Most newsrooms are typically run like military service (minus hassles plus camaraderie) where reporters obey before complaint, directives issued to them by their ‘generals’.
The text came in first before the usually calm voice of my immediate boss via a call. My eyes had, barely a split second earlier, sighted the SMS which said: ”Do you have a valid passport?” before ‘Oga’ Bisi Abidoye’s deep voice ‘wafted’ through the phone.
”Did you see my message? Please get ready; you will be representing the company in Niamey, Niger. Respond to the email that will be sent to you soon,” he said. The line went dead. A man of few words, my immediate supervisor’s instructions are usually straightforward and clear. This was one of such.
Checking my email a while later, I realised, I had been asked to represent the company at the Lake Chad Regional Governors’ Forum billed to hold between July 16-18 in Niamey, Niger.
By the invitation, I would be joining over 300 participants in Niamey which included the Governor of Extreme North, Cameroon; Governor of North Region, Cameroon; Governor of Diffa, Niger; Governor of Adamawa, Nigeria; Governor of Borno, Nigeria; Governor of Yobe, Nigeria; Governor of Hadjer Lamis, Tchad and the Governor of Lac Region, Tchad.
The participants would also include journalists, civil society groups and religious leaders at a conference on the Lake Chad crisis and the Boko Haram insurgency with the hopes of offering solutions.
The second meeting of the Governors Forum was to be co-chaired by these governors whose areas are most affected by the deadly insurgency which has led to insecurity and displacement in the Lake Chad Basin.
The Forum was convened by the Lake Chad Basin Commission with technical support from the African Union (AU), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI). Financial was provided by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It is every reporter’s desire to cover such events as it not only broadens one’s horizon professionally but also offers challenges on self-improvement and capabilities.
The icing, of course, is always useful contacts that can help improve future reporting. I didn’t have second thoughts. I was in.
Six flights later, in under six days, across three nations (minus mine), my assignment would be concluded with warm memories of everywhere my feet touched.
I called him ‘Oga Roy’. A very indefatigable staffer of the UNDP, alongside, Mizuho Yokoi, who took charge of the travelling arrangements of all the participants going from Nigeria would be one warm personality I would encounter for the next couple of days.
His slight, athletic frame belies awesome, unrelenting energy that captivates and the same times shocks. I would receive several messages from him from Friday when I was first notified of the trip, and Monday, when I finally arrived at the airport for the first flight in a series. Roy is in a class of his own when it comes to logistics and seamless bureaucracy.
He was always communicating with me on the progress of the arrangements and updating the necessary documents and processes to make the trip successful.
I would later learn from the others, whom I travelled alongside, that they experienced the same level of attention from Roy, who ensured that everything was planned well for the trip.
I went alongside 10 others from News Agency of Nigeria, Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, the Cable, Daily Trust, civil society activists, and religious leaders.
While some of us embarked on the trip from Abuja, others had to take arduous flights from Maiduguri, Borno.
Merry-go-round trip around West Africa?
The first challenge came in the process of securing flights to Niamey. My first thought was that the trip would be an hour or so by air and I would be in the capital of Niger Republic. I was wrong.
I was stunned when I received a message that we would be going through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Sunday, to arrive Niamey, Monday.
I had never been to Ethiopia, so I was shocked when I learnt we would have to spend about 4 hours, 30 minutes in the air to Addis Ababa. That is excluding the duration from Addis to Niamey.
I was still in this state of ‘suspended reality’ for several hours before I got another mail saying the organisers had provided another alternative.
This time around, we would have to take another route, no less demanding. The organisers, who were obviously under immense pressure securing travelling tickets for participants said we would now be going through Accra, Ghana- Abidjan, Ivory-Coast, then Niamey. Six flights in all, across three African nations.
We would be spending a night in Accra, Ghana on Monday, then leave for Abidjan en route Niamey on Tuesday.
I could not help but wish that Nigeria could return to its heydays when it had a vibrant fleet run by the Nigerian Airways that ran both local and international flights.
At the time of its closure, the Nigeria Airways network consisted of four domestic destinations: Abuja, Kano, Lagos and Port Harcourt. Its international network also included five routes, Abidjan, Dubai, Jeddah, London and New York.
But now, to link neighbouring nations, one would have to rely on foreign-run airlines, who have to make ‘bizarre’ trips around the continent to arrive at nations just at our borders.
So we had to prepare ourselves to spend over four hours onboard flights to make the trip to Niger Republic which should usually have taken an hour or so directly, I learnt.
At least, we could now heave a sigh of relief but must prepare ourselves for the rigours of an extended trip.
For travellers going through the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja, the Nigerian factor never ceases to play out.
We were billed to go via the Ghanaian run- African World Airline. From the entrance of the gleaming, newly constructed international wing of the airport, to the check-in section and the body search section, you are accosted with airport officials who slyly ask you to ‘drop something’.
Drop something here means a subtle appeal to grease their palms with some naira notes.
One looks at my passport and exclaims loudly in Yoruba, interspersed with pidgin, as if we have been pals for long. “Ah, my brother from Ekiti, you are travelling out. What do you have for me? Abi, you will just go like that?.” I suddenly turned mute.
On the brighter side, the Ghanaian officials at the airline’s cubicles at the airport were charming, friendly, well-dressed and efficient as they checked people in both at the airport wing and also in the thin confines of the compact Embraer aircraft.
The hostesses were particularly helpful. The service was also top-notch, and this made up for the slight discomfort of the places in the small aeroplane.
The less than an hour flight was uneventful, and soon we arrived at the Kotoka International Airport.
The airport, which is Ghana’s sole international airport, is operated by Ghana Airports Company Limited. The airport currently serves as a hub for domestic and regional operators such as Passion Air, Unity Air and our carrier, Africa World Airlines.
The airport was originally a military airport used by the British Royal Air Force during World War II. The facility was later handed over to civilian authorities after the war. A development project was launched in 1956 by President Kwameh Nkrumah to reconfigure the structure into a terminal building.
The project was completed in 1958, turning the military base into an airport with a capacity of 500,000 passengers per year. The airport was originally named Accra International Airport.
In 1969, the airport was renamed Kotoka International Airport, in honour of a Lieutenant General, Emmanuel Kotoka, a member of the National Liberation Council. Mr Kotoka was killed in an abortive coup attempt at a location which is now the forecourt of the airport.
I learnt that there are currently debates on whether the renaming was apt since the airport was built by Mr Nkrumah, and not Mr Kotoka, who led a coup to overthrow Mr Nkrumah’s government.
But that debate is left for the Ghanaian egg-heads. One thing I can say from an overview of the airport is that it is well run with efficient personnel at both its entry and departure points.
The fluid manner the officials attended to travellers and ensured nothing was left to chance was commendable.
‘Yellow card saga’
Since we were a group of 11 that had arrived the Accra airport from Abuja, it was quite easy to notice that one of us had been held back at the checking-in section by officials who were polite but firm in telling her she would not be allowed into city.
We thronged back to find out what the problem was. Very soon, we realised the ‘Nigerian factor’ had followed us to Accra.
A Ghanaian immigration officer patiently explained what the problem was.
The yellow card, which is a vital document all travellers across the continent must possess, which our colleague brought, had on it a serial number that the officials had seen on other cards that had been presented for scrutiny by other Nigerian travellers checked in at the airport the previous weeks.
What these apparently meant was that the officials, who I noticed spent extra time checking in Nigerians, had seen several yellow cards issued from Nigeria’s ministry of health which had the same serial numbers inscribed on them.
I am yet to come to terms on what to believe. Was it that officials in the ministry made honest errors issuing these cards with the same serial numbers or is there a cartel at work in the ministry issuing ‘fake’ yellows cards and disingenuously giving them same serial numbers.
After appeals though, the Ghanaian officials thawed their position a bit.
Their verdict was that our colleague would have to retake the vaccine right there at their yellow card office in the airport.
The flustered lady had to cough out about 100 Ghana cedis ( about N7000) to take the vaccine and was then issued another card. Only then was she allowed to follow us into the Accra.
Night in Accra
We were all tired after the flight from Abuja to Accra, so no one even thought of exploring one of Africa’s vibrant cities at night. All we wanted was a place to crash ahead of the two flights the next day.
The group split into two. One group decided to go lodge at a hotel in the heart of Accra called Osu while the other, comprising myself settled for Noghill hotel located in Achimota Forest/Tetteh Quarshie, which is not far from the airport.
Dan, our cab driver, regaled us with giddy tales of the beauty of Accra and how we needed to explore the city. He harped on the need to visit Osu to enjoy the nightlife. But his words hardly made an impact due to our fatigue and hunger.
In the evening, for a bit of ‘fun’ three of us decided to take a stroll to a local bukateria which has all the traits of a Nigerian canteen. There, with 15 cedis (about N1100), you can have a hot meal that reminds you of local bukateria back home.
We also took time out to pay a visit to the massive Accra Mall where you are likely to find every nationality plodding along its exquisitely marbled walkways.
I planned to visit Osu on our return, even if for a fleeting moment.
Dan arrived very early the next day to take us to the airport. Bleary-eyed, we entered his cab. We were able to meander through the early morning Accra traffic and soon arrived at the airport where the other group was already waiting.
The rigour of checks this time around was less stressful though I still noticed the Ghanaian officials took extra time when scrutinising us. It was indeed funny sightseeing the officials order a few persons to consume the bottles of water left with them. The polite but stern Ghanaians didn’t want any of their ‘property’ leaving their shores.
I had thought the checks by the officials in Ghana were infuriating. I was soon to witness stricter ones by those to check us in for the Air Côte d’Ivoire flight to Abidjan.
The flight to Abidjan was mostly serene. The aircraft was larger thus had more space for one to relax.
The hostesses were patient while responding to the needs of the mixed passengers, both in French and English language. I soon dozed off as the aircraft lifted thousands of miles into the clouds.
I woke up to see an aerial view of Abidjan: twisting highways, rugged roads, corrugated sheets and small streams welcoming us to the capital of ‘Ivory Coast’.
The Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport, also known as Port Bouët Airport, is the largest airport in the country.
The airport is the central hub of the national airline Air Côte d’Ivoire. Named after the first president of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, this airport connects Europe — primarily via Air France.
Air France runs 14 weekly flights and A380 service, and also Brussels Airlines — and to the rest of Africa and the Middle East (travel.sygic.com). The airport is primarily served by over 20 airlines, covering more than 35 destinations.
The airport is managed by Aeria, a private Ivorian company.
We spent less than one and a half hours at the airport in Abidjan, but two things struck me about the place.
The buildings and structures on the ground were well-kept and smartly dressed officials complemented the whole exquisite airport.
The check-in officials, who interspersed their communication with us with French and English were extraordinarily polite but also firm. I also could not help but notice the extra scrutiny Nigerians (who are always prominent anywhere) were subjected to.
Interestingly, while other members of the team were frisked at the airport, I was passed by the young, energetic official without being searched.
At the airport, souvenirs could be seen on display with different price tags with harried traders beckoning to interested tourists. I pass.
Abidjan to Niamey
The Air Senegal, a massive airbus, transported us in less than an hour from Abidjan to Niamey.
The flight was uneventful except for a slight tremor we experienced at a point. I learnt the airline has a code-share agreement with Air Côte d’Ivoire.
We soon arrived at the Diori Hamani International Airport, located 9 km from Niamey in the South-eastern suburbs of the city, along the Route Nationale 1. The highway links Niamey with the eastern part of the nation.
The airport complex also includes the primary base for the Armed Forces of Niger (“Armee d’Air”).
The airport is named after Hamani Diori, the first President of Niger.
I learnt Niger Air Force maintains Base Aérienne 101 within the airport, and this is used by both the American and French armed forces for counter-terrorism operations.
Our check-in modalities were seamless at the airport partly because the UNDP officials had already helped us streamline the process.
Undergoing minor scrutiny and checks at one of the two entrance points, and we were good to go into the town. Our luggage had already been picked by the officials.
We hopped into a waiting bus and were soon headed for town.
Memories of Niamey
Niamey is located along the Niger River in the South-west corner of the republic.
According to britannica.com/place/Niamey, it originated as an agricultural village of Maouri, Zarma and the Fulani.
It was established as the capital of Niger colony in 1926, and after World War II it grew.
Today Niamey is occupied by the Yoruba and Hausa traders, merchants, officials, and artisans from West Africa.
The city, which lies mainly on the left (north) bank of the river, has expanded onto the right bank since the construction of the Kennedy Bridge in 1970.
The well-kept city hosts the University of Niamey, the National School of Administration (1963), the national museum, and research institutes for geology and minerals, human sciences, oral tradition, tropical forestry, tropical agriculture, and veterinary studies.
There is an international airport, and roads link Niamey with Atlantic ports in Benin and Nigeria.
Clean streets, armed personnel, ‘okada’, harsh weather
Perhaps, these four best represent the feeling one gets as one walks through the winding streets of Niamey.
We had already been warned by the organisers of the event not to venture too far from the two hotels that had been booked in advance for us: the gigantic Radisson Blu and the glittering Noom. Both will be our abode for the next three days.
Niger (Neejay) is one of the nations in the region currently battling the rampaging Boko Haram insurgents.
The intensity of the ongoing war can be subtly seen even in Niamey where security is tight in every street corner (at least the ones I passed through during my short foray into the town).
One other easily noticeable thing about the city is the high number of motorcyclists who throng the city. These apparently outnumber the cars. Female riders are numerous.
Also, for every male motorcyclist, there seem to be three females, weaving through the narrow streets. Everyone wears a helmet. Traffic laws are taken seriously here in the city.
A cab driver tells me in French, as soon as I boarded his vehicle, to put on my seatbelt. When he noticed from the expression on my face that I didn’t understand French, he gestured. I immediately complied.
The language barrier and poor knowledge of the nation’s currency would prove to be a knotty issue for some of us for those few days we spent in Niamey.
We had a humorous session when two colleagues unwittingly paid roughly N1500 (in West African CFA franc) from their hotel to ours, which was just a five-minute walk! The naira is much stronger than the CFA.
The weather in Niamey is also harsh. When the sun rises, it bites down with fury. On our the second day in the city, a windstorm raged for hours and sent everyone scampering for cover.
On one of the nights, we visited the city’s ‘downtown’ where we interestingly saw ‘bukas’ where local food such as fufu, jollof rice, eba and soups of all kinds were sold.
Mosquitoes found in Niamey were also one of a kind, indeed. They calmly perch on your skin without much ado and soon leave noticeable welts. The cosy interior of the expensive hotels where we lodged is certainly not a no go area for these ‘marauders’. It is not surprising when I come down with a terrible fever the next day.
Thankfully, one of the receptionists, Musa, who said he attended ABU, Zaria, served as my interpreter at the hotel’s clinic where a nurse attended to me.
We spent most of the hours of the day covering the conference which was attended by over 300 participants cutting across the West African region and global partners. It was an energy-sapping venture.
The event ended on Thursday, and we prepared for the long trip back to Abuja, again via Abidjan and Accra.
Osu at last
I finally got to visit Osu, in Accra en route Abuja, Friday night.
Osu, which is not far from the Kotoka Airport, is ensconced in a lively part of Accra. It consists of long winding streets brimming with life at night. It is also a tourist’s haven.
It is a bustling hub for commercial activities and exciting terrain for nightcrawlers.
As Dan, my Accra driver (who drives us again) said during my first visit, and it is an essential stop-over for any tourist coming into Accra.
In Osu, you will find many Ghanian restaurants, bars, museums and iconic structures which will keep you glued to a spot at times. There is also the National Theatre of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.
You will also find numerous supermarkets, shops and even ‘roadside joints’ where you find enterprising Ghanaians and other Africans making ends meet selling souvenirs to milling tourists.
I made friends with two Ghanaian from whom I bought some Kente material, wrist bands and keyholders after some spirited bargaining. I also bought some spicy food from one of the vendors, a lean, fair-skinned young man, who bore eerie resemblance with Ramsey Nouah.
I look forward to seeing the Osu Castle (Fort Christianborg), Republic Bar and Grill and the Jeggous Place, perhaps when I visit Accra next time.
For now, it is time to bid farewell to the enchanting city.