Cyril Orji

Christmas travel in Southeast Nigeria is a 2022 Christmas trip report by Dr. Cyril Oji, a Diaspora Nigerian living in the United States.

My wife and I traveled by Ethiopian Airlines, which flies into many Nigerian cities, including Lagos in the western part of the country and Enugu in the eastern region. Our holiday plans required that our inbound flight be into Lagos. But since our ultimate destination, my hometown Arochukwu was in the east part of the country, we needed a domestic flight to one of the smaller regional airports in the east.

Incidentally, events were taking place fast in Nigeria, and we couldn’t trust the availability of these domestic flights back to Lagos. Given those uncertainties, we opted to travel out of Enugu on our return leg. The idea was that while we could drive to Enugu from Arochukwu (about 100 miles), going to Lagos from Arochukwu (about 400 miles) wasn’t a serious option.

It was becoming hazardous to travel by road in the East

Unfortunately, with time, conditions in the eastern part of the country continued to worsen, making it a challenge to travel by road between any two big cities in the East. Sit-at-home has become a weapon many splinter groups have used to terrorize people in the East. The idea was that on certain days people were forced to sit at home in solidarity with the detained IPOB (Indigenous People Of Biafra) leader, Nnamdi Kanu.

These groups are armed and shoot at sight anyone who disobeys their order. What is happening in Nigeria’s eastern states is near complete anarchy, and no one seems to be able to address it. It has gone beyond sit-at-home. These hoodlums kidnap for ransom. The impact on international visitors like us is immense. We couldn’t move around freely. And at some point, one never fails to ask: What am I doing here? Yet, next December, more people head back to Nigeria.

There’s no doubt that many Nigerians in the diaspora have given up on the country. However, there’s probably a more significant number whose umbilical cords tying them to the country have not been cut and will head back to Nigeria every Christmas season. A discussion of the possible reasons for this behavior is beyond the scope of this report.

How Safe is Arochukwu?

My hometown Arochukwu has continued to be relatively safe. I have written about the bad roads to and in my town. Many believe that the bad roads may be part of what is shielding us from the dangers elsewhere. Moreover, most of the problems arising from the so-called sit-at-home are in the Igbo area of Nigeria. Incidentally, Arochukwu is a border town in the Igbo area and is very close to Uyo in the non-Igbo Akwa Ibom State. The impact is that most of us from Arochukwu now prefer to travel from Lagos to Uyo than from Lagos to an Igbo city like Owerri. So on this trip, my wife and I avoided Owerri, opting to travel from Lagos by air to Uyo and then by road to our house in Arochukwu.

Our international flight

View of Newark from a plane window

We traveled on Thursday, December 15, 2022, from Newark to Lagos via Lomé, Togo. We had a 3-hour departure delay due to bad weather in Newark. The one unfortunate incident was that the airline ground crew may not have protected our checked-in luggage from the rain. The result was that our belongings in our bags were wet by the time we unpacked at our destination almost 24 hours later. Aside from that, it was a smooth flight to Lomé and Lagos.

Given that Nigeria is too corrupt to operate an airline, I’m not sure if it makes sense to discuss how impressed I was with Ethiopian airlines. Many have not forgotten the unfortunate crash of the Boeing 737 Max. But suffice it to say that the aircraft on the Newark Lome route was a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Unless I’m mistaken, all the staff on the flight, from the Captain to the flight attendants, were Ethiopians. And I was very proud of them. I was particularly impressed with the flight attendants’ professionalism and decency.

Transit in Lomé, Togo

Lomé International Airport

At this time last year, Togolese manhandled Nigerians arriving at Lomé via Ethiopian airlines. As many may or may not recall, ASKY airlines partners with Ethiopian airlines to transport Nigerian passengers arriving via Ethiopian airlines to Lagos. Due to a problem with the ASKY computer system, the airline lost the bookings of many Nigerians coming with Ethiopian airlines. These Nigerians were stranded, and when some protested too vigorously, the Togolese descended on them. It still gives me nightmares to reflect on the video clips of the Togolese beating up Nigerians at Lomé airport. In any event, such fate did not befall us this year, and the transit was orderly.

Passport control in Lagos

Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos

I must commend the professionalism of the passport control officers in Lagos. One good factor was that we arrived in Lagos at about 4:30 pm local time, ahead of the evening hours when most European flights arrived. So, the crowd was smaller than one saw during rush hours. That notwithstanding, more passport officers were added instead of the deliberate effort to clog the queue and slow processing down. When no one was on the line for foreign passports, the officers in those cubicles started taking clients with Nigerian passports, which would be taken for granted elsewhere except in Nigeria. As a result, we went through passport control and customs in record time.

A day in Lagos

The first challenge was to link my NIN (Nigeria Identification Number) to my MTN telephone number. This was supposed to be straightforward since I have a NIN and an MTN phone number. Incidentally, an MTN agent told me that the picture he took on the spot did not match the image of the person associated with my phone number. The problem, I later discovered, was that hawkers of SIM cards in Nigeria usually uploaded fake photographs after selling SIM cards to customers. MTN would not allow an override of the picture already in the system — so the linking process failed.

A workaround was for me to buy a new SIM card – hence a new phone number. Nothing is ever easy in Nigeria. There were other problems I don’t have space to describe here. The final solution was that I was forced to buy a small Nokia phone and use it to make and receive calls with the new SIM. The old SIM in my iPhone still received calls with the old number, but MTN had blocked it from making outgoing calls.

Lagos Traffic

We ran into a traffic jam in Lagos that I had never seen before. There were countless trailers, tippers, buses, and cars stacked for miles at an Igbo-dominated area of Lagos called Okota (I hope my recollection is good.) Driving in Lagos can be lawless. Even on an East-West expressway, it is common to see an eastbound vehicle on the westbound lane. So as a Lagos driver, you have to be on alert. Another common thing in Lagos traffic is this: Suppose the eastbound lanes are clogged; you see drivers moving to the westbound lanes and driving in reverse. So the claim would be that they were trying to reverse, not going against the traffic. Recently one of such vehicles going in reverse knocked down and killed a pedestrian. The driver was lynched on the spot, and his vehicle was set ablaze. Lagos justice can be jungle-like.

We still needed to travel a mile from 7:30 pm to 11 pm. Now and then, something would happen that made you feel the line was about to open, but to no avail. The friend driving with us told me that the experience typified what Nigerians have been going through under the Buhari administration. Something would happen that made you feel the government had a plan but failed. I am trying to remember how many gutters and pavements we jumped over to get onto the Apapa Oshodi expressway — which was different from our desired route. Finally, we got on that road, it was all clear, and we finally reached our destination at about midnight. Lagos is insane when it comes to traffic.

Domestic air travel: From Lagos to Uyo

Given the craziness of Lagos traffic, we moved into a hotel in Ikeja to reduce the chance of missing our 9:30 am flight to near zero. As a result, we left our hotel by 6:15 am. My goodness, it was already jampacked all over. In any event, what could have been, at most, a 15-minute trip took nearly 90 minutes, but we were at the airport in good time only to learn that our flight had been delayed to 12:40 pm.

Flight delays are expected, though not unique to Nigeria. For example, I had reported a 3-hour delay during our departure from Newark. But there’s always something interesting about the Nigerian experience. For example, consider these two announcements back-to-back at the Murtala Mohamed airport in Lagos.

“May I have your attention, ladies and gentlemen? Dana Airline announces a 2-hour delay for flight 403 to Port Harcourt due to bad weather at the destination. Dana Airline regrets the inconvenience to our customers.”

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen, this is a boarding announcement for United Nigeria flight 7845 to Port Harcourt. All ticketed passengers on United flight 7845 to Port Harcourt should proceed to gate 7 for boarding. Thank you.”

The problem is why Dana Airline sees lousy weather in Port Harcourt while United does not. But who cares or believes what they are saying?

Christmas and New Year in Arochukwu

Arochukwu has continued to be a peaceful place, especially during the holiday season. We partied as much as we wanted. Everywhere was generally safe. Throughout my stay, I heard two stories of an attempt to snatch a phone and another attempt to grab a lady’s handbag. But there was nothing in the order of criminal activities in the major Igbo cities. For example, a few days after Christmas, some policemen acting as escorts for a former governor of Imo State were shot by unknown gunmen in or around Owerri.

But in Arochukwu, it was all merriment. Our Christmas mass lasted from 10.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. The last two hours were often for fundraising. We have all got used to it, given that the parish priest had explained that it was the money he raised during this festive period to run the parish for the rest of the year. It usually would start with families giving thanksgiving to God. Then, the family would line up from the back of the church with their friends and well-wishers as they sang and danced to the front of the altar, where the priest stood waiting to accept the gifts and bless the givers.

This was a village church, so in many cases, friends and well-wishers translated to everyone in the church. It became rowdy sometimes, but that was part of the festivity. No one was in a hurry, especially those returning from abroad. We knew people were watching us because we were the ones with money. A friend once asked me, “If you didn’t have money, why did you return?”

After church, people drifted to the homes of the many who must have extended invitations to them. Those who gave thanksgiving in the church often followed it up with a party at home. It is usually a long day. If my recollection is correct, I didn’t return to my house from church on New Year’s day until late in the evening.
In Arochukwu, the holiday season is peaceful. Aside from the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, people arrange weddings, anniversaries, and sometimes burials during this period. The idea is to take advantage of the fact that many people return home. So, it is never a dull moment in Arochukwu during the holiday season.

One thing that needed to be improved in Arochukwu was the telephone network. Nigerians are used to poor network connections. Many Nigerians have as many mobile phones as there are mobile phone providers. The reason is that depending on where you are, only MTN signals might come through; elsewhere, it could be, Airtel, Glo, 9Mobile, or whatever. It has become a status symbol for “big ladies” to have a personal assistant whose sole job is to carry Madam’s mobile phones. This personal assistant’s job is to know which phone to hand over to Madam and which network is available anywhere. This is Nigeria. Think about it. Imagine someone in the United States carrying many mobile phones because Verizon signals are available in some places; hence, only Verizon phones work in such areas. Ditto Tmobile or AT&T in other areas.

My two Nigerian telephone numbers are MTN because I didn’t know any better. And during the Christmas period, MTN had zero connectivity near my house in the village. So no one could reach me. A friend from out of town tracing my house was within a mile of my house and could not get me on the phone for directions. So the only people able to reach me were a few friends who knew that the driver with me had a phone with two SIM cards, one MTN and the other Airtel. So they would call his Airtel number, and he would hand the phone to me.

Inter-city travel in the East

The network challenges notwithstanding, Christmas was still fun in Arochukwu. But every good thing must come to an end at some point. So as the holidays were ending, everyone had to start thinking of how to get back home. So while those of us in Arochukwu moved freely within Arochukwu, the challenge was inter-city travel. For me, this was troubling because I had to travel by road to Enugu to catch my return flight. Umuahia-Enugu expressway was generally safe but only partially safe. Random tragic incidents have taken place along that route. And that is the straightforward route from Arochukwu to Enugu. But a more secure way was from Arochukwu to Ohafia (probably the worst stretch of road in Nigeria – if not in the world), then through some villages in Ebonyi state, and then into Enugu State.

Arochukwu – Ohafia: The worst road in the world!

This would bring one back to the Umuahia-Enugu expressway after cutting off the dangerous spots around Okigwe and the Fulani settlement, which Lokpanta has become. The safest alternative was to travel by air. However, given that no two cities in the East are connected by direct air traffic, it would require a trip first to Abuja or Lagos and then to Enugu. Thus for me to travel from Uyo to Enugu, it would be Uyo to Lagos, then Lagos to Enugu.
I felt comfortable traveling by road via the poorly maintained Ohafia road. And for reasons I need not go into, rather than go with my 2004 Toyota Sequoia, I opted to travel by public transportation using a famous bus line, “Oha Enu” (Ohafia to Enugu) Transport Service. This way, and with the proper dress code, I could blend with the other passengers just like any regular Okeke Okonkwo. We left Arochukwu at 7:30 a.m. and arrived at Enugu just before noon. I wasn’t worried because I’d learned that you can only do one thing daily in Nigeria. So for me, January 5, 2023, was penciled in as “Travel to Enugu from Arochukwu.” This is the only thing for the day. That’s Nigeria. One task a day. And you must start in the morning — just in case.

Fuel cost

Before Christmas, we bought fuel at about N250 a liter. On  January 5, 2023, at Ohafia, it was selling for N400 a liter. It wasn’t that bad in Enugu. My recollection may need clarification, but it was still about N300 a liter. If one had a whole day to buy fuel, the person queued up at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) stations selling N185 a liter.

Two nights in a hotel in Trans Ekulu Enugu

10 facts about enugu
Enugu, the Coal City

I grew up in Coal Camp Enugu before and immediately after the Nigerian civil war (1967 to 1970). So, to a large extent, I knew Enugu very well. But the city has changed. New areas have sprung up, and the old regions have changed – mainly for the worse. So, interestingly, I needed to be shown around Enugu.

My nephew, who traveled with me from Arochukwu, has an in-law, Udoka (not his real name), who lives in Trans Ekulu, one of the newer areas in Enugu.

Udoka is a business guy, and he knows Enugu very well.

He helped me check into a decent hotel in Trans Ekulu. I was alone, given that my wife had returned to the US immediately after Christmas. I was able to change her departure from Enugu to Lagos. Thus the issue of traveling by road to Enugu during her departure did not arise. She flew to Lagos.

But back to my check-in into the Trans Ekulu hotel. I took their deluxe room without any bells and whistles. I needed just a safe place to sleep at night. The rate was fifteen thousand naira a night, including breakfast. The hotel neighborhood looked safe, but I did not risk walking around. The first night was peaceful. The following day, my whole day in the city, Udoka, gave me a tour of some parts of Enugu. It was nostalgic visiting my childhood “yard” at 34 Chukwuani Street in Coal Camp. A discussion of that visit is beyond the scope of this report. However, my impression was that things were getting much worse than I thought.

I had a scary experience in the hotel on my second and last night. At about 1:30 am, many young women were screaming and shouting in the hallways. That quickly woke me up. I was afraid and didn’t want to turn on any lights. The screaming and shouting continued. After some time, I tapped on my iPhone and used its glow to check the time. It was 2:15 a.m., and the women had not slowed down. In this situation, only evil thoughts were crossing my mind.

Remember that this was the last night of my trip. Could these girls have pimps waiting to attack any hotel guests who dared to open their rooms and ask why the noise? I wasn’t going to risk anything. I told myself, “Even if they banged on the room door, I must stay quiet.” In the United States, I would have called 911. But in Nigeria, who do you call?

Finally, the noise died down at about 3:30 am. By 7.00 a.m., I confronted the hotel front desk staff to ask what was happening at night.

“Daddy, sorry, sir. We warned those girls not to disturb our guests. They had a baby shower, which was the reason for the noise.”

Akanu Ibiam Airport, Enugu

Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu

Trans Ekulu is about a fifteen-minute drive to the Enugu airport. While there was no risk of the type of traffic jam in Lagos, I requested to be dropped off early, if for nothing, to release Udoka and my nephew so they could move on to whatever they had to do. The first shock at the airport was the manual search of luggage. The custom officer was offensively ransacking people’s belongings, and I told him so.

“This is the only place in the world they ransack a traveler’s belongings in this manner, and it’s offensive. Why don’t you use a scanner?”

One of the customs officer’s co-workers told me angrily that the scanner was spoilt. He lectured me that I should be grateful for the manual search. Otherwise, no one could travel until they fixed the scanner. I wouldn’t take any of that lecture, and I fired back.

“My friend, I am Igbo like you. I don’t care whether the scanner is bad or you guys spoiled the scanner so that you can do a manual search. I’m telling you that this is the only place on planet earth where you manually ransack a traveler’s luggage in this manner. Look at what you guys are doing to that man’s belongings,” I said, pointing at the bag they were searching.

“Suppose his wife’s underwears are there; what the f…ck are you doing running your fingers through them? This is insane.”

In the past, I dressed somewhat too casually when I traveled. But that ended with a bad experience which I need more space to narrate here. So my standard travel dress code now is slightly above business casual; usually, a jacket and a hat to match. To be completely clear, there are two dress codes – one for international air travel and the other that is more of a disguise outfit for travel within Nigeria.

Then it was my turn to be searched. The customs officer asked for my passport, and I gave him my American and Nigerian passports. He then spoke to me in Igbo, trying to convince me that the search was in the travelers’ best interest. I would not have any of that. I opened my first luggage but I had a second luggage, then my carry-on, and a backpack.

“What is in that ShopRite bag?” The officer asked, pointing at a plastic ShopRite bag containing ground egusi, ogbono, and other Nigerian food items.

I told him what they were. Next, he pointed at a big can at the other end of the bag without touching anything.

“That’s powdered Peak milk. I grew up with Peak milk,  Tate and Lyle sugar, and cabin biscuit in Coal Camp. And I still love having them for coffee breaks in my office.”

“Daddy, you like these Nigerian things, yet you are so angry with us?” That was from a lady who had been eyeing me intensely, unsure what to make of me.

“I never told you that I don’t love my country. It’s just f…cked up and messed up. That’s all.”

Everyone laughed. The customs officer shook his head and said, “Daddy, don’t worry, have a safe flight.” He closed the open luggage. I moved on without him searching the luggage or requesting the others to be opened.

I reported earlier about the pleasant experience at passport control in Lagos. The experience at Enugu was not just awful; it was disgraceful. You had about six people manning a boot where only one person should have been. One is smiling at you. Another is asking about your wife and children. Another asks whether “daddy has anything for us for the new year.” They are admiring your passport as if that was the first time they saw one. They were just a nuisance. I had some harsh words with them, but I moved on quickly.

Transit in Addis Ababa

The passengers on the flight from Enugu spent a night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, before continuing to Newark the following morning. In simple terms, the professionalism at Addis Ababa was at par with what you see in any European or American airport. Yet, I kept asking myself, “What happened to my country, Nigeria?” Everything in Addis Ababa was like clockwork: the passport control officers, the hotel buses waiting to take us to our hotels, the receptionists at the hotels, and so on and so on. Yet, the most educated and brilliant among us is satisfied with the status quo in Nigeria, provided somebody from his ethnic group is in power.

There were two minor issues with the transit in Addis Ababa. First, the Dreamliner Hotel where I stayed looked like an old hotel. My room had no A/C; most of the faucets and toilet flush were not working correctly. But I managed. Second, at the airport, security checks were too many. Before one stepped into the airport building, there was a complete TSA-like security screening. Next, before passport control, there was a similar second screening. They conducted a third similar screening at the gate before entering the boarding area – all these in under 30 minutes. But eventually, we were airborne and on time.

However, I would not recommend this route to anyone. Think about it. We flew four hours from Enugu east to Addis Ababa and spent twelve hours in the hotel. Then we flew five hours west from Addis Ababa to Lomé, Togo. In other words, we retraced our paths, passing Enugu, where we took off from, and continuing to Lomé. At Lomé, passengers from Lagos joined us. We then flew eleven hours non-stop to Newark. It was an unnecessary trip around the world. I don’t recommend it to anyone. But well, Nigeria doesn’t have anything, and Ethiopia has no choice but to use its central hub at Addis Ababa to route flights.

My impression of Nigeria

Although I have spent more time in the United States than in Nigeria, my formative years were in Nigeria. I still love the country, though I am still looking for its future. I have many well-educated Nigerian friends in the diaspora. However, discussing Nigeria with them has yet to give me hope. Ethnicity, so ingrained in us, trumps every other consideration. The Nigerian civil war ended in 1970. Since then, every year has been worse than the preceding year. Nigeria has become the laughingstock of the world. Despite our wealth and education, we are far from smaller African countries like Ethiopia and Ghana. And we, the so-called educated elites, are happy with the status quo provided somebody from our ethnic group is in power or somebody from a particular ethnic group is not.

So sad.

Enugu Metro

Christmas travel in Southeast Nigeria