The Great West African Expedition

The Great West African Expedition

Chukuka Chukuma (CC) and Osaretin (OOG) are friends with 15+ years of shared life experiences, who recently co-authored a book detailing their career paths. The book titled In Pursuit – Journeys of African Entrepreneurs is available here. This article covers a trip in 2006, one of many trips together, narrated from both perspectives and compiled by Osaretin.

OOG: So Chukuka and I became friends in 2005 when we had a chance meeting in Lagos. Naturally, our friendship evolved to include our wives and children over the years. Early on in this process, when our families were still getting to know one another, we decided to take a family road trip from Lagos, Nigeria to Accra, Ghana. This exciting opportunity was headlined as the ‘Great West African Expedition’. Chukuka, who had done this trip several times prior, was excited to play tour-guide and share his many, real-life experiences with the group. According to him, there was a beautiful view from the coastal road that lay ahead linking Lagos to Accra through Cotonou and Togo which we were to experience on this much anticipated trip.

Now to embark on this trip with our nearest and dearest including 5 children under the age of 10, efficient preparation was key. For transportation, we made sure we had two relatively new, reliable, spacious vehicles that would ensure everyone’s comfort during long road trips. We had the cars serviced and maintained in advance and registered for travel across West African borders (we needed a special registration and pass for Francophone countries).

CC: Now this is my bit, as the West African travel expert. For this sort of trip at the time (circa 2006), there were 4 key things we needed to obtain: an international vehicle license; an international driver’s license and ECOWAS brown card (as it used to be called); at the Lagos-Benin border, the laissez-passer which extends the vehicle’s local insurance warranty across the ECOWAS countries; and a ‘seen on departure’ stamped brown card from Nigerian and Beninoire police at the Seme border to prevent car smuggling across borders. Without this stamp, we would have had to pay fresh import duties and taxes when returning to Nigeria.

OOG: Look at you pitching for hire as my personal travel assistant! Let me continue joor.

So I had the same logistics team that handled the car registration when the car was first purchased take care of the required travel documentation.

Our families jointly drew up a checklist to ensure we had everything covered before embarking on this true adventure, and we conducted a risk assessment of sorts. In general, traveling in Africa can be risky and dangerous, but traveling by road in a convoy with family is rife with multiple potential risk hazards. But as we weighed the pros and cons, we decided that the exciting opportunities presented by this ‘Expedition’ were within the reasonable boundaries for what we hoped would be a legendary trip.

CC: I simply love traveling by road to Accra, at this point I must have done it 20 times. The most scenic part is just 20 minutes beyond the Togo border where the Cotonou Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean meet. I used to try to leave Lagos early enough to stop at this spot and just watch the sun rise – Africa is truly beautiful and breathtaking.

OOG: I could not have attempted to make such a trip without you, my brother, with all these funny paper requirements. Like I said, legendary!!! So, imagine this scenario. We are now ready to go, D-day finally arrives. Cars are ready and loaded up, kids are seated and belted up after being dragged out of their beds earlier than they would have liked, and it’s time to get going. We are all looking forward to the break, and in fact, my wife and I went ahead and arranged for pest control to fumigate our house as we left. So, we travel in a convoy to pick up the last document we need to cross the border from the logistics team. On arrival, we are told it will be ready in an hour. But get this, one hour soon became 3, and then 5! By this time, it was getting too late to start the trip as we would have been crossing the first border into Benin Republic late at night. With the kids getting antsy and all the excitement slowly dissipating from us all, we realized that the trip wasn’t going to happen on that day, and also that we were homeless for the night, thanks to the fumigation making our home inaccessible for the night. Fortunately, we were able to spend the night with the Chukumas, fully determined to leave at first light the next day.

We needed no cock to crow or alarms in the morning as our renewed excitement was enough to wake us all bright and early. Everyone was ready to hit the road and begin our Great West African Expedition. Once again we loaded up the cars and off we went. As a kid I had always loved road trips, well here I was now the excited parent with my 3 babies strapped to their seats with lots of tasty meals, snacks and drinks packed for consumption throughout the trip.

It was an interesting drive to the border. We’d set out early enough to avoid the worst of Lagos traffic jams, but we were driving through unfamiliar parts of Lagos that my daily commute would never take me. We drove down some coastal roads as promised to get to the border. I have done quite a bit of traveling and only a few border crossings remain memorable, in fact most times we are clueless when we actually cross borders, especially in air travel. However, this Nigeria – Benin Republic border crossing completely lacked the ease of crossing the US – Canada border or the glamour of skiing across the Swiss border into France. I should mention that there were no rest stops on the way, and keep in mind that we had young kids with us on this trip. The only bathrooms, (and calling them bathrooms is exaggerating) were at the border. The state they were in was in one word, appalling! Anyway, the Nigeria – Benin Border felt like a cross between a war-zone and a marketplace; the process was essentially organized disorganization. We were only able to maneuver the circus with relative ease because Chukuka’s sister had sent her team to welcome us. So, we sailed through the madness clinking glasses as we were heralded into Republique Du Benin.

On arrival, we went to lunch with Chukuka’s sister, and I must say the delicious food helped us put all the stress behind us. Francophone West African countries have meals that are usually an amazing fusion of African and French cuisine.

CC: You know, we are both foodies and I have always loved Francophone food. My sister is also a great host and has lived in Cotonou for ages, so she knows all the best food spots. Though Benin Republic is not a rich country, but it is beautiful. Cotonou is situated by the Atlantic and has a number of lagoons which make it quite scenic. The French influence mixed with African heritage gives the city a certain je ne sais quoi feeling. The affluent people have a French style with African swag about them and tend to frequent Paris so are often adorned with the latest in French fashion trends mixed with our rich African design.

OOG: I still remember the food and our huge table filled with an assortment of food. I don’t know if that was brave of us, considering we were about to get back on the road with no further rest stops.

We hit the road, driving down coastal roads with beautiful beaches to our left; this was my Africa and she was indeed beautiful. I was so happy to be sharing this with my young family and my crew. We soon arrived at the next border of Benin Republic and Togo. Thankfully things here were so much more integrated and organized, so we expected to sail through into Togo and onward to Ghana.

Welcome to Togo

The way the border worked was that you would get stamped out of one country and then stamped into the other country. We were stamped out of Benin Republic, and then crossed over to be stamped into Togo. The Togo official who saw us pulled a grimace immediately, asking us in his thick accent to pull over behind the building. He looked through our paperwork and promptly announced that our vehicles were stolen as the paperwork did not match the car. Say what?! Such a joker!! I grabbed the documents and compared the details on them to my vehicle and to my dismay, horror and shock, my laissez-passer did not exactly match my car registration. It was off by a few numbers, same car but different numbers. So you would think this was bad enough, nope! This is the part that taught me about different types of sweat, I was already sweating as I was standing outside my car on a hot day speaking to the officials, but when I saw what came next I discovered a different level of uncontrollable sweating wholly unrelated to the weather. Not only did the travel papers arranged by the logistics company that had already delayed our trip by a day not match my car registration, the details on the car registration they had also prior processed did not match my car! The now grinning officer then said in a very self-satisfied manner that they would be keeping my car.

CC: Actually, what the guy actually said was “Sir, we will be keeping your car. You are free to take all your belongings including your wife and children, but this car stays here at the border”. And with that they locked the gate.

As for me, my issue was that my registration number matched up with the papers but the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) was written first horizontally and then when there was not enough space, they wrote the rest vertically so to at first glance, when you checked the paperwork only the first few numbers matched the full VIN on the car. Once I explained this anomaly, they released my car but were uncooperative when it came to releasing yours. This opportunity of impounding a Nigerian’s car seemed to really excite them for some inexplicable reason.

OOG: You mean once I explained your situation as I was the one who discovered it, you were fine, but we were really screwed. I don’t remember why I didn’t just let your people handle my papers.

So here we were sitting at the border with our kids for over 4 hrs., wasting precious time that we should have spent closing in on the Ghana border. The Togo officials were already celebrating their huge bust. I could see in their eyes the excitement at the prospect of calling a massive press conference to announce their Nigerian car-theft ring bust.

After another two hours of reasoning with these guys, we were unable to secure the release of my vehicle due to paperwork that had all the semblance of straight-up dodginess. Even I was dumbfounded at the magnitude of the errors. It was at this point that it started to dawn on us that actually getting to Ghana that day was no longer a possibility. In fact, it dawned on me that we would all be sleeping in the African bush that night if we didn’t get moving soon, as the border is somewhat set in a remote area. What’s extremely weird is we were supposedly busted as car smugglers, but they were more interested in keeping the vehicle than detaining us.

As a precursor to leaving if we really had no other option, I was rifling through the car and the glove compartment in desperation and found an old insurance card that stated my name and all the accurate numbers that matched the car. So, it came to pass that we managed to convince the officials that my car was indeed my car! Thank you Lord Jesus, Just like that they let us go. We turned around and headed back to Cotonou to stay at a hotel for the night.

The trip was an adventure indeed, in pursuit of an expedition that really was part of my baptism of fire as a returnee to Nigeria. One of the key things that had informed my decision to uproot my family from a comfortable life in the US to the hustle city of Lagos had been that I would get to show them Nigeria and West Africa, by road where possible. Now, this simple, fun road trip that was billed to be legendary quickly became a legendary non-starter as we never made it to Ghana by road! We did end up spending the next couple of days in Cotonou, where we had an amazing time on the beautiful beaches and enjoyed the delicious food.

CC: Great adventure indeed….

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