Notes on Nigeria

I have made various edits based on feedback – fact checking, typos (which I’ll never entirely be without), and I added  few minor lines.

I spent 12 days in Nigeria, and saw the cities of Lagos, Kano, Ibadan, and Abeokuta. Even compared to my other travel writing, I have barely scratched the surface of Nigeria, but these are my notes on what I saw and various historical rabbit holes I went down.

My first big secondary source is Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence, which gives a phenomenal overview of a huge topic with exactly the right amount of summary and detail.

My other big secondary source is Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa by Paul Kenyon which is narrower in scope, but somehow even better at storytelling history.

I also want to give a special thanks to the people who hosted me in Lagos and the person who connected me to them. The trip wouldn’t have been possible without them.


Population – 213 million (take with a massive grain of salt, nobody knows how many people are in Lagos, let alone Nigeria)

Population growth rate (2015-2020) – 2.58%

Estimated population in 1911 – 16 million

Size – 357,000 square miles (about 30% bigger than Texas or Ukraine)

GDP (nominal, 2021) – $441 billion (about the same as Minnesota or Austria)

GDP growth rate (2019, pre-pandemic) – 2.2% (also take with a grain of salt)

GDP per capita (2021) – $2,066

GDP per capita PPP (2021) – $5,408

Biggest export – Crude oil

Median age – 17

Life Expectancy (2020) – 53

Founded – 1960

Religion (2018) – 53.5% Muslim (mostly Sunni), 45.9% Christian (6th largest Christian population in the world)

Corruption Perceptions Index ranking – #154

Heritage Index of Economic Freedom ranking – #124

On The Ground

I think my other travel writings have lacked basic descriptions of what these places look like on the ground. I don’t need to go into too much detail since anyone can Google pictures or watch a YouTube video, but a few summarized points will do.

Nigeria is chaos. The cities are extremely crowded, dirty (more on that later), noisy, and lively. Everyone seems to be talking all the time, often over each other. Outside the few modern sections of Lagos (and probably the capital, Abuja), Nigerian cities are made of endless winding roads and alleys periodically packed with open-air markets. Middle class and rich people all live behind walls topped with barbed wire or broken glass, and are protected by guards. Poor people live in slums that sprawl eternally in and around the cities, consisting of concrete, wood, or metal hovels stuffed into every square inch of space. A significant chunk of Lagos holds slums built on stilts on the water populated by fisherman and boat people.

I wasn’t sure if Nigeria or India is the poorest country I’ve been to by sheer number of impoverished people. It turns out there is much tighter competition here than I thought:

July 16, 2018 – Oil-rich Nigeria outstrips India as country with most people in poverty

March 10, 2022 – India Overtakes Nigeria as World Poverty Capital

You really do feel it on the ground. I’ve been to a lot of poor countries, but Nigeria felt just a bit poorer. Part of it was the omnipresent shacks and slums in the major cities, but it was also the constant haggling over extremely small amounts of money (often under $0.50), or how even decent restaurants have ugly florescent fluorescent lighting, or how a chair collapsed under me in the airport, or how my driver in Kano stopped for a 30 minute detour to buy a bag of rice. I’ve encountered plenty of child beggars, but I’ve never had two (a boy and girl) grab each of my hands and refuse to let go as they followed me down the street for 100 yards until a helpful onlooker yelled at them.

Or maybe it’s the literal piss and shit that makes Nigeria seem so poor, though in my experience, this is another area where Nigeria has a close rivalry with India. There is no other way to say this – I saw a lot of people pissing and shitting, and not in bathrooms. I saw them do it on the side of the street, in alleyways, basically anywhere. I actually saw it on my first night, when a guy pissed out the side of a boat in the open, and then I saw it again on my final day, when a guy was squatting on the side of the road leading out of Nigeria and into Benin.

Lagos has the worst traffic I have ever seen. Worse than Istanbul, Manila, Cairo, Baghdad, parts of China, parts of India, Los Angeles, etc. I missed a train because my Uber ran into a dead standstill on a major road at 7 AM. More than one trip took 4X longer than Google Maps said.

On the train from Lagos to Ibadan (the only functional passenger train in the country), I saw dozens of couches on the side of the track amidst a slum. Someone suggested they were inventory for sale. But how can someone be so poor that they have to leave their inventory on the side of a railway track in the open, but be so rich that they own dozens of sofas?

Different parts of Nigeria look and feel extremely different. Lagos is a megatropolis reminiscent of Manila or cities in India, while Kano looks like it could be in the Middle East. Lagos is the NYC of Nigeria, the bustling heart of commerce with lots of waterways and canals and some extreme luxury areas. It’s definitely more socially liberal (there are advertisements for alcohol, women sometimes show cleavage) and has a tropical climate with a nice breeze from the ocean. There are KFCs and Domino’s, though oddly no McDonalds. I saw one white guy my entire time in the city.

Kano, the capital of the Islamic northern desert; it’s quieter, dusty, dry, the women are almost all covered in headscarves (they almost never spoke to me), and the men wear long Islamic robes and those little fez-like hats. Throughout the day, you’ll see people praying by the side of the street in little groups, and my driver had to pull over at one point for one of his prayers. The marketplace sells camels even though no one rides them and almost no one eats them, but my guide said Muslims love them. I didn’t see any white people in Kano (but a few Chinese and Arabs) and thus stood out more than in Lagos, but Kanoans love when I hit them with a little “as-salaam-alaikum.”

Ethnic Strife, Oil Theft, and Being Obedient – a Nigerian Political Primer

Though it is by no means the source of all its problems, Nigeria is the poster child for the “imperialists messed up a country by drawing arbitrary lines on a map” meme.

The nation of Nigeria contains over 250 native ethnic groups. The three largest – the Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa (technically a Hausa-Fulani mix), constitute less than 2/3rds of the population while 14 other ethnic groups make up another 25ish%. Within the three regions they dominate, the Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa only constitute 50-60% of the population, and vie for power against smaller ethnic groups. Religiously, Nigeria is almost perfectly split between Muslims and Christians though the Muslims have been slowly pulling ahead over the last decade due to astronomical birth rates (which is really saying something for Sub-Saharan Africa). Nigerians speak over 500 languages, most of which are bound to specific ethnic groups. Though English is the official language, Nigerian Pidgin English is the predominant form, which I can kind of understand if I listen very closely.

In other words, “Nigeria” was not a recognizable thing on the ground when it became a country in 1960, and to many Nigerians, it still isn’t. Tribal affiliation is the predominant basis of identity for the vast majority of Nigerians, at least outside of the relatively small educated elite.

Allegedly, this division was purposefully magnified by the British colonists who relied on a “divide-and-conquer” strategy in lieu of heavy military manpower or a large administration. The most historically significant British tactic was to throw their support behind the Hausa, Nigeria’s largest ethnic group, at the expense of the Yoruba and Igbo.

The cynical British logic was that the Hausa were the easiest control. As an Islamic ethnic group spread out among feudal villages over a wide swath of northern territory, the Hausa were and still are significantly less educated than the Yorubas and Igbo who hugged the coast and were more mercantile and exposed to foreign influence. In 1950, a decade before independence, there was a grand total of one university-educated Hausa in Nigeria – a Christian convert. In 1960, the northern provinces still constituted 50% of Nigeria’s population, but produced only 10% of primary school students and 5% of secondary school students. At Nigeria’s top university in Ibadan, 57 out of over 1,000 students were northerners.

In contrast, the Yorubas who dominated southwestern Nigeria (including Lagos) were relatively cosmopolitan and were well-integrated into European trade. They lived in small kingdoms that were easy to subjugate under British rule.

In the southeast, the Igbo were initially the poorest of the three major ethnic groups and had the most decentralized political structure. But the Igbos had a comparatively individualistic culture and took strongly to Western education. They soon developed a reputation for business and entrepreneurialism, and spread throughout the rest of Nigeria despite facing discrimination, particularly in the Hausa-dominated north where they were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods. British administrators refered to the Igbos as “the talented people.”

Independence and Political Cycles

It took the British a decade of tinkering to ready Nigeria for independence. The Hausa were the biggest impediment; due to the education disparity, there were vanishingly few Hausa colonial administrators and a highly disproportionate number of Igbo administrators. The British eventually reached a compromise wherein all three groups would get relatively strong regional autonomy with their own government administrations, while a federal government elected by popular vote would end up favoring the Hausa due to their larger population in the north. When independence arrived in 1960, the Hausa got their candidate, Abukar Tafawa Balewa, elected as the first prime minister with Igbo support through some backroom deals.

Here is how Martin Meredith describes Nigerian politics at independence:

“Politicians on all sides whipped up ethnic fear, suspicion, and jealousy for their own advantage to entrench themselves in power. Tribalism became the ideology of politics. By nature, Nigerian politics tended to be mercenary and violent. Political debate was routinely conducted in acrimonious and abusive language, and ethnic loyalties were constantly exploited. The tactics employed were often those of the roughhouse variety, and the reckless manner in which Nigerian politicians fought for control during six years of civilian rule was to lead ultimately to a tragedy of monumental proportions.”

In other words, things were not looking great for Nigeria at independence with a powder keg mixture of ethnic groups at each other’s throats. But Nigeria had one thing that gave it and the international community hope that something good could come out of this chunk of Africa… oil. And a lot of it. And more every day. It was first discovered in Nigeria all the way back in 1902, but successful exploration really ramped up in the 1950s, and so combined with its massive population, there was talk of Nigeria becoming the powerhouse of Sub-Saharan Africa if it could reach political stability.

Unfortunately, Nigerian political history from 1960-2000 followed a remarkably consistent and awful cycle:

  1. A democratic government elects an extremely corrupt leader.
  2. The democratic government is overthrown in a coup by a military officer who promises to end the corruption and make the Nigerian state function.
  3. The military government is overthrown in a coup by other military officers who want a return to democracy.
  4. Restart the cycle.

After formally leaving the British Commonwealth in 1963, the fully independent Nigerian Republic lasted three years before its first coup at the hands of an Igbo military officer (also a record-breaking high jumper) who slaughtered the Prime Minister and most of the cabinet. But he failed to consolidate power and ended up surrendering power to a leading officer who straddled the ethnic lines by being an Igbo with strong established ties to the Hausa. According to Meredeth, the new regime was full of genuine reformers trying to snuff out nascent systemic corruption, but Hausa leaders suspected an Igbo conspiracy to seize powers. Six months later, northerner military officers led a counter-coup and took back control.

Before, during, and after the counter-coup, the Hausa and allied ethnic groups periodically led pogroms against Igbo across the north. The Igbo-led coup enflamed tensions between the Igbo and Hausa (and with the Yoruba to a lesser degree), catalyzing a massive progrom wave against the Igbo that killed 100,000 during the final four months of 1965. At this point, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the Igbo and a certain other famous ethnic/religious group known for its business acumen, focus on education, conspicuous political success, and dispersal among foreign lands, that also fell victim to pogroms.

The Igbo response to the counter-coup and the pogroms was a sizable migration back to their regional homeland in the southeast of Nigeria. Retaliation pogroms and killings were carried out against Hausa, but at a far smaller scale due to the relatively few Hausa living in the east. Fearing more reprisals and seeing an opportunity, the Igbo leadership claimed most of the southeast an independent territory as the Republic of Biafra and formally declared independence from Nigeria.

Any vague whispers of letting the Igbos leave Nigeria were silenced by a major geopolitical data point – the vast majority of Nigeria’s oil was in the Niger Delta, a small, densely populated region that just happened to be the Igbo homeland (though much of the oil land is actually in land controlled by other ethnic groups under Igbo dominance). If the Igbo seceded, Nigeria would lose by far its most important economic asset.

And so the newly-formed Biafra was immediately assaulted by the Hausa-dominated Nigerian military. Biafra struggled to pull an army together, and quickly lost territory. The war soon settled into a brutal siege with the Nigerian military trying to starve most of Biafra into submission. Biafra managed to hold out for three years (with a lot of French and Catholic Church support, including massive airlifts of weapons and food) at the cost of over 2 million lives (on both sides) before surrendering and being reabsorbed back into Nigeria.

Meredith describes the aftermath of the war as remarkably amicable, with all three major ethnic groups quickly putting the past behind them to try to restart Nigeria. Based on conversations I had with Igbo (N = 2), the Igbo generally don’t agree with the assessment. Instead, they resent the Hausa and Yoruba for causing immense destruction and death in the Igbo homeland and then doing nothing to help rebuild. Supposedly, the history of Biafra and the civil war isn’t even taught in government schools.

So Nigeria got off to a bad start, but the end of the civil war coincided with some good news… oil prices were booming! Money flowed into Nigeria like never before and many believed or hoped that it would spur Nigeria to prosperity.

Unfortunately, prosperity continued to elude Nigeria. There are many complex reasons for the country’s continued stagnancy, but among the chief causes is rampant, systemic, all-consuming corruption that sapped the nation of wealth and vibrancy. I’ll give my take on the roots of the corruption in the two sections on Oil, but for now, just assume that every government and leader I describe in this section is somewhere between very and extraordinarily corrupt.

In 1975, a group of surprisingly idealistic military officers from the ruling Social Democratic Party party launched a coup because the ruling military junta had perpetually delayed elections. A year later, the newly-ruling triumvirate was hit with another coup, which killed the 1975 coup’s leader, but was ultimately crushed by the ruling junta. The surviving generals cobbled together a new government and announced elections in an attempt to restart Nigerian democracy.

The attempt went better than expected, and produced the first peaceful relinquishment of power by a Nigerian leader in 1979, but yet another coup hit in 1983, bringing Muhammadu Buhari to power, a Muslim northerner from the Fulani ethnic group.

Buhari is an interesting figure – I read him as one of the more ambitious strongmen of Africa, at least during his early career (spoiler alert). He rightfully denounced the prior democratic regime as hopelessly corrupt and seemed to make a genuine effort to clean house with mass civil service firings and administrative consolidation. To reduce Nigeria’s debt, the International Monetary Fund asked Buhari to institute a series of austerity measures, including depreciating the Naira by 60%; he told the IMF to fuck off, cut contact with it, and then instituted stricter austerity, including a 15% national budget cut, an end to state-level government borrowing, and limits on imports to save foreign reserves.

But Buhari also understood that Nigeria’s problems went deeper than policy; they were cultural. Hence:

“One of the most enduring legacies of the Buhari government has been the War Against Indiscipline (WAI). Launched on 20 March 1984, the policy tried to address the perceived lack of public morality and civic responsibility of Nigerian society. Unruly Nigerians were ordered to form neat queues at bus stops, under the eyes of whip-wielding soldiers. Civil servants who failed to show up on time at work were humiliated and forced to do “frog jumps”. Minor offences carried long sentences. Any student over the age of 17 caught cheating on an exam would get 21 years in prison. Counterfeiting and arson could lead to the death penalty.

Very based.

A less well-regarded Buhari idea was forcefully expelling 700,000 illegal immigrants to neighboring countries who were not at all prepared to absorb 700,000 people all at once. The result was a refugee crisis and even famines; the famine in Niger was even called “El Buhari.”

In 1985, the Nigerian political cycle repeated once more as a group of military officers overthrew Buhari in a coup and promised to bring democracy back to Nigeria. However, the new leader, Ibrahim Babangida, was not exactly energetic about this democratic revival. In 1986, he established a bureau to investigate how Nigeria should do elections, and waited until 1989 to declare that elections would finally be held the following year. Meanwhile, Babangida made some pretty decent economic reforms, including deregulation of the private sector that led to a boom in exports and rising real wages, though government worker salaries declined and petty corruption intensified.

In early 1990, right before elections were scheduled, Babangida narrowly survived a coup attempt by a group of generals who of course (correctly) denounced his regime as corrupt. Babangida responded by delaying elections until 1992, much to the grumbling of the general populace. To supposedly stabilize Nigeria’s politics, Babangida established two political parties and encouraged everyone to join them before the 1992 elections.

In 1992, the regional elections went reasonably well. In early 1993, the national presidential election seemed to produce a clear winner and all was on track… but then Babangida claimed the results were fraudulent and annulled the election (his chosen successor had lost). The popular backlash was so strong that Babangida became the second Nigerian leader to voluntarily relinquish power, but not before setting up an interim government run by his hand-picked successor.

However, Babangida’s pick lasted a matter of months until he was overthrown in a coup by General Sani Abacha. All the talk of restoring democracy, originally proposed in 1985, was swiftly abandoned as yet another military dictator was running Nigeria in 1993.

The Savant Dictator

I want to preemptively acknowledge that Sani Abacha was a terrible human being who killed, imprisoned, and tortured thousands of people while engaging in an unprecedented amount of national looting. And he did all this about 20-25 years ago, so his victims and their descendants are mostly still alive.

With that said, I can also say that Abacha is probably my favorite African dictator. Not “favorite” in the sense that he was good or heroic or even tragic, but favorite in the sense of being interesting.

I don’t know if Abacha was literally autistic or something, but that’s how he seems based on his depictions, and Paul Kenyon even calls him an “idiot savant.” Kenyon relates that when Abacha was a child, he was so shy and reserved that some people thought he was mentally challenged. Adult Abacha is described as:

“Unemotional, often mute, always difficult to read.”

“Some interpreted his personality as a sign he should be feared. Others thought he was just stupid.”

A savant is basically someone who has innate mental challenges but is extremely competent in a particular narrow domain. Some savants become obsessed with trains and become great engineers. Some become obsessed with computers and build software wonders. One of Abacha’s predecessors said of him:

“He might not be bright upstairs, but he knows how to overthrow governments.”

Kenyon elaborates:

“It was as if Abacha was an idiot savant. Dull, even gormless, he filled his days with cowboy movies and sleeping off the previous night’s indulgences in alcohol and prostitutes. But he was prossessed of a prodigious flair when it came to coups.”

From Wikipedia:

“Abacha was involved in all the military coups in Nigeria during his military career.”

From Nigeria’s independence in 1960 to the fall of General Babangida in 1993, Nigeria experienced four successful coups. Abacha not only backed, but helped organize all four, including both the pro-Igbo coup of 1966, and the pro-northern counter-coup that occurred a few months later. Abacha also refused to participate in any of the many, many unsuccessful and abortive coups throughout the 33 years. He never missed.

(EDIT – there is some controversy on whether Abacha was involved in the very first coup in 1966. Wikipedia says, “He could well have been a participant in the Lagos or Abeokuta phases of the coup the previous January as well,” though I haven’t read the source it cites.)

Each successful coup earned him a promotion and more respect from his military peers, though he was never liked. By the early 1990s, he was basically the head of the military and second-in-command of the country under Babangida. But as Babangida slowly attempted to transition Nigeria back to democracy, the military grew increasingly worried about Abacha. From Kenyon:

“The Nigerian dictator’s club didn’t know how to deal with [Abacha]. Everyone seemed to owe him something – their positions, their wealth, their lives. But no one really wanted him as a member.”

By 1993, Abacha had enough of playing second-fiddle. As Babangida prepared to step aside for his hand-picked quasi-democratically elected successor, Abacha decided to strike. The Nigerian coup master would finally launch a coup all for himself, and his plan was one of simple, refined, perfection: there would be no guns, no violence, no killing, just… bureaucracy.

On his final day in office, Babangida used his authority to write a series of decrees, including certifying the election process, the transference of his power, and the resignation of his position. Then Babangida left office for a plump retirement.

Abacha’s “so dumb it might work” scheme was to send somebody to the office that held the official records of Babangida’s decrees and backdate his resignation by 24 hours, thus negating all of his other decrees, including his transfer of power to the new president.

Abacha sent the agent, changed the paperwork, and then went to a radio station to announce that Nigeria technically didn’t have a leader. After all, Babangida had resigned before transferring power. Check the paperwork if you don’t believe him. Since Nigeria can’t fall to anarchy, Abacha announced that he was taking control of the country. Indefinitely.

As of 2023, Nigeria has not had a coup since Abacha’s in 1993. This begs a logical question… did Nigeria ever really have a coup problem, or did it just have an Abacha problem?

Regardless, immediately after the coup, nationwide protests erupted throughout the country. Abacha responded the only way Abacha knew how – by sending armed military goon squads with explicit orders to shoot into crowds until they dispersed. Hundreds were gunned down in a single large protest.

Abacha then beefed up his security by shipping 3,000 of his gooniest goons to North Korea for training. On their return, the nicknamed “kill and go brigade” became Abacha’s personal death squad to be deployed at any sign of resistance to his rule.

From Kenyon:

“There was disquiet among the ruling cadre [of allied generals]. They had always felt the need to garner at least some public affection. But Abacha didn’t care. More than that, he didn’t know he should care.”

Abacha proved to possess one of the most unfortunate attributes of a cruel African dictator – competence. His strategy was simple – the oil must flow. He made deals and gave bribes to some of the more prolific oil thieves (more on that later), and deployed the military and his death squad to the Niger Delta to protect Nigerian and foreign oil drilling operations. Early in his reign, Abacha chose an old schoolmate to lead the crackdown and promised him an ongoing cut of the oil revenue in exchange. Together, Abacha and his friend devised a strategy wherein they regularly deployed some undercover black ops soldiers into the Niger Delta, the soldiers would randomly slaughter villagers, and then some other soldiers would spread rumors that the slaughter was done by a rival ethnic group. This would typically spark local tribal wars that would both sap the strength of potential oil thieves and redirect anti-Abacha sentiment.

The result was an increase in oil production by about 50% during Abacha’s reign, which, on paper at least, pointed Nigeria in the right direction. Under Abacha, foreign currency reserves rose from $494 million to $9.6 billion, external debt was reduced from $36 billion to $27 billion, inflation fell from 54% to 8.5%, and Nigeria’s roadways were considerably expanded.

While the Nigerian economy did pretty well, Abacha and his family did much better. A 2004 report ranked Abacha the fourth most successful kleptocratic African dictator, with his family stealing up to $5 billion in government funds, $480 million of which would later be seized by the American government.

Abacha accomplished this staggering level of theft in a mere five years, and all while being a reclusive weirdo. Throughout his reign, he never once visited Lagos, and spent the vast majority of his time at a compound in his hometown the capital where he did little work and passed orders through an insular cohort of loyalists. From Kenyon:

“[Abacha] barely made foreign visits, had no clue about the economy, and left the enforcement of orders to his favorite military chiefs.”

“When [Abacaha’s] staff managed to deliver paperwork to him, he would read no more than two pages.”

What did Abacha do with all of his money? Nothing! Every other crazy African dictator buys villas in Switzerland or goes on shopping trips in Paris or decks out a private jet or buys foreign commercial real estate under pseudonyms. But Abacha had simpler tastes – he was said to make a habit of visiting local brothels until 5 AM, then praying at a mosque, and then going home to sleep at 6:30 AM. And so the vast majority of Abacha’s massive fortune ended up sitting unspent in domestic and foreign bank accounts.

Another Return to Democracy

In 1998, Abacha dropped dead at his villa under mysterious circumstances, and was buried the same day (or the next day, I’ve seen different claims) with no autopsy. Depending on who you believe, he either died of a heart attack due to taking too much Viagra, or was poisoned by the three Indian prostitutes staying at his mansion. Regardless, Abacha was quickly succeeded by a general who surprisingly conducted elections the following year. This welcome turn to liberalism brought little optimism to the country. Here is Meredith’s summary of Nigeria at the year 2000:

“40 years after independence, Nigeria presented a sorry spectacle. Wole Soyinka described his own country as ‘the open sore of a continent.’

Despite an oil bonanza of $280 billion, the economy was derelict. Public services were chronically inefficient. Schools and hospitals were decaying. Higher education had virtually collapsed. Roads were pitted with potholes. The telephone system hardly functioned. There were frequent power cuts, even shortages of domestic petroleum supplies.

On average, Nigerians were poorer in 2000 then they had been at the start of the oil boom in the early 1970s. Income per head at $310 was less than one third of that in 1980. Half of the population lived on less than 30 cents per day. Half of the population had no access to safe drinking water. Almost one fifth of children died before their fifth birthday. Nearly half of under fives were stunted because of malnutrition. Millions of people lived in slums surrounded by mounds of rotting garbage without access to basic amenities.

The record of successive governments had been abysmal. Leading institutions such as the civil service swallowed huge sums of money but delivered few services. Embezzlement and bribery were rife. The military were widely hated. The police acted as an occupying force.”

That doesn’t sound good… but at least Nigeria was back to democracy. And so in 1999, with their political rights restored, the Nigerian people elected… former coup leader, Olusegun Obasanjo.

All things considered, Obasanjo comes off as pretty chill. It’s hard to keep track of all the Nigerian coups, but Obasanjo was one of the 1975 coup leaders who came to power to try to restore democracy, then the leader of his junta was killed during a failed coup, so Obasanjo took over the country for a few years before instituting elections. His return to power in 1999 was almost certainly fraudulent, but he seemed to make some good-faith efforts to reform the electoral process during his reign. He also made a big deal with the IMF which cut Nigeria’s foreign debt by 60%. Despite rumblings of possibly running for a third term as president (which was illegal under the Constitution), Obasanjo stepped aside after his second term.

In 2007, Umaru Yar’Adua came to power, but his reign is only interesting for its ending. In 2009, he became gravely ill with pericarditis and was declared unfit to rule. Three months before his death, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan was sworn into the presidency in an unprecedented transfer of power.

Goodluck Jonathan was an unexpected leader, and not just because of his name. He was close to an unknown in Nigerian politics, a southerner, and was basically chosen as Yar’Adua’s Vice President at the last minute for geographic/demographic/religious reasons (sort of like American presidential candidates choosing a VP from a swing state). Jonathan’s one major prior post was as governor of a state, but he only got that job because the previous governor was arrested in the United Kingdom for money laundering.

As an unknown entity, Jonathan proved surprisingly good at consolidating power, but was disappointing at wielding it effectively. He was light on real reforms and heavy on corruption, supposedly costing Nigeria $20 billion throughout his terms until 2015. His wife, Patience Jonathan, was even indicted by anti-corruption authorities in Nigeria for money laundering.

Nevertheless, Jonathan’s years are generally remembered as good times by Nigerians, at least according to the ones I spoke with. This likely had little to do with Jonathan’s policies, and more to do with rising oil prices after the 2008 economic crisis, and the numerous calamities to face Nigeria after his reign. From 2009-2015, Nigeria’s annual GDP growth rate stayed between 2.8-8%, so it was relative boom times for the country. Plus, upon his electoral defeat in 2015, Jonathan peacefully relinquished office, which marked a continuation of Nigeria’s longest stretch of democracy and what the New Yorker considered to be his greatest achievement.

Boko Haram

Another 2015 milestone for Nigeria was Boko Haram declaring an alliance with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. A quick aside on one of the most famous things about Nigeria:

Boko Haram roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden.” The formal organization was founded by Muhammad Yusuf, a radical reactionary Islamist who thinks the world is flat, and resents both Western colonists and the supposedly supplicant Muslims of Nigeria in equal measure. Though Boko Haram by no means has or had widespread support in Nigeria, there has always been some degree of sympathy for the loss of Islamic domination amongst northern Muslim Nigerians. In 1999, 12 Nigerian states voted to institute Sharia law as their official legal codes, complete with the criminalization of blasphemy against Islam and the death penalty for homosexuality (though this has never been enforced).

(I’m not kidding about the flat earth thing either. Boko Haram has specially called for the killing of geography teachers for their spherical heresy. A lot of sources also say that Yusuf doesn’t believe that rain comes from evaporated water; rather, allah directly conjures rain.)

In 2002, Yusuf founded Boko Haram as an Islamic sect in the far north-east of Nigeria. Beliefs included adherence to Wahhabism, rejection of Westernism, rejection of decadence, revolutionary jihad, condemnations of Sufi and Shia Islam, and the establishment of an independent Islamic state.

Boko Haram was relatively peaceful, though rabble-rousing, until 2009. Then a massive government raid killed 700 Boko Haram members and found stockpiles of weapons; Yusuf was captured and died in police custody. Boko Haram’s apparently violent intentions rapidly escalated into terrorism, including bombings, IEDs, a high-profile prison break, and kidnappings, most of which were targeted at Nigerian government employees or Islamic civilians deemed traitors to true Islam. In 2011, Boko Haram launched coordinated terrorist attacks in three cities simultaneously with the ascension of Jonathan Goodluck to power. Despite repression from the federal government, Boko Haram’s manpower and funding grew tremendously, especially through alliances with Al Queda and Isis, and ample revenue from ransoms.

Boko Haram’s influence spread into neighboring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. It began to take de facto control over territory around Lake Chad and administer it in an ISIS-like manner. A 2021 report from the United Nations puts the combat death toll between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government at 35,000, and the total death toll of the conflict at a staggering 350,000, including terrorist deaths and economic effects on one of the poorest regions on earth.

Fortunately, there are limits to the Nigerian government’s incompetence and negligence. The threat from Boko Haram and the public’s outcry was so great that the Nigerian government eventually got (mostly) serious about crushing the terrorist group. At the head of a coalition of West African nations, and with financial and logistical support from nations as varied as the US, China, and Columbia, Nigeria led increasingly intense military and counter-insurgency efforts against Boko Haram, particularly ramping up in 2015. In response, Boko Haram largely kept up its rate of terrorist attacks, but lost nearly all of its territory. The Nigerian government has repeatedly declared victory over Boko Haram, and indeed its scale of personnel, territory, and attacks have greatly diminished since 2020, but the organization still exists and there is widespread concern that the terrorist group is just biding its time.

Modern Nigerian Politics

In 2015, Goodluck Jonathan lost in the national election to yet another northerner Muslim… none other than Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s dictator from 1983-1985 who tried to fix Nigerian culture by forcing people to stand in lines. Not only was Buhari elected in probably the fairest election in Nigerian history, but he came into power with a solid two million vote lead. With such a strong mandate, the once innovative strongman proceeded to do nothing interesting. His second reign, which is scheduled to end in 2023, is generally regarded as one of deepening corruption and further decline for Nigeria.

A good example of Nigeria’s ongoing problems is the End SARS campaign, which is not an effort to eradicate severe acute respiratory syndrome, but rather a popular movement against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

SARS was formed in 1992 as an emergency countermeasure to a massive crime wave in Lagos spurred by a police strike triggered by the murder of a high-ranking police official. From what I can gather, SARS slowly morphed over time from a fairly effective crack squad of investigators and enforcers tasked with hitting high-level targets into a de facto mafia that used its special legal privileges to extort Nigerians with impunity. Sometime in the 2010s, SARS shifted its focus toward combatting cybercrimes, which given Nigeria’s reputation seems completely reasonable. But in practice, this manifested as SARS personnel targeting any random person with a nice phone or laptop they happened to spot. Individuals would be accosted, possibly detained, accused of made-up cybercrimes, and then extorted.

Anecdotally, it’s difficult to convey how common this harassment was. From what I’ve heard, young professional Nigerians say that pretty much everyone in their social circles has had some sort of run-in with SARS, at least in the major cities. And of course, the super corrupt Nigerian police and court systems offered virtually no recourse, unless a victim happens to be friends with the right judge or official.

In 2017, young Nigerians launched End SARS as an online campaign to highlight incidents of harassment through social media, and eventually escalated it into formal demands to the government. The government’s response was a mixture of concessions and condemnations, including attempts to reform SARS but also accusations of lawlessness.

End SARS escalated for a few years and reached its peak in 2020. In October, a shooting by a SARS officer triggered massive protests across the country. The government suspended SARS operations and then disbanded the organization altogether a little over a week later. However, in the intervening period, the police violently cracked down on protests, killing 12 and injuring at least dozens more across the country. The government refuses to acknowledge the bloodshed despite it being amply captured on video by protestors. After the disbandment, the government even froze the bank accounts of numerous protestors, a decree so tyrannical that no Western government would ever consider it.

Buhari was term-limited out of office, and the 2023 election turned out to be unexpectedly interesting. It happened shortly before I was in Nigeria, and the country was blanketed in not just campaign posters, but what I can only describe as election victory posters celebrating the outcome.

Buhari’s handpicked party’s successor was Bola Tinubu, a northern Yoruba Muslim, who developed a habit of saying variations of “it’s my turn” to the press. Tinubu had been the governor of Lagos (just like Buhari) and probably would have been Buhari’s vice president except Muslim-Muslim tickets tend to do worse than Muslim-Christian tickets. From what I gather, Tinubu, who has been nicknamed the “Godfather of Lagos,” is another generically corrupt rich Nigerian politician, and is expected to continue to run Nigeria into the ground.

Fun facts about Tinubu:

  • He may have worked as a money launderer for Chicago-based drug dealers in the 1990s, and had to forfeit $460,000 to the American federal government.
  • An armored truck, the sort which typically transfers large amounts of money, was once spotted going into one of Tinubu’s compounds. When asked about it, he said, “I keep my money anywhere I want.”
  • He’s 71 years old.

Tinubu’s surprise dark horse opponent turned out to be a guy whose followers literally chant “I am Obedient.” Fortunately, Peter Obi was not calling for some sort of 1984-style totalitarian government, he just likes puns. And his running mate did as well, perhaps too much:

Peter Obi’s candidacy emerged as a social movement in Nigeria. In the vein of End SARS, Obi amassed a dedicated following among young Nigerians seeking reform in the government. He earned their loyalty by doing something that almost no Nigerian politician had ever done before during a political campaign… talking about issues.

The modus operandi of successful Nigerian politicians is to play up tribal allegiances, condemn other ethnic groups, make lots of backroom promises to powerful people to solidify a patronage network in exchange for support, and then top off the campaign with some attempted election rigging, bribery, and maybe violence. Obi shocked the public by making speeches about things like fighting corruption, revitalizing the economy, using military force to stop oil theft, creating a “Ministry of Affairs,” and interestingly, abolishing the Office of First Lady.

From what I gather, Obi isn’t actually deeply ideological in a political sense. But he’s a Christian Igbo politician who doesn’t talk about being a Christian Igbo, and instead talks about representing all of Nigeria, and apparently that’s extremely refreshing in Nigerian politics. However, it’s worth noting that Peter Obi is a largely unknown quantity and it’s possible that his whole youth movement strategy was just a cynical ploy. At least from talking to a few Nigerians, I get a sense that one of Obi’s big selling points is that, unlike his opponents, there aren’t decades of news stories about his corruption. But Obi has been in power (as a governor) for a lot less time than the others, so maybe he’s good at hiding his corruption.

Unfortunately, we won’t find out if Obi is the true reformer Nigeria has been waiting for, at least not yet. Tinubu won the election with almost 37% of the vote, and Obi came in third with a disappointing 25%, though he won 10 states (including Lagos despite Tinubu being its former governor) and the capital, to Tinubu’s 11 states. The Independent National Electoral Commission, established in 1998 to monitor Nigeria’s elections, declared the election free and fair. The US State Department put out a statement congratulating Nigeria for its successful and fair elections despite some irregularities.

Others were not so sanguine. The EU and some international watchdogs criticized the election’s transparency. Some people I talked to claimed that there was widespread voter suppression, voter fraud, and even intimidation (one Nigerian told me that he was turned away from a polling station for being an Igbo). Peter Obi and his Labor Party outright disputed the election and are busy trying to stop the ratification of the results in court.

On the transition from military rule to democracy in 1999, Meredith points out that a trade-off was made. The elected leaders have been generally less brutal, but the military dictators were better at repressing ethnic conflict, which Nigerian veterans of the Biafran Separatist War are particularly weary of. Meredith quotes a Nigerian: “When we were in the military regime, we didn’t get anything from the government, but we had peace. Now we are in a democracy. We don’t get anything from the government, and we do not get peace.”

Terrible, blurry, overexposed photo, but it’s the only one I have of people waiting in a line for an ATM.

Is the Nigerian Cash Shortage an Elaborate Revenge Plot?

I just so happened to go to Nigeria during a massive cash shortage. It was common to see people waiting in line for hours at ATMs and banks to withdraw the equivalent of tens of dollars. I didn’t hold a Nigerian banknote for my first ten days in the country. Then, while buying water at a pharmacy, the pharmacist offered to sell me cash at a 5% markup on my credit card charge. I took the deal.

Explaining why there is a huge cash shortfall is surprisingly difficult and complicated, but as far as I can tell:

The Nigerian Naira has been fucked up for a long time. For the last decade, Nigeria’s inflation rate has scarcely dipped below 8% and typically hovers between 10%-18%. If you Google, “USD to Nigerian Naira,” you get 1 USD = about 460 N. This is the official government rate and it is extremely inaccurate. The rate on the streets of Nigeria, and what is commonly accepted by anyone in Nigeria, is about 1 USD = 750 Naira. But the government proclaims the official rate, and as a result, if you are dumb enough to use a foreign credit card in Nigeria, you will pay the official rate on conversions and eat a 60%+ premium on prices.

In October 2022, the Nigerian Central Bank announced a plan to replace its 200, 500, and 1000 note bills (equivalent to about $0.3-1.30) with newly designed notes. Over the next four months, all Nigerians were required to turn in their cash and were then promised the new notes. After a certain date, old money would no longer qualify as legal tender.

The reasoning behind this policy was… suspicious, to say the least. Supposedly it would “reduce counterfeiting, encourage a cashless economy and stave-off cash hoarding,” and also “bring more people into the financial sector, and even more ambitiously, reduce incidents of kidnapping and terrorism because there will be no notes in circulation for ransom payments.”

Or as the New York Times phrases it: “The government has not made clear what it is trying to accomplish with the currency makeover, offering a gamut of explanations including that it is trying to rein in counterfeiting and cash hoarding.”

Ok, I can see how a new currency design would thwart current counterfeiters, and maybe the new design is harder to copy. But I don’t see how the new design will “encourage a cashless economy” or “stave-off hoarding” or “reduce incidents of kidnapping and terrorism” except via the bizarre implication that people will engage in the cashless economy, stop hoarding cash, and stop demanding ransom payments if they no longer have cash. Which I guess is true, but only in the sense that leg pain can be cured by cutting off one’s leg. But even that doesn’t follow, because the old cash is supposed to be replaced by new cash, so won’t Nigerians just exchange, hoard, and ransom with the new money? The same logic can apply to the errant explanation that the Naira swap will somehow hinder inflation.

Another explanation floating around is that the government wanted to drain available cash from the economy right before the February 2023 elections to hinder bribery attempts, especially since literally handing cash to voters at the polls is not unheard of in Nigeria. I have no idea if that actually played out in reality, but some news articles claim politicians were buying and hoarding new cash before the elections.

Anyway, the Nigerian government asked all of its citizens to start turning in cash on October 26, which was added to their bank accounts. The new cash was scheduled to roll out on January 31. This could potentially leave Nigerians without cash for an interim period, but since the old cash was scheduled to be invalidated by the same deadline, people rushed to make the exchange before their money was worthless.

Shockingly, the Nigerian central bank did not have its ducks in a row. It fell far behind expected production of new cash, hence the long lines at ATMs and banks where people are withdrawing the tiny allotments of permitted cash per withdrawal (around $40 worth). As an emergency measure, the government extended the validity of the old cash into February.

As I write this in late March, the situation has maybe modestly improved, but is still dire. Mitigation comes from alternative payment systems. POS (point of sale) machines have become widespread, so debit cards are more viable than ever. If/when those fail, locals conduct bank-to-bank transfers, even for values of less than 1 USD. I borrowed a debit card from a local friend, but even with it failing to work on POS’s about 20% of the time, I was still prohibited from using about 50% of the stores and services around me, including many taxis and food stalls, unless I called my friend and asked him to do a manual bank transfer.

But of course, many Nigerians don’t have bank accounts, let alone debit cards. These people, who constitute at least a substantial portion of the population, are left to scrounge for whatever cash they can find, or otherwise resort to barter. I guess there is nothing they can do except wait for the government to produce more new cash.

The Nigerian Central Bank seems really incompetent… or is it?

Yet another possible explanation for the whole cash replacement scheme (as reported by the New York Times) is that it was an elaborate revenge plot.

Muhhamadu Buhari of the All Progressive Congress (APC) is finishing his second term as president and is Constitutionally limited from running again. In the primaries to select the next presidential candidate for the APC, Bola Tinubu defeated politically boxed out Godwin Emefiele… the former head of the central bank. After Emefiele lost, he may have conspired with allies at the bank to both launch and purposefully fuck up the currency swap scheme to piss off Nigerian voters and alienate them from the incumbent party, thereby costing Tinubu the election.

It sounds a bit convoluted to me, and the plot demonstrably failed, but I love the deviousness.



Since I looked into Saudi Arabia’s oil economy, I’ve become fascinated with the entire industry. Oil isn’t quite as central to Nigeria as to Saudi Arabia, but it is the former’s biggest export and source of economic growth. Unfortunately, it’s also arguably its single most proximate source of corruption and unrest. Occupy Nigeria wasn’t based on a failing economy or bank bailouts (even though both happen in Nigeria) but on the government’s attempt to cancel oil subsidies for the general population.

Westerners first searched for oil in Nigeria all the way back in 1903, but no significant quantity was found until the 1950s. Nigeria was still a fairly remote British colony then, but rapidly became more important as primarily British oil companies began staking claims and setting up wells. In the 1970s, the Nigerian government nationalized all of the foreign-owned oil wells, though later on it made new concessions to foreign companies for joint-ventures. Today, Nigeria has about the 12th largest reserves of oil in the world (ahead of Kazakhstan and behind the United States), and is the 11th highest oil producer (albeit based on highly suspicious numbers).

Unfortunately, the general population of Nigeria has seen vanishingly small benefits from this enormous natural boon. Nigeria is a textbook case of the resource curse, wherein poor countries with ample natural resources tend to not only stay poor, but become extremely corrupt, backwards places, though Nigeria has a few of its own unique twists on the concept.

The sociopolitical basis of the resource curse has been hotly debated for decades. My understanding is that poor countries with ample resources are likely to have a bad incentive misalignment between their governments and their people.

Ordinarily, in a very generalized sense, it is in the best interests of governments to cultivate the national economy since economic growth means more tax revenue, more government power, more patronage opportunities, etc. But, for example, in Nigeria’s case, all the government needs to do to get rich is drill oil out of the ground and sell it. The key factor is that extractive resource industries like oil and mining don’t require much economic infrastructure, and therefore national governments will neglect or ruthlessly exploit the national economy for the sake of the extractive industry.

Foreign companies can, and often do, bring their own equipment and personnel to an African state, set up their own facilities, and pump oil without involving the local population to any significant degree. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Equatorial Guinea, where the government lets foreign oil companies drill off-shore with their own equipment and personnel, and then takes a cut of the profits which are quickly siphoned away by corruption and have little-to-no benefit for the average Equatorial Guinean. Hence:

“According to the 2016 United Nations Human Development Report, Equatorial Guinea had a gross domestic product per capita of $21,517, one of the highest levels of wealth in Africa. However, it is one of the most unequal countries in the world according to the Gini index, with 70 percent of the population living on one dollar a day.”

This sort of highly linear economic process isn’t feasible with, say… manufacturing. When China opened up its economy to the West to become a manufacturing titan, Western money financed complex webs of factories, supply chains, transport, and all manner of middle-men. This process had positive second-order effects that stimulated the growth of infrastructure, education, finance, etc. China’s manufacturing became the basis of its economy because it employed tens of millions of its workers and created enormous profits for its businessmen, both of whom in turn invested back into the general economy, spurring general economic growth.

Just as importantly, extractive industries have a very different impact on the culture of a nation than broader economic activity like manufacturing. Again, foreign oil companies can and do bribe their way to concessions all across Africa. They basically just have to pay the government to leave them alone, or if they’re lucky, for protection. Alternatively, a manufacturing-based economy needs at least some minimum standard of law. Property rights and contracts need to be enforced or else foreign companies won’t invest capital in a country. This enforcement of law will permeate throughout society; it will need to apply not just between a foreign company and a government, but between the foreign company and its local suppliers, between the foreign company and its local employees, between local transportation operations, etc.

(You can also replace “foreign companies” in the previous paragraphs with “government-backed monopolies” and get the same result with a few different variables.)

Nigeria tragically fell into this trap. Its post-independence leadership quickly realized that it could easily enrich itself and its patronage networks by protecting the foreign oil companies in exchange for a cut of the profits. Politics became tribal warfare of another form where patronage networks battled for supremacy both through the ballot box and by the gun. Victorious networks established parasitic bureaucracies which sapped both the oil wealth and national wealth, while bribes, kickbacks, and underhanded contracts kept the right people happy. Inevitably, some other patronage network would consolidate its power and overthrow the previous one by the same means and for the same purpose.

Popular consent and responsible rule never really even began in Nigeria. Whatever basic rule-of-law the British colonial authorities established quickly faded. Corruption went beyond being a major problem or impediment to development; it became the basis of Nigerian politics and economics.

Two random examples of crazy Nigerian corruption from Kenyon:

In the 1970s, as Nigeria began to rake in oil money, the government greatly expanded the military’s budget. Unsure exactly what to do with all this money, generals began making sizable cement orders. In one year, the Ministry of Defense officially needed 2.5 million tons of cement; individual generals cumulatively ordered over 16 million tons, with virtually all of the purchases containing huge kickbacks between the cement companies and the generals. By April 1975, there was a backup of 105 ships (mostly carrying cement) in the Lagos harbor. Two months later, there was a line of 455 ships covering 50 miles. Every single ship charged fees to the Nigerian government for making them wait. The “Cement Armada” had enough cement to rebuild Lagos three times.

In 1995, Dictator Sani Abacha appointed a notorious scoundrel to the post of oil minister. His explicit mandate from Abacha was to siphon as much money as possible from the oil industry and kick an appropriate amount up to Abacha and his close allies. In April 1998, the oil minister was handed an application to extract oil from OPL 245 (a chunk of offshore ocean) from a “small start-up company no one had ever heard of.” Malabu Oil, which was incorporated a few days earlier, had “no employees, no offices, no capital, just the names of three directors on a sheet of paper.” OPL 245 was widely considered to be the single most valuable plot in all of Nigeria, with a long-term valuation in the tens of billions of dollars. The oil minister accepted the bid from Malibu Malabu, at $20 million. Kenyon describes it as “like trying to buy a Rolls Royce for the price of a hub cap.”

When asked by the media who ran Malabu Oil, the oil minister said he had no idea. When the press asked to see the OPL 245 application page, he claimed he lost it.

In 2012, Shell (Dutch) and Eni (Italian) bought OPL 245 for over $1 billion. The following year, a British court investigation found, shockingly, that the oil minister himself was the true owner of Malabu. The sale of OPL 245 was done through the Nigerian government, but over $800 million was passed to five shell companies with unknown owners (in reality, most definitely owned by the oil minister and some cronies).

Occupy Nigeria

In January 2012, Nigerians took to the streets for mass protests throughout the country in what would be called Occupy Nigeria. The catalyst was Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s signing of a bill to end the longstanding fuel subsidy that brought prices down from international market levels to around $0.50 per liter by 2012. My kneejerk libertarian reaction is to favor the ending of a massive entitlement program, but with the full context of how and why the Nigerian government arrived here, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to the Nigerian people.

In 2005, a bunch of vaguely aligned but disparate mafia groups masquerading as liberation movements consolidated into the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Recall, virtually all of Nigeria’s oil is in the Igbo-dominated Niger Delta. From the onset of independence, a lot of Niger Delta locals resented foreign oil corporations and Lagos politicians getting rich off their oil. Plus, given that environmental regulations were not exactly a priority in post-colonial Nigeria, the delta was turning into a toxic wasteland and many of the fishing and agriculture industries of the region were dying. MEND brought together numerous groups that ostensibly fought for the independence of the Niger Delta, but more accurately excelled at setting up fiefdoms, stealing oil, and extorting locals, all for personal enrichment.

The result was a lot of clashes between mercenaries hired by Western oil companies and rag-tag militias launching ambushes. The actual death toll was never too high, but plenty of engineers and oilmen were captured and held for ransom. Meanwhile, MEND made serious inroads tapping into Western-built infrastructure. They started by literally poking holes into pipelines to siphon off oil, and eventually graduated to building entire refineries and an entire off-shore oil terminal for illicit exports.

One would think the Nigerian government would be gravely concerned about mafias stealing their most valuable commodity and an essential source of government revenue. But of course, the Nigerian government is incredibly corrupt, and key officials obviously know who is doing the theft but are paid off to ignore it. Supposedly, the big illicit oil barrens live in luxury in major cities and are basically immune from the law.

The situation is tragic but farcical. Some companies say 80% of some pipelines are siphoned off. 95% of oil produced at Nigeria’s main hub is stolen, and this article hilariously describes Nigerian officials “discover[ing]” a massive off-shore structure connected to a 4 KM pipeline which must have been incredibly well-hidden to not be discovered for nine years.

How much of Nigeria’s oil is stolen overall? Estimates are all over the map. According to the not trustworthy Nigerian government, the figure is around 7-8%. I’ve seen a 20% figure thrown around, but no good sources on it.

By best estimates, about $20 billion worth of oil was stolen from Nigeria in 2022 alone, a staggering sum on its own, especially considering the Nigerian government only took in $22 billion in tax revenue that year. The Nigerian government’s oil revenues dropped from 47% of the budget in 2017 to an annualized 7.4% in the first half of 2022. Mostly due to theft, oil as a total percentage of the economy fell from 13% in 2010 to under 6% in 2023.

So, despite having an enormous amount of oil, the Nigerian people see little benefit. Oil profits are basically split between criminal gangs and corrupt politicians (but I repeat myself) who waste the oil money through corrupt patronage networks.

But wait! Nigeria’s oil situation gets worse.

Nigeria imports nearly all of its fuel (ie. refined oil) today. Back in 2012, it imported 70%. This seems like a terrible idea for a country that produces an enormous amount of oil. Crude oil is valuable, but refined oil is more valuable (about 46% more valuable at the time of writing this). Nigeria used to profitably refine most of its oil, but since at least the early 2010s, the Nigerian government’s four massive oil refineries have almost completely been out of commission, not due to terrorism or natural disasters, but due to lack of maintenance.

Recall – Nigeria has at least 220 million people. Even with a huge proportion of them being dirt poor, Nigerians still use a lot of fuel. Hence, Nigeria’s lack of fuel self-sufficiency is an enormous unnecessary drain on the economy. Nigeria exports pretty much all of its oil and then buys it right back as fuel because state-run companies were too incompetent to maintain their own refineries.

Before the refineries fell apart, the government instituted a generous fuel subsidy, which is pretty standard for oil-rich states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Venezuela before it collapsed. Basically, the government sets an artificially low price at which fuel is sold within the country, the cost of which is picked up by state-run companies which drill, refine, and import oil and fuel. Such a policy is enormously costly to the state, but can theoretically spread the benefits of oil to the population and maybe even stimulate the economy with low energy costs.

But over decades, less fuel was refined, more fuel was stolen, and more legitimate oil money was wasted on government corruption. So the costs of the subsidy increased; by 2012, it reached over $6 billion. So the chronically cash-strapped Nigerian government decided to end the subsidy overnight, sending fuel costs from $0.40 to $0.86 per liter.

To many Nigerians, the fuel subsidy was basically the one good thing their government ever did. Now, not only was it gone, but it was gone because of the government’s blatant corruption and incompetence.

The result was mass protests, some riots, and crackdown measures that killed a few people and injured many more. But surprisingly, the protests mostly worked. It took 15 days for Goodluck Jonathan to cave and restore the subsidy.

But the war was not won. A significant contingent of the government has been pressing for subsidy reductions since 2012. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, significantly reduced the subsidy in 2015, raising fuel prices by about 75%. Due to Nigeria’s population growth and further degradation of the refineries, the cost of the subsidy to the government has continued to increase, reaching $10 billion in 2022.

One more depressing thing – I started to go down the Nigerian oil rabbit hole because I mentioned to someone that Nigeria must be benefitting from the recent bump in global oil prices catalyzed by the Ukraine War. But… nope.

First, the crack spread, or gap in value between crude oil and refined oil products, experienced a huge jump at the onset of the war, meaning that fuel became relatively more expensive to crude oil, meaning the Nigerian economy was hurt despite a large increase in oil prices.

Second, on the orders of OPEC, Nigeria agreed to cut its oil production by over 900,000 barrels between January and March in 2021, but they overshot and accidentally cut even more. After March, OPEC continuously raised Nigeria’s quota, but output kept declining:

Then when the Ukraine War broke out in February 2022 and OPEC ordered everyone to ramp up production to counter the high global oil price… the Nigerian oil companies couldn’t figure out how to turn all of their wells back on. So not only did Nigeria get hit on the higher fuel costs, but it didn’t fully cash in on the higher oil prices.

Brain Drain

I asked one Westerner, who is very knowledgeable about Nigeria, about his opinion on Nigeria’s future. To paraphrase, he said, “I’m very bearish on Nigeria, but I’m very bullish on Nigerians.”

I spoke with two young Nigerian professionals who were in the midst of the long and arduous process of emigrating from Nigeria. Both believed the country was on a continuous downward trajectory and there was no real expectation of a reversal, either economically or politically. They mark 2015 as the turning point where Nigeria’s meager fortunes turned and haven’t returned. GDP data seems to bear that out:

The two are by no means alone in their emigration aspirations:

Though is it just me, or are these numbers not that high for the size of Nigeria’s population?

Nigerian emigrants are massively disproportionately educated, entrepreneurial, and ambitious compared to the general Nigerian population. Thus, Nigeria has been subject to a sizable brain drain for decades, much to other countries’ unexpected benefits. When a country has over 200 million people and faces steep immigration barriers around the world, only the best and brightest tend to get out, thus Nigerian immigration seems to have one of the strongest “immigrant effects” in the world:

Some sources say Nigerians have been the most educated ethnic group in the United States since 2008. However, this seems to be a weirdly common exaggeration, and while Nigerians are doing well, they lag behind other groups on the educated immigrant hierarchy, including India, Russia, and France. Nevertheless, in 2021, there were 14,000 Nigerian immigrants in American universities, and 59% of Nigerian immigrants over 25 had bachelors degrees, compared to 56% of South Koreans and 51% of Chinese. There are almost 4,000 Nigerian doctors in America. In the UK, there are almost 11,000 Nigerian doctors, and Igbo Nigerians have been among the highest standardized test scorers, even outcompeting elite Asian test takers.

This is yet another area where I see a lot of parallels between Nigeria and India. They are both huge, chaotic countries with massive populations. Their professional, educated elites are entrepreneurial, hardworking, and very importantly, English-speaking. It’s no surprise that they’re flocking abroad en masse and finding lots of success.

On the other hand, the brain drain has at least an ambiguous impact on Nigeria. It is difficult to track the effect of the loss of millions of skilled workers, but for some firm figures, there are 72,000 doctors registered in Nigeria, but 40,000 or fewer actually work in Nigeria, which leaves the country at about 1/10th the recommended doctor-to-population ratio. However, Nigerians annually remit a staggering $25 billion back to Nigeria (about 5% of GDP), compared to around $20 billion annually earned from oil exports. So it’s not clear whether there’s a net loss.

What’s more interesting to me is the cultural effect of the brain drain. It’s tough to quantify, but how has the loss of so many of Nigeria’s best and brightest affected the country’s culture? Has it made the country more corrupt? More risk-averse?

I’m not sure, but one claim I’ve heard is that the super smart Nigerians who stay behind fall into two categories. They are either brave do-gooders who are willing to forgo enormous earnings and an easier life abroad to try to make Nigeria a better place, or… they’re psychopaths who are great at gaming the system and profiting off corruption (ie. most of the political establishment).

Somehow I Haven’t Bribed Anyone Yet

Sometimes I don’t feel like a real traveller because I’ve never bribed anyone, at least not personally.

Ok, I probably paid a bribe at the Thai-Cambodian board because there was a “5 Dollar” sign written in pencil on the wall, and I had to pay $5 on top of the visa fee, but that doesn’t count. I want to pay a real, visceral bribe to a cop or soldier shaking me down. I thought Nigeria could finally fulfill my dream, but I was not only mistaken, but so, so close to success.

After walking around Lagos for literally 20 minutes on my first day, I was “arrested.”

A cop with an AK at a bridge checkpoint approached me and asked what I was taking photos of. I told him I was just looking around the city, taking pictures of buildings, the nearby water, some advertisements, etc. He asked if I had a permit for the photos. I admitted I didn’t. He said I was under arrest, though he didn’t bother handcuffing me or touching me or doing anything physically threatening.

I proclaimed my ignorance of the law, my innocence, and offered to delete the photos. He avoided my suggestion and again explained that what I did was incredibly illegal. I offered to delete the photos again, but he said that would be deleting evidence. I tried to explain that if there were no photos, there was no crime, but he escalated to demanding that I give him my camera. We went back and forth on this for awhile until he said he would have to take me to the police station for questioning, though again, he wasn’t doing anything remotely physically threatening to get me to comply.

I asked him if I could call my local friend, and he assented. My friend stated the obvious: this was a shakedown, though he was surprised at how quickly it happened to me and that the cop was actually trying to take my camera. He recommended trying to waste his time and then eventually offering 1,000 Naira (about $1.30).

That’s exactly what I did. I explained to the cop that I was a friendly tourist here to see Nigeria and its people, that I just wanted to explore Lagos and understand its culture. He repeated that I was a criminal and under arrest. I told him my name and asked him his; he told me his name and said I was under arrest. I said basically the same friendly tourist thing three or four more times with slight rephrasing and I could see he was getting annoyed, but he just kept repeating himself.

Finally, I offered the 1,000 Naira. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to do the movie thing where I say something like, “you look like you’ve been working really hard out here on this hot, sunny day. How about you take a few Naira to buy yourself a cool beverage?” Instead, I just said, “I’ll give you 1,000 Naira.”

For the next five minutes he argued for more money, but I held my ground and kept looping back to the “I’m a friendly tourist who wants to see Nigeria” thing.

Eventually, my strategy paid off. He grew more bored and despondent, and eventually said something about 1,000 Naira not being worth it, and so he let me go bribe-free.

But I have Been Shaken Down a Lot

I walked through 95 degree heat to a church at the top of a hill in the center of Ibadan. There’s a tower with a staircase leading up to, as far I can tell, the highest point in the entire city. Totally exhausted, I sat down and stewed in a pile of my own sweat for a minute.

A local walked over to me, his clothes and demeanor were completely nondescript. He said he was security for the church and that I could walk around the grounds and climb the tower, but I would need to pay him a 1,000 Naira fee.

Was he really (private or government) security for the church? Probably not, but it’s possible. Earlier, I was pointed to a group of Nigerian army soldiers wearing camo pants but no shirts. It’s also possible that this guy just happened to live nearby and stood around this location to extort foreigners. He may have even been alerted to my presence ahead of time since a white guy walking through a marginal neighborhood tends to attract attention.

But from my standpoint, what was I to do? I could pay and likely be extorted. Or I could walk away. I suppose I could also demand to see some sort of identification or argue with the guy, but that would almost certainly end in circular conversations, and produce a very, very small chance of me getting hurt after pissing off the guy or attracting the attention of nearby Nigerians who would likely side with him. Maybe I’m paranoid, but in such situations I can’t help but be reminded that the phone in my pocket is worth about half the per capita GDP of Nigeria, and I wonder what a random unhinged local might be willing to do for it.

This stuff happens all the time in Nigeria, and many other poor countries. Not the unhinged local assaulting a Westerner for his phone, but arbitrary, likely-fraudulent shakedowns. It happened two hours later at a hospital in Ibadan with a very nice view on its roof. It happened on a beach in Lagos where two guys claimed to need money to pay off the local Army and Naval outposts which would otherwise stop me from taking pictures. It is an unavoidable aspect of traveling through very poor places as a clearly not very poor person.

Are Societal Friendliness and Politeness Inversely Correlated?

Japan is the most polite country on earth. Everyone bows to each other, customer service is impeccable, greetings and farewells are not just expected, not just universal, but properly structured according to various cultural status signals. When I was there years ago, I asked a bystander for directions to my hostel, and rather than simply point, he proceeded to walk me there for ten minutes over my objections.

But Japan is not very friendly. In one of these Abroad in Japan videos (I forget which), the British host says that after living in Japan for a decade, he had only three Japanese friends, all of which are weird cultural rebels who did stuff like play in an underground heavy metal rock band. This matches my admittedly meager experiences of spending two weeks there (I don’t think I had a single conversation with a local that wasn’t based on a purchase), and what I’ve heard from other expats in Japan. They’re the most polite people in the world, but it’s hard to get passed that outer shell and really get to know a Japanese person.

On the next politeness tier below Japan, I’d put South Korea and the Scandinavian countries, all of which have a similar reputation for non-friendliness. Finland especially is known for interpersonal coldness, at least until everyone gets drunk.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’d put a lot of poor countries, including Nigeria, Egypt, India, Iraq, and the Dominican Republic. People are extremely friendly in social interactions, even to the point of violating what many Westerners would consider common sense boundaries. For instance, I’d say Iraq is the friendliest country I’ve visited; almost every day I was there, at least one person (ie. a restaurant owner, hotel clerk, etc.) would give me their phone number and say I could call them for ANYTHING – food, drinks, a place to stay, transportation, advice, money, ANYTHING. In all of the listed countries, I was invited unpromoted into people’s homes to share meals, even as a nearly complete stranger.

Likewise, I had many delightful encounters with strangers in Nigeria. A random guy in Kano paid for my taxi when I didn’t have any cash. Other people have offered to help me navigate cities unprompted. I had an extensive and infuriating customer service ordeal with an airline company, but many of the people working there went above-and-beyond to help me out, including giving me their personal phone numbers.

But Nigeria and those other countries have weak-to-negative politeness norms. Iraq is actually not too bad, but Nigeria is awful in this regard. The most common prompt I get from a server at a restaurant is “what do you want?” in a dull, subdued voice, like my patronage is annoying. Food or money is handed wordlessly; I do not get the sense that the customer is always right. But at least it’s not as bad as India, where there is some sense of conversational politeness, but locals have no problem grabbing your arm or dragging you to their stall, or violating all manner of bodily autonomy to get what they want.

Another example is noise. Scandinavian and British public spaces are famously quiet, and it’s considered rude to make a lot of noise without a very good reason. In Nigeria, I have had to shout and be shouted at by a customer service guy at an airport because the three guys behind me in line were watching a YouTube video on a phone at full volume while talking and laughing so loudly that I couldn’t hear my own voice. Later, when I was on the phone with customer service (concerning the same issue), the background noise on the other end of the phone was staggering. I was shouting so she could hear me, and despite her shouting, I couldn’t hear her. But this is by no means unique; in my experience, non-Western countries simply tolerate higher levels of ambient noise.

Wait, did I just refer to a “line” in Nigeria? That’s incorrect. There are no lines. There are clusters of people who push and shove their way to the front. I distinctly remember one guy who was behind me, then moved in front of me after I began talking to the cashier, and then refused to move for two minutes while I spoke to the cashier from behind him.

(To clarify, the non-existence of lines is quite common outside Western countries. It is not unique to Nigeria.)

Wild speculation – Western countries are more individualistic, and individualism tends to make people more polite but less friendly.

Individualism encourages people to think of both themselves and others as sovereign, self-interested individuals, thus they abide by decorum that demonstrates respect (AKA politeness). However, individualism tends to limit innate collective bonds between people, like the sharing of a common religion, tribe, ethnic group, or nationality. Hence, individualistic people have less default friendliness toward strangers. The opposite of these trends can be applied to non-Western countries, which tend to be collectivistic.

EDIT – I’m going to scale back my confidence on this even more to say the correlation is real, but weak. Japan is a major counterpoint – highly collectivistic and highly polite.

I don’t have a good picture for this. Here’s a Nigerian monkey.


I saw almost no one smoking cigarettes in Nigeria, which surprised me because that’s pretty standard in developing nations. I asked a few people about this, and they suggested that most Nigerians are too poor to afford them.

A 2019 study found that 10.4% of Nigerians are “current smokers.” Another source puts it at 4.8% (and only 0.5% for Nigerian women), the third lowest of countries surveyed. The numbers are similar across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Maybe it is a matter of poverty? Or no historical culture of smoking?

The Sound

Nigerians make this sound… I can best describe it as something between a kiss and a cricket chirp, or sort of like that sound some people use to call cats. Nigerians do it constantly. They use it to get people’s attention, or as a sigh, or just as something to fill empty space.

I hate it. It’s super annoying. The main problem is that as a white guy walking around Nigeria, people constantly try to get my attention. When I walked through an extremely crowded marketplace in Lagos, I’d say someone tried to get my attention close to once every 10-20 seconds, while many more people just stared.  Of course, the way they try to get my attention is…

With that fucking kiss/chirp noise. So I hear it constantly. Like, all the time. The sound is so novel to me that my mind isn’t trained to ignore it.

And amplifying the annoyance is that most Nigerians trying to get my attention are honestly just curious and probably have had few-to-no interactions with a white person. There’s nothing wrong with that, but between the noise and the curiosity, it makes me feel like an animal in a cage, and they’re tapping on the cage to get my attention, not for any serious purpose, but just because it’s more amusing when the animal looks at them than when it doesn’t.

Nigerians are Very Concerned About What You Think About Nigeria

The first Nigerian I spoke to in Nigeria was an airport security guy who processed my visa. After some brief greetings, he launched into a spiel about how everything I think about Nigeria was all wrong. He was sure that as an American, I watched American news and therefore believed that Nigeria was a war-torn hell hole constantly besieged by Boko Haram. He assured me that Nigerians are actually super nice people, and that I would be perfectly safe in Nigeria… as long as I avoided a few specific regions.

I had some variation of this conversation four or five more times while In Nigeria. I’ve encountered similar national-conciousness sentiments elsewhere, but it was the most intense in Nigeria.


It’s difficult to express how much garbage there is everywhere in Nigeria. On the streets, on the sidewalks, in rivers, on railway tracks, everywhere. In Lagos, I stayed in Lekki, literally one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the entire country, and there are open sewer lines on both sides of the street. Littering was pretty much universal, and I saw almost no public trash cans.

This level of filth is not unique to Nigeria, but the only country I’ve seen with comparable levels of dirtiness is India, though Egypt is pretty close.

What explains this level of filth? I imagine sheer logistics must play a big role. The population of Nigeria, and especially its cities, has exploded over the last 50+ years, so the country is not logistically prepared for its garbage load. But I also imagine culture plays a role, at least to the degree that no one minds littering. Then again, when a significant portion of the population lives in abject poverty and there are literal open sewers on the streets, it becomes hard not to justify littering.

On the other hand, even the extremely rural parts of Nigeria, where dozens or hundreds of people live in small, isolated communities, are covered in garbage. Not as much as the cities, but still plenty. The logistical excuse doesn’t apply here.

If someone spent a bajillion dollars cleaning all the litter in Lagos, and then put trash cans everywhere, and somehow built a functional waste disposal system, would people stop littering? I have no idea.

Pic from Cotonou, Benin.

Head Carrying

In Nigeria, lots of people carry stuff on their heads. I understand this is an Africa-wide phenomenon, and Wikipedia highlights a few other places where it is common, including parts of India. Some people use little cushions, others put trays or bags or whatever directly on their heads and manage to balance it all with remarkable skill. I most certainly can’t carry much on my head, nor do I intuitively feel it’s a better option than using my arms and hands.

The obvious question – why does this phenomenon only occur in a few places on earth? Why, as an American, is the idea of carrying things on my head something I probably haven’t thought about since I was a child?

There is undoubtedly a cultural element at play, but why is this cultural thing only present in a few places? We all need to carry things, we all have heads.

Wikipedia seems to imply that head-carrying is used by poor people who can’t afford an external carry-support:

“The practice is efficient, in a place or at a time when there are no vehicles or beasts of burden available for transporting the objects. Today, women and men may be seen carrying burdens on top of their heads where there is no less expensive, or more efficient, way of transporting workloads.”

This explanation doesn’t ring true to me. Even in the poorest of places, any small amount of cloth or rope-like material can be fashioned into a make-shift backpack or bag for carrying material. But even if forced to use no external support, surely arms are a stronger, more dexterous, and steadier means of carrying material than trying to balance something on my head. Right?

Maybe the answer is biological. Wikipedia says that Luo women in East Africa can carry 70% of their body weight on top of their heads, which sounds extremely impressive. I’m sure they build up the strength to do so by practicing throughout their childhood, but still, I’m not sure the average Western female (or even male) neck is equipped for such strain. Wikipedia also cites observers in the Antebellum United States noting that black women were skilled at head-carrying, even generations removed from life in Africa (though the practice was probably also culturally transmitted).

Or maybe everyone is inherently equally good at head carrying, but modernity has made us decadent hand-carriers. Again from Wikipedia:

“In describing “the most cosmopolitan fruit market in the world” just before the Great Depression, the United States department of Agriculture said the porters carried produce on their heads, backs, or in barrows. Every day loads continued to be transported on the head into the 1950s, as shown in the documentary film Every Day Except Christmas.”

One more hypothesis from a random Redditor: the wheelbarrow is an obviously superior way to carry material than head or hand carrying. China and Mediterranean Europe seemed to have developed the wheelbarrow sometime around 500-400 BC, though it didn’t become commonplace in Europe until the Middle Ages. I can’t find exactly when the wheelbarrow became widespread in Africa, but Wikipedia says that even by the 18th century, the wheel was only used for ceremonial purposes and scarce transportation in a few African nations. So presumably, the vast majority of Sub-Saharan didn’t have the wheelbarrow or anything like it until the 20th century, and therefore the norm of head carrying has remained prevalent to the modern day.

Not my pic.


On my plane to Kano, I noticed that the man sitting in front of me had three deep scars beside his eye. It sort of looked like a cat scratched him, but the marks were too clean.

I later learned these were tribal scars, a dying but still visible cultural practice in Nigeria and a few other West African nations, particularly among the Yoruba ethnic group. Children are sliced with a blade to create scars which are then filled with dye or charcoal to prevent healing. The shape and location of the scars signify familial, tribal, or kingdom allegiance. My guide in Kano said they can also signify one’s profession, and some online sources say they are done for aesthetic purposes.

There are some 2017 news articles about a bill in the Nigerian Senate that would outlaw scarring, but I don’t know if it passed.


A quirk of Nigerian politics is that despite having an American-style federal system with a bicameral legislature and president, Nigeria also has a bunch of old-school royal families descended from the pre-colonial kingdoms, some of whom retain political power. For instance, Lagos still has a king, but his main job seems to be to lead a bunch of festivals. I asked a Nigerian with imperfect English if the king has any “power,” and she proceeded to tell me that he owned a stick that was allegedly too heavy for any man to lift, but that this “power” had been disproven when it was stolen by thieves.

On the other hand, the Emir (sort of an Islamic equivalent to a Duke) of Kano holds similar political powers to a governor, which is fairly remarkable given that Kano is the largest and most important city in northern Nigeria. The Emir of Kano still has a palace before which locals perform ceremonies in his honor. I went to a museum on the Emir and saw his slippers, fan (for cooling down), and other random assorted items of clothing he has worn. The previous Emir of Kano is actually a really interesting guy who used to run Nigeria’s central bank and was deposed for pissing off Nigerian politicians.

Lagos Advertisements

The most common billboard advertisements in Lagos, in order, are:

1. Advertisements for advertisements (for some reason I didn’t get a picture of this, but there were a million billboards advertising the ability to advertise on billboards).

2. Gambling

3. Alcohol

4. Black themes on random products


The Pizza and Ice Cream Mystery

Lagos has quite a few Domino’s restaurants, and every single one I have seen has a Cold Stone Creamery attached. I checked Google Maps and that appears to be the case for the rest of the Domino’s in Lagos, though I didn’t check all of them.

I assumed that Domino’s owns Cold Stone, but no, Cold Stone is owned by Kahala Brands, which is owned by MTY Food Groups, neither of which have an apparent connection to Domino’s, though I assume they have some sort of deal going on in Nigeria.

Where things get weird is that I saw a Pizza Hut in Kano (there are no Pizza Huts in Lagos) right next to a Movenpick, a Swiss ice cream parlor owned by Nestle and R&R Ice Cream, both of which also don’t have any apparent connection to Pizza Hut’s owner, Yum! Brands. I checked Google Maps, and indeed, there is another Pizza Hut/Movenpick combo in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

Back in Lagos, near where I stayed, there is a Romeo Pizza restaurant, a Nigerian pizza chain. And attached to the restaurant… a Cold Berry Ice Cream parlor. Google Maps confirms at least two more instances of this combo in Lagos.

What’s going on? Is there some weird Nigerian law or cultural preference for combining pizza and ice cream?


I decided to leave Nigeria by travelling overland from Lagos to Cotonou in Benin. I do not recommend this route. The following was my experience:

I woke up at 6 AM and called a Bolt (a ride-sharing company based in Estonia) at 6:40 AM to reach a small bus station 15 miles away on the other side of the city. My bus left at 9 AM, Google Maps said the ride would take 45 minutes, so I figured I was safe.

An hour later my Bolt came upon some sort of massive traffic jam that had apparently shut down one of the main arteries in the dead-center of Lagos. We were only about 2.5 miles from the bus station, but traffic was at a dead stand-still. After 15 minutes, my driver illegally turned around and drove the wrong way down a multi-lane road. Over the next 40 minutes, he tried in vain to find routes around the jam, but hit dead-still traffic jams three times. I told the driver that my bus was leaving at 9 AM and he repeatedly assured me that I would make it in time while repeatedly hitting impassable traffic jams and making illegal U-turns.

At 8:15 AM, I was still 2.5 miles away from the bus station, but now northeast of it instead of just east. Panic was setting in, so I abandoned the Bolt and immediately grabbed a keke, or what they call tuk-tuks in India, or auto-rickshaws if you’re boring. I figured these things had better mobility and could get me through the traffic jams.

Two minutes later, I was proven wrong. My driver drove while I told him where to go and began to negotiate a price, but he hit an even denser traffic jam which also proved impassable. He told me to get out and continue on foot, so I did.

(Note that I was carrying all of my clothes and supplies in two bags that I would need for my current extended trip through Africa.)

I squeezed through a layer of cars and tuk-tuks until I got to a relative clearing on a highway that was somehow half-empty due to god-knows what traffic redirections. At least a dozen men on motorcycles were lined up against a barrier, and the instant my whiteness emerged from the vehicle-wall, they all began shouting at me at once. I wasted no time, and negotiated a 1,000 Naira fee (down from 3,000) to take me to the bus station.

It wasn’t easy keeping a large backpack on while crouching on the back of a small motorcycle, and it especially wasn’t easy letting the driver hold my smaller (laptop-containing) backpack in the front, but it was the right move. We swerved inbetween cars, went down side-roads and alleys, and ignored the alleged directional flow of traffic.

But 15 minutes later, he stopped next to some stalls in a big crowd and told me to get off the bike. I didn’t understand. He told me he couldn’t keep going and pointed me to another driver. I don’t know if this was some weird licensing thing or a low-tier scam, but I had to pay another 1,000 Naira and hop on a second bike to get me the rest of the way.

I arrived at the bus station at 8:45 AM with a mere 15 minutes to spare. I was immediately approached by two locals who spoke too fast and with too thick accents for me to fully understand, so I waved them away. I just had to find my bus and hop on.

Fast-forward through 15 minutes of searching, listening carefully, and negotiating.

There was no bus. My “bus ticket” which I had purchased on was actually for a Toyota Sienna.

Whatever, I didn’t care. I was ready to go.

But the driver wasn’t. He said we needed to wait, and I deduced that he wanted to get more random passersbys to make the trip more profitable, since it seemed only a girl in her early 20s and I had shown up. So we waited in the dustiest bus station you’ve ever seen until 10:15 AM, at which point the driver magically reappeared with two more passengers.

We piled into the Sienna and set off toward Benin, the border of which was about 40 miles away. The drive quickly settled into a cycling tempo: about two minutes of smooth driving on a decent road, and then 5+ minutes of driving at walking speeds through such massive potholes that I found it impossible to sleep. Though I’m not sure I’d be able to sleep even if we were on the Audobon because my driver was BLASTING gospel music so loud that I had to turn my headphones up to full volume to drown it out.

Occasionally interrupting the driving flow were markets that blanketed both sides of the street, and which, amazingly, caused drivers to stop in the road and buy shit. My driver was not above this anti-social behavior, as he stopped briefly to buy a Coke, and then for about two minutes (literally blocking half the road) to buy another gospel music album which was swiftly thrust into the CD player.

About 1.5 hours later, after we had covered maybe 20 miles, we stopped at a roadside cluster of shops and restaurants. Unbeknownst to me, this was primarily for a vehicle and driver change, but while we sat around waiting for 20 minutes, the old and new drivers interrogated me about my visa status. They seemed to find it baffling that I’d be able to get into Benin with a pre-paid visa-on-arrival. They read and reread and reread my one page visa form I purchased online for $50, and finally accepted my explanations with shrugs that implied, “I don’t give a shit.”

Everyone from the old van, plus some new people, plus me quite literally piled into a new vehicle, also a van, but even smaller. Five people stuffed into the back seat (built for three) while the driver insisted I sit in the front (I think it would make it easier to get through checkpoints). I thought I had my own seat at first and was pretty embarrassed, but I ended up sharing it with a ten year old girl.

The following ride was a bit of a blur. Maybe it lasted an hour, or 1.5 hours, something like that. It was hard to keep track while my legs went numb from huddling myself into half a seat.

If you gave me 1,000 attempts to explain the Nigerian border checkpoint system, I doubt I’d scratch the surface. There were maybe… 50 checkpoints from this point onward. But they weren’t what you picture as border checkpoints. Rather, they were little huts connected to one of three blocking implements in the street: a long wooden stick, a concrete-filled bucket thing, or a Mad Max-style improvised road spike thing. All three were constantly moved in and out of the way of cars by the 2-6 personnel at each roadblock, but which cars were stopped and which were let through with a wave was seemingly entirely random.

We got through maybe 90% of the checkpoints with a wave from our new driver, who I figured knew all these checkpoint guys and had some sort of arrangement. But we were also occasionally stopped, at which point my driver would reach under a cloth on the dashboard, pull out some cash, have a few words, and make an exchange with a guard, and then we’d be on our way. Sometimes the guards would see me and say a greeting, and I’d offer a little smile and a presidential wave, and I think it may have helped get us through.

At the third of these stops, the guard noticed the early 20s girl sitting in the back (on a guy’s lap). He asked her a few questions which I didn’t understand (mostly not English) and then we were ordered to pull over. The girl looked nervous. One of the other guys in the car told her, “It’s ok, just answer his questions, be confident, you’ll be ok.”

She left the car with the driver, and the rest of us stayed behind for thirty minutes. From the chatter in the back of the car (about half English), I figured out that the guards were questioning the girl because she had told them that she was leaving Nigeria to go to Ghana to see her boyfriend, and the guards thought that maybe she was being sex trafficked.

The driver came back to the car, the girl did not. The driver was visibly upset. We began to drive away without the girl.

From some tense back-and-forths between the driver and the backseat, I learned that the guards claimed the girl’s story didn’t add up. But that was almost certainly bullshit. The driver said something like, “they asked too much,” so it was almost certainly a shakedown and the girl couldn’t afford the bribe. So we left her behind.

Eventually we arrived at the final checkpoint, a proper structure with a bunch of Nigerian and Benin border guards. The driver took me out of the car, told me to follow him, brought me to some random guy standing around, told me to follow that guy to the immigration window, and then told me to wait while that guy disappeared for five minutes until he reappeared on the other side of the window where he took my papers and began to process my visa.

At this point, I had a series of realizations:.

First, I had left my large bag in the van, and I was out of sight of it, and I had no idea what may or may not happen to my bag.

Second, I realized that our new driver was really more of a “fixer.” He’s a guy you hire at a difficult borders because he knows everyone and exactly what to do and can talk to the right people and get shit done.

Third, I realized that I had no idea what I had paid for. I thought I purchased a bus ticket that would take me from Lagos to Cotonou, but clearly that was only true in the vaguest sense. What I had really purchased was multiple drivers, multiple vehicles, a specialized fixer, and probably protection from the multiple bribes I would have had to pay along the way if I had come alone.

Fourth, I realized that I had no fucking clue what was going on. I was just following people from place to place. I didn’t know who I was talking to or getting driven by at any given moment, nor why. I didn’t know who was legit and who was being bribed. I didn’t know how the 25,000 Naira I had used to buy a ticket online was divided between all of these people, or if I would be forced to pay tips at some point. I was a plankton in the sea.

While waiting for my visa, a random Nigerian border guard approached me and asked for my “Yellow Card,” the colloquial term for a paper indicating a Yellow Fever vaccine. I took it out of my bag and handed it to him. He looked at it for a second and then began to walk away toward a group of other guards. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but he vaguely suggested that I come find him when I was done with my visa. Ok…

Another random guy approached me, this one in traditional Muslim garb which is not uncommon in Nigeria. He started asking me where I was from, questions about America, my background, etc. I politely answered. When he saw my driver/fixer, he told me he had been a soldier with United Nations forces that had been stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. My driver neither confirmed nor denied this assertion.

I waited around for about thirty minutes until the guy behind the counter asked for my Yellow Card. Oh right, I gave it to some random guard.

So I set off to find him, and it took a panic-inducing five minutes before I spotted him in an office. He saw me, said something to a colleague and then walked over to me. I told him I needed the Yellow Card back. He began to walk slowly beside me, and asked, “what do you have for us?” I was confused by the question, but I explained the paper was a Yellow Fever vaccine. He replied, “no… what do you have for us?”

I finally caught on… he was asking for a bribe and basically holding my Yellow Card for ransom.

I’m happy with my quick response… “let’s talk to my driver.”

We walked over to my driver, he immediately saw what was happening, he said a few non-English words, and the guard slowly handed the Yellow Card back to me with a look of disappointment. Very based.

After another 20 minutes, I had my Benin visa. The driver had disappeared and reappeared 100 feet away where he waved for me to follow. As I began to walk to him, the other random guy who had approached me started following me and trying to make more small talk. He told me to give my driver my phone number so my driver could give the number to him so we could stay in touch… I tried to be noncommittal in my response.

He followed me all the way to yet another van, where the driver was waiting. Confusingly, the van was empty of both passengers and my bag. The driver explained that he had driven the others ahead into Benin where my bag was waiting, and now he had come back for me.

The guy who followed me told the driver to take my number and give it to him, but the driver ignored him as we drove away.

Five minutes later we were in Benin! But we were still about 20 miles away from Cotonou, my final destination.

The driver stopped next to a bunch of parked cars on the side of the road and very rapidly explained to me that he was dropping me off with a friend who would take me the rest of the way to Cotonou because he had to go back to help the probably-not-sex-trafficked girl. I have no idea what ultimately happened to her.

So there I was left with four Beninins who spoke almost no English as I tried to explain to them where my hotel was in Cotonou. After about ten minutes of dealing with my glacial phone data, I got them an address. They told me we would leave in ten more minutes, so I went off to a money changer, who to my bafflement, gave me a rate of 630 CFA to the dollar, even though Google said the real rate was 602.

I jumped in the passenger seat of a regular car and immediately scratched my arm against a bunch of exposed wires sticking out of the door. This new driver tried to exit the little parking area by driving over a curb but got screamed at by some random guy. Once out of the parking area, we drove in literal wide circles for 15 minutes until my driver found three people who wanted to go to Cotonou, all women, one of whom talked for 95% of the trip.

We seemed to finally be off to Cotonou, but then we stopped for gas. By which I mean we stopped at a shack by the side of the road where gasoline was sold in big plastic bottles. After a few of those were fed into the car, my driver backed into a wheelbarrow, sending all five of us hurling backward. The driver looked outside for a second, sensed that no one cared, and then drove off.

We reached Cotonou about 30 minutes later through a fairly uneventful drive, aside from one bribe paid to some random cop standing around, the money for which also came from a random cloth placed on this driver’s dashboard.

We entered Cotonou, my final destination. We were less than a mile from my hotel when once again I was forced to switch vehicles with no explanation. As I hopped on the back of a motorcycle, I mentally counted:

  1. Bolt car
  2. Tuk-tuk
  3. Motorcycle 1
  4. Motorcycle 2
  5. Van 1
  6. Van 2
  7. Van 3
  8. Car
  9. Motorcycle 3

On my 9th and final vehicle of the day, my 8th driver took me through downtown Cotonou, blatantly missing the main turn to get to my hotel. After stopping and sorting that out, we finally arrived after a 20 minute ride which should have taken half that much time.

I wandered around looking for my hotel for 10 minutes until I found the locked gate. I called the phone number provided by, but my phone wasn’t working. On the advice of the owner of the adjacent store, I banged on the gate, and was soon let in by a confused young man. Five minutes and two phone calls later, he informed me through Google Translate (since I don’t speak French) that the hotel was fully booked. I showed him my booking confirmation online. He made another phone call. He Google Translated, “sorry, we are fully booked” and then I think he tried to explain that he had no idea how the hotel had even ended up on

The guy was nice enough to let me use their wi-fi. I found a guesthouse and walked 0.75 miles with my bags to it. I entered my room, which the owner informed me was furnished with a bathroom free of charge, at 5:30 PM, after having traversed about 80 miles in about 11 hours.


  • Price of a camel in Kano – 250,000-600,000 Naira ($333-800)
  • Price of a cow’s head in Kano – 22,000 Naira ($29.33)
  • Also in Kano, I met a man who had been professionally cutting toenails on the street for 40 years.
  • I now know what a pile of severed goat heads looks like, both on the ground, and balanced on a tray carried on top of a woman’s head.
  • Speaking of goats, my driver in Kano hit one while going about 30 mph. It was the goat’s fault, or at least his herder who startled the goat into the road. The tough bastard limped away as far as I could tell, but we almost hit two more goats later that day. They’re cute, but very dumb animals.
  • The Yoruba ethnic group has the highest rate of twin-birth in the world, at 50 per 1,000, compared to 33 in the US and 16 in Europe (wow, that’s a weirdly huge gap). The Yoruba town of Igbo Ora is at 158 per 1,000.
  • Nigerian Aliko Dangote is the richest black person in the world. He is currently financing the construction of a massive oil refinery off the coast of Lagos.
  • Some news articles say that Nigerian federal politicians are among the most well paid in the world, but I can’t find great sources. One expose found that Nigerian Senators only make about $12,000 annually, but they get monthly expense accounts of $18,000.
  • In Benin, I met a highly intelligent and articulate Nigerian who knew a remarkable amount about American politics, but also had some… odd opinions. He believed Russia had a right to conquer Ukraine because “Ukraine has always been Russian,” that homosexuality didn’t exist in Africa until 100 years ago, and that Donald Trump is one of the greatest presidents of all time.

58 thoughts on “Notes on Nigeria

      1. I was wondering the same thing. Amazing good luck, from what I have read in your post.


  1. Hey Matt, fascinating read and the sheer slot of their govt bureaucracy is something that should be declared the 8th wonder of the world.

    Out of curiosity though, when did you last visit India? A lot of your observations seem very outdated anc in many aspects incl things like road / rail / air infra, lower level corruption etc it seems at least a decade out of date.

    And a note on your poverty observation,

    India has 5% of it’s Rural populace in extreme poverty and 0.5% urban poverty. The national average is 3%

    Nigeria has 53% of it’s Rural and 9% of it’s urban populace in extreme poverty. 32% is the average here.

    The target is 3% below and India will there in a year max.


  2. > what they call tuk-tuks in India
    I think not as I’ve never heard it referred as such (IME in Chennai+Bangalore). Usually “auto”, rarely “three-wheeler” or the full “auto rickshaw”.


  3. I really enjoyed reading this. I grew up not so far from Nigeria, and it was nice to read something that reminded me of that. Some comments:

    – Nothing in the story about the border crossing really surprised me, except that you were able to book a bus to the border online (and the fact that nobody stole your bag). When I was growing up, buses usually didn’t leave according to a schedule, they left when they were full. I did a little bit of travelling, and “booking a hotel in advance” wasn’t something you did – more generally, if you do long (or short) distance travel you don’t really know how far you get in what time-frame, so booking things in advance doesn’t really make sense. Getting annoyed if things don’t happen according to plan happens less if you don’t have a clear plan. Getting annoyed is a lot more easy if you have a fixed idea of where you expect to be at what time.

    – A lot of the processes are not legible to outsiders, but they do not try to serve outsiders. Having someone along who knows how things work (like your “bus driver”) is the *only* I would recommend to navigate this kind situation.

    > I assumed that Domino’s owns Cold Stone, but no, Cold Stone is owned by Kahala Brands, which is owned by MTY Food Groups, neither of which have an apparent connection to Domino’s, though I assume they have some sort of deal going on in Nigeria.

    *If* this is a legitimate Domino’s in the sense that it isn’t just someone ripping off the Brand, it could be that the same guy who owns/runs these franchises is good at owning/running franchises more generally, and therefore runs some “Cold Stone” franchises too.

    > He believed Russia had a right to conquer Ukraine because “Ukraine has always been Russian,” that homosexuality didn’t exist in Africa until 100 years ago, and that Donald Trump is one of the greatest presidents of all time.

    Donald Trump is remarkably popular in Africa, some say because he is the first “African” president of the US in the sense that he acts like an African president would.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks! You produce some of my favorite travel writing.

    Possible typo: “The oil minister accepted the bid from Malibu…”.


  5. I think you have it wrong somewhere. First of all, you happened to have just seen the wrong sides of the country. In as much as you pointed out some facts…there are quite a lot of loopholes I’d rather not go into detail about. It’s just like you have it in most places, the upper class live in the most tidy, serene and highly secured areas, hidden from public view, so not much reports can be made about them. I think you pointed that out in “some luxury areas”
    The middle class live in decent environments, sometimes filthy. It all just comes down to how the people living in the estate take care of their surroundings.
    Secondly, sorry about the driver. There are really religious people in Nigeria who don’t miss their prayer time(mostly islams). So before you get a cab make sure it’s anytime before 3pm.
    I’d like to say more but it’s just gonna get long and boring. But I do hope you find the better parts of Nigeria. But it’s that all roundness that makes our country really lively.


    1. There are undoubtedly nice parts/compounds/homes in Nigeria. I wanted to stroll around Banana Island, but I was told I probably couldn’t for obvious security reasons. I just wrote about my experiences which only scratched the surface. For the record, I have no problem with my drivers stopping for prayer.


  6. “It took the British a decade of tinkering to ready Nigeria for independence.”

    This quote above aptly captures the essence of what you’ve written. A foreigners perspective that lacks any real depth or insight into the complexity or nuances of the real situation. Unsurprisingly, there’s a whiff of condescenscion in there somewhere.

    You didn’t really have to come to Nigeria to write all of these. You could have simply stayed in your country and reproduced the opinions and narratives in the media and books that you quoted. A friend of mine, who I hold in high esteem, shared the link to this piece with me. I suffered through what you’ve written in the hope that you would eventually arrive at some insightful conclusion but I was wrong.


    1. He’s an arrogant, smug asshole. I hate the kind of people who go to another country and then shit all over that country from the safety of their room. Either be respectful or don’t go at all. If I went to LA or San Francisco and saw people pissing and shitting in public I wouldn’t write a blog about how much America sucks.


      1. > Either be respectful or don’t go at all.
        Fuck that, be honest or don’t write at all is the better rule.

        >If I went to LA or San Francisco and saw people pissing and shitting in public I wouldn’t write a blog about how much America sucks.
        You should, those places do suck. Refusing to talk about the elephant in the room or worse making it taboo gives cover to depravity and ruin.


  7. I really enjoyed this, and smiled throughout. I am going to be vague because I don’t want anyone to have even half a chance to intuit anything about me based on what I write here, but in the not too distant past I spent two and a bit years on a diplomatic posting to Nigeria. I’m a westerner. Nigeria is of at least some significance to my country – I’m not from like Luxembourg or somewhere. I spent the overwhelming majority of my time in Abuja, but travelled to here and there. I’ve always kept an eye on Nigeria since and have kept in touch with some fine Nigerians.

    A few unconnected things:

    The general atmosphere: it really is difficult to overstate how brusque Nigerians are towards one another, or the way in which the average tone of voice when they address each other would be enough to kick off a snarling fist-fight in more genteel western cultures. Even the nicest Nigerians I knew would treat people like waiters and servers absolutely awfully, to the point that I would be embarrassed just sat there. The clicking noise – this made me laugh. My daughter had just turned 3 when we arrived and 5 when we left. All her best pals were Nigerian and she took on their verbal clicks and ticks, their brusqueness and their intonation and timbre. It was hilarious. Though boy am I received she got rid of it. You have to understand that IT IS NORMAL for a Nigerian to say ‘sheeft’ instead of ‘excuse me please’, or to point to an object and say ‘give eet’ instead of ‘kindly pass the salt/that cup/the remote control please.’ They say some very endearing things like instead of ‘please switch the light off’ they’ll say ‘off de light.’ We still say that now in my house. It used to occur to me that society was configured in such a way as to make the most aggressive and objectionable individuals successful and able to negotiate their day, and to the rest who may be more mild mannered, tough luck. It’s also spectacularly ostentatious. I am not enough of a writer to sum this up to even my own satisfaction, but imagine the most wwwwooooooowwwwwwww OUT THERE extroverts you have ever known – that’s Nigeria. Or at least that’s urban Nigeria.

    Tourism – there isn’t any. Like NONE. There isn’t anything to see. Well that’s not quite true – the mayhem and chaos that you talk about is what there is to see. A friend of mine from home was into three figures for numbers of countries visited and fancied a crack at achieving an obscure one by visiting me in Nigeria – me being the reason for him to go there. I told him not to bother and met him in Senegal instead.

    Peter Obi – I saw that some clip of him carrying his own suitcase onto an aeroplane was presented by his fans as evidence of his common man virtue. But I would bet almost any sum that quite a lot of Nigerians would instead take the view that doing something manual for himself like that was in fact prima facie evidence of his unsuitability for the cut and thrust of senior office. There seems to be an admiration for someone with wealth behaving like a complete bastard to everyone. Which brings us to Tinubu. I did know people who told me he did a fine job as governor of Lagos and the fact that he amassed such colossal wealth was worth it. And by the way – 71 years old my foot. He makes Joe Biden look youthful. Anyone will be an improvement on the potted plant who is Buhari, but he will do well to arrest the trajectory down the toilet. But he is a character, that is for sure. I do not really know what has happened since the election, I assume it’s been challenged in the courts, but man it could be a hoot with him in charge. The terrorism problem is much less worse as it was say 8 years or so ago, but now farmers and herders are murdering each other in grandiose fashion in half the north and central belt of the country and there’s no obvious way out of that bloodbath. I look at the guy who led Singapore or the current preseident of El Salvador whose name i also can’t think of and it convinces me that a hugely decisive variable in the course of history is simply the will of certain individuals to do something and stop at nothing to do it. There’s nothing like that will in the reprehensible Nigerian political class Nigeria. If there is will, it’s to get rich. The parties aren’t parties in any meaningful sense in that they believe in nothing like the nihilists on the big lebowski, they are solely patronage networks and swapping between the main two parties is absolutely commonplace. I see that the losing candidate this time around was Atiku. Obi was Atiku’s runnig mate in 2019 or whatever year it was Buhari was re-elected.

    Bribery – I never once paid a bribe, but was protected by diplomatic status. But this would not stop traffic police from harassing me I;d driven half a millimetre over the white line at red lights. Instead of ‘give me money’ Nigerians tend to say ‘appreciate me.’ This harassing of drivers got worse near Eid and Christmas when traffic police officers – often women – want to take more money home. ‘APPRECIATE ME THREE THOUSAND OR WE ARREST YOU! APPRECIATE ME THREE THOUSAND! Okay okay, fuck off. I used to carry a laminated piece of A4 which stated that I was a diplomat and they should either phone their general if they wanted to arrest me or let me go. I’d hold that up to the window till the lights turned green. By the way no Nigerian can get ANYTHING done without some species of bribe. If you need your passport renewing you can either pay to get it back in a fortnight or else wait MONTHS. The driving is extraordinary. There is no vehicle husbandry whatsoever. I was once told that the shitter your car, the less likely you were to be targeted by the police for bribes. So most people saw a saving to be made in letting their shitty cars fall apart. Fuel was almost free. It used to cost about $10 equivalent to fill my 65 litre 4×4. This is because of the massive govt fuel subsidy. The state spends more on that each year than it does on health. They keep talking about removing it and letting the market dictate the price. Good luck with that.

    Abacha – there is real affection for him. I knew a frickin PHD, a very urbane guy, from down south who loved him because he ‘got stuff done’ and reshaped state boundaries to the advantage of someone or other. I think the fact that it’s a near-impossibility to achieve simple things like get a passport or a driving licence via legitimate means that there is a sort of reverence for the guy who can ‘get stuff done’ irrespective of how rat-like his behaviour is. I wonder if this is because Nigerian systems are so impossibly complex that to navigate them t the extent that you actually achieve stuff is evidence of superpowers. There was a state governor in Port Harcourt who had this sort of reputation and I can’t remember his damn name. Anyway, everyone I knew thought Abacha would still be in power if he hadn’t died when he did. Babangida is Godfather of the Godfathers. Even the candidates in the last election had to go to his palace in Plateau or Niger (I forget which) and kiss his ring, as it were.

    Anyway good luck Nigeria. I’m never setting foot there again if I can help it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You did not visit the beautiful parts of Nigeria. You really should go back someday; hopefully when it will be safe to drive through the East towards the Middlebelt. Breathtaking.

      However; you are lucky not to have been kidnapped for ransom! 9ja is not for the faint hearted. Well done for your bravery.


    2. You need to go out more the next time you visit Nigeria. There are so many reserves, zoos, hangouts, beaches and clubs-especially Lagos. Unless you couldn’t afford it,you shouldn’t say such if you haven’t touched important parts


  8. As a Nigerian in Nigeria, I’ll correct the few errors I spotted.
    1. Bola Ahmed Tinubu is not northern, you should have figured as you learned he was governor of Lagos which is in the south.
    2. Emefiele did not contest in the APC primaries.
    3. Camels are frequently used, especially in farms in rural areas.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hmm, such a long read, yikes. Enjoyed some parts, was surprised by some too despite being a Nigerian who has lived 90% of her life in Nigeria.

    PS: Tinubu isn’t a nothern Muslim, he’s Yoruba (southwestern) Muslim 🙃


  10. Mr. Matt, it is vital to resist the allure of asserting authority in areas where your knowledge is scant. Not even the most ardent critic of Tinubu would posit that he is the handpicked successor of Buhari. I would recommend you look back at the sequence of events surrounding the APC presidential primaries, as well as the monetary and fiscal policies implemented by Buhari’s administration. These were largely geared towards undermining Tinubu’s advantage just weeks before the elections.

    It is certainly true that allegations have been made about Tinubu manipulating the 2023 presidential elections. However, the conspicuous absence of such accusations against Buhari, who was arguably in a position to do the same, is noteworthy. In fact, the non-verbal cues and policy decisions of Buhari were so evidently anti-Tinubu that numerous party loyalists, governors included, accused his administration of actively subverting Tinubu’s prospects.

    Indeed, this piece is riddled with numerous inaccuracies that would require a comprehensive analysis to properly deconstruct. Regrettably, it reflects a common trend among foreign observers of the country, who often overlook the painstaking task of gaining a thorough understanding or offering the necessary nuanced perspectives.


    1. Hi Bayo,

      After a few people pointed it out, I recently removed the reference to Tinubu being Buhai’s handpicked successor. A few other changes were made with strikethroughs as marks.

      Can you tell me more about possible tensions between Tinubu and Buhari? I didn’t dig much into that.


  11. Ah I think you got scammed slightly on the Lagos to Cotonou route. Peace mass transit and GiG which are equivalent of greyhound usually use the same bus I done a Lagos to Accra Ghana trip via Cotonou and lome


  12. I guess it is your style of writing to be sarcastic. While I found a little part of your write up quite amusing, the most part was largely distasteful and written in very bad light. For example, you write “I later learned these were tribal scars, a dying but still visible cultural practice in Nigeria and a few other West African nations, particularly among the Yoruba ethnic group. Children are sliced with a blade to create scars which are then filled with dye or charcoal to prevent healing.”
    I mean who would call a tribal mark a scar? Any naïve student with basic knowledge of elementary geography knows about tribal marks. Aftercall, some western programs and reality shows (e.g. survivor) often depict contestants with paint markings on their faces they like to call ‘tribal marks’. Also contrary to your claim, this is a practice that can be found in almost every continent and not only in West Africa. Ever heard of the Masai tribe in Kenya?

    Again why would you choose to use the term ‘sliced’? and then further lie that these marks are filled with dye or charcoal to prevent healing? Did you by stance witness any?

    While I understand that this is your space and that you can choose to use any style of writing that suits you; I reckon that the least you owe your audience is not to misrepresent or distort information using your platform.


  13. As a writer, a travel writer, storyteller and a Nigerian who’s lived in and traveled through the United States for the last 20 years, I’ve taken some time to read this and some of your other travel pieces, I’ll give you some advice. Find another hobby. Respectfully.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I don’t think there’s been any of your other travel posts that have elicited as many comments and criticisms from citizens as this one haha. Maybe that could be an addendum on its own. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Nigerians don’t smoke because it’s not really an ideal thing to do as we care for our lungs not because we can’t afford it

    2. Lekki isn’t top 10 most affluent places in Nigeria

    3. Nigerians genuinely care about people (I’ve been to a number of European countries and seeing people trip and fall while no one helps them up is something I’m grateful I’m Nigerian for as Nigerians would run to help)


  16. I see zero objectivity in your write up, and words like “fuck” and ” hate” are you sure you really know what it means to write for an international reference?
    You did your best in visiting only slums and trenches, and very narrow minded in your thinking saying everyone one wanted your attention in almost every 10 to 20 seconds..
    I perceive nothing but racism and a feel of superiority ( which you far from) in your write up.
    And please never visit Nigeria as you are no positive impact but rather a negative one. I am a Nigerian and though the country be in turbulence I still love my country.
    And what is more kindly drop writing,be it as a hobby or whatever,it doesn’t suit you.


  17. Hey Matt. Everyone I know is talking about this post so I came over to find out what the big deal was. All my friends and colleagues are up in arms. I read the bits about your experience but all that long ass writing about the politics – I skipped it after a few paragraphs and went straight to your travel experience to Cotonou. Can’t wait to read about your experience and impressions of Cotonou.

    You wrote so eloquently about shit, piss and garbage I can’t help but wonder why you didn’t write about the smell. Some visitors say it’s the first thing that hits them, the smell.

    Personally, I always like reading an outsiders point of view about Nigeria. I also LOVE reading my country people responses! Nigeria maybe shit but we are the only ones allowed to call it shit, kinda like most people can insult their father or mother but would fight anyone else doing it. It is what it is.

    Being half white myself I totally get your feeling of being in a cage, I don’t go to. the market anymore if I can avoid it. It’s just too much drama.

    Did you not try Nigerian food? Especially the unhygienic street food? Did you not meet a single Nigerian that went over and above to show you hospitality? I found that surprising. Not surprising was you meeting your baggage at the other side of the Benin border. Never lost a bag before and I have traveled to every state in Nigeria – by road at least once. I remember being squashed in a mini bus.

    Anyway, thanks for your take on Nigeria. You won’t make too many Nigerian friends with it, for sure. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thanks for reading.

      I’m not a big food person tbh, so I didn’t get too far outside my comfort zone. But I had some good cat fish and some delicious (though dangerously spicy) meat dishes whose names I can’t remember.

      I mentioned in the Politeness section that I met quite a few Nigerians who were extraordinarily generous to me, well beyond standard Western norms for a stranger.

      I give a ton of credit to the people who got me across the border, especially that last fixer guy. Though in general, I never really felt unsafe in Nigeria beyond being worried about scams and hassles.

      Smell-wise, yeah that’s definitely a thing. I’m not sure how to write about smell, besides ‘it often smells bad’. Plus as a sweaty traveller baking in the sun, I’m not sure I smelled any better.


  18. This post definitely sucks. So, those were the best pictures you could take? This is the best you could come up with? That’s a wasted effort. You didn’t even go to the eastern parts of Nigeria. You went to a few places and drew hasty & dumb conclusions.

    Who calls Tribal marks scars? If they aren’t being sarcastic and racist. That alone gives this write up a 0/100.

    Get your facts right. Next time, show the good/bad. Don’t post the terrible pictures alone

    You are kind of dumb if this is all you could come up with.


  19. This is a fine, sad and amusing piece.

    Unfortunately everyone who has managed to condemn this piece Inorder to sound intellectual have done nothing but proven themselves to be even more stupid, especially Nigerians in first world countries, who are benefiting from the countries basic amenities and vast resources designated for THEIR people, created and put in place by the people elected to lead and manage the country’s resources and interests, by the people and who have managed not to steal or plunder those resources and store it in Nigeria or any part of Africa.. though not surprising, considering many are guilt by association or direct benefactor of the disaster they call government (From Military to civilian)

    By no chance would anyone with gift of knowledge not weep at the vast atrocities committed by the ruling class and their cronies to impoverish a nation and cripple lots of it’s National Human Resources. You can’t be oblivious to this facts staring at you in the face, right from the Ports(Air, Land and Sea) the blind can see it glaringly.

    However, while reading through the comments, it’s interesting to note that none (Disagreeable bunch) was able to dispute your claim of the military actions and involvement in the creation of the root cause of the prevailing Nigeria economic disaster except for the supposed civilian democratic government (Which has by known and unknown association been able to accommodate some into the fold of corruption money benefactors)

    You barely scratched the surface Mat, but this is enough for any sensible person to know there’s a huge problem! See the solution and not continue the path that will secure problems generations to come might inherit if everything isn’t blown to smithereens in no distant future. Cos this can’t last.. it is only a matter of TIME.


  20. The main criticisms here are frankly hilarious. Matt is giving a ton of credit to the good people of Nigeria, and the description of the tribal marks as “scars” is fine in my opinion since it’s what they literally are. Saying it’s a ”scar” isn’t necessarily insulting it either. If it’s just inaccurate to call it a scar and it’s technically not, I would see how that would make sense to correct it though. If you gathered that the tone was too blunt or off-the-cuff, maybe you’re focusing too much on manners over the actual content? (Remind you of something?) I didn’t gather that he was implying the tribal marks as being good or bad either, just stating what is.

    As far as not visiting and representing all of Nigeria, I don’t think this post was meant to be a Nigerian travel guide. If you’ve read his other travel posts, you’ll see that it’s more meant to be “slice of life” vs the entire picture of a massive country – more about reporting on interesting things you may not get to know about through Lonely Planet guides from an outsider’s point-of-view. Insiders are the experts, but you can’t easily know what’s interesting to outsiders when you grew up with a thing – the fact that visiting Walmart is an interesting cultural experience for foreigners to the US still blows my mind. If I tried to write a guide on interesting US places and facts, it would be so boring to everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I absolutely loved reading this article! As a Nigerian, I could relate to so much of what you shared. It honestly had me laughing out loud, as I found myself nodding along to those incredibly relatable experiences. Moreover, I greatly appreciated the insightful education on Nigeria’s political journey that you provided.

    In my opinion, this was a wonderfully written piece, regardless of what others may feel. Kudos to you for capturing your experiences in such an engaging manner!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Reading this reminded me of a Nigerian roomate I had at boarding school in the UK in the 90s. For some reason he was convinced that Nigeria was one of the richest, most developed countries, where everyone drove fine cars and lived large (like he did, it was a very expensive school). I suspected his delusion was partly due to never having left his Lagos McMansion. Anyway, i made it my mission to lift this veil of ignorance, to convince him that No, your country is awfully poor and backward, even going so far as showing him pictures from encyclopedias etc. Of course my attempts miserably failed. Reading the comments by Nigerians responding to your blog, I sense the same kind of refual to accept this reality. Its quite touching, in its own way, actually.


  23. Re the weird gap between US and European twin rates: possibly due to the US having more widespread obesity, as higher BMI is linked to more fraternal twins. (Though of course this explains nothing about the Nigeria twin rates, the nation is not famous for an obesity epidemic.)

    I really enjoy your writing, it’s always vivid and entertaining and piques my curiosity.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Much truth and insight. Re “individualism”/”collectivism”. Nowhere more individualist in sense of every man for himself than urban Africa. Nowhere less organised, exhibiting less adherence to rules. Paradoxically perhaps the cooperation necessary for infrastructure projects and their ongoing maintenance, modern transport systems, queuing etc *requires* a degree of individual distance in social life.

    Ethnocentrism, as per US African diaspora voting collectively, e.g. something like 90% *for* Obama with similar number *against* Trump is ‘collectivist’ as unanimity against a shared foe, where internal dissensions are resolved at expense of a third party. But this can also be understood as a function of the *absence* of ‘collectivism’ in everyday social relations, at the institutional level (e.g limited company), or more mundanely spontaneous queuing (what Americans call ‘waiting in line’.) In other words the kind of racial often violent unanimity we see in America is the corollary of an extreme ‘every man for himself’ ‘individualism’.

    One of the most visible things, especially in urban Africa is the abundance of small traders: *everyone* seems to be selling something. Just as in Europe we take the limited company and “employment” for granted, in Africa subsistence farming seems to be the basic model. Equally the more ‘collectivist’ extended family is the primary social unit in Africa (Kenyan Kikuyu a notable exception) can be understood as a brake on individualism. Contradictions and anomalies abound.

    What cannot be denied surely is that Africans generally are more *social* than relatively stand-offish Europeans and East Asians. “Mimetic” might be more apt than “collectivist”, e.g. the African penchant for conspicuous display or bling e.g. men with multiple gold chains. Highly individualistic, competitive behaviour from a first person standpoint but “collectivist” from the outsider’s point of view who only notices the mimetic similarity rather than what motivates it on the individual level. Which is consistent both with political behaviour, i.e. unanimous tribal/ethnic voting patterns and intra-group violence and murder most pronounced in US urban gang wars.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “One of the most visible things, especially in urban Africa is the abundance of small traders: *everyone* seems to be selling something.”

      I think this is one of the most unique things about Africa compared to other places I’ve traveled and I’ll probably write about it in a future post. There really is a sense of constant hustling in the population. It’s common on long car rides to briefly stop by the side of the road and get swarmed by people selling food, drinks, and random goods. Lots of locals with normal jobs also sell stuff on the side. I wonder what percentage of Africans could be considered “small business owners” or some sort of equivalent.


      1. Definitely. A huge proportion would be at least what we call “self-employed”. In his book ‘Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town’ Paul Theroux suggests that urban Africa’s teeming street life “recapitulates 18th century London”. He’s referring to Nairobi particularly but it differs elsewhere only in scale. Theroux himself had previously lived and worked in Kampala. Recommend the book if you don’t know it already: you will surely find it “relatable” just as I could identify with your descriptions from my own travels mainly in Kenya and Uganda. Look forward to future posts and thanks for the reply.

        Liked by 1 person

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