Reporting Nigeria for Europe

Gerbert van der Aa
Gerbert van der Aa

Following a study by PricewaterCoopers, a multinational professional services company, that Nigeria would be a superpower in the 12 to 17 years, European investors and others want to read about the country and its investment opportunities

By Olu Ojewale  |  May 6, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

AT A time in Europe when a lot of people had nothing good to say about Nigeria, Gerbert van der Aa, a Dutch freelance journalist, did not allow all the depressing stories to frighten him. He visited the country in 1989. Since then, the pull to return to the country has remained very strong. Now, he is a regular visitor to the country. Besides, van der Aa finds it more convenient to come into the country by road, all the way from The Netherlands.

There seems to be a synergy between him and Nigeria. He loves visiting Nigeria because, according to him, he was impressed by the country. “I was really impressed by the country. Once you come to Nigeria, you discover that it really is a nice country to travel. People are very kind,” van der Aa told Realnews. Besides, a study by PricewaterCoopers, a multinational professional services company, had predicted that by 2025 or 2030, Nigeria would be a super power. This created a lot of interest in Europe about investing in Nigeria and people were eager to read about the country and investment opportunities available. Hence, van der Aa found Nigeria a veritable place to get good stories for his readers in The Netherlands.

Van der Aa comes into Africa through Morocco, with the ferry from the south of Spain to Tangiers, which normally took about 30 minutes to his destination. From there he would drive south to Mauritania, along the coast, to Mali, Niger and then, Nigeria by the north. “In the past, I also entered Africa through Algeria. But the Algerians now refuse visa to most journalists. And at a time, I drove to Chad from Libya,” he said.

But the journey is not always as easy as he makes it look. In the summer of 1992, van der Aa was kidnapped while driving from Algeria to Mali in a Peugeot 505. “It happened near the town of Tessalit by the north of Mali. Four Tuaregs stopped me and threatened to shoot me. Then they held me hostage for one day. While driving me through the dessert, I asked them about their plans, but I did not get an answer. In the middle of the night, they liberated me. While still in the far distance, I could see some lights. They said that was the Algerian town of Bordj Mokhtar. They had smuggled me over the border,” he said. His captors mercifully returned his passport and gave him a bottle of water, but kept his car and all of his money. Van der Aa said he nearly could not make it because it was a far distance to Bordj Moktar.

Exhausted and frustrated, he entered a police station, where he was given food and water. “Two days later, the police paid for my transport to the town of Adrar, and gave me some money for food. In Adrar, I called my family in Holland (as there was no telephone in Bordj Mokhtar). My father called my travel insurance, who organised my journey back to Holland. In one hour, an Algerian representative of the insurance company showed up in Adrar to give me some more money. Next day, he paid for the bus to Alger, where a plane ticket was waiting for me at the airport,” van der Aa told Realnews.

But that experience has not stopped him from travelling by road. Another time he was a bit afraid of coming to Nigeria was during the regime of the late Sani Abacha. That time, he said, a great number of people in Europe were not comfortable with the government especially after the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni activists in 1995. “That time, it was very difficult to get visa. I was afraid that if I wrote about Nigeria, the (State Security Service) SSS, would get me and put me in jail,” he said.

Van der Aa was in Nigeria again last week. He avoided taking his car through the north because of Boko Haram insurgence. And unlike his usual practice, this last journey was done in phases. Last summer time, the journalist drove to Morocco; parked the car there and returned home. About three months ago, he returned to Morocco, drove the car to Mali and again returned home. And four weeks ago he returned to Mali and drove it all the way to Lagos via the Republic of Benin.

Van der Aa said he was leaving the car in Lagos and would come back to use it for inter and intra-city travel in the country in six months’ time. Despite the crisis in Mali with the French and Nigerian soldiers deployed in strategic areas of the country, van der Aa said he did not have any sense of danger travelling through the country.  “I felt rather safe in Mali because of the 4,000 French soldiers there; they have kicked out Al-Qaeda people who occupied Timbuktu. The Islamic fundamentalists are now in the desert,” he said.

Although he likes to visit Nigeria, what he does not like is the way the Nigeria police demand and receive bribes on the road. Coming through the Republic of Benin in his car, van der Aa said he was stopped at about 30 checkpoints between Ilara and Abeokuta, before entering Lagos. This, he found very frustrating because the security men were asking him for the same questions and his papers thereby wasting his time. He said some of them even asked him for money or gifts. But he refused to give them money. “I was disappointed about these people asking for bribe because, if you are going to be a super power, you have to stop asking for bribe and giving bribe,” he said.

However, not all the security personnel on the road demanded for gratification or gifts. In some places, they were even very nice to him, and offered to share their food with him. “Some of them offered me food like cassava, peanuts and milk. They were very kind to me,” he said.  That is one of the reasons van der Aa likes to visit the country. That, and his affinity to be one of the people to see Nigeria rise to its stardom is too much a pull for him.

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