“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Saint Augustine’s tribute to travel was Adeola Adetokunbo’s first motivation to travel around Nigeria. The second was a conversation with her friend, Jemimah Osagie, who had the quote framed on the wall. “Somehow, the quote got us talking about visiting interesting places in the country,” she starts. “Next thing I know, we had a trip to Plateau state planned.”
The following month, the two product designers set out on a four-day visit to Plateau. Their itinerary was reserved: visit the Kurra Falls and Jos Museum complex, and meet as many new people as they could. They arrived Jos excited and were immediately robbed at the motor park.
“It was late and raining heavily. The boys took everything we had so we were stuck without money and our phones to call our friend we were supposed to stay with,” she explains. Stranded and shaken, the girls were rescued by a local trader, Mama Sarah. “Once she heard our story, she housed and fed us for that night.”
It was Adetokunbo’s first experience of a Good Samaritan, and the woman’s kindness rocked her perspective of Northern Nigerian. “I had made assumptions about Jos and its people based on only the negative reports of riots I saw on TV. Visiting made me see another part of the town. We all need that,” she says. Now 28 years old, Adetokunbo tours Nigeria by road as much as she can, eager for more accurate perspectives of Nigeria’s many tribes.
Nigeria is literally a merger of many regions, each with its own beliefs, values, and expectations, and the country has struggled to balance all these throughout its history, but most spectacularly so during the Biafra War of the late 1960s. Today, many parts of the country still suffer from violent flashpoints driven by religious and ethnic divides. Even more widespread are harmful and misleading stereotypes of the different tribes which give Nigerians a misleading picture of their fellow countrymen.
Conscious of these ethnic divisions, Nigerian leaders established the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program, a mandatory year of national service that sees a graduate posted to work outside of their state of residence. The success of the NYSC program is debatable, but the need for ways to foster national unit remains.
Step forward, local tour guides.
Breaking stereotypes, a trip at a time
In 2016, Adedamola Idowu established IrinAjo, an online tour organisation, to encourage Nigerians to visit other parts of the country. What began as a hobby has blossomed into a proper job, as Idowu organises frequent and affordable trips around Nigeria.
“I first thought about how to help people travel in 2009. I was at the University of Lagos and we took a trip to Ghana,” he tells me. “We visited many fun places, and I immediately thought about doing a similar thing in Nigeria.”
He started small; organising small trips for his friends to popular spots like Erin Ijesha Waterfalls in Osun State. His trips became so popular that he eventually started his company after a few years.
Idowu enjoyed the feeling of taking people to new places—of seeing their eyes widen when they discovered new destinations, but he was taken aback by the level of bias and prejudice Nigerians casually carried with them. “A lot of disgusting things that I cannot begin to say have been said about the North to me. But when we visited Kajuru Castle in Kaduna, for example, it was a different story. People found it fascinating, they liked the city and slowly started to feel differently about that part of the country,” he says.
Like Adetokunbo in Jos, Idowu found that the best weapon in the tribal wars is experience. Travel allowed Nigerians to humanise those they vilified, making it easier to see that they are not so different.
Travelling is hard in Nigeria, like everything else
But not everyone can afford to tour the country. In fact, few Nigerians can, according to Fu’ad Lawal, a travel enthusiast.
And even those who can often encounter other challenges. One of these is access to information. Dendeninuola Johnson, one of two founders of Backpackers Lagos, a 1,500-man group of backpackers who travel, hike and camp across Nigeria for leisure tells me that he has not found any reliable directory of the interesting places to visit in Nigeria.
Even though Nigeria has a lot of places that would ordinarily attract a lot of tourist attention, these places get very little visibility. Few people, for example, know about Chappal Waddi on the Mambilla Plateau in Taraba State. At 2,419 metres above sea level, it is Nigeria’s highest point.
“The ministry of tourism does not have a database with all the details of our heritage sites and villages of interest,” Johnson echoes. If you are a Nigerian interested in visiting other parts of the country, you are essentially on your own. And if you eventually find a place to go to, good luck navigating the treacherous roads on your way there.
On the 16th of September, 2018, a Toyota Hiace bus belonging to one of Nigeria’s leading transport companies, God is Good Motors (GIGM), was attacked by armed men in Ondo State. The bandits kidnapped the passengers who were heading to Jibowu, Lagos, and held them for days under torturous conditions. Their families were asked to pay as much as ₦20 million to have them released.
“My mum is currently under medication. She and the other passengers were starved and tortured. She was malnourished and she has to recover from the incident,” one of the victim's children told Premium Times after her ransom was paid. Of course, this incident is not a one-off, armed robbery, kidnapping and even inter-tribal clashes are so common on Nigerian highways, that they scare away potential travellers from hitting the road.
This trend is why the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, one of Nigeria’s most dangerous highways, is actively avoided by travellers. Notorious for armed robbery and kidnapping, the road’s reputation is one reason the Abuja-Kaduna rail route is used so frequently.
“Nobody wants to get kidnapped or caught in a riot while travelling,” Johnson says.
Robbers are able to lay siege on highways to attack unsuspecting vehicles because the roads are in terrible shape. In many parts of the country, movement is frustrated by the many potholes and detours, and miscreants are able to position themselves in bad portions of roads where all cars have to stop.
In February 2018, robbers on the Benin-Ore expressway exploited the conditions of the road to stop, steal from, and injure travellers. Six of them blocked the busy highway with seized vehicles and randomly shot at different directions to scare passengers. Money, laptops and other valuables were seized, and it took the intervention of the military men from the 32 artillery brigade in Okitipupa to dislodge the robbers.
Bad roads also make journey times a lot less predictable. “My biggest issue with travel is that I cannot plan a trip and expect to arrive on time,” Adetokunbo says.
These bad roads also mean that there’s no punctuality while travelling because the roads are unpredictable. “It is almost impossible to enjoy an interstate trip in Nigeria. It’s either your car develops a fault from one of the roads or you spend six hours on a three-hour trip.”
Idowu points to one fatal problem with Nigeria’s tourism industry: existing attractions are ill-maintained.
Over the years, places like the Obudu Cattle Ranch in Cross River State and the Ogbaukwu Caves and Waterfall in Anambra state have been run down. This poor management culture makes it difficult for visitors to enjoy new places and deprives the tourism sector of some of its biggest assets.
Obudu, for example, no longer has stable electricity as the generators are faulty, and the few staff remaining at the resort are still owed salaries. Likewise, the National Arts Theatre in Lagos, the primary centre for performing arts in the country is in horrible shape. The restaurants are ghost towns, the car park is overgrown with weeds, and the exhibition hall has been closed down.
Sadly, a lot of these things that make it hard for people to travel around the country are products of a wider dysfunction in Nigerian society. Nigerian roads are bad, whether we ply them to work or for play and many parts of the country are still unsafe, whether you live or travel there.
Still, travelling within Nigeria can still be incredibly rewarding, according to Fu’ad Lawal. He took a trip round Nigeria in 2017, and he is effusive in recommending that others do the same. “You experience new things and new people,” he says.
So, it is true that there are many challenges around visiting places in the country that need to be addressed by the government, but it is also true that there are people and tour organisations braving these challenges and demystifying tribal stereotypes, one trip at a time.
“Did you know that Kano is a fashion authority in Nigeria? Historically, the city has been involved in producing textile, dye and leather for the country,” Lawal leaves me with parting words. “You won’t know many of these things until you go there, no matter the obstacles.”
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