Friday, May 27, 2011

Never Again in Nigeria

African dust storm
Today’s guest post is written by two Australian lads on a trip of a lifetime. Benny and Harty began their travels in Berlin and are slowly making their way to South Africa for the World Cup. In this post they detail the sometimes randomness and danger of border crossings in Africa.
Be sure to visit their blog Amateurs in Africa.

Whoa – what just happened?
Did we seriously just out run border officials in an old taxi at top speed? Those were real machine guns, weren’t they?
Ok. Back up. Let’s start from the beginning – 2 hours earlier.
Border stamp and bag check at Benin – done. It would have been handy to be in gum boots to cross through the monsoonal mud puddles, but we still made it to the border with visas issued by the Nigerian embassy. Let the games begin.
There was some confusion. Why did we have new passports? Why did we have our visas processed in Ghana and not Australia? We won’t lie, we were a bit nervous. After some deep breaths and calm explanations though, we were filling out paperwork. Move on to the office for a stamp. Hold up – take a seat. Time for military questioning – in the end we’re still not exactly sure what happened. They didn’t really buy our story but still gave us a stamp, albeit for half the time we’d asked for and for the wrong reason. We were officially welcomed into the country.
A motor ride up the road, an attempted rip-off battle and a wait for a shared taxi. An hour later and after some hard bargaining we were off. 95% of people had told us to avoid Nigeria, no one had a positive word to say, no one wanted us to go – but we’d made it – we were in Nigeria. Or were we?
Just 500 meters into the country and we were hauled out of the car. Have you got drugs?  Where are you vaccination cards? Why does one of you have proof of a Meningitis vaccination and one of you does not? We don’t accept that – you’ll have to go back to Benin. Are you kidding? It’s not even listed as a prerequisite for entry anywhere.
Anyway – 1000CFA later and they had forgotten about that. I doubt the WHO would be impressed.

Backpack on the road
Explaining our passport story at another three checkpoints, even though we had been given entry stamps, was painful but we were patient. We were so close. Checkpoint #4 was a different story. Yes – that’s right, after you enter the country there are officially about seven or eight further checkpoints, a few hundred meters apart, serving basically no purpose and all checking the same thing.
‘Ha – we’re not going to let you in’ he said as if he’d hit the jackpot on a slot machine. Checkpoint #4 refused us entry. ‘I’m sorry – new passports, visa in Ghana – we don’t accept that. I’m turning you around and you’ll be sent back to Accra’. ‘But sir, as we explained to the border officials, it was not possible to gain a visa in Australia, we only got new passports 3 weeks ago in Ghana’. ‘Why did you get new passports, there are pages left in your last one?’ So it continued…
Before we knew it, we were bailed up in the head officer’s border post, a small dark room with confiscated goods and a few locals who had brushed with the law. Twenty minutes, thirty, forty and the taxi driver was threatening to leave with our goods. The guards had taken our passports and kept saying that we were going back to Ghana and wouldn’t be allowed into Nigeria. The angrier the officer became with us the calmer we played it. We discussed football, Nigerian players and even stooped to talk of how incredible his studies of sociology were – we tried it all.
We knew what he wanted but wanted to wait it out. We’d done nothing wrong and had everything we needed – they were clutching at straws. As the hour mark closed in, against everything we believe in, in a last ditch effort and for the first time at a border in Africa we mumbled the words they’d been waiting to hear. ‘Is there anything we can do to fix the situation sir?’ There was a quick response. We can’t recall details but we think we must have dropped a large sum of money in that office. How silly of us, very disappointing.
Back on the road, and after a lengthy argument with the taxi driver, we were off. We hadn’t realized how much trouble it was for a local driver to get a couple of ‘whites’ through and he certainly let us know. Through three more check points, hiding behind trucks and weaving through cars like a magician, there was one left. One last immigration point before the bridge, which we were considering freedom at this point.

African van
Gently does it – slow and steady we’re almost there. But not quite – Bang – an officer sees us and hits the back of the car. Stop! The driver accelerates as the traffic opens slightly, the officer signals up to the officers further afield; in a moment of panic the driver plants his foot to the floor. Up ahead all that stands between us and a new land is one police officer. There’s a traffic jam, the driver tries to force his way past. In the rear vision mirror we watch as the immigration officers are closing in.
There are screams of racism amongst the chaos as an argument erupts and passengers scream at the policeman to let us past – ‘You’re stopping us just because these guys are white men, it’s not right we’ve been here all day dealing with that’. Over and over they yelled – tired of it the policeman finally moved the barrier.
We’ll never forget the sounds of screeching tires which spoke louder then any words. We’ll never forget watching the machine gun wielding officers in pursuit fade away into the distance and we’ll never forget the feeling of relief and the cheers of jubilation inside the car.
We were broke, destroyed and exhausted but we were alive and in Nigeria. Oh, but don’t think the negotiated price for the taxi stood either. Compensation for his assistance was substantial but as we learned pretty quickly, so is everything in this place.

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