Illuminating Nigeria

Nigeria, with 170 million inhabitants, is Africa’s most populous country. It still maintains the borders the British decreed in 1914 when it was one of their colonies, even though it’s a construct of almost 250 ethnically diverse groups. Its very name is that suggested by a British journalist in the 1890s. Flora Shaw referred to the area as Nigeria after the mighty river Niger whose delta dominates much of the southern coast and whose flow separates culturally and geographically specific areas.

While the geography is diverse and it’s a very beautiful country, it’s also deeply troubled, despite the President from 2010 – 2015 being called Goodluck Jonathan. He may have had one of the most optimistic names in politics, but during his presidency Nigeria saw the rise and rise of Boko Haram in the north of the country. Today, the complete northern border areas with Chad, Niger and Cameroon are unsafe areas. Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe States are now no-go areas for foreigners according to the British Foreign Office.

Often ignored by the international media, Boko Haram was the lead story in 2014 when they abducted 200 school girls from the town of Chibok, only a handful of whom have been recovered. Sadly many times that number have been abducted since in brutal raids on communities large and small. Sharia law has now been adopted in several states in the north, and the Islamic fundamentalist factions have contributed to the current (2016) 2.6 million internally displaced people. Climatic instability, particularly recent drought and flooding, has also contributed to the mass movement of people.

As a land mass it’s twice as big as California (or 45 times the size of Wales) and relief varies from sea level on the Niger Delta to the 2,419m mountain of Chappal Waddi situated close to the Cameroon border in the east. The coastal plains and southern lowlands with their tropical rainfall, offer good agricultural productivity, which is in stark contrast to the semi-arid great plains to the north leading into the Sahel. Sadly, rapid deforestation has destabilised the land and mis-management of Nigeria’s greatest resource, oil, has led to massive pollution.

The English-speaking former colony is one of the world’s largest oil producers, but few Nigerians, including those in oil-producing areas, have benefitted, even though oil accounts for 90% of the country’s export earnings. In fact, most have suffered, and as a result there is political insecurity in the south too. One region – Ogoniland – has even sporadically declared independence, most recently in 2012. In an attempt to placate the Ogoni people a $1 billion oil clean-up was promised by the government in 2016, but Shell, the largest oil producer in the country, continues to deny its responsibilities, both environmental and social and has been implicated in the deaths of many activists whether directly or indirectly. The highest profile killing was probably that of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, to whose family and community they paid an out of court settlement of $15.5 million. In 2014 the village of Bodo, where oil spills occurred in 2004, received $84 million in compensation, but leaking pipelines remain a problem Shell seems intent on ignoring.

Endemic corruption is often blamed for the terrible state of the national infrastructure, but for the adventuring motorcyclist the fact that only 15% of Nigeria’s road network is sealed, is a delight. Unless it rains, when the red earth can be unbelievably treacherous, and it can do that a lot in the south. Structured telecommunications are almost non-existent, but mobile phone use is nearly universal among the population, as is internet access. You’ve probably already been approached by a terribly wealthy Nigerian who just needs to use your bank account to help them clear some inherited funds…

Nigeria also has Africa’s most vibrant and healthy independent media; print, audio and visual. After years of military rule this is surprising, but there is a strong crop of well-educated urban young with an upwardly mobile and internationally focused attitude. The elections of 2015 were reasonably peaceful and transition of power to the opposition was a first in their 55 years of independence. Goodluck Jonathan acknowledged defeat and his successor Muhammadu Buhari took the reins on a ticket of smashing corruption. Interestingly, when he took power by force back in 1983 and ruled for two years as a military general, he said that rooting out corruption was also his number one goal. Whether or not he’ll manage it this time, or really wants to, is anyone’s guess and in the meantime everyone riding through the country will no doubt experience it at some level. What is certain, is that Buhari’s attitude towards women is firmly rooted in the past, something he shares with President Trump. His wife recently spoke out about the nepotism in the Nigerian government, pointing out that even he didn’t know most of his cabinet, but he responded while at a meeting of heads of state in Europe that she, like all women, belonged in the kitchen. Angela Merkel wasn’t delighted.

If you do plan to visit, remember that alcohol is very popular in the south. Guinness established their first overseas brewery in the city of Lagos in 1963 and has continued to expand ever since. Now it has five, brewing everything from the famous black stout to another Irish favourite, Harp lager. But if you are taking a break from riding in the tropical heat and feel that a taste of Ireland is a little inappropriate, you’ll find a readily available and inexpensive tart alcoholic wine that comes from the abundant palm trees. Thankfully the taxi drivers all speak English and will be able to take you back to your tent.

Words: Paddy Tyson