Nigeria as a tourist

Passport entry In 1992 as a tourist on an overland truck, I travelled through Nigeria from the Cameroon border in the north, down through the city of Kano and its magnificent central market, to the bustling and wild city of Lagos. In Nigeria "Benin" is a western province - the sleepy francophone country to the west is pronounced differently and must be identified as the republic of benin.

We crossed the border from the French-speaking northern part of Cameroon, and at the border post our papers were examined most carefully for the minutest transgression that would signal the opportunity for a bribe - or "dash" as it is known. The next few kilometers we had to pass through half a dozen arbitrary roadblocks, manned by sons of powerful local politicians or chiefs - who would sing the mantra of "papers please" and would subject everything to the same scrutiny for the same purpose.

Having passed through the border entanglements, we then headed west on a straight tar road through semi-desert. We were self-sufficient, with water, firewood, food and tents to last a few days. As the evening approached we spotted a large shady tree about 100m from the road, so we bumped down to it and started setting up camp.

Tables were broken out, someone was assigned to dig a pit as a toilet, tents were put up, a fire started, and dinner was under way.

A small boy with only a ragged T-shirt appeared after 30 minutes or so, soon to be joined by a companion. Gradually, we were surrounded by a group of locals, of all ages. Even old granny had made the journey to the Big Tree to see these white people (plus Wendy, an African-American from Brooklyn) who might just as well have arrived from space. Eventually, as we picked our teeth and made ready for bed, there must have been about 100 people silently standing in a circle around us.

Mosque It was just curiosity. We did not feel threatened. We had breakfast in the morning, with a reduced audience, and left. I felt that these people did not even know they were Nigerian. They had some contact with others - hence the T-shirts - but I somewhat doubt they had schools or clinics. I felt they were living a life essentially unchanged for perhaps a century.

Nigeria on business

Fast-forward to 2008.

I am again in Nigeria for 5 weeks, in the capital city of Abuja. I am helping to set up a new University, the African University of Science and Technology, due to open in July. It is an exciting project, where I am setting up their computer infrastructure.

Abuja is one of those artificial capitals - purpose-built, like Washington DC, Canberra, Brazilia, Naypyidaw, Burma. It is (deliberately) set slap-bang in the middle of a country noted for its polarities - North, South, Christian, Muslim, rich, poor.

The city is about 30 years old, in lush countryside, and, at the moment, humid weather, which I like. Commerce and money pretty much all revolves around government contracts. In Nigeria, the source of most wealth is oil, and the government is the largest beneficiary. In turn, they distribute the largesse, through somewhat unaccountable and opaque contracts, and if you are well-connected you are almost guaranteed a good life.

First impressions of the city is that everything is under construction. Cranes swing everywhere - roads have diversions. Almost no traffic lights work - during the day traffic police direct from stands in the middle of intersections. At other times a horn and considerable boldness is required.


Generator repair man Other peculiarities also surfaced - mostly around infrastructure. There is never enough electricity - power is erratic, usually off for hours every day. This is a fact of life - and consequently the generator is ubiquitous. Big generators, the size of a container, are dotted around the rich suburbs and outside clubs and restaurants. They must run the air-conditioning - 2.5Kw each. Luckily diesel is 1/3 world price. As an oil producer, Nigerians feel they have an entitlement to cheap fuel. It is still not cheap though.

The other signature of Abuja (and Lagos) are the communication towers that festoon the landscape - every bank has its own tower, built in the yard/garden, reaching up 10 metres. These all use WiMAX or similar technology for terrestrial wireless communication. There appear to be almost no landlines - any telephones you see are purely internal. Our house where we stay has phones between the rooms and security outside - they reach no further. Though GSM is used for cellphones, there are companies providing CDMA access for phones - usually a proprietary solution for a landline replacement.

Radio masts Power cuts seem to be an accepted part of life - if they get in your way, buy a generator. There are generators everywhere - our university has two, each the size of a container. The compound where the house is has a similar-sized one, shared with the neighboring plot. Restarants have them, nightclubs have them. It must be a great business in Nigeria - even in the market every stall has a little honda generator buzzing away in the corner, and the whole place smells of exhaust fumes. Alley-ways might have a dozen - for nearby stalls. Nigeria has hydroelectric power, but clearly not enough. Building programs for power stations stall when the allocated budget runs out - the rest of the money having disappeared into officials pockets.

Flying into Lagos on my way to Abuja I was amazed at the number of half-completed building projects - in certain areas it was about half the structures visible - no roof, grass in the middle. Someone told me these were foreign-funded building projects, but I just think it is par for the course in Nigeria.

When Abuja was built, the indigenous Warri people were cleared from the area with promises of compensation and land allocated elsewhere. Many of these promises were not followed up.

AUST University

AUST AUST University is brand new - built on land between Abuja city centre and the airport. The regional government has had a controversial program of demolishing the shanty towns that stand in the way of proposed development. They move only those people not from the Warri tribe - and have no program of compensation for the displaced.

The 40 hectares of cleared land handed to AUST still has some Warri dwellings - but is by and large empty. The Warri are also expected to move on - they just have more time to do so.

The University will have a heavy Maths program - geared towards Science and Technology. The first year has already been selected - 50 students. It is funded by the World Bank, with the land donated by the government of Nigeria. The program is run in association with AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences - where I work, based in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, South Africa.


My task is to install the computer infrastructure, and train a local IT manager to run the system. We have not yet been successful in finding anyone. Though I do have another month here, sooner is better than later.

UPS The computers are the latest HP servers, the DL380 G5, fitted with gigabytes of ram, and the fileserver has a terabyte of disk. Nice toys to play with. The computer infrastructure needs a UPS in addition to the onsite generators to cope with the frequent and lengthy power interruptions. They are sized to run the computer labs for 8 hours - so they are big. We have a gigabit fibre connection between the administration buildings and the computer labs and server room. Internet connectivity is a choice between terrestrial wireless (the towers) or VSAT (the satellite dish). We are going the satellite route. It is a pity there is no viable alternative that connects us to a Nigerian internet backbone.

It seems no expense has been spared - there is a lot of money sloshing about. Is that Nigeria, or World bank ? It does seem that it is properly accounted for.

Below, see an Airtime Vendor, in the Market with generators, selling fruit are Ladies at market, another Market picture, a Tailor at the same Wuse II market, some porters outside the mosque asking to carry goods to your car, and the Nigerian National Christian Centre - a multi-denominational church that is built opposite the mosque. Unfortunately they have decided to build a multi-story Cultural Centre in between - a triumph of planning..

Airtime vendor Market with generators Ladies at market Market Tailor at Market porter outside mosque Cathedral