In Port Harcourt I had a day to collect all of my data and so I’d arranged for a driver to pick me up at ten in the morning which is when the shops open but in the hotel lobby there was no sign of him. After a couple of phone calls it turns out that he was at the hotel but at the last minute decided to take an oil executive bigwig to one of the expatriate compounds in the city. Because of the on-going security issues in Port Harcourt all expats live on guarded compounds, and I guess this man was paying my driver well to take him! He turned up two hours late at midday and so we had to spend the rest of the day frantically driving around town. It took an hour and a half to get to the first shop, even though it is barely five kilometres away. I thought the traffic in Lagos was bad but Port Harcourt is something else.
A few months ago a bridge collapsed on one of the main roads and the repair work is still going on, which is not helping the traffic situation. So I spent much of the day stuck in traffic with the car being swarmed by roadside hawkers trying to flog all sorts of stuff from grapes and apples to mobile SIM cards and chewing gum. It was quite disconcerting being surrounded by half a dozen or so of them who often refused to move on, even after it was obvious I wouldn’t be buying.
Eventually I managed to get all my work done but the stresses of the day continued in to the evening. Port Harcourt, like many cities in Africa, suffers from frequent power outages. However, when you’re covered in shower gel in the hotel bathroom it is not the best time to suddenly go blind. I had to stand in the shower for a few minutes twiddling my thumbs until the generator kicked in before I could wash off! It was also Valentine’s Day and it’s a big occasion in Nigeria. At the buffet dinner in the hotel I sat down (on my own) surrounded by either couples celebrating or other businessmen on their own. All quite bizarre! It was also rather strange being greeted by burly security guards at each of the shops with them saying “Happy Valentine’s” as they held the door open for me.
I mentioned in my previous blog that security is a big concern in Nigeria and in Port Harcourt it is more so than in Lagos. The Novotel, where I stayed, had two massive security gates at the entrance and even when entering the lobby you have to put everything through a scanner. Much of the trouble in the city has arisen from the presence of the oil companies. Port Harcourt is the main oil refining city in Nigeria and as such creates much of the country’s wealth. This wealth, however, bypasses the local population and there is real animosity from some factions towards the oil industry. It is not unknown for foreigners to be kidnapped and so even walking a hundred yards or so from my car the driver insisted on coming with me.
After Port Harcourt I headed to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Before I arrived, though, I was subject to a rather strange activity whilst waiting in the departure lounge at the airport. From out of the blue the lady next to me whips out a new nappy and proceeds to change her toddlers soiled one. In the middle of the departure lounge! Only in Africa!
When I arrived in Abuja I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. It’s very different to Lagos and Port Harcourt and I was expecting it to be quite edgy as the oil company Total had recently moved some of their staff from Abuja to Port Harcourt for security reasons (yes, to Port Harcourt. For security reasons! http://www.punchng.com/news/total-evacuates-staff-from-abuja-algeria/). The issue of security is a serious threat in the country as highlighted by the kidnapping of seven foreign nationals working for a Lebanese construction company in the north of the country in the past couple of days. Instead of this risk, what I found in Abuja was a city of three lane highways distinctly lacking in traffic and locals who were much more friendly and welcoming than in the other two cities.
Abuja is a very new city and was built in the 1980’s as a planned city to become the new capital, taking the title away from Lagos. It’s home to all foreign embassies and seems to function in a different way to Lagos and Port Harcourt. There is no congestion and everything is rather spread out but the road network is so good that getting from one place to another is a breeze. The hotel situation in the capital is dominated by the colossal Sheraton and Hilton hotels. They are both like mini city’s within a city, offering everything from a dozen restaurant and bar choices to tennis courts, exhibition halls, pharmacies, bakeries, clothing shops and beauty salons. It seems the only thing they lack is a supermarket! So it’s just as well that there’s plenty of choice for expats in Abuja. There are at least six decent supermarkets, some of them three storey affairs with electrical goods and other wares which one might assume would be difficult to find in the middle of Nigeria.
So, I left Nigeria on a high note and I hope the high notes continue when I head back to West Africa next week to Benin and Cote d’Ivoire. And hopefully I’ll feel safe enough to takes lots of photos which I’m sorry I couldn’t share with you on this post.