Secure travel to Nigeria: Tips from an executive protection agent

February 2, 2017 - By Thomas Hald

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Nigeria is truly the “Giant of Africa”. Africa’s biggest economy, it is home to nearly 190 million people – or one in seven of the continent’s total population – as well as scores of multinational corporations and NGOs. It is also a high-risk destination for business travelers and calls for extreme caution even on a good day. In this blog Thomas Hald, who has conducted dozens of executive protection details in the sprawling West African country, shares some insights on staying safe, happy and productive in Nigeria.

A brief overview of Nigeria

Before diving into some of the security risks and precautions needed when headed to Nigeria, let’s highlight some facts about the country that make it so unique—and have led to the current security situation.

No matter how you look at it, Nigeria is big. The “Giant of Africa” boasts close to 190 million inhabitants, almost twice as many as Africa’s next most populous country, Ethiopia. Despite lackluster performance in 2016, its economy is among the world’s 25 largest and has grown fast in recent decades. GDP per capita has nearly tripled since 2000 as millions of Nigerians have moved into the middle class and transformed this emerging economy into one that no multinational can afford to ignore. It has more than 100 accredited universities. Nollywood, home to Africa’s most dynamic film industry, produces more films than Hollywood and ranks just behind Bollywood in cinematic volume.

Nigeria established its independence from Britain in 1960 and has gone through numerous and often violent changes ever since. Political instability, ethnic and religious tensions and corruption are rampant, with far-reaching consequences in everyday life.

Amazingly diverse even by African standards, to look at the country as a monolithic entity would be a huge mistake. Distribution of income is extremely lopsided, and a third of the population of Africa’s biggest economy remains in stark poverty. Although English is the official language and is widely spoken especially in urban areas, Nigeria is home to more than 500 languages and ethnic groups – and plenty of ethnic conflict.

Larger than France by half, it is divided into 36 federal States and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, which is under direct control of the government.  The religiously divided country is generally seen as Christian in the south and Muslim in the north, with about half the population professing each faith. Several northern states adopted Sharia law in 2000. Inter-religious violence is not uncommon.

Security risks due to Nigerian terrorists are incredibly high and should be on the mind of anyone travelling to the country

Terrorist threats – and Boko Haram in particular – have unfortunately put Nigeria into world news more than anything else, period. The Islamic extremist group, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, is responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 people and the displacement of over two million. The group has been particularly active since 2009, carrying out bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, attacks on government officials and civilians alike. Foreigners, too, have been targeted.

The group is especially dangerous in the northern parts of the country, where the Nigerian police and military have struggled to keep the threat contained. But Boko Haram has staged attacks as far south as Abuja, too. Even the state of emergency declared by the authorities in 2013, which covered the states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, failed to put a stop to Boko Haram’s actions. While the group may not be as united as it was only two years ago, it is still going strong. Attacks carried by Boko Haram and affiliated groups, such as the Islamic State West African Province, have occured as recently as October 2016. Ansaru, a splinter group, has kidnapped foreigners in Kebbi, Katsina and Bauchi States.

There are other militant groups in the South, most noticeably in the oil-rich Niger Delta where kidnappings, murders and pirate attacks are widespread. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the largest and most deadly, has committed numerous attacks on foreign oil companies and foreign workers.

Foreigners are advised not to get anywhere near the northeastern states where Boko Haram is most active and to exercise extreme caution in much of the North and large parts of the South.

Piracy is flourishing in Nigeria

The Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria is one of the world’s worst piracy hotspots.

Small vessels have been regularly attacked since the turn of the century. The problems have worsened in the last five or six years. Pirates tend to target vessels linked to the oil industry to steal their cargo. Murders, kidnappings and torture are common, with crew members too often the victims.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, piracy incidents off the coast of Nigeria jumped to 36 in 2016 from 14 incidents in 2015. 75% of all the vessels that were fired on worldwide in 2016 were in the Gulf of Guinea. No fewer than 34 crew were kidnapped in nine individual attacks.

While the amount of attacks remains limited given the huge number of ships that pass through the area, and while pirates are unlikely to target foreign business visitors, it’s an important risk to keep in mind should you be in the region due to work.

See more information about our approche to maritime security here

Street crime in Nigeria

Street crime, whether organized by gangs or random, is a major concern in much of Nigeria. There are active gangs in many regions, including the Area Boys in Lagos State and the Bakassi Boys in the Igbo region.

Most foreign travel advisories from Western governments mention the prevalence of street crime due to poverty in many cities and rural areas with muggings, rapes, kidnappings, car-jackings and armed robberies being the main threats. Unfortunately, there are no “safe” states as such, and all regions appear to be affected.

Car with goat, Nigeria

Security tips for business travelers to Nigeria

Nigerians are wonderful people and the country has a tremendous number of good things going for it. But there’s no doubt that it’s a tough place to visit, and there’s a reason expats typically negotiate significant hardship allowances when stationed there. The Ibrahim Index ranks personal safety in Nigeria pretty close to the bottom: 48th out of the 54 African countries surveyed.

Security risks abound, and foreign business travelers need to take care. Here are a few tips we’ve picked up over our many trips to Nigeria:

  • Don’t show up in Lagos Airport without a plan: Murtala Muhammed International Airport is not the place to start wondering how you’re going to get into town or your hotel. Expect long lines everywhere. Remember your luggage tags – you’ll need them to prove your bags are yours. Don’t even think about looking for a taxi: pre-arranged transportation is an absolute must.
  • Drive, don’t walk: In general we recommend that foreign visitors be driven wherever they need to go and avoid walking altogether both during the day or after dark.
  • Don’t drive yourself: If you are involved in an accident, whether it’s your fault or not and even a fender-bender, you open yourself to all kinds of trouble. Be sure your driver is properly trained and insured.
  • Don’t drive at night: We generally recommend that our clients stay off all but the safest roads in central business districts after nightfall. Expect bad road conditions, very poor lighting and the risk of car-jackings in some regions. Robberies and kidnappings occur even on expressways in several states, so be vigilant.
  • If you do hit the road in anything but the safest regions, be prepared: We recommend using the Nigerian Mobile Police (MOPOL) for most ground transportation in Nigeria and certainly anything that takes you out of the central areas of Lagos and Abuja. No one except police and the military are authorized to carry weapons in Nigeria, but that doesn’t mean the bad guys don’t have guns. Roadblocks pop up all of a sudden, and it’s hard to tell if they are legitimate or manned by imposters in police uniforms. Foreigners risk being kidnapped and held for ransom or being forced into doing the ATM round until every card is maxed out. It happens. Uniformed and armed, MOPOL can be hired through local partners. They negotiate passage through roadblocks and checkpoints, and they get you where you need to go.
  • Even though Nigeria is a major oil producer, expect fuel rationing: The sixth biggest oil exporter in 2015 has to ration fuel? Welcome to Nigeria. It lacks refineries and needs to import both petrol and diesel. Having an electricity net that depends on diesel fuel doesn’t help. See the next bullet.
  • Be prepared for horrendous air pollution: There are an estimated nine million diesel generators in Nigeria. Especially in cities, air pollution varies between bad and horrendous.
  • Find local intelligence and support: Understand the areas you’re visiting. Do some research. Tap local sources to learn what the risks are and how to mitigate them.
  • Avoid crowded areas such as markets and government security facilities: These are often less secure than less-frequented places when it comes to terror attacks.
  • Avoid places of worship: Mosques and churches are both at risk of being hit by religious extremists, especially in places where inter-religious tensions run high.
  • Familiarize yourself with the local laws: For example: eating, smoking or using a phone while driving through Lagos can lead to fines and even imprisonment. There are curfews in places such as Maiduguri or Adamawa.
  • As usual, travel alerts are your friends: The U.S. Department of State’s website and the U.K. equivalent are frequently updated and will help you determine what to expect ahead of time.
  • Let’s not forget the basics, shall we?
    • Check your visa requirements for Nigeria and be prepared to wait at least a week to have visa applications processed.
    • Get your vaccines in order and don’t forget your vaccination card. Yellow fever vaccinations must be up to date or you may be refused entry at the border. Remember that like many other things in Nigeria, border controls aren’t always consistent: just because you didn’t need your vaccine card the last time, you might the next time. Bring painkillers and any other medicine you might need, and assume you’ll need more than you actually do.
    • Bottled water is your friend; taps aren’t.
    • Copies of your ID documents should be with you at all times.
    • Let friends, family, co-workers or associates know where you are, or where you’re going at all times.
    • There’s no reason to show off your phone or valuables. Keep your wallet close-by and out of reach.
    • Make it easy to dial emergency numbers. Look up the number for your local embassy. Save the numbers for your hotel, emergency contacts, embassy and local emergency numbers and make sure they can be dialed quickly.

An example of secure travel services in Nigeria

I’ve got a lot of stories about traveling in Nigeria, but most of them aren’t ready for prime time. I would like to share one, however, that tells something about traveling there – and what we do to make it easier for our clients.

Our client was familiar with Nigeria, and we had served him there on numerous occasions. He normally used only our secure driving services – complete with MOPOL, of course, whenever he traveled to Lagos. Trips to Abuja, on the other hand, were different. Due to the capital’s exposure to terror threats the client preferred personal protection when visiting there.

We met him at the Abuja airport and drove him to his five-star hotel, where we had pre-checked him so we could escort him directly to his room. We picked him up there the next morning, drove him where he needed to go, then brought him back to the hotel after a long day. In the lobby on the way up to his room we were met with a depressing site: at least 200 people waiting for elevators. Only two of the hotel’s six elevators were working; the rest were closed for maintenance. There were no stairs in sight.

The client was fuming.

I asked if he was willing to walk up the four floors to his room and he readily agreed. So I brought him through a kitchen area, past the room service facilities, down a few long hallways to the very back of the hotel where I knew there was a staircase. We walked up and got him into his room in less than five minutes after leaving the chaos in the lobby.

“How the hell did you do that?” he asked. “How did you know there was a stairway back there?”

“That’s what we do. That’s what you pay us to know,” I answered. “If there’s an emergency and we need to get you out of your room in a hurry, those are the stairs we would try first. I found them when I did advance work on the hotel. They work just as well going up as they do going down.”

Usually, clients don’t see the back of the hotel kitchen or the work that goes into travel security services and personal protection. In this case he got a quick peek into both.

Enjoy your trip to Nigeria – and stay safe, happy and productive!

Thomas Hald

Thomas Hald

Senior Program Manager

Thomas Hald is senior program manager at AS Solution, with extensive worldwide experience in executive protection and secure travel services.