To Be White in Nigeria – When the Tables Are Turned?

‘My dear, when you come to Nigeria, you will always be di centa of attention, and you can’t just run around like you can ova there, so get ready o.’

…and with that, she hung up the phone.

These were the words of warning of someone close to me in Nigeria. They echoed the worries in other people’s reactions when they heard that I was going to Nigeria to visit family. But can it really be as bad as people have made it out to look? There was only one way to find out: go and see for myself. 

Since quite a few people have asked me what my experiences in Nigeria were like, I thought I’d write a post about it. 

Before continuing, it may be worth mentioning that this post contains a personal experience, and it does not claim to be a universal or unilateral representation of how things are in Nigeria, how they have been, or how they will be. 

In addition, not all white people will share the same experiences as me, not all Nigerians are the same, and not all of them are rich and not all of them are poor (or somewhere in-between). The reason for writing this post is not to shine a bad light on Nigerians, whichever economic background they come from, but to reflect on the legacies of imperialism, colonialism, and the continued looting of countries like Nigeria by the West, as reflected in the ways in which I had to navigate the country as a white European. 

Lastly, I think it’s important to clarify that some of the ‘inconveniences’ I experienced in Nigeria were not a direct result of the fact that I am white. In many cases, I was faced with issues that everyday Nigerians (especially women) had to live with themselves. Having said this, however, it is the ‘issues’ that were specific and in many ways exclusive to me as a white person, that I will be focusing on within this post. 

Lagos

My first stop in Nigeria was Lagos. I stayed there for a week to explore Nigeria’s biggest city. The people I was with were often bothered by the police, traffic wardens, shop owners, or gate men for some money, because decades of exploitation of everyday Nigerians by political elites and neo-colonial forces have led to the chronic underpayment of regular workers, leaving them with no choice but to earn some money on the side to satisfy their basic needs and those of their families. There was, however, a difference in both their behaviour and the requested amount of money once they spotted the ‘oyinbo’ at the back of the jeep. 

Akwa Ibom

While the relatively larger number of European expats in Lagos ensured that I wasn’t a novelty, the reverse was the case once I arrived in the southeastern towns of Eket, Ibeno, Oron, and Ikot-Abasi. It was in these less urban areas, that I saw for myself, some of the effects of European hegemony and global white supremacy. I had to get used to the fact that not a lot of people who lived there had ever seen a white person in person. Movies and TV shows were the closest that most of them had come to seeing people like me, and as a result, they had certain expectations of me that were both sad and shocking. It was often assumed that I was wealthy, uppity, and physically desirable when in reality I considered the opposite to be true. When I interacted with the locals and spoke their language, I was met with looks of utter shock and disbelief. These surprised reactions came partly because the few white people who lived and worked in the area were notorious for sticking to themselves, almost refusing to interact with the locals. This, coupled with the fact that whenever the local whites went to work, they did so with an entourage of local police and military escorts, ensured that it was possible for whites and blacks to live in the same towns without ever having to see or interact with each other. It also suggested that there must be something innately special about white people to warrant their constant protection by the police. To then see me walking around with no escort in sight was therefore something that many had never seen before.

One Sunday, my family and I were in church when suddenly, in the middle of service, the pastor’s voice, projected onto the neighbourhood via large speakers, was cancelled out by the noise of sirens and an approaching motorcade. Before I could ask any questions about what was happening, someone whispered in my ear: ‘Your people are coming.’ You can probably imagine how startled I was at that comment. ‘What does that even mean?’, I asked myself. And sure enough, before I could ask for further clarifications, I saw what the person meant. Outside, an entire convoy of police and army escorts whizzed by. I could hardly believe what I was seeing through the church window. In-between the jeeps and cars of the security services was a bus that had all its curtains drawn and for a split second, I forgot what I had just been told, and thought that the bus must be escorting a Nigerian politician or a famous person and that I was about to get a glimpse of them. But then it dawned on me: this is no politician or famous person that’s being escorted here. There are white people in that bus. And regular white people at that. Not the French President, not a diplomat, not a famous European singer, no: contractors, office clerks, supervisors, who knows what their job titles were, but the point is: they were just regular employees. What made them ‘special’ was their skin. 

Now it all made sense. If this is how white people behave in Nigeria, no wonder people were surprised to see me behave like a regular human being, minding my own business and trying to enjoy myself. 

This ‘fascination’ with white people in Nigeria, at least in the areas that I have stayed in, is a result of a combination of factors. White skin and whiteness are still strongly associated with wealth, power, and supposed ‘superiority’, especially in the more rural areas where white skin remains a novelty that is often exclusive to the imagination and in some cases, the television, since in real life it is hidden behind curtains. In addition, if police escorts are in regular juxtaposition with white people’s presence, does it come as a surprise that people think we’re in possession of some magical secret? Of course it does not. I would be inclined to think the same thing. 

To Be White in Nigeria

So, to cut a long story short, the experiences I had in Nigeria, did not come as a result of me having invented the cure for all the diseases in the world, but as a result of the legacies of a brutal past, the continued insistence of white visitors to behave as if they were made of gold, and the continued facilitation of that behaviour through financial wealth and economic stability in the West (which is brought about by the exploitation of countries like Nigeria). 

It is a shame that in a country where black people are the majority, white people, who are the clear minority, are afforded privileges most regular Nigerians who work hard and try to make a decent living, can only dream of. Me being limited in terms of movement and having to consider security issues all the time when in Nigeria, is the result of other white people continuing to navigate the country as if the colonies were still intact. It is the result of white people moving around without any consideration of the historical baggage that Europeans carry around with them when in Africa. It is a result or rather, the manifestation and proof of the fact that colonialism is not over, but has merely taken a different form. A more ‘acceptable’, and palatable one. The system has not changed, it has just become smarter.