The Fun of Backpacking in Nigeria Pt 2: Mistaken for a Terrorist

It’s not what lies at the end of the road that makes travel irresistible, but the road itself. When I returned to Nigeria last November, I needed an excuse to trek around the country, a reason to get from point A to point B, and in between I expected to see things, to encounter interesting characters, and maybe to get an insight into the Nigerian way of life. I told you about some of this in the last post, and I promised to tell you about my escapades with security men.
The road is more fun than the destination.
Only in Nigeria will you see people hawking raw meat!


The excuse I gave myself was that I wanted to see old palaces, not the grand tourist attractions, but the little ones that you hardly hear about. So I spent a lot of time searching online, and I came up with a few targets, some of which were mentioned in less than five websites. I have a thing for old buildings, I think I am an architectural tourist, whatever that means, so when I heard of mud structures that were a thousand years old, my appetite soared. Because of time, I could not travel more than five hours from Lagos. The itinerary I came up with would take me from Abeokuta to Ibadan, to Idanre, to Akure, then to Lagos. Of these sites Idanre is the most popular, and it features prominently in many tourist sites, so I nearly struck it off my list, but they said it was up on a plateau that had stayed unchanged since the early 1900s so it promised to be an adventure.
 
Irefin Palace, Ibadan, Nigeria. Families still live in it.


A market thrives outside Irefin Palace, Ibadan, Nigeria

The first I went to was Irefin Palace in Ibadan, and only after I got there did I realize why it’s not a popular attraction. I thought it would be a prominent landmark in the city, but nobody knew where it was, or even what it was. I had to use Google maps to direct the okadaman. When he saw the building, he asked; “Is this the place you are coming to visit?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “What do you want to see in this place?”

I did not have an answer, and for a moment I thought Google maps had deceived me and led me to a market with women selling vegetables under a veranda. But the building was made of wood and mud, and the houses in the neighborhood had the feel of history, so I thought I'd look around. I asked the vegetable women just to confirm that I was in the right place, and they said “Yes, it is a palace.” I walked in. I expected a booth where I'd pay an entry fee, as is the norm in touristy places, but there was only a couple of men idling at the entrance. I asked them if I could take a look. “First see the chief,” one said, and pointed at a veranda. When I heard ‘chief,’ I thought of Nollywood, fancy agbada and fancy regalia, but I met a simply dressed man. He looked elderly, maybe fifty. I thought he would take me to the chief, but he said he was the chief, so I told him I wanted to see his palace….

“Why?” he asked, cutting me short. His eyes on my camera. “Why are you interested in this palace?”

I thought that was self-explanatory, but now the question the okadaman asked seemed to make sense. To me, it’s a historical relic, a tourist attraction. To them, it’s just another old building in the neighborhood. Why would anyone want to see it? I tried my best to explain my motivation, but words failed me. How could I express my desire to see a building that was about two hundred years old? So I put it in the simplest way. “I’m a tourist,” I said. I showed off my camera, hoping it would drive the point home.

“Nobody told me you were coming!” the chief said. “Whenever visitors are to come, I am informed in advance. So get out. Go!”


I felt like a fool. The few websites that mentioned Irefin said nothing about informing anyone in advance. I soon learned that in spite of it being a historical monument, it is a home to several families, and so walk-in tourists will always find it tricky to see the place. I wish they had explained this in the websites! So I explained to the man, who I learned was not a chief but a caretaker, that I had come from very far away and did not......

“Where is the permission?” he cut in again. “You say you come from very far, where is the document allowing you to come here?”

I tried to tell him about my visa, but he did not seem to understand the concept, so I gave up and asked instead, Where can I go to get this permission?”

“I don’t know,” he said, and he started to shout at me. “Tourists come here in big numbers! We get big groups of people from America, from England, from Canada. Why are you alone?” He again gave my camera a long look, and now I begun to fear that he wanted to take it. “What is your mission?”

My mission? I kept hearing that phrase over the next few days. I think they are used to tourists in big tour cars, with tour guides, and who do not look African. Whites, Asians, whatever. I think they found it difficult to digest the concept of a broke traveler hoofing it solo from an African country they had never heard about.

“How did you learn about this place?” the ‘chief’ asked while I struggled to explain that I did not have any 'mission', and was a solo version of the white tourists he was used to.

“From the internet,” I replied, and then he exploded.

“Get out! GO! GO!” he started to shove me. I stumbled away from him. I thought he was going to beat me. “You will not be allowed to take photos of this place! Go!”

I was baffled. I do not know what he expected me to say. Where else could I have learned about Irefin? I got angry, and started to hurry out, but then, one of the men I had spoken to at the gate talked to the ‘chief’ in their language, and a few seconds later the chief calmed down, and he said to me, “Okay, take the pictures.”

I suspected a trap. I became a little wary. What was all that drama about? One moment he was screaming at me, the next he allowed me to tour the palace? Still, I looked around. I took pictures, but I was uneasy and I did not enjoy the visit. After only a few minutes, I thanked him and walked. I thought the buildings in the area would be of more interest, maybe I could chat up with the locals and ask them about the history of these buildings. So I started to take pictures, as I looked out for someone to talk to. Then, two men stopped me.

“Why are you taking pictures?” they asked.
Fascinating building just outside Irefin palace, Ibadan.

Another interesting piece of architecture, somewhere in Ibadan.
I did not want to say I was a tourist again, so I said "I’m a travel blogger. I’m a writer. I’m learning about ancient Nigeria." That explanation had worked before. In Abeokuta it got me to see a masquerade. A year earlier in Lagos whoever had asked nodded in understanding and walked away without any drama. I had a very friendly smile as I talked to the two men. Maybe they would eventually tell me about the old, fascinating buildings all around me.

But they had grim faces. “Where is your ID,” they asked, and I stopped smiling. I showed them my passport, but they did not understand what it was. “This is not issued by the government,” they said, and I smiled even louder, “Oh, I’m not Nigerian,” I said. “I’m from Uganda.” I pointed at the words on my passport that spelled out Uganda.

“Uganda?” They said. “We have never heard of it. You look like Hausa. You are from the North.”

“No,” I said, laughing. “I’m not Nigerian.” I hurriedly dropped the Nollywood accent that I was using. Too late. While it had gotten me good rates when shopping and while it ensured Okadamen did not cheat me, it had backfired. These men identified themselves as members of something called the Civil Defense. They thought I was rec-ing the place for Boko Haram. Now I wondered why the men at the palace had allowed me to tour it after the outburst. Had it been a trick to keep me there as they summoned these operatives? “Why are you taking pictures? What is your mission?” They asked over and over again. A mob formed very quickly. Everyone was shouting at me. The women were the worst. When they started to prod me with their fingers, I knew I was in trouble.

“Why are you interested in this place?” they asked. “Why are you taking pictures of this place?”

“It’s a tourist site!” I screamed. I wanted to tell them about my desire to see buildings that are old, that have survived the test of time, but the words got choked in my throat, and I was now trembling and afraid, for it would take only a spark and they would start beating me up. They did not believe I was not Nigerian. They were convinced I was Hausa and a Boko Haram agent. “Who are you? What is your name? What is your mission?” They asked repeatedly. “What is your mission?”

Then an okada came by. “Jump on,” one of the men who claimed to be from the civil defense said. “We are taking you to the police.” I got on the bike quickly for I wanted to get away from the mob before it turned berserk. The man climbed behind me. Only after we rode off did I realize that I might be in a kidnap situation. I thought of screaming at bystanders to alert them, but I kept my cool. The okada was speeding and I was afraid of causing a commotion that would result in a terrible accident. I was immensely relieved when the bike stopped at a place marked immigration, but now I was wary of bribes, so the moment I jumped off the bike I threw a tantrum. I went to the nearest uniformed man and said, “These men are harassing me! They are kidnapping me! I’m just a tourist but why are they harassing me!” The trick was to become the complainant, and to get the uniforms to take me to an officer other than whoever the defense guy was taking me to, and it worked.

We ended up in an office with a crowd of uniformed officers, though there was only one desk. It was hard to tell who was senior, if it was a mess room of some sort, or whether it was an actual office. The uniformed men around the desk questioned the two men in their language, but I kept up my outburst. “Speak English!” I said. “Speak a language I understand!” The officers were not amused, but continued in English. They questioned the two men, and praised them for being vigilant. Now I knew I was in real trouble. One of them asked for my passport, he checked it, and passed it around the room. They questioned me, and after hearing my side of the story, I was surprised when they berated the two men for harassing me. “You have to forgive them,” one said to me. “There are security concerns in this country and you look like you are from the north. They had to be careful since you are carrying a black bag.” As he handed me back my passport, he added; “You are lucky you are not Nigerian, otherwise we would have put you in jail first and asked questions later.”

Now scared of Ibadan, I hurried to the motor garage and took a bus to Idanre. I went to the palace the next day, expecting trouble, but it is very touristy. I paid a thousand naira at the gate and got a guide for another thousand to take me up to the palace. At the end of the day I wrote off the Irefin experience as an exception, so when I went to Akure I had sort of forgotten about it and thought it there would be no trouble. Wrong.

Me at Idanre. Do I look like a Hausa?
A statue of a soldier at Idanre palace.
There are two palaces in Akure, the new one is right beside the old one. Since I came upon the new one first, I walked up to a man at the gate and asked; “I want to see the old palace. Where can I start?”

He looked at the camera dangling from my neck, he looked at my face for a few seconds, and then said, “Follow me.” We went to another gate, which I took to be the gate to the old palace, and I thought he was going to take me to an office where I would pay an entry fee and get a guide, but he took me to another man who he said is the ‘chief’.

“What is your mission?” this chief said. I had a sense of de javu. I knew it was going to be repeated all over again. “Where is the permission allowing you to come here?” the chief asked. I showed him my passport, and my visa, and he got angry. “I didn’t ask for your visa! I want to see the government document allowing you to come here!”

I got angry too. “What document is that?” I asked.

“I don’t know!” he said.

“Then why are you asking me for it?” I said.

I regretted asking that question, for at once a uniformed guard jumped in, pointing his gun at me. “Open your bag!” he said. “Open it!”

Again, a mob formed very quickly. We were in the veranda of this building, there were a lot of people. It seemed like a waiting area because there were benches and stuff like that, and doors opening to offices. There were about a hundred people or so, and now they crowded around me, and the gun was right in my face.

“Isn’t this a tourist place?” I said. I do not know why the anger stayed in my voice. I had not raised my voice in many, many years, but here I was, shouting at Nigerians twice in three days. I think they only listen to you when you shout at them. “What document then are you asking for? There was nothing about that in the Ondo state government website! It said Akure old palace is open for visits between eight and four pm! Nothing about documents! If you people don’t want tourists to come to your palace just say so! Take it off the websites! Unlist it! Don’t waste our time!”

A man grabbed my bag, to forcefully open it, but I clung on to the bag. I wrenched it off him. I did not care that a gun was pointed at my nose. “Let him open it!” the armed man said, and the other let goof the bag. "Open it!" the gunman said to me again.

It was a black backpack. I put it on the ground, and flung the contents out, “Look! Look!” I screamed. “Is this what you want to see!” There was nothing in there, no bomb, no guns, just a few t-shirts, a pair of jeans, a toothbrush, a roll of tissue (I had learned my lesson), and my laptop.

“Go before we arrest you,” the chief said. “Get out! Go!” And they shoved me out of the gate.

I walked away so pissed, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering if it was all just security concerns or if I had failed to see some cultural thing. I could not help asking myself; Would I be treated like this if I were a white person? Or if I had come as part of a tour group? (When I told this story to a Canadian friend, a white man who has been to Nigeria several times, he told me he was once thrown into jail in Lagos for taking pictures of the National Theater. He could not understand what his crime was, or why the policemen were harassing him, for they did not even ask for bribes, and he would have been in serious trouble if he did not know a prominent play write whose play was running.)

Just next to the palace is a museum, and I went in, now in defiance, for I wanted to see if I would be turned away as well. The first question I was asked was, “What is your mission?” and I started to bark at the man who asked it. “Why do you people list these in tourist sites when you don’t trust solo black tourists?” He could not understand my anger, and I felt foolish shouting at him, so I explained that I had been denied entry into the old palace for unknown reasons. "Come tell my oga," he said, and led me to the oga in charge of the Museum. I forget his title.

The oga, on hearing my story, apologized for the way I was treated. “You should understand the security concerns,” he said. “You look like Hausa from the north and you are carrying a black backpack. There could be a bomb inside that bag. It’s black, you know. Maybe if it was red they would not bother you too much, but black….” I looked at my bag and wondered if terrorists used only black bags.

When the oga satisfied himself that I was nothing other than a writer exploring the old palaces of Nigeria, he again apologized for the way the palace people had treated me. “You should have come to us first,” he said. “These palaces are under the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. If you had come to our office, you would have walked into any palace without trouble. You wouldn't have even paid a thousand naira to enter Idanre.”

But why isn’t that information available anywhere? No website mentioned it! I would not have known about it if I had not walked into that museum. Probably the tour companies know. That I think is the problem with tourism in many countries in Africa. They market to travelers who use tour guides and companies, and often they target people from Europe, America, and Asia, not fellow Africans.

The oga then called one of his staff, Odutola Christian, and instructed him to give me a tour of the old palace, just so that I don’t leave with only bad things to write about Nigeria. Odutola is not a guide, but he gave me a tour, although he had other pressing duties, and I learned a lot about the palace, for he is an architect and is involved in a project to preserve it. I learned things I would not have learned from any guides. So in the next post, I will review three palaces.

Odutola leads me through the old palace in Akure
Idanre. Beautiful History.

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