Navigating Nigeria

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On arrival at Lagos Airport, I could not see my pre-arranged driver from the Victoria Palace Hotel holding up my name in the throng outside the airport doors. So I hitched a lift with a driver from another hotel going the same way. 

At my hotel they seemed surprised to see me. “The driver said you were not on the flight,” the receptionist said accusingly. It emerged that he was wearing a T-shirt bearing the hotel’s name, which, presumably, I was expected to notice. I advised that the traditional placard approach with the passenger’s name usually worked more efficiently. In most places, that is. In Nigeria, it has been occasionally exploited to lure unwary travellers into the wrong car after which they are taken from the airport and robbed.

The robber puts up his own sign, taking a name from another placard being held up in the arrivals area, and stands well ahead of the legitimate driver. The passenger, who will usually not know the driver, assumes it is the driver sent by his host or hotel, and will go with him. Although this is not commonplace, it has happened to a few people, and travellers are advised to get the name and other identity details of the allotted driver to avoid being caught out.  

Nigeria is not generally regarded as one of the world’s most favoured destinations. But like anywhere else, it is easy to manage if you know what you are doing. You can never have enough tips on how to negotiate the country. Finding reasonably priced, decent accommodation is a must, as Lagos hotels are highly priced. A decent hotel will cost between $300 and $600 a night; $100 will not get you much. As demand rises, particularly in the middle-range price bracket, new guest houses and hotels are opening regularly and it is worth asking around for undiscovered gems. On one trip last year, I opted to stay in the Victoria Palace because of the promise of free, 24-hour Internet. That, and the highly rated Indian restaurant on the top floor of the building.

The restaurant lived up to its reputation; the Internet less so. It worked perfectly for one day and then died. But I heard that I was just unlucky.  I learned the hard way that buying tickets for internal flights before time can easily backfire as not all airlines are reliable with times and flights. Many Nigerians prefer to buy them at the airport before departure to obviate this problem. I had to fly to Abuja, the capital, on business for a night. After a mad, one-hour mid-day dash to the airport through snarled traffic in a battered yellow taxi, I arrived with 15 minutes to spare before departure of the flight on Nigeria’s national airline. The gracious check-in attendant allowed me through and I rushed to the gate – just in time to hear the flight had been delayed indefinitely. Three hours later, we took off, leaving me too little time to get to Abuja in time for a state banquet that evening.

The next day, I checked out, ready to fly back to Lagos in the afternoon after a conference. During the lunch break I learned by chance that my flight had been cancelled. It was the last of the day on Virgin Nigeria and as I had the ticket already, bought in Johannesburg, it would prove expensive to fly back on another airline. I had to re-book for the following day. There are many local airlines operating in Nigeria, although generally only three or four are recommended – Arik Air, Aero Contractors, Bellview and Virgin Nigeria. I learned the hard way that the latter has become unreliable, particularly with internal flights. Do not try to have too many meetings in a day in Nigeria. It is almost the norm to be kept waiting. Visits to government officials in Abuja can mean a wait of several hours without explanation.

It is a lesser problem in business, but still happens. You can arrive for a confirmed appointment to find the person you have arranged to see has just left for another meeting. It is worth making an appointment ahead of time, but it is advisable not to make it too far ahead, as years of difficult logistics and working conditions mean Nigerians are used to being flexible with time.By the time you arrive, your appointment may have got lost in the greater short-term game plan.

However, it is also possible in Nigeria to make appointments at the last minute. People are used to operating on this basis and do not think it rude if you are from out of town. Just as arrangements are easily broken they can also be easily made. Nigeria continues to get a bad press as a place to visit. The heat, noise, general air of chaos and relentless traffic can quickly erode one’s sanity. But although challenges remain, cities such as Lagos and Abuja are light years away from the places I first visited in the early 1990s.

The huge advances in telecommunications, transport and hotel options, the mushrooming of good bars and restaurants, new roads, and the cleaning up of the international and domestic airports in both cities are all major positives for business travellers. However, Nigeria does remain an expensive destination. The cost of using taxis and, particularly, hiring cars with drivers, has risen sharply in the past few years. International credit cards are not usable except in the top hotels, which makes it necessary to carry lots of cash around. Tourism attractions in and around the cities are limited and not well developed, giving ‘trapped’ visitors little to do in their down time. It will be a long time before real tourists, as distinct from business travellers, flock to the country.

But Lagos is quickly becoming the business centre of Africa, and its covenient geographical location could see it competing with Johannesburg in a few years’ time as a continental hub. Visiting Nigeria, and Lagos in particular, is becoming inevitable for anyone serious about doing business in Africa. The trick is to tackle the challenges with equanimity while embracing the adventure. It may be a difficult country for foreigners to negotiate but it is endlessly colourful and interesting – and quite fun once you get the hang of it.