Being a terrorist suspect in Nigeria
The border crossing into Nigeria went surprisingly smooth, a few questions asked and a little waiting at the immigration office while watching other traveller’s money exchanging hands, and then I was allowed to pass. On the other side, I was met by what I felt more aggressive and impatient traffic, and at one point I saw a dead body laying in between the lanes. While staring at the body, I almost got hit by a car and the minutes after, a crazy woman comes running towards me while flashing her breasts. Welcome to Nigeria!
After the border, there were around 20 checkpoints in 30 km’s involving all different departments – a new record. I made it into a populous suburb where I asked if I could sleep in a school, and already here started the suspicions that later would come to form my whole experience in this country…
I entered the mega-city of Lagos, Africa’s largest city with a population of around 20 million people, in the early morning rush hour. But there was no rush, more like a train of honking snails slowly making their way along the same marked path. It even gave me enough time to make friends among the minibus passengers because sometimes it was too tight for me to pass between the vehicles. After having passed most of the suburbs, elevated motorways and bridges started to appear in the distance that connect the different islands that together form the city center.
On Lagos Island, chaotic slum is mixed with skyscrapers and bank offices just like in any other big African city. I headed straight to a huge market in search for a good bicycle mechanic, because I had decided to build a new front wheel since my spokes were snapping all the time. I found an old man who I reckoned was experienced enough for the job, and told him I would be back the next day. While chatting with the people a big crowd had formed and just like on many other occasions to come, I felt like a celebrity. Mobile phones and cameras were pushed in my face just to snap a picture. I quickly got tired to answer the repeated questions that I was bombarded with and instead told people to check out my website written on the frame, haha. The last picture taken by myself where I’m trying to find peace by escaping into one of the shops says it all:
I met a local cyclist who escorted me out of all the chaos and to Victoria Island. Here, I had arranged accommodation with my South-African CouchSurfing-host Jaco. He gave me my own room with AC, WIFI and delicious food – what a luxury. I spent almost a week there while fixing things with the bike, hunting for country maps (none to be found) and doing other things. Jaco took me on two culinary journeys: a nice Indian restaurant and the popular Ice-cream Factory that produce their own home made ice-cream (highly recommended). Thanks again Jaco!
Nigeria is a country of high and low, of rich and poor. It’s a densely populated country full of traffic and urbanization, but also with some beautiful nature if you have the time to look around a bit. It’s also culturally complex with more than 250 ethnic groups and numerous different languages, and this is the main reason behind the many existing conflicts. I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to visit, with Boko Haram terrorizing the country on a daily basis.
Boko Haram is a militant Islamist movement (nowadays considered a terrorist group) that was formed due to ethnic differences when some people in the Muslim north wanted to introduce Sharia laws since the Christian south was headed in a Westernized direction. The meaning of the name is something like ”western education is forbidden”. The violence and terror has escalated during the last years, and I’m not joking when I say I probably chose the worst possible moment to visit the country. In July 2014 (when I was there), Nigeria was estimated to have had the highest number of terrorist killings in the world in the past year: roughly 3,500 people killed in 150 attacks.
Already several months before approaching Nigeria, I started to follow the news more closely. And the more I looked the more it seemed like something happened in the north almost every day. During my time in Lagos, I followed the news even more intensively. Rumors about a military coup, several village attacks, more abducted school girls and one school bombing happened in only one week. The day before I left Lagos, there was a suicide bomber who attacked a school in the second largest city Kano in the north. Two days after I had left, a bomb went off outside one of the most popular shopping malls in the capital Abuja. It felt like the violence was literally out of control.
I think all travellers hear horror stories about travelling in this country, but perhaps mostly about armed robberies and corrupt officials etc. I thought that if someone will harass me in any way on this trip, it’ll quite likely happen here. What I didn’t anticipate was in what way it would happen. It took me by surprise, but ever since the first day when I slept in that school, I started to sense a certain level of suspicion towards me among people, a suspicion that I might be one of them, one of the Boko Harams (or in any way affiliated with them). This only increased the further east I cycled, and culminated once I crossed the Niger River, but more on that later.
In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend going to the voodoo man that I consulted in Togo. The fetish he gave me was supposed to protect me and guarantee the smooth journey through Nigeria that I had wished for, but I can tell you now that it didn’t work.
I chose my route based on what I thought was a rather safe triangle between Lagos, Abuja and Calabar. The north is a no-go zone, nowadays even difficult for journalists with military escort to visit. The southern Niger delta which is rich in oil has a long history of kidnappings. Most major roads are heavily trafficked and I have never seen so many car wrecks and impatient drivers as in this country. Rumors about fake roadblocks and roadside thefts made me wanting to avoid the anonymity that big cities and big roads have to offer to the bad guys. So, instead I reckoned that smaller roads on the countryside would be my best bet to get safely through the country.
Before and after Lagos, I passed approximately 80 km’s of connected urbanization; I could tell that the city was huge! From there, I headed north-east and was surprised to gain a little altitude which made for more pleasant temperatures at night. Actually, a reduction of a couple of degrees that you get from only a few hundred meters makes a big difference at night when you want to sleep well.
The first night, I stopped at a church and asked if I could camp there, but immediately I could see that they were skeptical and then I heard the words “Boko Haram” being whispered and got a no, sorry. Instead, I was surprised to end up at an old Liberian refugee camp nearby, where people were very friendly and calm. I was served a plate of the good old Liberian-style cassava leaves, ahh, I had actually missed it! The Nigerian cuisine leaves much for imagination. I mostly found only rice with dry beans and rarely any sauce at all. Or rice/fufu/ebba with small pieces of bad meat (the skin or bones with very little meat on them), or tiny slices of fish.
Finally I found a smaller road with less traffic and houses. But when I reached a village around mid-day, something uncomfortable happened. I was approached by two motorbikes coming from behind, and they forced me to the side so that I had to stop. Four people stepped down, of which two claimed to work for the police. One of them had a wooden baton in his fist. Both of them wore civilian clothes and not making a good impression on me. They asked if they could see what I had in my bags, but since they could not produce any ID when I asked them, I said no. Slightly offended, they allowed me to continue and told me to “be careful, many bad things have happened in this area lately”. Several times in the afternoon, I could hear people mentioning “Boko Haram” when I cycled by. Not fun at all!
I wild-camped in a cacao plantation this night in search for some quietness and solitude. Bad idea. First of all, I noticed that my whole body was covered by red spots and I thought that it must be some kind of allergic reaction. It had happened quickly, and it was literally everywhere, so I ruled out insect bites. Hands, arms, feet, legs and stomach were covered. Things like contaminated shower water or malnutrition was in my head as well, and I decided to look for a hospital the next morning if the marks hadn’t disappeared.
I was just about to fall asleep when I see a flashlight finding its way through the tent, coming from inside the bush not far away. I started to talk and say hi, and was replied by a highly suspicious voice mumbling one word: “thief”. The conversation continued as follows:
– “No no, I’m a tourist travelling with a bicycle, and I decided to camp here for the night”
– “You’re a THIEF!”
– “Let me see you”
– “Yes, ok”
– “Do you hear me???”
This is when the man, who turned out to be a hunter, fired his rifle into the tree canopy. I almost shat my pants, stumbled outside half-naked and slowly started to walk towards him with my open hands raised above my head. I remember for a moment thinking how it would feel like to get shot. The more I explained to him, the calmer and friendlier he became. I showed the tent and the bicycle and he asked if I was armed. I don’t know where I got it from, given the situation, but I pointed to the area between my legs and he laughed and shook my hand. His name was Moses. So far, Nigeria had been a hell of a happening place.
The following morning, the red spots on my body were still there and now even more numerous. I located a hospital belonging to the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Ile-Ife where I met Herb and Gail, two Americans who had been working there for many years. They were absolutely adorable and invited me to stay overnight. Regarding the spots, there was no need to worry. They told me that it was so called “no-see-ums” – tiny flies that uhm…you (almost) cannot see. I guess they must have made it through the tent’s mesh.
Leaving Ile-Ife, I found myself on smaller roads with less traffic and lovely green and hilly landscapes. This area was also full of rounded mountains looking like mega-slabs, for those climbers who are into that…
Police checkpoints could be found every 60-70 km’s or so. Around 50% asked for gifts and 50% not, but most of them were kind. I picked flowers along the road that I put on the bike to have my “gifts” ready to be handed over, haha! One day I met a real idiot though. The kind that blows his whistle and screams that you should stop, when you have already stopped, and asks for your international passport when you’re already holding it in front of him. He had a hilariously big silencer on his pistol, almost looking like a baton. I thought about telling him a joke related to the size of his manhood, but kept quiet and answered Yes Mr. Officer to everything he said.
Eventually, the Niger River came into view. It was wide. The bridge was exactly 3 km’s long. At the end of the bridge I met Hassan, the grandchild of the king of Idah, who he claimed had reached 200 years of age before he died. Did I mention people don’t really know their age here? One thing they do know is how to make facial scarifications. This way of decorating yourself started already in Senegal with a small cut next to the eye, but has increased for each country to become more visible than ever here in Nigeria, especially among the Yoruba tribe.
Having cycled many days in a row, I felt strong and hoped to reach all the way to Nsukka the following day. When I had maybe an hour or so left, dark clouds appeared on the sky and I was unable to locate a hotel before the rain started pouring down. I found shelter under the tin roof of a small roadside shop. Ironically, here I met a man who said that he wanted to help me because he said that if I continued to cycle the police could arrest me. I kindly rejected his proposal because he seemed slightly drunk.
After half an hour the rain stopped. At this point, a huge crowd of people had gathered around the small shop to look at the stranger. It was too many people for me to address and explain my trip to, and I had started to hear the words “Boko Haram” being mentioned somewhere inside the crowd. I figured I better leave quickly, but just when I was about to do so, a man appears and says “Stop, you are not going anywhere, you are a suspect”. I replied “What? Suspect of what? Who are you and can I see your ID please?” He didn’t have any ID so I tried to get going anyway but this time I was stopped by the crowd itself. I told them that if there was a problem, they better call the police so that we get someone official to sort it out. People started making phone calls, and while we were waiting for the police they said that the man who had accused me for being a “suspect” was some kind of Head of Security. At this point, approximately 70 people were gathered around me, all of which had a very serious look upon their face while shouting and arguing.
I was absolutely attacked with questions while waiting for the police but after a while two men in civilian clothes appeared. They showed me their ID’s, not that this proved anything in a country famous for fraud, e-mail scams and generally faking things. One of them, Mr. Godspower, said that they wanted to search through the contents of my bags. The situation was tense and I was skeptical and said that I didn’t feel comfortable doing this here where there were so many people around. He proposed that we could do it at the police station instead. Irritated over the direction the whole situation was heading, I agreed upon this. But when they wanted to simply push my whole bike with the attached bags into the trunk of the civilian Mercedes that the “Head of Security” had arrived with, I said stop. My refusal caused complete chaos and the crowd went crazy, screaming Boko Haram while pointing with their whole arms at me. The second police officer hit a guy in his face when he tried to get closer to me. He then pulled out his handcuffs, pushed him away and threatened him. I was still not convinced that the police officers were actually who they claimed to be (maybe it was all a play?), but this at least gave them some credibility. He showed me his ID as well, and then lifted his shirt to reveal the pistol tucked under his jeans, when he sensed my confusion about who to trust here.
We agreed upon them escorting me to the station using their motorbikes instead. Before we left, people in the crowd said that they never wanted to see me here again, I was not welcome. Again, I could hear Boko Haram-accusations echoing in the background as we left the area. Several other motorbikes quickly joined us. After a while, we came to a narrow muddy path turning away from the main road, and the “police” indicated that we were heading this way. At this point, I jumped off the bike and refused to continue. The situation felt surreal, I’ve never been this afraid in my whole life I think. My head was spinning, the brain working at 110% trying to think what the hell to do except getting on that path. I placed myself in the middle of the road and reached out with my both arms in order to stop the traffic and seek help from cars passing by. But while standing there it felt like everyone was against me, and not finding help from the general public left me with a feeling of great loneliness and hopelessness. And then on top of that, the weird and pushy “Head of Security”-guy suddenly reappears, this time holding a whip made of leather (!) in his hand. He screams that he’s gonna kick my ass if I don’t follow them, but the “good cop” tries to calm him down. I realized that I didn’t have any other option than to trust the men and follow them onto the small path. I asked the man claiming to be police if he could shake my hand and tell me that they indeed were taking me to a police station. He said yes, and that it was in their best interest right now to protect me.
We continue into the forest following the path. At this point, around twenty motorbikes are tailing us. During these minutes I have time to think that this can end up good, or it can end up terribly bad. Perhaps they are taking me to a remote place with the intention to murder and rob me. Should I try to run into the forest and leave everything behind, if things get worse? At the same time as being afraid, I surprise myself how cool I feel. I even laughed for myself while descending the small path and thinking about how bizarre the whole situation had become. But finally, to my great relief, we joined a bigger road and up ahead I could see that there was indeed a police station. I took a deep breath and thanked the police when we arrived.
While carefully going through all pieces of my luggage, the crowd from the tailing motorbikes was watching us intensively from a distance. After we finished, I wrote a kind of a statement about me, my trip and what had happened during the evening so that they could show this to people who were still in doubt. During the time it took me to write three pages, the police officer received several calls from people who had heard rumors about the Boko Haram-suspect that had been caught. The situation felt absurd. There was a small debate what to do next and finally they asked me if I preferred to spend the night at the station, and that’s what I did. I pitched my tent in a room next to where a woman was held in custody for having poured caustic soda over her husband’s face – nice neighbor. The people working the night shift told me that I was lucky that the police had intervened at the scene, otherwise the crowd could easily have lynched me. Day #374 was a day to remember.
I can’t say that I slept well after all that had happened the previous day. There were many things going around in my head. I thought about skipping the rest of Nigeria and take a bus, but decided not to. Instead I continued cycling after getting escorted to the outskirts of the town. In the big university town of Nsukka I met Ezinne from CouchSurfing who I had contacted earlier. I was invited to stay at her friend Nnekka’s place. Nnekka was very sweet and cooked really nice food for me, and I was glad to be in good hands after the incident that made me feel like I wasn’t welcome anywhere. I spent two days here before going to the city Enugu where I met a friend of her friend, Obinna, who I also stayed with for a couple of days. We spent they days driving around the city listening to funky Nigerian tunes on the stereo and hanging out with his friend and their girlfriends.
I left Obinna and his friends with a positive mind, hoping that things could only get better. I was wrong. Already within an hour, two suspicious-looking fools on a motorbike tried to stop me on the highway. When I ignored them and continued, they followed me and insisted on me stepping down from the bicycle so that we could “talk”. I could see a police checkpoint in the distance and increased the speed. When we got closer, they slowed down. I told the police about them, who could see their backs just as they disappeared, and they confirmed that they were most likely robbers.
After this incident, I entered the smaller roads through Ebonyi State trying to avoid the busy highway. I got good vibes in the villages in the beginning, but didn’t have to wait long before ten civilians on motorbikes stopped me and suspected me for a Boko Haram. One guy took a look at my passport and I had to explain to the group that I was only a tourist, not a terrorist (funny thing is these words sound very similar). Five kilometers later and the same thing was repeated after leaving the next village, also these civilians. This time they wanted to see what I had in my bags. I showed them a little bit until they were satisfied, but they ended the conversation saying that were watching me and I better not cause any trouble…
This was the third time in one day, and I said to myself while cycling through the otherwise beautiful Nigerian countryside that if it happens one more time today, I’ve had enough and will take a bus. And what happens if not a fourth armada of motorbikes approaching me rapidly from behind. This time they were much more aggressive and forced me to a stop. A big guy comes up to me and simply pulls up my shirt, looking for a gun or a knife I guess. He was a complete idiot who screamed furiously that I was a Boko Haram and took the law into his own hands without anyone else’s judgment. I think this situation could have ended violently, but luckily, a police station was only 500 m away so we all went there and I was immediately well received. A small fight broke out between the police and the crowd, the police swung their batons through the air to push them away. I showed all my equipment and the situation became a bit more calm. I explained to the police that I had had enough and that my bike was not rolling a single meter more in this crazy country. I asked them to help me find a hotel and then transport to Calabar (I was only two cycling days away). They were very understanding and talked seriously about my safety, so they decided to arrange an armed police escort to a safe hotel in the next town. They told me to lock the door and not open for anyone except the police, whose number I had received and stayed in touch with. I spent the night watching the movie “Ronja Rövardotter” on my laptop and playing flute, which got me in a better mood. The following morning the police returned and made sure I got all my things strapped to the back of a motorbike and off we went.
The last riding day I even postponed my lunch and snack breaks simply because I didn’t want to stop due to all the suspicious looks and humiliating calls from the people. I started to notice that I had begun to smile excessively towards the villagers in an attempt to make a more friendly impression, so I was apparently not enjoying the riding at all.
As I said initially, I could never have anticipated being taken for a Boko Haram before coming here. But only because I looked strange coming on a bicycle with many bags on it (but not even being dark skinned), people suspected me to be one of them. It was a personal lesson to actually see “the other side of the coin” and getting the feeling to be part of an oppressed and hated minority. It made me think about people who are not accepted in our society. Just like in Europe, when I one time was quite dirty while having a meal sitting on the parking lot outside of a cheap supermarket, watching the people looking at me in what seemed like disgust, I could imagine myself how it would feel to be a beggar or homeless. Here in Nigeria, I thought more about people living in for them foreign countries and having a different skin color, or being oppressed by religion or sexuality. I cannot think of many other things that make you feel so lonely and out of place, than when the general public in your vicinity look down on you, are against you, think that you are a bad person. Civil law or so called mob justice (when people take the law into their own hands) is common here and can be pretty damn scary.
In Calabar, which by the way was one of the nicer cities I visited in Nigeria, I easily arranged the visa to Cameroon and the counselor assured me that I would enjoy his country. I ate a lot of shawarma and went to the cinema two times. Instead of taking the ferry I wanted to do the land crossing from Ekok to Mamfé that historically has been a well-discussed topic among overlanders as a tough road in a very bad state, so that’s where headed.
That’s it, this was Nigeria for me. The overall experience was far from good but it was not only because of being a suspected terrorist. People felt more rough, approaching and impatient. Loud too – conversations rarely stayed at a normal sound level. I often covered my ears to signal a wish for people to calm down and stop screaming while I was having my lunch, for example. Another big difference I found was that here, it was the adults rather than the kids that were the most curious. I didn’t have much contact with kids here at all now that I think about it. And as soon as I stopped, didn’t matter where or why, I always got bombarded with questions regarding what I ate, the route, how I slept, money etc. etc. This happens everywhere, but here, it was just much more intense, too intense. Of course it wasn’t all bad, I also met very nice people and made new friends. But overall, Nigeria was my worst part so far on the trip and I can only hope for peace to settle upon this country one day.