Among the crowded chaos outside the Abuja airport were any number of people who would have been happy to trade our US Dollars for Naira. Our local handler, Matthew, advised us to wait until tomorrow, “we’ll get a better rate if we go downtown.”
We stayed the night in a hotel in the outskirts, and after breakfast the next morning we piled into a van to see some of the city and to change our money. When Matthew said to wait and change money downtown, I imagined that we would go to some proper institution that dealt in these things - the Abuja branch of Barclay’s or Bank of America or something. Abuja was a modern city, they said, so I pictured a western-style city bank - like Citibank - with a tastefully conservative lobby, air-conditioning, and windows of efficient tellers with computers.
It was my first morning outside of the first-world, and there was a lot to see. The city was an interesting mix of the thoroughly modern, and the traditional agrarian culture. About half of the people were dressed in jeans and Ts or western business wear, and half in traditional West African robes, skirts and loose clothing. Traffic alternated between gridlock and freeflow, with lots of yelling and honking regardless. We passed the national Christian church and the national mosque and both were huge and impressive and beautiful. We passed modern-looking apartment developments and some traditional round-hut, dirt-street neighborhoods. Like any city there were parks and strip mall markets. Billboards and banners on almost every surface tried to get our attention. Part of the marketing mix of any shop that was worth a damn seemed to be to put some loudspeakers out front and crank them up to fuzzy. Food was being cooked over smoky open fires, maybe for sale, or maybe just for breakfast. Crowds of people were in a hurry, women with perfect posture walked with gigantic loads on their heads, everyone was selling something, and among it all were guys herding goats right down the middle of the road. The government buildings had fences and concrete barriers and there were enough armed soldiers around to make the point that security was not to be taken for granted.
Abruptly we pulled to the curb, and Matthew began to talk to a bunch of men sitting in lawn chairs under a tree: robed, Ray-Ban-ed, exaggerated cool. I was taken aback when Matthew announced that these men would change our money, and it suddenly seemed that the transaction was urgent. Hurry, pass me your money. Without really counting, I handed over a fistful of 20s or 100s or something. Matthew and one of the men kept up a rapid-fire negotiation while another inspected each of my bills and kept glancing my way with a stink-eye-look as though I were trying to pull a fast one on him. When my bills had been inspected and counted, and then recounted and then recounted and then recounted and argued about and counted again, a briefcase was produced and a wad of naira was passed back to me. The transaction was finished and I had absolutely no idea if I had just been screwed or not. The van door slid shut and we were back into the honking and yelling and stopping and going of the street.
As our weeks in Nigeria played out, we would have other opportunities to see how money was handled. Wherever transactions were taking place, I sensed jealous and predatory eyes watching … in market stalls, at the airport, roadside shops. It seemed best to keep my cash on my person, and scattered around in various pockets so I would never have to show the whole wad at once.
Nigerians who have money go to great lengths to protect it. At one point we were travelling on a road and a motorcade came barreling at us - a squad of soldiers and police with flashing lights and sirens. It looked like the president’s entourage, or maybe a visiting head of state. But no, it was the escort for an armored truck that looked like the sort of bomb-proof vehicle you would want to go get your groceries in Baghdad. This is how they move money around.
A visit to a bank in the city of Yola showed similar fortification. Between the parking lot and the bank building, a blast-zone had been created with concrete barricades. A tall iron fence with guarded gate controlled admittance to the forecourt, and created a secondary blast zone. Entrance to the courtyard was allowed only to individuals or small groups at a time, and other armed guards patrolled the area. The ATM was located outside of the building, in this courtyard. If your transaction required a teller, you waited in line for a security door to open, you stepped into an armored, phone-booth-sized enclosure and the heavy door would shut behind you and remain shut until your business was complete. There was a discernible tension in the air, and it was a relief be on our way.
Weeks later, as I processed all that I had experienced, I thought of the unease I felt every time money was involved. I thought about the heavy fortification of the bank. I thought about the military escort for the armored car. And then I thought about those guys who changed our money, sitting casually under the tree with tens of thousands of Dollars, Naira, Euros and who knows what other currencies in their briefcases and no security in sight. These guys were loaded with cash, and nobody was messing with them. It made me wonder who in the hell we had done our business with.