A travelogue/essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup
The nation of Nigeria, in the heart of sub-saharan
Africa, is noted for many things. It has vast oil
reserves. It is the most populous nation in Africa,
and it is one of the most industrious, yet one of the
poorest countries in the world. But what it is
increasingly known for, is corruption on a scale that
is difficult to understand without experiencing it
first hand. I had heard much about African corruption,
but naively thought I understood until I was invited
to go there. What I found surprised and shocked me.
It all began one winter day in December of 1990 when I
was in San Diego, still living in my motorhome, and
wondering how I was going to make enough money to
survive for the next year. I'd been working for
Raytheon as an electronics technician for three
months, and had generated enough cash to make it
through the summer, but the temp job at Raytheon was
coming to an end and I hadn't found anything else. So,
I started making phone calls.
One of the calls I made was to an old friend and
co-worker from my days at Centro Corp. I'd heard he
had a job working for some African company, and I
thought it might be interesting to go there, but
didn't know what he did or whether I might be
qualified for whatever he was doing.
But on a whim, I gave him a call. He said, yes, he was
working for a company called Nitec, the U.S.
representative of Triax Kings Engineering, a company
that was involved in the construction of television
facilities in Nigeria, West Africa. Sounds
interesting, I thought.
He was discouraging. He indicated that they rarely
have openings, but if I was interested, he'd be happy
to take an application, which I sent him. Then, out of
the blue, just 3 days before Christmas, I got a call.
If I was still interested, he indicated, they'd like
to talk to me. No question about it, I wanted to go.
By the end of January, 1991, it was settled. We'd
agreed on a salary, and I was to prepare to travel as
soon as possible. I already had a passport, so all I
needed was a visa and shots, and I was on my way. By
March, all was arranged.
On April Fools Day, 1991, I said good-bye to all of my
friends in San Diego, and began driving north to Idaho
to store my van. Within a week, I found myself in the
London office of Triax, a company called Nanze
International. Howard, the office manager helped me
with the paperwork, and while I was working on it, the
phone rang. It was one of the expatriates in Nigeria.
Scot Kilgrow was one of the construction managers, and
turned out to be a terrific fellow, a real party
animal and a lot of fun. While I was getting
acquainted with him, he made a remark that stuck in my
mind: "Hold on to your hat, cowboy, 'cause you ain't
never rode in a rodeo like this!"
I landed in Kano, Nigeria well after dark. My first
impression of Nigeria was how dark it was in Kano, a
city of nearly a million, yet there were relatively
Waiting at the airport was one of the company's
Nigerian drivers who put me up in the Daula Hotel. He
went on to Katsina to pick up some equipment and
indicated he would return for me by noon the next day.
The Daula Hotel turned out to be a dive of a place
that had bare wiring hanging out of the wall sockets,
no hot water in the shower and clouds of mosquitoes.
The lock on the door was insecure at best, so I barred
the door with a rather rickety chair. I'm glad I did.
At about 3AM, someone tried my door. Nice experience
for your first night all alone in a strange country.
The next morning, Peter, the driver returned from
Katsina to pick me up. We began the three hour drive
to Bauchi, the Managing Director's headquarters, where
I would spend the next month. Peter and I had a good
time talking and getting acquainted on the trip to
Bauchi. He proved to be a good friend who was helpful
to me on many occasions in the next months.
The managing director, Steve Snow, proved to be the
bush-hardened expat I'd heard he was. His radio call
was "Boss Hogg" which fit him beautifully. Husky and
with a no-nonsense attitude, he was a good man to have
around in a fight. He'd lived in Nigeria for eight
years, and knew most of the important people in it,
and the ways of the country and how to get around. He
drove a big, black Mercedes and was known everywhere
as someone not to mess with. My first night in Bauchi
was spent at the bar in the Bauchi Hotel, getting to
know Steve and the expat community. Steve proved to be
quite the drinker. That evening, he put away one and a
half cases of 13% Nigerian beer. He walked out of the
place without even looking like he'd had any at all.
If I hadn't seen it, I would never have believed it.
The most important person in your life in such a place
is your driver. His job isn't as much to drive you
around, as it is to keep you out of trouble. If he has
an accident while driving you (a serious hazard in
traffic-choked Nigerian cities), he goes to jail and
you drive home (and send another staff member to pry
him out of jail with some money paid to the right
people). I was extremely fortunate to get a good one.
Ibrahim Mohammed was my driver and good friend all the
time I was in Nigeria. He proved to be extremely
loyal, generally very honest, and not hesitant to warn
me of danger. He was an extremely skillful driver --
he could easily negotiate the densest traffic jams and
never got a scratch on my brand spanking new Peugeot
504 -- made (not just assembled) in Nigeria and
"Guaranteed for One Year." (Yeah, right. Just try
getting warrantee work done.)
One of my first assignments was to design a
satellite-based telecommunications system for the
presidential complex being built in Abuja, the new
capital of Nigeria. It was to prove to be an
interesting experience indeed.
I traveled to Abuja to meet with some of the
President's staff to find out just what they wanted.
The company put me up in one of the better suites of
the Nicon Noga Hilton Hotel, one of only two four-star
hotels in Nigeria. That evening, the staff member was
ushered into my suite, and I proceeded to ask what
sort of system they were interested in.
"The best what?"
"The best satellite system there is!"
"Do you want it for watching television, or carrying
telephone calls, or computer data or what?"
"Whatever you think is best. We just want the best
there is for Mr. President!"
I was getting nowhere quickly, and I could see that
they didn't have a clue as to what they wanted. So I
had to think fast and come up with everything I
thought the president of a modern, progressive country
could possibly need in terms of telecommunications
facilities. I knew that whatever I'd propose would
have to be included in the presidential complex
construction, then underway, and so I'd need a set of
plans. So I asked for a set of floor plans for the
"That's out of the question!"
"Well, you'll have to get the permissions you need,
because I will have to plan for conduit runs, so that
the proper cabling can be installed."
"I don't think I can arrange that."
"It will have to be arranged or we can't take the
contract! I'll speak with our managing director about
I did, and eventually I got a set of plans and went to
work. I got one set of bluelines, which didn't leave
me anything to mark up, so I simply folded the
drawings, put them in a box, took them down to the UPS
office and sent them off to Salt Lake for duplication.
"What's in the box?" the agent asked.
"Drawings." I replied.
He looked at them. Yep. They were drawings all right.
He never asked what they were of, and I wasn't about
to volunteer. If he had taken them out and looked at
the title block, he'd have been astonished. But,
typically, he didn't. I knew he wouldn't. So back into
the box they went, and a week later were in Salt Lake
City. In a couple of weeks, they were returned to me,
again, no questions asked.
What I proposed was a set of three dishes, one for
transmitting television, one for receiving television,
and one for telephone and data communications traffic.
I put together all the requisite support equipment
requirements, and a preliminary design for the conduit
runs, dish layouts in the compound and went back to
Abuja with it.
"Is it the best?"
"Yes, its the best. No one anywhere has better."
"Could you add a background music system?"
"Yes. No problem."
"How about a security system?"
That was a problem. I knew that the secret police
where planning their own security system, and I didn't
want to either duplicate their work or, worse by far,
tread on their turf. I asked to meet with a
representative of the secret police.
"Well, if we can't coordinate with them, maybe we
should allow them to deal with their own security
issues, and let them know that if they need help,
they're welcome to deal with us."
"You are correct. I'll speak to them."
Whew! I was off the hook for that one! So it was back
to work on the telecommunications systems I was
It wasn't long before I was informed that, as a
contractor, I had to meet with the supervising
architect and the other contractors in the biweekly
meetings that were held to coordinate the construction
of the presidential complex. These meetings were hell
in every sense of the word. The supervising architect
was arrogant, overbearing, thoroughly full of himself,
and very inconsiderate. He was totally intolerant of
any delays, even if they were caused by his own
incompetence or lassitude or failure to release funds.
He used to berate the general contractor endlessly in
those meetings, until finally without notice, he
revoked their contract and without any kind of bidding
process, awarded it to another firm that had been a
subcontractor for a small part of the construction.
The fact that the general contractor hadn't been
getting paid for the work he had already done was no
excuse in his opinion.
In the midst of all this confusion, I found it
exceptionally difficult to do the research necessary
to produce the engineering package it was my job to
put together. There was no engineering library at all
or reference material of any kind to research vendors
from. So all I could do was work from memory, and when
really stumped, try to call vendors in Europe and the
States from the guest house in Port Harcourt where I
was now staying. Making an international phone call in
Nigeria could test the patience of Job, as it can
sometimes take days to make a single call
successfully. Add to that the fact that when you
finally do get through, there's no guarantee that the
secretary will let your call through or your party
will be in. So doing research was almost impossible.
Additionally, there was no drafting facilities at all,
and so I had to make my own drafting board and
scrounge some basic tools, and do my own drawings. The
only way I could get bluelines made was to give my
drawings to my driver with a few hundred Naira and
tell him to go find someone in the Ministry of Works
and Planning to bribe. He was usually, though not
Working through all these problems, a job that would
have taken a few days in the states ended up taking
four months. Meanwhile, every other week, there were
those project meetings from hell...
I grew to dread those meetings like a root canal. The
fact that it was taking me months to get the
engineering package out was difficult to explain well
enough to keep the architect off my back. As
meanspirited as he was, and the fact that our firm
really wasn't prepared to do the project engineering
meant I had to be exceptionally creative with excuses.
I usually, though not always, managed to come up with
something that sounded plausible.
The trips to Abuja were not without their
compensations, though. The route to Abuja took me
through Keffi, a site where we were building one of
the tallest towers in Africa, and Scot Kilgrow was
running the job. When I had time, I'd stop and visit.
He and I became fast friends, trying to outdo each
other with our war stories.
But one trip to Abuja made up for all the hell of
those meetings. It was the day the ECOWAS summit came
The Economic Community of West African States was
headed at the time by the Nigerian president, Ibrahim
Babangida. So when a summit was called, it was held in
Nigeria, and was held at the only four-star hotel in
Abuja, the Nicon Noga Hilton where I usually stayed.
On one of my trips, the staff informed me that on my
next visit I would have to stay elsewhere, because the
ECOWAS summit would be held there during the time of
my next meeting.
I asked if the hotel would be closed during the
summit; no, it would be open, but all the rooms were
reserved for the summit. I could still take my meals
there. OK, I thought that was just great, so I planned
my next trip to include my meals there, but I'd stay
with Scot in Keffi.
My arrival at Keffi the night before the meeting was
not without its excitement. Scot was interested in
guns, and he couldn't resist showing me the enormous
musket owned and used his aging compound guard, both
gun and owner being veterans of the Biafra War. It was
a "bush" gun, meaning it had been locally hand made
out of whatever materials were available. It was a
front-loading musket that shot an enormous ball -
about a half inch in diameter. Scot had him show me a
ball and how it was loaded. After he had loaded the
barrel with powder and the ball and tamped the load,
we casually turned and walked away.
KaBOOM! While we weren't looking, the old boy fired
his gun, shattering the peace with the loudest report
I have ever heard, scaring me half out of my wits. My
ears rang for half an hour, even though I was probably
30 feet away when it had gone off.
The next morning, I went into Abuja, arriving on time
for the meeting, only to learn that the meeting had
been canceled because of the Summit and I hadn't been
informed. That suited me just fine. As it was close to
noon, I decided to go for lunch at the Hilton.
Now, you've gotta understand that the bar in the lobby
of the Hilton served the only decent cheeseburgers to
be had in Nigeria, and I was quite ready for my
biweekly burger. I knew this was going to be a
challenge, but as I had nothing else to do that day, I
decided to go for it.
I went the 20 kilometers back to Keffi and picked up
Scot, and we went back to Abuja for our burgers. When
we arrived at the Hilton, the usual front entrances
were blocked, and the access to the front parking lots
was also blocked. The reason was that the heads of
state were using that entrance. The parking lots were
full of black Mercedes stretch limos (I counted 137 of
them). I didn't have my camera, but would have loved a
picture of all those limos.
The security personnel waved us to the rear parking
lot usually reserved for staff. We found the area
reserved for hotel guests, parked and tried to go in.
The door was locked.
Now this is a really big hotel -- 700 rooms. We had no
choice but to walk around and see if we could find an
unlocked side entrance. Which involved a lot of
walking. Finally, on the east side of the building, we
found a locked gate, but there was an attendant there.
We explained that we were guests and were trying to
get into the hotel, and the attendant bought that, and
let us in. He pointed to the entrance. When we got to
it, we found it locked.
So we went back to the attendant. But he wasn't there.
And the gate was locked. We were trapped.
We went back to entrance and tried to signal someone,
anyone, to come over and push the crash bar to open
the door and let us in. Finally, a security guard came
by and let us in.
There were security guards everywhere. Honor guards,
brass bands, flags hanging from every ceiling beam. It
was obvious that this was big-time.
There was only one problem. We were on the east end of
the lobby, and the bar where our burgers were calling
us, is in the west end. Between us and our burgers
were a lot of security guards. None looking too
We discussed this dilemma for a few minutes. We
realized we couldn't get out, since that gate would
still be locked and we'd be trapped again on the
plaza. We couldn't stay there, because our loitering
would draw attention. So we had no choice but to walk
through the security guards like we knew what we were
doing and see if we could get past them. So we did. We
got a few hard looks, but no one challenged us. We
made it to the bar.
Our burgers had never tasted so good. We felt like
we'd really earned them.
Once we were done eating, and had satisfied ourselves
with sitting around in the bar swapping war stories,
the time came to leave. Now, we had a problem. We
couldn't go out the way we came in, because there was
no guarantee that we could get through that locked
gate. We discussed the situation and decided to see if
we could exit through one of the restaurants that
adjoined the bar. I got up and walked towards the
lobby to check out to see if the way was clear to get
to the restaurants. No such luck. The security guards
were thicker than ever, and now the brass bands were
playing all those African national anthems, which
meant that the heads of state were entering the hotel.
No chance that the security guards would turn a blind
eye to us this time.
It then occurred to me that there is a staircase
leading to the second story that is located just
outside the bar entrance. If we could get up there, we
could possibly make it to a fire escape in some other
part of the building.
We went up the staircase only to discover that the
guards were blocking the way to the mezzanine. So our
only option was to go down the only fire escape next
to the main entrance to the hotel -- and that would
surely be blocked at the bottom. So back to the bar.
Except that by now, even that way had been blocked. We
had no choice at all except to go down the fire escape
that came out directly adjacent to the main entrance
-- which miraculously wasn't blocked at our level. But
we knew there would be hordes of security guards at
the bottom of the staircase. We were trapped.
We couldn't loiter where we were with all those
security guards giving us disapproving stares, so we
went down the fire escape that ends at the main
entrance. When we got to the bottom, we were extremely
fortunate to find a small crowd of expatriate hotel
guests standing around behind the line of security
guards, gawking at the spectacle. So we just blended
After about ten or so heads of state we didn't
recognize had made their entrances, and we had stood
there listening to national anthems we had never heard
before, a large motorcade of stretch Mercedes pulled
into the entryway. Out steps president Babangida,
president of Nigeria, and the band strikes up the
Nigerian national anthem. All the security guards
stood to even tighter attention, and president and his
staff enter the hotel. Once they were all inside, the
security guards started to relax and mill around, so
we figured that we must have seen the last of the
heads of state. We discussed our options.
I knew that there was a sidewalk that went around the
east side of the hotel to the back parking lot, so we
decided to chance it and see if we could get to the
back lot. That meant walking through the crowd of
security guards, but as there were a lot of other
expats milling around, we decided it couldn't be that
risky. So we went for it.
Once again, walking past the guards like we owned the
place, they gave us disapproving glances, but we just
kept walking, and they didn't challenge us. We got
through the guards, and found the sidewalk to the rear
lot was clear. We went to our cars, found our drivers
and left without incident.
Work in Nigeria is the same as work anywhere, but it
is spiced with the unique facts of life in that
country. As you travel from one part of the country to
another, there are problems you don't face elsewhere.
For one, there is the problem of roadblocks. The
police, which are paid poorly if at all, have found
that a great way of making a living is to run an
unauthorized roadblock and extract bribes from
intimidated motorists. During one trip from Port
Harcourt to Bauchi, a trip of about 300 miles, I
counted 12 roadblocks, 10 operated by police, one
operated by immigration and one operated by the
Nigerian Drug Enforcement Administration. All had
their hands out.
Here's the way it works: you drive up to the
roadblock, and one of the cops walks up to the car.
You roll your window down. The cop puts his elbows in
the window so you can't drive off, and says, "Anything
for me today?" You hand him a 20 Naira note (about
U.S.$1 at the time), he says "Thank you! Have good
journey!" withdraws his elbows and you're free to go.
What the cops don't tell you is that their AK47 clips
maybe have five rounds in them, each one a different
caliber. And to discourage them from firing their
weapons needlessly, the police force requires them to
buy their own ammunition. They know well and truly
that if they fire their weapon, its apt to blow up in
their face. So they're not inclined to; they'll fire
them only in self-defense as a last resort.
Ibrahim, my driver knew this. So he often would pull
up to a roadblock and slow almost to a stop. As the
cop stepped out of the way of the car, he'd step on it
and go right on through. The worst that ever happened
was a cop once slapped the trunk of the car with his
hand and dented the lid slightly.
I found another technique for dealing with roadblocks.
The car I used had a TKE logo painted on each door.
TKE was famous all over Nigeria because its chairman's
big, generous bribes. So we'd pull up to a roadblock,
and when the cop asked if we had anything for him, I'd
say "No, but the chairman is as about 20 minutes
behind me, and when he gets here, he'll take care of
you well, well!" That would invariably satisfy the
cop, and he'd withdraw his elbows, and off we'd go. No
problem with running into that same cop -- it never
happened to me. They always move their roadblocks
around, so the chances of encountering him again
aren't all that great.
Speaking of our chairman, Prince Arthur Eze would
"dash" (a small monetary gift or bribe) just about
everybody and anybody.
SEE second part