American journalist narrates his experience of going by bus from Lagos to Abuja.
People told me I was insane for going on that journey. Two Nigerians I met, from Lagos, described it to me as “the deadliest drive in Africa.” But they only told me later. The day I embarked on a bus ride from Lagos to Abuja, Nigeria, I had no idea of any of that. And on the morning of Aug. 25, everything seemed to be going as smoothly as could be expected.
I was in Nigeria to take photos with my reporter and friend Connor Adams Sheets, who was set to arrive later that day in Abuja on a fellowship with the International Center For Journalists. But I had flown into Lagos, and needed to find a cheap way to get 475 miles (650 km) northwest to the Nigerian capital. I decided on the bus.
After haggling with the guy who organizes the rides and agreeing to pay the arbitrary sum of 4,680 Naira (about $29), I boarded the bus at the muddy, hectic lot that passes for the Lagos bus depot at about 6:30 a.m.
The word “bus” was extremely generous; it was nothing more than a 13-seat rusting white Toyota Coaster — or “Toaster,” as the locals called it — minivan that was packed by 7 o’clock.
Every inch of ratty upholstery but those taken up by my wiry frame was occupied by Nigerian travelers, mostly sullen adult males who were not making the trip for the first time, who waited with me. And waited. In true Lagos style, the driver didn’t show up until 8:30.
By then, the aisles were stacked so high with luggage, bags of clothes and even an old, crusty microwave oven that I couldn’t even see the woman sitting across the narrow aisle from me. I had to convince the driver not to bungee-cord my bags to the roof.
Once we were off, we had to endure a full hour of Lagos’ infamous “go-slow” traffic jams before the chaos of the city faded from view.
The next three hours were pretty hassle-free once you got used to the insanity of dodging craterlike potholes at upward of 80 miles per hour.
Most of the time was spent careening past dense, oppressively wet jungle. But occasionally we slowed down to pass through small villages where hawkers would run alongside us, shoving bags and trays of fruit, nuts and trinkets in the open windows, in mostly doomed attempts to make a few naira off the city folk.
We came upon our first roadblock around 11:30, and it was a fairly easy stop. Only five cars ahead, a few soldiers — or maybe they were cops, you can usually never tell for sure which are which in Nigeria — with AK-47s slung over their shoulders peered in the windows before waving us on.
We stopped a few times along the way to urinate or grab some fiery “food is ready” (Nigerian for fast food) and every so often the G-force of the van’s pothole-evading maneuvers threw me against the window glass, but we were making good time.
I hadn’t anticipated how many checkpoints would be ahead in Boko Haram-era Nigeria. Terrorism is a daily concern, and the government has clamped down hard.
I counted a succession of 10 military roadblocks over the course of the journey, which stretched to 13 claustrophobic hours, and it seemed that each stop was more intensive than the last.
The men with the oddly painted AKs — a blue stock here, a yellow barrel there, as if each piece was from a different war — started asking for ID and suspiciously examining my passport and visa. At the fourth checkpoint, they opened the door and scanned the interior of the bus, eyeballing me but eventually letting us proceed.
A couple dozen miles after that stop, we passed a semitruck that had rolled off the road, spilling its contents into the brush.
Shortly thereafter we came upon checkpoint 5, the worst one. There were about 30 cars in line when we pulled up, and cement blocks placed in the road, Iraq-style, to make sure you couldn’t blow through the stop.
It was a rare moment of stillness on the route, so I pulled out my vintage Canon film camera and started snapping photos out the window. A soldier ambled by and I took what I thought was a stealth shot, but when he slammed the butt of his fist against the back window and yelled something at the driver in a language I assumed was Yoruba, I knew I had been caught. You can’t take photographs of cops or military personnel in modern Nigeria.
The driver slammed on the brakes and then reached back to open the sliding door as the soldier ran around the right side.
When he got to the open door, he pointed at me and we stared one another down for a couple seconds before he barked, “white man, get off,” then “bring that camera with you.”
Knowing he had seen me photographing him, I had already torn the film out of the camera, and was holding the exposed roll up to show him as I disembarked.
“What am I going to do with that?” he asked dismissively. He seemed to be unfamiliar with film, and he snatched my camera out of my other hand and walked back to stand with his comrades.
I was dumbfounded and terrified, so I figured, “whatever, it’s a loss,” and got back in the van.
The driver, however, wasn’t going to allow such disrespect, so he pulled off the road and told me to come with him. Despite my vocal protests, we walked back to where the soldiers were resuming their car searches and explained that I was an oyibo — white person — new to the country and that I didn’t understand the rules. I apologized, they argued in a Nigerian language I assumed to be Yoruba, and finally the camera changed hands again.
“If we catch you doing that again, we’ll lay you out,” the soldier told me, pointing the barrel of his assault rifle at a spot on the ground.
But we won that round, and within minutes we had passed the roadblock and were back on the pockmarked open road.
We saw another accident aftermath during the long stretch before the sixth checkpoint. A minibus very similar to ours had flipped over, and people were still arguing about it on the side of the road. There was another totaled car, still smoldering, just past the seventh checkpoint.
After we passed the ninth roadblock without incident, cement blocks started to pepper the roadway even when we were far from any soldiers. We were nearing Abuja, the nation’s capital and a popular terror target.
We slowly weaved our way through them, and the lead-footed driver would floor it whenever we came to an unimpeded stretch.
Then the inevitable happened. The driver, trying to dodge a massive canyon in the road, veered into the rocky median, where we were met by the unmistakable sound of a tire bursting. We had a flat just an hour from our destination.
At first the driver carried on as if nothing happened, perhaps trying to will away the problem. But the front-left tire eventually collapsed further, spewing fetid smoke into the air as we drove.
Eventually we stopped. The driver came back with a look of consternation on his face, but in Nigeria there’s no equivalent of the American AAA to rescue you — or at least, he certainly wasn’t a member — so we plodded on at 20 miles per hour for another several miles.
The tire continued to burn, and by the time we reached a rundown truck stop, I was choking on the light-gray smoke, feeling as though I was breathing in solid chunks of noxious rubber by the end.
When we finally parked, my fellow passengers and I vaulted out of the bus, gasping for air, and sprawled out on the ground a few feet away from the death trap we were all eager to leave behind.
The driver miraculously found a replacement tire within minutes, rolled it over, and had us back up and running within a half hour. After another 30 minutes we had reached the relative civilization of Abuja, and I felt a wave of relief at having escaped the harrowing drive mostly unscathed.
But there were still two more checkpoints to clear, and speed bumps of varied size. We cleared the smaller ones easily, but the bigger ones jolted us, sending my head crashing into the van’s ceiling and side window.
At the last roadblock, a soldier popped his head inside the van and asked me where I was coming from. I said Lagos, and he responded, shaking his head, “Why would you do that?”
I was nauseous, sore and tired when we pulled into the makeshift city center of Abuja. Traffic was sluggish and the fumes were strong, but when I finally got out of the van and arrived at my hotel via cab, it was as heavily fortified as any of the stops along the road from Lagos. A man with an AK-47 waved me past the steel gate.