It was not until after accepting an assignment that would take me to Lagos that I bought a copy of The Rough Guide to West Africa. The Nigeria section was prefaced with remarks by Nigerian writer, the late Chinua Achebe: "Listen to Nigerian leaders," he wrote, "and you will frequently hear the phrase 'this great country of ours'.
"Nigeria is not a great a country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun. It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short it is among the most unpleasant places on earth."
Not the best of introductions, but there was no going back. A contract had been signed, airline ticket issued, hotel reservation made. I'd grown up in Tanzania and was confident I could handle whatever Lagos had to offer.
The flight landed at midnight local time. Immigration procedure was an unnerving blend of aggression and inertia, a flanking assault on the senses that requires a stiff upper lip and in-flight drinks to overcome. A sullen-faced official snatched my passport as I stood in the queue and began flicking through the pages. He was a policeman, dressed in a black uniform, armed with a pistol and truncheon.
In a parody of suspicion, his eyes narrowed as they flicked back and forth between my face and my picture. I thanked him when he gave it to another man in a green uniform whose job it was to check the validity of my visa – a task he seemed determined to perform in slow motion.
In the arrivals hall I identified myself to staff at the hotel's airport reception desk and was led outside to a Land Cruiser. Sitting next to the driver was another policeman cradling an assault rifle. It was like Dodge City with palm trees; he was riding shot-gun on our stagecoach.
A thin, slack-jawed Englishman in a white suit, an old colonial from central casting, sat next to me in the rear. We joined a freeway; there were garbage fires on the roadside, smoke billowed into arcs of light cast by a row of streetlamps, like an establishing shot in a mean-streets movie. We were on the 12 kilometre road-bridge spanning Lagos lagoon.
"I've heard it's the best in town," the old colonial said, referring to our destination.
I was not immediately reassured. "The best hotel in town" sagged under the weight of comparative factors. It was freighted with wrong assumptions. The issue was unresolved when I fell asleep around four o'clock. Then at six, the bedside telephone rang. "Passport," said a stern voice.
"You must give passport."
I resisted the impulse to close the conversation with a piece of my four-letter mind and opened the curtains. The view fulfilled my expectations of a West African harbour. Rusty freighters rode at anchor. Below, the prow of his canoe brushing the harbour wall, a fisherman cast his net into floating refuse from the hotel kitchen. I switched on the TV. A moment later there was a power cut, but the hotel's own generator ensured normal service was resumed in my first-world cocoon.
Downstairs in the lobby, I had my passport photocopied and was asked if I had slept well. I took a bus tour of the islands – Ikoyi and Victoria. Compared to the klaxon-blaring blast of an average road in Lagos, the islands' leafy streets are tranquillity itself and it took less than the half-hour trip to discover why. There's a heavy police presence and cars are routinely flagged down. Included in these stop-and-search activities is something called dash – a voluntary payment that ensures your continued innocence.
Throughout Lagos, the police behaved like an occupying force whose job was to intimidate the civilian population. They regularly carved their way through traffic jams, brandishing weapons like hit men, whipping the bonnets and side-panels of cars with knotted rope, as if expecting them to scatter like cattle.
The company provided accommodation, a car and driver. I took to driving myself around the islands at weekends. Once, I was stopped by a cop for not wearing a seat belt. He climbed into the passenger seat and said I was under arrest. As he gave directions to the police station, it occurred to me that neither of us wore a belt, an irony I knew better than to share with him. I was tried to keep calm while I wondered how I would offer a bribe if he didn't ask for one first.
"It would be bad for you to enter the station," he said, as I negotiated deep puddles of seawater on the beachfront road. "Then you spend tonight in the cell while I do paperwork."
I had 3,000 naira in my wallet. "See you around," he said, pocketing the money.
Indeed. Lagos saved its parting shot for my final day. On the way to the airport, my driver encountered the grid-locked traffic of an Easter weekend. Seeing the police driving against the traffic flow and making headway, he followed them. It was a mistake. He was dragged out of the car and roughed up. Then two cops got in and demanded money. My bag contained US$20,000 in crisp, $100 notes. In Lagos, it's a sum that's likely to make you a missing person.
My adrenaline levels went into overdrive and I waved my ticket at them, babbling that I had no money and was in danger of missing my flight. My ineffective attempt to control mounting hysteria added authenticity to my performance as a witless loser. They accepted the bottle of whisky I offered in lieu of funds.