You Are Welcome to Abuja (Again)

U.S. Embassy, Abuja, Nigeria


Aso Rock overlooks Abuja

Aso Rock overlooks Abuja


There was another heavy rain last night, almost as heavy as the mist around Aso Rock this morning. Neither the damp nor the fact that it’s just gone 7am have stopped a line forming from the top of Diplomatic Drive all the way to the gate by the Consular section — men in suits or the local Agbada, women in bright patterned dresses with expansive hats to match. I hope none of these people have faked documents for their visas, as is common enough to be a running joke in the embassy (and a cause of frustration for law-abiding Nigerians everywhere). Some wear hijabs or headscarves. Nigeria is historically both Christian and Muslim, and it’s a relief (coming from years in the States) to see somewhere where the two religions are flourishing together. It might be a strange place to live if you’re not a monotheist (or find it weird when colleagues sing hymns in the ladies toilets), but otherwise everyone gets along fine.


We flash our badges as we drive through another gate, past guards who are running security checks on a shuttle bus. The embassy looks like everything else in Abuja — pale and unrefined. We are lucky it is, at least, finished — the half-built annex looks little different than it did a year ago, and a planned British site nearby has not changed at all. Half the buildings in Abuja seem to be under construction, and many of those completed give off a sense of premature decay. Cranes and scaffolding strew the skyline. Shades of grey and tan are in vogue. In keeping with the country’s religious heritage, the National Mosque and National Cathedral, decked-out in matching gold and white, face each other amiably from a distance. The upscale mansions of “Minster’s Hill” overlook the scene, while Federal Government buildings sit not only finished but embellished ad nauseum, their gratuitous columns and garish statues designed to inspire — or intimidate. The whole thing feels like a badly planned suburb rising from between the hills and palm trees of an otherwise heavenly West African landscape.

The same government with the fancy architecture, which also pays women to sweep the streets with twig brushes, can’t seem to pull itself together enough to right half of its own wrongs. Nigeria is full of contradictions, mostly because the people in power tend to be hypocrites. As someone once told my dad,

“Nigeria is the Texas of Africa — everything’s bigger. And weirder.”

It’s certainly one of the most surreal places I’ve been. For one thing, they haven’t discovered the concept of tourism yet, and “customer service” is just as alien. Now, I’m no fan of exploitation or most brands of tourist, but I’m also used to third world countries that make a large part of their money from those things. It’s a relief to not see everyone sucking up to foreigners. However, the Nigerian authorities have ways untouched by the common sense other governments have had the time and money to develop.  They’ll arrest you for walking on the same side of the street as a military installation or for taking photos anywhere downtown (because you’re obviously spying on federal offices), which puts a damper on my hobby (photography, not spying). And let’s not forget that traffic police regularly pull people over to ask for bribes — “the shake-down,” I heard an American call it as we drove by one afternoon, apparently too wealthy, or white, or official-looking, to be stopped ourselves.

“They look for people who look just rich enough to pay a bribe, but not wealthy enough to cause trouble,” he said. 

“Sometimes I hear their captain shouting at them when they don’t collect enough money,” his companion replied. “It happens right outside my window.”

 Nigeria has a pretty bad reputation both in the global community and among its neighbors. A lot of its money comes from oil mining in the Niger Delta, an area fraught with militants and lacking in basics like healthcare and education (guess where the money really went?). As Alena T. says, Nigeria’s rep is bad enough to earn you street cred with other Africans for just having been there. A recent rebranding campaign (government-sponsored, of course) declared Nigeria “The Heart of Africa.” I’ve heard natives and expats call it “the real africa,” a throwing concept from someone who thought she’d grown up in the real Africa. We’ll see.

I’m getting used to the cultural differences again. I see billboards reminding people to reduce their risk of getting HIV/AIDS by staying abstinent while their spouses are away. (Philandering is an issue everywhere, but in the States we pretend it doesn’t exist. Decency or cowardice?)  Craig David is still popular on the radio. Those Nigerian “princes” from the internet? Yeah, they exist and they really live here. When it comes to social niceties, Nigerians have a reputation similar to the French (not that it’s always fitting, although I have noticed a common uneasiness towards others).



 Although the U.S. Mission in Nigeria is important, there are few comforts for expats here. Shopping is limited and unpredictable. The one cinema is much more trouble than it’s worth. There are good restaurants if you are willing to search them out through much trial and error (and if you want decent service you’d better know the owner). Travel outside the Federal Capitol Territory is expensive and often unsafe, as I was reminded by the armed escort that followed us home from the airport. There are concerns in Abuja too — last week, an attempted armed robbery of an American compound ended with the shooting death of Daniel Onateh, a guard (prayers to his family).
To sum up, I’m sure you can tell it’s a bit of a Traveler’s Challenge. I have to say, however, that if you spend enough time here and make an effort it grows on you. I definitely can’t complain (which I had been expecting to do a lot of). Despite the fact that I wasn’t impressed last time, and didn’t want to come this time, I’ve had a lot of fun this week. Looking back, I can’t deny that Nigeria has been good to me. I’ve made friends and received a lot of guidance. Besides — I’m in WEST AFRICA. Nigeria’s definitely got its own thing going on, but I should be grateful to get to explore more of this region. How else will I know if it really is the “real Africa”? Silly Sarah, always complaining and never seeing the awesomeness before her. I should have remembered that age-old saying,

“Never judge a place until you’ve been there twice, preferrably against your will.”

It’ll be a saying someday. Trust me.


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