What I Learned About Security And Safety In Nigeria

Writer Grant Martin recently spent two weeks touring Lagos and Abuja, during which time all his expectations about security and safety in Nigeria were completely shattered. Here is what he learned about safety in Nigeria as if affects the average tourist, which differed greatly from the scare stories that are commonly peddled in the news media.

I had been warned of rampant kidnapping, pick-pocketing, fleecing, bribes and shakedowns before I went to Nigeria, but I actually never experienced anything of the sort when I was there. In fact, local Nigerians reached out and tried to make my trip more secure on several occasions. Part of my good fortune can probably be attributed to luck, but it also had to do with careful planning and a fair amount of travelers’ common sense.

It’s important to remember that Nigeria is a developing country, and many in desperation are willing to run a scam or pick a pocket to put food on the table at night. To that end, common precautions like securing your valuables and watching your luggage closely are essential.

But it’s also important to remember that while Lagos and Abuja may both be large, bustling cities (Abuja less so) where crime and danger are certainly an issue, they are also places full of millions of ordinary people who pose no threat — they are just living life and getting by.

In general, the safest neighborhoods in Lagos are on and around Victoria Island and Lagos Island. Both are safe to walk about alone during the day, and you won’t get much hassle from the residents or touts. Things get a little dicier during the evening, when most guides suggest you stay in, or book a car to your destination. Indeed, more of the city’s seedy underbelly comes out at night, and in an evening walk down to Bar Beach I was approached by several beggars and touts. None of the solicitors were by any means dangerous, but each experience was different.

In Abuja, the most popular safe neighborhoods are Wuse I and II, Maitama and the central business district. It’s even safer to walk around in Abuja versus Lagos, though everything is fairly spread out so walking is not common.

Western hotels all over the country are locked down, with security at the outer perimeter and usually at the front entrance. Though the security officers are fairly laid back, you can expect a brief search of your vehicle outside of the hotel and a metal detector when you reach the front lobby. Since the security are all employed by the hotel, you don’t need to worry about bribes or dishonesty, but the interruptions can be time consuming.

If you’re deeply concerned about hotel bombings, it’s best to choose a property where the security checkpoint is far from the hotel entrance. In Abuja that’s at the Sheraton and Hilton hotels, while the Federal Palace and the Four Points Sheraton are good options in Lagos.

Strangely, the security isn’t particularly thorough at hotels — but at least they put on a decent show. While the officers at the hotel entrance may check the trunk of your car, they usually won’t check the undercarriage or go through your bags, and carrying metal objects through the lobby metal detector will rarely get you stopped.

Most hotel rooms have safes to store your personal items, depending on how much money and documentation you want to bring along during the day. Over the course of my two-week visit, I left money and my passport in each of my rooms and never had an issue with housekeeping. Similarly, I was never once asked for my passport when I was out and about in the city.

Security is much tighter at Abuja and Lagos airports. The man known as the “underwear bomber” (who attempted to blow up a plane in 2009) started his journey in Lagos, so the airport authority now has to take extra measures to secure each of the flights — especially if they’re headed to Europe or the United States. My journey from Abuja to Frankfurt was prefaced by three baggage x-rays and two manual carry-on checks. It’s nice to know that security is so thorough — just be prepared to pay for it in lost time.

Corruption is actually a big matter of discussion in Nigeria, especially with scam stories filtering out to the West. In reality, much of the corruption in the country resides in higher echelons of the public sector, so most tourists won’t be exposed to it, but it still may crop up here and there.

You’ve got the highest chance of seeing corruption in the immigration and local police sectors. After reading an article in a popular men’s magazine about another writer’s corruption-filled week in Lagos, I was prepared to get shaken down at the airport for my yellow fever vaccination card, but pushing past immigration at the arrivals hall I encountered no resistance whatsoever. In fact, I made it all the way out to the street before anyone even bothered to talk to me, and it was just a cabbie looking for a fare into the city.

More prominent among the corrupt are the local police officers. Though moving traffic violation stops are rare, nightfall brings numerous checkpoints around the city, you’ll likely be stopped by a group of officers with automatic weapons asking about your intentions. Most of them are just looking for a small tip of N300, but the irregularity and the unpredictability of the checkpoints can be quite irritating.

Police also tend to leave most foreign-looking people alone, knowing that they have a higher probability to cause issues with the local consulate or send dispatches home to local media. A recent recording of a local sergeant soliciting bribes and the subsequent fallout also helped reduce the incidence of shakedowns.

Most of the corruption that travelers see is also limited to Lagos. In Abuja, where the majority of the government infrastructure resides and congestion isn’t as unruly, there aren’t as many traffic officers lording over the streets.

Reduced corruption in Abuja can also be extended back to general safety in the city. As a quieter, more suburban city, Abuja lacks the harried disorder and unease that Lagos often has. There just isn’t enough capacity to cause many problems here.

Still, it’s worth being careful and planning ahead in Abuja, though chances are you’ll have no choice. You’ll need to find a car to travel almost anywhere in the city, and that comes with an added layer of security.

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