A Survival Guide for Nigeria
Updated: Jun 12
Highway kidnappings, armed robberies, bomb blasts, no-go zones, corpses on the road, mob justice, sharia law, corruption that is more contagious than Covid-19, a non-existing public service infrastructure, STDs around every (second) corner, world-class con-artists, and money-chopping slay queens.
The media’s default narrative portrays a certain image of Nigeria that feeds a specific purpose. It gives our emotional selves what we want – stories. Fear-mongering triggers extra engagement and high clicks pay best. We crave jaw-dropping stories and the media gives us what we yearn for. But is this true? Or better asked: Does what the media portray fit your perspective? Does the media guide you or do you guide yourself?
The nature of my profession makes it inevitable to visit places they warn you about on government homepages and the media. Not that they don’t warn you about going to Nigeria at all. They warn you a little bit more for most remote places. How do I manage and where do I draw my borders? With this blog post, I hope to shine a bit more light on this controversial topic.
Those who have been reading my blog frequently know that I could never buy into the common narrative that the quality of living is lower in emerging countries. At least my personal quality of living has never suffered from adventurous environments – in fact, it has been quite the opposite. It is definitely a personality thing. I am a simple guy. I need little. Happiness is not a place but a state of mind. Give me inspiring and friendly people, and I will make meaningful friendships and be happy. I am not interested in clubbing, drinks, cigars, bars, fine dining, golf, horse riding, aviation, or any other luxury-lifestyle related leisure time activities. I do not fancy opera houses, theatres, cinemas, cocktail receptions in art exhibitions, and red-carpet events. I participate in them if they are a professional requirement, but this is nothing I would spend my free time or money on. The interesting part is even if you do not fancy these things, you can gain access to a majority of them easily if you are based in the respective economic, political and social capitals. Why am I taking you through this detour about my personal lifestyle preferences? I see a major correlation between the postulated and perceived quality of living and one’s attitude towards personal safety. While some fancy the finer things in life, others define them differently. While most people do not feel safe going out after dark, others are okay with it. There is no wrong or right. It is a highly personal subject and everyone has to find their comfort-risk level.
If you compare the numbers, let’s say from Zurich and Lagos, you derive that Lagos is a riskier environment. What is often forgotten in the context of behaviour? Do I walk on Switzerland’s or Germany’s streets alone after dark? Yes, I do. Do I do the same in Nigeria? No, I do not. I also never heard gunshots in my office in Switzerland. In Nigeria I did. Adaptive behaviour is the absolute must in new environments. From my experiences in Kenya and Nigeria, it is possible to live an interesting, safe and freeing life in Africa. Based on my experiences, here are 10 tips on how to stay safe in Nigeria:
1. Know your way around in town (… and don’t trust Google Maps).
Neighbourhoods vary massively not only in Nigeria but also generally in Africa. The gaps could not be bigger. You could be drinking a single drink for the price of someone’s monthly salary in one fancy place - if you have the desire to. I do not. After which, in just five minutes by car you are passing an entire neighbourhood built on a massive floating island of trash dumped into the sea.
A single street can make a difference. Do not trust Google Maps if it found one ‘convenient’ shortcut around traffic – especially at night. One night on my way home with curfew around the corner, all streets were jammed and we decided to take an alternative road suggested by our friend Mr. Google.
The Lagos – Badagry Express going onto the Apapa Oworonshoki Express Way: We are passing a completely deserted highway. Around us, absolute darkness, only occasionally disturbed by the dancing fires on the roadside in between parked lorries, in the gloomy corner, below gigantic bridges. People are gathering around them. People, whose companionship you want to avoid. People with sticks and other unrecognizable items in their hands. Suddenly, a massive shadow is forming in front of us. It is a lorry driving the wrong way on a massive highway without any lights. Close in tow, a single Keke (local name for Tuk Tuk). Who the heck is driving here…at night… in a Tuk Tuk? Anyway, my driver steps on the gas leading us to rule number two.
2. Do not stop.
This is a hard one for me and will forever be. I come from a society where – at the least I want to believe that – civil courage is a question of conscience and social responsibility. People need to help each other out. From early on, I have been taught that you have to help those you see in distress. And yes, I am from a high-trust society. Nigeria is the exact opposite of that. Trust is low and you have to accept that this is not your cosy well-protected neighbourhood. It is a dilemma that can certainly go to your head. This aspect of expat life is definitely one of the least desirable ones as it changes you. You deaden your feelings towards misery. Witnessing harsh circumstances and lost fates become part of your everyday life.
You will witness numerous car breakdowns every day and from time to time accidents. Your first response has been to stop and help. Yet you have to remind yourself that this is a different country with different rules. You look different, you speak differently, and you act differently. This is not the place to get yourself involved in situations you do not understand. Your distinction makes you high profile and people will try taking advantage of that. There are hundreds of examples of how situations can quickly change and the person trying to help becomes the victim. My driver once even told me that some robbers try to get hit by a car on purpose so that their companies raid the stopping vehicle. Another expat told me of the time when his driver accidentally hit a pedestrian. Their Mopol (Nigerian Mobile Police – a paramilitary group that can be hired as safety patrol) had to escort the expat from the scene as fast as possible. Though the accident was not his fault, he was sitting in the car and he was white. The temper of the agitated masses can shift from one second to the other. A perfect breeding ground for the outburst of collective violence: mob justice.
Three words: Do not stop.
3. Avoid inter-state travels via road.
“Still, around the corner, there may wait for a new road or a secret gate.”
– J. R. R. Tolkien
… or kidnappers, bandits, and other undesirable companions.
Inter-state travels via road are getting increasingly dangerous in Nigeria. Kidnappings have become a serious profession and an opportunity for many educationally alienated Nigerians to make a quick buck. While Lagos and Abuja are comparatively safe in regards to kidnappings and armed assaults, cross-country travel and other major cities like Port Harcourt come with higher risk levels. The parties involved in these activities become more and more heterogeneous. In the past, most expats in the oil-rich Niger River Delta were targeted to extort high ransoms from cash-heavy multinationals. Nowadays, you have bandits with all kinds of ethnic backgrounds spinning their web of street terror across the whole of Nigeria.
If you cannot avoid traveling make sure to fly to the nearest airport and have a pick-up organized by your local customers or meeting partners. They know the environment and have the necessary contacts to ensure your safety.
Before you travel, request the contact details, a picture of your driver, and the description of the vehicle including the license plate number. Criminals are smart. There have been incidents of fake pick-ups where criminals buy passenger data from airlines to identify potential targets. Your name in combination with a quick Google search leading to your flashy Instagram profile or your fancy designation on your LinkedIn profile and boom – welcome to target hell!
Consequently, restrict your travel to daytime hours. Once it gets dark you must have reached your destination.
4. Choose your type of accommodation wisely.
In bigger cities, the big hotel chains offer convenient and comfortable accommodation. On the brighter side, these prestigious hotels offer reliable protection against petty crimes and most types of robberies. On the darker side, they remain the main target for any potential terrorist activities. Case in point the Nairobi DusitD2 complex attack in 2019 or the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.
Smaller hotels remain under the radar of terrorists but have lower internal security standards. A (perceived) high-profile target staying in a smaller hotel draws a lot of attention. It would not be the first time that hotel staff, security forces, and bandits were collaborating.
If you cannot avoid staying overnight in the countryside, make sure to stay in the guesthouse of your customer. Most companies employ expats to oversee their operations in rural areas. These expats stay in well-protected and comfortable guesthouses. There you have access to safe food, water, electricity, and most importantly they offer peace and tranquillity after a long day in the sweltering heat of rural Nigeria. These companies are well-connected, their reputation, and their own staff’s safety is at stake. Therefore they offer the safest environment to spend the night. At the same time, it allows you to unwind with the customer after a long day and expand your relationship exceeding purely professional topics.
Whenever you reach a new location, take a stroll around. If you do not have sufficient time, have a look around. Where are possible entries for intruders, where are possible escape routes and shelter?
5. Stay low key
I do not know how it is to be famous but sometimes I get a glimpse of it when people spot me, especially in very local areas. Suddenly, you are surrounded by people calling you names, begging you for small-small or having any other random inquiries. While 99% of such encounters are harmless, they can still become tiring at best and frightening at worst. This leads to an automatic adaption in behaviour. You stay in the car from the moment you drive out your gate until you reach your destination. In the dragging traffic of Lagos, tinted windows are key for personal safety and peace of mind. It sometimes feels as if you are forced to shy away from the sheer masses of people and chaos happening just on the other side of the glass. You begin to value privacy and realize that too much attention can be a challenge – or it might be that it just triggers the introvert in me. I have observed that most locals only leave their vehicle after they parked inside a rather safe compound but never on the street. My ‘just drop me here, I walk the last meters by foot’ is definitely not the norm.
Another practical example is the car you drive (or are driven in). SUVs are the kings of the road like the lions in the Serengeti. You will find only a few Nigerians who drive any other type of car once they can afford an SUV. While luxury SUVs might be prestigious vehicles, they do not make the best option for cross-country travel. Luxurious vehicles make you an even juicier roast for hungry bandits and kidnappers on Nigerian highways. It is like waving a flag as high as you can over your head boasting ‘Here, look at me, I have money!’ This might be the desired effect when driving through Victoria Island, Ikoyi and other safe Lagosian neighbourhoods. Despite the original purpose of increased comfort and safety when travelling on bad roads outside the city, big SUVs are not the best option. Once an acquaintance of mine picked me up with his big SUV. I noticed his massively chipped windscreen. I asked what it was about and with a smile on his face, he explained to me how bandits wanted to stop him during one of his cross-country travel. He refused to stop and they threw a brick onto his car. ‘But I have reinforced glass! Hai!’ he explained. I mumbled ‘okay’ and thought to myself ‘fortunate that they did not have AK-47s.’
If you can’t avoid it, then ensure you draw so much attention that nobody dares attempt, e.g. with a convoy of private security, Mopol, and armoured vehicles. This is only required for high-ranked government officials, celebrities, or big business owners. Everybody else is advised to stay under the radar whenever possible.
6. Treat everyone with respect
It can feel tempting to adopt a harsh form of communication in Nigeria. Everyone is talking in a very direct tone. Sugar-coating is not part of the native tongue here. Somewhat naturally you will experience a tendency to drop formalities, which increasingly seems to unnecessarily bloat up your communication: ‘Gimme wata’ is simply shorter than ‘Could you please (kindly) give me water?’ While adapting the local slang (pidgin with lots of tribal words thrown in) can help you to get lesser of a victim of street extortion it is the perfect double-edged sword. It should only be used in the right context. You are not Nigerian and probably it is quite obvious that you are not. Natives will always look at you differently and assess you on a different scale.
Privilege comes with responsibility. You are treated differently. Service personnel calls you ‘master’ and they will continue doing so even after you politely asked them to call you by your first name for the hundreds of time. You cannot change the system from one day to the other but you can make your contribution to detoxifying a damaging narrative. Is this related to your safety, you might wonder. It is, very much so.
Your behaviours and attitude leave a lasting impression on the people that serve you. They drive you around town, know your daily commutes, listen to your conversations while you are in the car, safeguard your apartment, prepare your food, are all alone in your apartment when you are out all day. They have insights into your life that Facebook & Co. can only dream of. The majority of crimes in Africa are inside jobs. One or two may carry out the crime but numerous are facilitating. This can be an accidentally gate left open, a provoked flat tire, or an electric fence without power – The options are many.
People in service jobs work hard under the toughest conditions and without any social safety net. They may be unable to build up emergency funds. People get in trouble from time to time. Imagine the combination of a person desperate for means to sustain themselves with the opportunity to release all the hatred built up from continuous mistreatment. Finally comes an opening to overcome the unbalance of power and morals get into the back seat, rationalized by a new justifying narrative. Whose house would you rob, from whom would you steal, whose information would you sell if you were in that situation?
Do not get me wrong, you can still be at the place at the wrong time, and boom! That’s it. You are doomed. You may not be able to hedge against this risk, so you have to accept it. Simply being a humble and decent human being does not cost you anything. Kindness goes a long way into making somebody’s day and even somebody’s life. Common decency does not restrain you from being strict. If you are perceived and portray yourself as a sissy you might get yourself in deep trouble. People will try to take advantage of you. They can steal from you or deceive you. You have to speak up immediately and communicate in an open, respectful, and constructive manner that these behaviours are not tolerated. You may have to make unpopular and tough decisions if needed. The sunny side is that all of this does not limit you from being a decent and humble human being. Be easy-going and soft when you can be and be tough when it is demanded from you.
7. Build your support network
What do you do in any Western country when you have a serious problem? Someone tries to break into your house? You call the police. Having troubles breathing? You call the ambulance. Facing a serious legal issue? You better call Saul.
Imagine a society without that. Everything is on sale. The social dynamics are completely different. You have to look out for yourself (and for your friends). They ideally do the same for you. You might know the saying ‘money makes the world go round’. To be fair that is only half of the equation: Relationships matter. They do even more in societies with a weak public infrastructure.
You have to know whom to call when shit hits the fan in its different magnitudes.
8. Be wary whom you date
This paragraph is not about dating in Africa – that is worth a blog post of its own. Just know that you have to be on your guard when entering the snake pit. This applies both to men and women. The predominantly transactional character of dating in Africa and dictated by fixed gender roles (exceptions confirm the rule) opens up a whole new level of ‘business opportunities'. The Nigerian love scam is just one of many. Its obvious character – at least for people who still retain their full mental capacities – makes it fall in the less dangerous category. When it comes to mingling, getting to know people, or dating, make sure to respect the following points:
Don’t let the lavish attention and affection thrown at you fool you.
Always go out with people you trust (see point 5 – build your support network).
Don’t indulge in drugs and alcohol – especially in unfamiliar and potentially unsafe environments. It clouds your senses and lowers your guard.
Be sure of what you drink and have an eye on your glass.
Have an exit strategy at any given time.
Retain healthy scepticism. Balance yourself to not becoming paranoid.
Be uncompromising when it comes to protected sex.
Last but not least be respectful, value consent, and enjoy. Know your limits and you will wake up safe and sound, your watch still around your wrist.
Non-casual/serious dating is another topic, which I will not cover here. Again – it is a topic for itself.
9. Stay out of trouble
‘He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.’
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
A classic no-brainer. Staying out of trouble and solving issues amicably is the key. While this credo is of importance in all places and phases in life, it is even more important in Nigeria. Control yourself. Only strike when you have to. Then strike to defeat.
10. Have an emergency exit strategy
If we were to compare dynamics, then, in general, would Kenya would be a Mercedes and Nigeria a Ferrari. The countries whole situation can change in a matter of hours. You never know what can happen. Preparation is the key. Do your homework in advance so if shit hits the fan you can draw on your strategies. Some points to take care of (this list is not exhaustive):
Build a relationship with your hospital of choice at its doctors. Relationships are everything and they also do matter if you are in line for the emergency room after a heavy accident. Work out payment respectively insurance coverage beforehand. You will not be treated – and it doesn’t matter if you die - if even the slightest doubt remains that you won’t pay.
Share your preferred hospital, insurance, and next-in-kin details with your responsible co-worker (e.g. Human Resources) and a person you trust in your inner circle. Equip them with written documentation, which steps are to be taken if things go south. Share this document digitally and in printed form.
Always have your passports valid and ready. With a passport that will expire within the next six months, you can be denied to board a plane.
Register with your local embassy to be considered for evacuation flights and other governmental support, e.g. in a kidnapping situation.
Ensure that you always have access to your emergency fund, e.g. two credit cards that you keep in different locations. Guarantee that the same is activated for Nigeria and work with all major ATMs. Visa and MasterCard are always a solid choice.
Draft your will and share it with your loved ones back home. This is not Nigeria-specific though. It is part of approaching life realistically. Every day can be your last day. Memento Mori.
11. Be prepared but not worried.
Reading through the first ten points might sound frightening to you but life in Nigeria is not. Life in Nigeria is exciting, insightful, and instructive. Although Nigeria scores badly on most official safety ratings, safe and sane life is not the exception but the norm for the majority of both locals and expats.
Worrying is destructive. It blurs your mind and shields you from the opportunities that are waiting for you in the Wild Wild West. Worrying will not win you any medal, neither will it keep you alive. Preparation in combination with street smartness and a reliable gut feeling does. And when it comes down to a tough decision, stick to the latter.