Niger Bridge at Onitsha, December 18 - 19, 2007
Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
85Trip End Jan 05, 2008
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The Delta is now well known for its civil unrest, gangs, private armies, kidnappings, and general mayhem, so it was a definite no-go zone on the checkerboard of areas in southern Nigeria the British Foreign Service has warnings against traveling to. Although we had no reason to go to the Delta, these warnings were in effect in several other areas of southwestern Nigeria, requiring us (for insurance coverage purposes as well as safety) to take a circuitous route instead of the main expressway which passed through some areas of conflict
All roads in south-central Nigeria, however, seem to converge into one serious bottleneck - the bridge across the Niger at Onitsha, one of the greatest scenes of anarchy I've ever experienced. Nigerians must be the world's most aggressive drivers to begin with, but here thousands of cars were all jostling for space and numerous roads converged to cross the only bridge for at least a hundred miles in each direction that linking the eastern and western halves of the country, a bridge with only one lane of traffic in each direction and numerous stalled vehicles the traffic had to squeeze around. All told, it took us about three hours from when we hit the traffic jam until we got over the bridge, all spent in stifling humid heat.
Onitsha was a crowded and chaotic as any other Nigerian city we passed through, but my main recollection of its unpleasantness was the choking soot and vehicle exhaust fumes hanging low over the city that literally left a bad taste in my mouth. We continued a short distance farther east to a place called Abba Town, and looked for a place to camp as it was beginning to get dark. We all had serious concerns about the safety of bush camping in such a heavily populated area, so Dave followed the signs for the Hotel Abba. The rutted dirt road winding up the hill took us through a different Nigeria we hadn't seen much of yet - the palatial estates of the nations super rich, all of course behind high walls topped with glass shards and the most painful looking razor wire you can imagine and guarded by small private armies of security guards
In the midst of the opulence, though, the Hotel Abba was a somewhat of a dump. For the equivalent of $6 I "upgraded" from a tent to a room, albeit one without running water and only a single small light bulb hanging from the ceiling. I went to bed early in anticipation of our scheduled 5:00 A.M. departure, one set very early to insure we'd be able to make it to Calabar the following day.
While everything I had heard about Nigerian officials suggested that they were the most corrupt people on earth and that every encounter with them would eventually result in them trying to extort money from you, the situation on the ground was far more hit-and-miss. Although we experienced a number of instances of such corruption, it was far from universal, and never from the military police - the ones dressed in snazzy black uniforms who have been rather successful in their role of restoring some semblance of law and order to a particularly chaotic nation.
One such encounter with bribe seeking cops took place on a side road south of Enugu, a shortcut to Calabar where the truck was stopped at a police checkpoint by group of four traffic cops wanting to impose a fine for some fabricated infraction. Of course, Dave refused to pay it and another drawn out confrontation took place at the checkpoint between Dave and James arguing with the traffic cops and all us passenger types watching from inside
Dave: If you arrest me and impound the truck then you have a serious situation on your hands. We have 19 white people here with NO money and they will miss their flights from Calabar back home tomorrow. If they miss their flights then you will have an international incident on YOUR hands and you will be held responsible. The daughter of the British Ambassador is on THAT truck and he will be most displeased to hear of this encounter. I will have your name and rank and number then we will proceed with this matter further!
Nasty Traffic Cop ponders with colleagues for a while.
Nasty Traffic Cop: You are correct. Where will these people go? Where will they sleep? What will they eat? For the compassion in my heart and for the sake of humanity I will release you all....but do you have anything for me like a souvenir from England??
Second Traffic Cop: Chief I would like to make a contribution.
Nasty Traffic Cop: What is your contribution?
Second Traffic Cop proceeds to offer his verdict.
Nasty Traffic Cop: I do not like this contribution, go and sit in the car and put your beret on!!
As happened numerous times on this trip, in the end after nearly and hour of tension and threats between the traffic cops and our driver, the situation was resolved with us giving the four of them each a can of cold beer.