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Cities and countryside of West Coast

A journey through the Lagos-Abidjan Corridor is an eye opener to the dynamic change on the coast of West Africa.

By MUSA JIBRIL

I always look forward to travelling across West Africa by road. It affords me the opportunity to relish the cities and the countryside strewn along the West Coast of Africa.  And in the last few years, are there new sights to behold. A kinetic evolution along the route makes every trip an exercise in catching up with latest developments.

The transformations are due in part to the progress of the Abidjan-Lagos Coastal Corridor project. The Abidjan-Lagos Corridor Organisation (ALCO) seeks to modernise the “most travelled West African corridor” on the African Regional Transport Infrastructure Network (ARTIN). This lofty ambition simplified, means modernisation of a 384-kilometer stretch of highway upgrade of 288 kilometres of road; and creation of four one-stop border posts at Nigeria-Benin (Seme-Krake), Benin-Togo (Hillacondji-), Togo-Ghana (Aflao) and Ghana-Cote D’Ivoire (Elubo) borders.

If implemented to the letter, ALCO is working towards construction of various Joint Border Post structures, installation of equipment such as scanners and weighbridges as well as the development of operational procedures manuals, requisite baseline studies and implementation of training programmes for border control officials on the JBP scheme. The bottom-line is to speed up ECOWAS regional integration among member countries.

There is hope that a more efficient transport system and new border posts will ease border crossing between countries for people and goods. 

The last two years witnessed some dividends subliminal––reconstructed road through Benin cut the tedious hours of sitting in a vehicle by few hours––and material––new border posts have risen in place of old edifices at Seme-Krake and Aflao while Hillacondji is under construction.

Nonetheless, travellers are still at the mercy of immigration officers at the various border posts, with the Nigerian border retaining its indisputable position as the most frustrating. Indeed, the most troublesome. That you are a Nigerian with a valid green passport hardly matters. The frustration is a rite of passage.  First, you have to navigate through the chaotic network of fraudsters who mingle with bona fide Immigration officials.  Your trouble is doubled if you have a virgin passport or a freshly issued Yellow Card.

Crossing the Benin side is much easier.  There is a protocol. The protocol has a language. The language is money. The money, incidentally, is naira.

From Lagos to Abidjan, I prefer travelling from city to city.  The advantage is twofold. One: if you are in a hurry, hopping from one car to the other cut the trip by as much as three hours. Two: if you are not in haste, you can take your time to savour the beauty of each city. I prefer the second.

Coastal cities of West Africa are in constant flux of urban regeneration. No one city remains static in the last one year.  An example is Lagos whose cityscape has been reinvigorated with a gamut of newfangled monuments and refreshing graffiti courtesy of the Lagos at 50 Celebration. The urban renewal efforts––stark and intruding in some places, subtle but poking at your subconscious in other places of the metropolis––added sparkles and dimensions to the bustling Lagos-scape.

In Cotonou, the commercial capital of Benin, if you are not careful, you can easily be held to ransom by the bustling distractions at the sprawling Dan Tokpa market and its environs. If you have adventure in your blood, you might be tempted to stray further, westward to Ouidah or northward to Abomey-Calavi. Worse still, you could be seduced by the nightlife of Jonquet. Cotonou is a city that seduces tourists.

One of the landmarks you can hardly miss is the Etoile Rouge (Red Star), the central roundabout that is the heart of the city. At one point, you will pass by it as long as you are moving through the city in a car. A very busy place with lots of cars and bikes. Like a merry-go-round for vehicles. An amazing sight you would want to capture on photo. The big roundabout with a tall monument in the centre, shaped like a red star (when viewed from the sky) is not a simple Traffic Circle. It is a place with political and modern historical meaning for the Benin people.

It takes less than three hours to traverse the breadth of Benin from one border to the other, a greater part of the time through the countryside. 

Though the lay of the land on either side of the road is mostly marshes and wetland, the Benin countryside is agrarian.  Women lined up the route displaying varieties of farm produce and freshwater catch. On this day, sellers of corn and crabs were strewn along the road, even as big droplets of rain fell from the clear blue sky.

One of the places I look forward to see is Grand Popo, an old slave trade town that is now a centre for voodoo and a fishing town that is home to a Finnish-African cultural centre, Villa Karo. This obscure town inspired the name of the French electronic music duo Grand Popo Football Club as well as the name of the iPad application creator, Grand Popo LLC. The beauty of the town is in its raw, rustic setting.  Its roadside scenery is broadly eclectic. Life-size marble crucifix. Voodoo shrine. Dots of vegetable gardens. Serene beach. One is subjected to optical illusions: The vast canvas of sky seems to be closer to the ground like you can touch it if you jump harder; sometimes you momentarily feel that if your car races faster to the vanishing point you will see where the ground meets the sky. Ooh-la-la-bewitching scenery whose quaintness is imbued with an alchemy that soothes the viewer.

I remember sometimes in 2014, two of our passengers, both Liberians, went missing during a stopover at Grand Popo. We found them hours later in a backstreet bar overlooking the aquamarine water of the ocean, cooling their heels with bottles of chilled beer, reluctant to move on. They fell for the magic of Grand Popo.

At Hillacondji, crossing the Benin-Togo border is interesting and somewhat hassle-free.  It is the easiest passage on the West Coast. Passport stamping is at CFA300 (CFA500 in the absence of valid passport). Additional CFA200 goes for the Yellow Card.

Once inside Togo, there is a traditional stopover inside a commercial corridor, where the main concerns of travellers is money changing. Cedi, CFA, Naira, Dollars. Ironically, the majority of the moneychangers are Nigeriens. I usually use the opportunity to practice my knowledge of French with the urchins who lurk around.

Barely 10 minutes from the border is Aneho, a place you cannot miss. A small postcard town perched on the edge of the ocean. Onward, you zip past pocket of towns along the route that are made up of zingy neighbourhoods of bars, boutiques, and parks.

The journey thereafter brings you swiftly to Lome. If you have time to spare, one hour is enough for you to gorge your senses with sights and sounds of Lome.  The small-size Togo capital appears to ‘corporate headquarters’ of the west coast Africa. Beautiful, colourful and avant-garde architecture, bustling construction works, from ports to luxury hotels, is a testament of a blooming tourism haven. The burst of varieties melds beautifully into a portrait of past and present. Togolese cityscape, like its people, seemed made from many different parts.  My first experience of Lome was from an expeditionary trip to the city some 12 years ago, as part of a group of car buyers. 

I struck a friendship with Togolese Amelia, a half-Italian with a Malian boyfriend who smiled all the time and a half Dutch niece with a daughter for a Lebanese but engaged to a Frenchman.  The family’s matriarch had Yoruba blood. When I did the calculation, the 16 members of the vast family had claim to 12 different nationalities among them.

Togo is charming–its charm comes mostly from its people. A small country––just one hour from border to border––and an even smaller capital, but packed full of small attractions.

While you are in Lome, you have on leg also in Aflao, Ghana’s border town. Crossing the border is strictly business-like. Those without documents hop on bikes and for CFA2500 are crossed through a wire fence into the alleys of Aflao’s densely packed neighbourhood.  Immigrations on both sides pocket healthy sums of money while they look the other way. On the way to Accra, buses make a stop at an immigration point where non-passport holders pay an official fee of GHc5 (about N400).

From Aflao, Accra is three hours away. Between Seme and Aflao, I keep my eyes open––the views are along the route. From Aflao to Accra, it is ‘eyes wide shut’ for me. The view awaits in the city, starting from Tudu, in Accra Central to Circle, the city centre. All roads in Accra, from Dome, Dansoman, Dzorwulu, Airport or Madina, from anywhere, lead to Circle. 

I was pleasantly surprised at the completion of the Kwame Nkrumah Exchange, popularly known as Circle. It is a piece of beauty.

Another recent development is the emergence of street names. About two and half years ago, locating a house in Accra is done by the science of identifying the neighbourhood and locating the closest landmark. Now, every street has a name. That brings the city up-to-date.

Accra is still essentially a city of thousands of pubs. You are sure to find at least one pub on a street where you can have your beer from the tank (not bottles) straight into your tankard.

Arriving late in the evening or in the night, you will find the Accra urban alive with light, music, tro-tro and food vendors. Food, food, food, everywhere: Rice, Banku, Kenkey and Shito, and plenty of fried fish. If Waakye and Koko are your favourites, you may have to wait till morning.

In Accra, you can hail a taxi by 3 am under a brightly lit street and find your way home peacefully and in one piece.

You don’t have to speak Twi to get by on the streets of Accra. In English, we are one––though a Nigerian, by his accent, sticks out like a sore thumb. Ghanaians refer to our intonation as ‘Nigerian English.’ A few lingoes––like Charlee (My friend), Massa (Oga) and Odor (My love)––get you into the groove.

My journey ended in Accra. Abidjan I saved for another day.

Some words of advice if you are going to do the Lagos-to-Abidjan trip.

One, a little French helps. Those of us from Anglophone African countries––Nigerians and Ghanaians––seemed to be French-deaf. On the other hand, our francophonie counterparts have a basic understanding of English. Some even speak our pidgin.  They play deaf when they want to be mean. And if you are unlucky to be caught in the vortex of the dialogue of the deaf, you will be greatly traumatised. 

Two, be wary. Our West African neighbours have the warped idea Nigerians are rich. No fault of theirs anyway. We show off, we brag––We, the Nigerians. So we are game for extortion, especially so if you make yourself vulnerable, by not having the necessary travelling document. So No. 1 Rule: Get a valid passport. Otherwise, take the raw deal and keep shut.

Three, be knowledgeable of the exchange rates for local currencies.  As you travel, you will be calculating back and forth between Naira and CFA and Naira and Cedi. Knowing the prevalent rate saves you some change.

Four, take photos. They keep memories alive. They are evidence you are witness to the changes that happened along the west coast of Africa in your lifetime.

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