found in Yankari National Park, prompted my Scottish traveling companion to protest, "Familiarize myself with the baboons? I'm BRITISH!"

Books I highly recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from by pursuing the links here):

Tropical Gangsters by Robert Klitgaard is the travelogue by a man who has lived in Equatorial Guinea, and it will give you a good idea of the experience of expatriate living in subSaharan Africa. His experiences were not too different from my own.

The Open Sore Of A Continent by Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize winning Nigerian author, gives his thoughts on Nigeria's plight and what it will take to fix it.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a prize winning author, is a book that gives a feel for the results of the cultural imperialism of the Christian missionaries at work among the Ibo of south-central Nigeria.

The West Africa Travel Guide by Alex Newton published by Lonely Planet, is probably the best travel guide going for the casual traveler to Nigeria. Unfortunately, like all travel guides to Africa, it leaves a lot to be desired, but is the best bet going I've yet seen. So take it with you if you're going, it could help. I know it helped me.

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