AVP NigeriaBy Charles Oropallo PO Box 128 Peterborough, New Hampshire, 03458 U.S.A.
The last time I was to the Eastern Hemisphere was in 1971-1972 when I was stationed at Camp Foster, Okinawa, while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. Once I slipped over fifty, I thought it doubtful that I’d ever leave the Western Hemisphere again…
the unlikely beginning…
Let me make it clear from the onset that I had absolutely no intention of ever going to Nigeria. In fact, the thought had never entered my mind. I must also reluctantly confess that in the beginning of June 2002, I didn’t even know for certain where in Africa Nigeria was located!
I had agreed to take over editing and publishing the Transformer from Fred Feucht on March 11. In the beginning of June, my focus was primarily on getting that first issue I was responsible for together for publication and to the printer in time for my self-imposed deadline of June 21, the first day of summer.
In the final issue of the Transformer that Fred published, was information about signing up to attend the Seventh Alternatives to Violence Project International Conference to be held at the University of Lagos (pronounced lay'•gose) in Nigeria on September 1-4, 2002.
I had written an email to AVP Nigeria asking about details – such as whether the conference was still going to happen. There was talk of it possibly not taking place due to the low number of people interested in attending. I wanted to make sure that the form and information I would be running in the upcoming Transformer was correct.
My questions were not fully answered in the email response I received. I was interested in finding out information like whether the contact information was correct and how many people were expected to show. My hope was to place a small blurb in the Transformer about the conference. I ended up telephoning AVP Nigeria. I called several times trying to reach anyone who might have the information I sought.
I found calling AVP Nigeria to be exceptionally frustrating experience. Several times I simply got nothing when I dialed. More often than not there was simply no answer. There were many days I simply could not seem to reach AVP Nigeria. On the occasions when I did get through, the communication was poor at best. The voice on the other end was usually barely intelligible and/or breaking up. To compound the difficulty it appeared they had to listen while I spoke and vice versa. Telephoning with Nigerians seemed like participating in the broken squares exercise (one where the participants work as a team but are not allowed to communicate with one another) at best.
I remember one phone call where all I believed I was able to ascertain was that the conference was still expected to happen. I was unable to understand any of the rest of that phone call. At one point I did discover that there was poor signup for the conference. I offered a statement of support. Based on my four years experience with AVP/USA’s conference committee, I was aware that many individuals wait until the very last minute to commit. The person on the other end indicated they were expecting between ten and twenty participants. It was six weeks prior to the conference.
Knowing that the conference was still scheduled to happen, I was at least satisfied that the information in the Transformer would be accurate. I was concerned, however, when Iyke Chiemeka, AVP Nigeria’s National Coordinator, mentioned that because there was not a lot of time until the conference, anyone further who did wish to attend should bring his or her conference fee with them in cash.
no way in the world…
I got interested in Nigeria and started doing research on it. There is plenty of material on the web and I spent some time daily learning about this West African nation where the Seventh International AVP Conference was to be held. I learned that much like in the Far East, most African’s have very high regard for their elders and extended family. They are willing to work together to help one another. Practically everything I discovered about African people was positive.
I want to first note that most of the information about Nigeria in this segment is from the U.S. State Department web site information on travel to Nigeria, dated January 19, 2001. Although on August 8, 2002 the site indicated the information was updated, there did not appear to be any discernable changes made to the material after the update.
Nigeria is described as a developing West African country that has experienced periods of political instability. Its internal infrastructure is described as neither fully functional nor well maintained. The inauguration of President Olusegun Obasanjo on May 29, 1999 marked the return of civilian rule after sixteen years of military governments.
All I had really known about Nigeria was that it was reputed to be the home of what has come to be known as the “4-1-9” (pronounced “four-one-nine”) scam. This is a scam that relies on the victim’s greed to entice the victim to send advance fees and costs to whomever is operating the scam. According to information on some websites, such scams are reputed to provide as high as 20% of Nigeria’s income and take place through actual Nigerian government offices. I had received invitations to this scam on several occasions over the years through email. I did extensive research on these, discovering that there are numerous websites devoted to exposing these frauds.
”Would I ever go to Nigeria? No way in the world!” I said. After all, travel warnings from the U.S. State Department updated as recently as August 8, 2002 were citing Nigeria as being seriously crime-ridden country as well as embroiled in ethnic and religious conflicts. Excellent reasons to avoid vacationing there, I thought.
Nearly all information warns travelers against visiting Nigeria. They cite localized civil unrest and violence as being regularly experienced in Nigeria with the causes and locations varying unpredictably. Our State Department warns of violent crimes being committed by ordinary criminals as well as by persons in police and military uniforms occurring throughout the country. It warns of kidnapping for ransom of persons associated with oil companies as being common in the Niger Delta area. It indicated that ongoing religious and ethnic conflicts exist in Nigeria between Muslim and Christian groups as well as between other ethnic groups and that in the northern areas ongoing conflict over implementing Islamic Sharia law continues.
The State Department indicates that several parts of Nigeria have recently suffered from ethnic-religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims and between Hausa and Yoruba. Locations where outbreaks of violence occurred during the year 2000 include the Lagos area, southwestern Nigeria, the oil-producing states in the Niger Delta region, and Anambra, Benue, Kaduna, and Kano states. It indicates that in February 2000, there were demonstrations and civil unrest resulting in numerous casualties in and around the city of Kaduna in north central Nigeria. Subsequent disturbances, it says, occurred in the southeastern cities of Aba, Abia State, and Onitsha, Anambra State. In October 2000, over 100 people were killed in Lagos as a result of inter-ethnic conflict. In late 2001 similar conflicts resulted in hundreds of deaths.
The State Department concedes that U.S. citizens have not been specifically targeted in these disturbances and incidents. Nonetheless, it warns that they and their vehicles may inadvertently become caught up in a demonstration or disturbance.
It also warns that while the federal government has authorized a few vehicle checkpoints, unauthorized checkpoints continue to be a problem throughout Nigeria.
The use of public transportation throughout Nigeria, they say, is dangerous and should be avoided, and that even taxis pose risks because of the possibility of fraudulent or criminal operators and poorly maintained vehicles. They warn that most Nigerian airlines have aging fleets, and maintenance and operational procedures may be inadequate to ensure passenger safety. The State Department even warned that Nigerian-based business, charity, and other scams target foreigners worldwide and pose a danger of financial loss and that recipients pursuing such fraudulent offers risk physical harm if they travel to Nigeria. They go on to warn that under no circumstances should U.S. citizens travel to Nigeria without a valid visa and that the ability of U.S. Embassy officers to extricate U.S. citizens from unlawful business deals and their consequences is extremely limited.
Travelers to Nigeria are warned by the U.S. State Department that violent crime affecting foreigners is a serious problem, especially in Lagos and the southern regions of the country. It indicates that visitors and resident Americans have experienced armed muggings, assaults, burglary, kidnappings and extortion, often involving violence. Carjackings, roadblock robberies, and armed break-ins are common, it says. It also warns that many Americans have been victims of armed robbery on the road from Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Law enforcement authorities, the State Department indicates, usually respond to crimes slowly, if at all, and provide little or no investigative support to victims. It says that U.S. citizens have experienced harassment and shakedowns at checkpoints and during encounters with Nigerian officials.
The State Department warns that medical facilities in Nigeria are generally not up to U.S./European standards. Diagnostic and treatment equipment is most often poorly maintained and many medicines are unavailable. Counterfeit pharmaceuticals are a common problem and may be difficult to distinguish from genuine medications. This is particularly true of generics purchased at local pharmacies or street markets. While Nigeria has many well-trained doctors, hospital facilities are generally of poor quality with inadequately trained nursing staffs. Hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services.
Other information that was gleaned from various Internet and email sources involved the airport. Information advised that the Nigerian customs officials were not to be trusted and to not indicate how much cash we had with us. The physician administering the immunizations prior to our travel to Nigeria indicated that a popular scam was to tell travelers that an immunization was needed and to sell them the immunization (really a placebo) at the airport.
The AVP Nigeria National Coordinator, Iyke Chiemeka, warned prospective conference attendees to not send anyone any money and to not pay anything to anyone at the airport.
rethinking my position…
Two AVP stalwarts – whom I respect more than words can express – shared their views to the contrary with me. In conversations within eight hours of one another, each expressed to me their firm belief that it was important that a show of support be made to AVP Nigeria, the group sponsoring this year's AVP International Conference September 1-4 at the University of Lagos in Isolo, Lagos State, Nigeria. They also expressed that they thought it was particularly important for me to attend based upon my personal history and how I came to be involved with AVP.
After receiving such encouragement to go from Stephen Angell and Richard Nethercut, plans (somewhat reluctantly I must admit) began to be made. Much to my amazement, it seemed all the necessary doors opened as the process progressed, clearing the way for Susan and me to attend the conference in Nigeria.
The first hurdle I was concerned with was obtaining a visa. I already had a passport and a visa is required to enter Nigeria. The visa form indicated that copies of airline tickets needed to be attached. This presented a special problem to me, since the form asked if the applicant had ever been arrested. I am always leery of denial whenever a form has such an inquiry. I certainly did not want to purchase tickets (for both me and Susan) and then be denied a visa. A call to the Nigerian consulate in New York explaining my concern yielded information that a flight itinerary would suffice.
The next hurdle was that it was indicated that a letter of invitation was required. I had emailed for that but it never came. I had signed up to attend the conference on the PRAWA website, so our names were on the list of those to attend. I printed and submitted that list with the paperwork as well as a copy of the conference registration form that ran in the Transformer. The materials to apply for our visas went to the Nigerian consulate in New York City on Tuesday, July 16.
I cannot adequately articulate the surprise I experienced when on Saturday – only four days after mailing it – our passports arrived back. Both were approved. It was at that point that I realized that I was in fact going to Nigeria. We looked into plane tickets right away.
Prior to our arrival in Nigeria Susan and I shared much trepidation regarding the trip. Susan's son, who lives in a nearby town, expressed his concerns and did not want her to go. My mom expressed her concerns as well. Many to whom I had spoken about the trip could not imagine that anyone would want to visit Nigeria. Some who had previously visited war-torn areas to spread AVP did offer support. As indicated above, there were few kind words available from the U.S. State Department regarding travel to Nigeria.
One problem that was a prime contributor to my trepidation about going was the lack of regular communication with Nigeria. Had responses been more forthcoming, I know that I would have felt much more at ease. I perceived a small contingent of persons attending the conference and several others asked me if I knew whether it was even going to happen. Four to five weeks went by that I did not hear anything further from AVP Nigeria. Others were asking if I had heard anything. I began to think that possibly the conference was not going to happen.
As if the poor communication was not enough, I was aware that a computer that AVP Nigeria used for its email communications was infected with the Klez virus. It was busy sending virus-laden email out to everyone in their address book every time they were connected to their Internet connection. I tried letting them know that but did not get responses back regarding those warnings.
My biggest concern focused on what we were going to do if we were not met at the airport. Visions of Nigerian corrupt customs officials, security personnel, and police who could not be trusted did not help. Being stuck at the airport would have been the ultimate disaster. We checked with Virgin Atlantic, our air carrier, and found that for several hundred U.S. dollars we could exchange our return flight tickets and return early to England. Most importantly, we could use our MasterCard at the airport, so we didn’t have to bring extra cash to cover that possibility. However, it still would be so much easier if we were assured of being met at the airport!
It was now about two weeks before our flight out of Logan airport and we were no longer even sure if the conference was a go. Each day seemed to yield more negative news on Nigeria. People were emailing me regularly to ask if I had heard anything further. I was again questioning myself as to whether this trip would happen. To add insult to injury, I ended up extremely ill as a result of the vaccinations Susan and I received in preparation for the trip over two weeks earlier. I seldom ever get sick but I believe I experienced nearly every possible bad side effect I had been warned about! I really doubted that this trip was going to happen at this point.
Enter another individual into our circumstance. This fellow was a friend of a long time AVP facilitator in the Washington, DC area. I had emailed that facilitator August 13 asking to be put in touch with his friend. Three days later that happened.
What was unique about this facilitator’s friend was that, like myself, he had been an inside facilitator who had become involved with AVP workshops while he was incarcerated. He had spent about twenty years in the U.S. Since his release, and had relatively recently moved back to his native country: Nigeria. Most of those years in the U.S. were spent in prison.
This fellow emailed me back – providing assurances that he would make certain we were picked up at the airport and brought to the conference site. I can honestly say that after hearing from him, my confidence that everything would go smoothly in Nigeria was back on the rise. My concerns about the trip in general dwindled to nil now that I had a trusted Nigerian contact.
I started relaxing enough to think about enjoying this incredible adventure that Susan and I were about to embark upon. It was exciting going to Africa. I had never been there and never thought I’d ever be. I was getting anxious to go now! Anxious, that is, until August 23 when my Nigerian contact sent what I thought was a rather strange email. Just seven days prior to our leaving the U.S., he wrote, “It's my hope these few words will find you in the best of health and spirit. I have finalized all my preparations for you and your wife's visit. To avoid complications at Customs Clearing point at the airport, I am requesting you do the following: (1) Send all the money you will be bringing to Nigeria by Western Union today or tomorrow to me … and only carry just a few dollars on you to purchase things in the plane, etc. Western Unions are usually located inside food stores or you can call their toll free number for locations. That was the method I used when I came back to Nigeria, and it worked very fine for me ... that way you will only declare whatever few dollars you'll have in your pocket (try to keep it under $80) at the customs. The customs processing area is off limits to the public, and I don't trust them. Please send it today so I can collect your money before traveling to Abuja (Nigeria's capital) for a business meeting. I will be back around Wednesday or Thursday next week, but you can always reach me with my phone number. As I consider you and your family part of my family, I want you to have a hassle-free visit to Nigeria. All arrangements have been finalized to pick you guys up at the airport on September 1 at 5 a.m. (2) Do not give anyone anything at the baggage claim area (baggage claim tags, tips, etc.) if asked, respectfully request them to come with you to the reception area where I will be waiting for you, and I will take care of them.”
I did not respond to that email. I remember thinking hard about whether we should go or not over the weekend following receiving that email. We spent that weekend with friends at Lake Champlain in Vermont.
When we returned, an email had arrived on Saturday from AVP Nigeria. What a relief I felt to have heard from there! In it, Iyke said, “This is to inform you of Teresa's safe arrival, she's presently facilitating a workshop in Warri, one of the Delta areas of Nigeria. Here's one piece of information you'd find useful: Do not pay any money whatsoever to anyone on your arrival in Nigeria. Wishing you a pleasant flight.”
On August 28, two days before leaving for Nigeria, I emailed a second response to my Nigerian contact indicating that arrangements had already been made to pick us up at the airport and I copied that message (along with that fellow’s originals to me) to Iyke. The next message I got from my Nigerian contact said, “I just got off the phone with Iyke and he assured that all arrangements have been made for you guys. Do you still see any need for me to still come to the airport? My primary is that you all are very well received. Please pass this information to Toby Riley. Looking forward to seeing you guys in Lagos.” I wrote him back saying that he didn’t have to come to the airport since we were arriving so early in the morning, but that Susan and I definitely wanted to meet him!
Once again, I felt better about going. About time, since it was Wednesday and we were due to leave for Logan on Friday afternoon! What a roller coaster of emotions this process had been!
With only a couple days prior to leaving, we started to get packed for the trip. Looking back I realize we were prepared for the jungle if necessary! The evening before the day we left we prepared all of our clothing with insect repellent as recommended by the doctor. In addition to our clothes, along with us came two flashlights each along with plenty of extra batteries, water purification tablets, a hot pot, voltage converters, mosquito nets, peanut butter, crackers, honey, and bottled water. We also brought along over a dozen AVP manuals to leave with AVP Nigeria. Between just the manuals and twenty four bottles of Canadian spring water, the baggage was gaining weight fast. And of course there were the anti-diarrheal and anti-malarial medications...
arrival in Nigeria…
As I write this, it is difficult to imagine that I actually felt such trepidation about visiting Nigeria. At about 5:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 1, 2002, Susan and I arrived at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria. As it happened, Toby Riley was also on our flight between London and Lagos. We hadn’t seen him at Heathrow, and as far as we knew he was supposed to have arrived the previous day in Nigeria.
After gathering our luggage, the three of us passed through customs about 5:30 a.m. without incident. In fact, all of the Nigerian customs officials were extremely friendly and helpful. They only asked our reason for traveling to Nigeria. That made sense since there is literally no tourism in Nigeria. I said we were there to attend a conference and pointed to an AVP card that I had made for our luggage. The card indicated the Alternatives to Violence Project and the customs official said, “We need that here.” I felt going through Nigerian customs was a hectic time only because it happened right from the baggage area. I was more pleased and relieved that our entire luggage arrived with us (and that we had it in our possession) at that point than anything else.
In all fairness to the Nigerian customs officers and other security personnel in the airport, I wish to note that we were never asked for any bribes; nor were we asked any other questions that would make us feel uncomfortable or untrusting of Nigerian officials. So, our first encounter with Nigerian officials was very positive.
Once clear of customs we were met by a contingent of AVP Nigeria representatives, which included Iyke Chiemeka, the AVP Nigeria National Coordinator, Eddy Francis, the AVP Nigeria Southwest Zone Coordinator and several others. Iyke greeted the three of us and introduced us to Eddy and the others. Iyke and Toby had already known one another. All of our trepidation and reservations began to evaporate as we prepared to leave the airport. We attributed this to the wonderful nature of the AVP Nigeria people with whom we had come in contact with. It didn’t take us long to realize that nearly every Nigerian we came in contact with was well-natured, friendly, and helpful. All those we interacted with were exceptionally proud of their heritage and their country. Another commonality we noted was that all acknowledged and understood the need for nonviolent conflict resolution in their country.
Shortly afterwards, we made our way out of the airport and walked to a nearby parking lot. Iyke and Eddy had driven their cars to bring us to our accommodations at the University of Lagos. When we were walking out of the airport it seemed there were many individuals assisting us with our luggage. Eddy Francis was to take Susan and me in his car. Toby went with Iyke in his. While I was helping to place our luggage in the trunk of Eddy's car, one of the individuals helping us indicated that I should give one of the others twenty dollars. I gave the individual the money, believing I was paying for the transportation from the airport to wherever we would be staying. In fact, the two gentlemen involved were not part of the Iyke and Eddy’s AVP group and had just conned me. I mentioned the incident when we were in the car and Eddy indicated that I should not have given any money to anyone and should have referred them to him. I have to say these con men were very good. They exploited that moment when Eddy was unaware of what was happening. And to think I thought that twenty bucks was a good deal to get us from the airport to our lodging!
A wonderful thing that occurred as a result of my being conned. I recall coming to the full awareness that between Iyke and Eddy and the other AVP volunteers, we were in exceptionally good and caring hands. Being with them felt like participating in a Trust Lift. I felt very comfortable. They were both very hurt and angry that I had been conned. They expressed their shame for when people do that sort of thing – fearing that it reflects poorly on all Nigerians. Iyke was especially concerned, since he had emailed me about not paying anyone anything at the airport. Se la vie.
riding to the Guest House…
One thing I had found out prior to our trip was that my New Hampshire driver’s license was not valid in Nigeria. In fact, neither was an International driver’s license. It reportedly takes many months to get a Nigerian driver’s license. We needed to be driven everywhere we were going to go to on this trip. We were to be transported to where we would be staying: in an area of the University of Lagos called the Guest House.
The ride from the airport to the university was our first experience in Lagos traffic. In Nigeria, driving is set up the same as in the U.S., i.e., they drive on the right. However, in parts of Lagos and depending on the traffic conditions, that didn’t always seem to matter.
The driving itself is a feat. I have driven in rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York City. Any are easier to deal with than Lagos. I developed a great deal of respect for drivers who can navigate a vehicle from anywhere to anywhere in Lagos traffic. Driving there appears to consist of intricate combinations of body language, hand signals, horn use, and all out aggression at times. We might be driving bumper to bumper at 100 kph (about 62 mph) and then have to slow down to a crawl to steer around a seven-foot-wide two-foot-deep pothole in the road. I kid you not. One has to experience it to really understand it. I only recall having seen one or possibly two stoplights that were operational. I noticed many that were inoperative and some that were knocked over. Drivers did not appear to adhere to any speed limit. It’s every driver for him or her self in Lagos. I had never seen driving or traffic like this before. For me, a ride anywhere consisted meant being on the edge of the seat and consistent excitement from the time we left until the time we got to wherever we were going.
The infrastructure and most buildings appear very run-down. Imagine if, in your city or town, that nothing, including maintenance on roads or buildings, was worked on or maintained properly for twenty years. The infrastructure appeared to have been frozen in time at about 1980. What you end up with is much of Lagos.
Imagine also the poverty one might see in an area such as the bowery in New York City, or any poverty stricken or run-down area in a big city like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, etc. Now imagine that on a really grand scale – extending for miles and miles – again you end up with much of Lagos. The poverty we saw staggered my imagination. I don’t know that I ever thought it could have been real until I was where I was in Lagos.
the University of Lagos…
Our arrival at the University of Lagos was apparent as we entered its huge steel gates. There is a checkpoint that reminded me of the checkpoints at the entrances to military bases when I was in various places while serving in the armed forces. The immense numbers of people reminded me of any large city like Boston or New York City or Chicago during a busy afternoon. However, it was only about 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Where I live, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, there would be no traffic whatsoever at that time. Here in Isolo, Lagos, it was an entirely different story. Eddy explained that people were busy going to Sunday morning church.
We finally arrived at the University of Lagos Guest House quarters. It was a series of buildings in which there were hotel style dorms, meeting rooms, a lounge, and a restaurant. It was part of the college campus. It was located right on the water, the Lagoon. Iyke, Eddy, and the others were so very attentive. They assisted us getting our baggage into a room. Iyke went around the room and made sure everything was in working order. The air conditioner did not work in the room. Iyke got us another room immediately. I truly felt like an appreciated guest around all the AVP Nigeria folks.
Susan and I had what appeared to be a typical college dorm room with two single beds that were placed together. There were some amenities missing that we immediately realized we took for granted at home. We discovered before long that there was no hot water and that there was no shower. The bathtub was equipped with a bucket for washing oneself. It would work out okay. The television set only got one channel. That was okay also since we really didn't go to Nigeria to spend time watching the tube.
We were settled into our room and it seemed like we had been in Nigeria for several days. It was only nine in the morning on Sunday! We napped for a short time until about 11. At that time we decided to take a walk about the premises and get our bearings. The cluster of buildings we stayed in was situated on the shore of a lagoon. We could see a very long highway bridge that appeared to extend south-north in the not-so-far distance. In the lagoon there were several people who appeared to be locals in wooden boats fishing. There was some apparent marsh in the lagoon. The shoreline lacked a beach. The lawn ended at the water's edge. There were almond trees growing along the area between and people who we presumed to have been students were picking from those. We strolled around the building which housed the restaurant and the conference area and discovered a very large swimming pool. The pool had been emptied, I would estimate quite a number of years prior.
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