If for any reason you decide to travel to Ghana from Lagos by road, you haven't made a bad choice, but there are a few things you need to know before you embark on the cross-country journey. A couple of weeks ago, the organizers of the Accra Weizo invited me to join a group of travel writers and bloggers from Nigeria for a Fam Trip to Ghana. The trip to Ghana from Lagos was made by road for certain reasons one of which was to 'feel it and tell it'.
I had been to Ghana a few times but never by road, so this road trip was particularly exciting for me. In the next few paragraphs, I'll be sharing with you a first hand experience of a first-time traveller on the Lagos-Benin-Togo-Ghana road. I'll share with you the fun, the fever and the inherent frustrations of travelling to Ghana by road.
But Are You a Virgin?
Two days before the trip, the organizers had told me that I was going to pay N2,000 for 'stamping' of my passport if it was a virgin. A virgin passport in this context means a passport which has never been used to travel by road on the Lagos-Benin-Togo-Ghana route. Even if your passport is 2 years old with 10 visas, it is still considered virgin on this route. Ridiculous!
I didn't understand why I needed to pay some money for the so called virgin passport; after all, if one was travelling by air, passports don't get 'disvirgined' for a fee. Well, somehow I managed to let myself assume the N2,000 was an official immigration requirement. But I was wrong.
By 6:30am on the day of the trip, every one of us on the team had arrived at the ABC Transport terminal in Amuwo Odofin, Lagos for a 7am departure. Shortly before we boarded, we all submitted our passports to the driver who would do the stamping at each border. Those who had 'virgin' passports submitted their N2,000 as well.
In addition to possessing a valid passport or other valid forms of identification, travellers on the Lagos-Benin-Togo-Ghana route are also required to have the yellow card. The yellow card is an international certificate of vaccination against yellow fever, it's in form of a small yellow booklet with records of vaccinations. If you don't have an international passport, then be ready to part with at least N10,000 on the way. Again, I'm not sure if that's legal.
Our bus departed the ABC Transport terminal at a few minutes past 8 am and hit the Lagos-Badagry expressway and with that, the road trip to Ghana took off. The drive from Lagos to the Nigeria-Benin Republic border popularly known as Seme border, was anything but good.
In addition to the bad roads, there were so many road blocks mounted by various agencies including the police, immigration, customs, NDLEA and even health officers, almost all of which were just exploiting motorists. In fact, between the Owode-Ajara bridge after Agbara, and the Seme boarder (which is less than a 5 minutes drive), there were over 20 checkpoints. Our bus was practically stopping every 30 seconds.
At the Seme border, our passports were stamped by both Nigerian and Benin immigration authorities. At the Seme border, expect some checks by all sorts of agencies including a health check by the Port Health Services of the Republic of Benin.
Port Health Services Office of the Republic of Benin: What sort of health checks do you expect from here?
Don't get it twisted, they are not going to collect your blood sample or do x-ray, if you're lucky someone will 'jump' into your bus and 'scan' everyone with a device. Well, you'll be hugely disappointed if you expect a standard WHO-kind of health checks here, after all, their office is a small thatch house constructed with bamboo. It probably doesn't even have clean water and electricity.
This is the new Seme border: 'Completed' but not in use
Of all the borders on this route, Seme border is where you face the most challenges including the most difficult officers, the worst of embarrassments, the most shameful corrupt practices and the worst roads. In fact, the Seme border is the most unorganized of all borders I've ever been to including the Nigeria-Niger border in Babamutum area of Katsina State in northern Nigeria. Interestingly, there is a big complex at the border which I was told is the new Seme border for the use of both Nigerian and Benin Immigration services. The complex, though said to be completed, is still under lock and key. When opened, the new immigration complex will be automated and will lead straight to the Cotonou highway. But for the time being, motorists and other travellers are made to use the horrible Seme border road.
Seme border road: Nightmare to motorists and other road users
The Seme border link road is by far the worst connecting road on the entire route network, it's a nightmare to motorists and other road users, especially during the rainy season. This is probably a 'good' thing for the numerous checkpoints as it makes it easier for them to stop vehicles.
As if this was a compensation, the road that leads from Seme town to Cotounue is a delight. I found this road pleasing in more ways than one. In sharp contrast to what is obtainable on Nigerian roads, on this road, cyclists have their own lanes which run parallel to the main roads. Popularly known as 'okada' in Nigeria, the cyclists do not drag the roads or engage in speeding competition with motorists. And oh, to my pleasant surprise, every single cyclist and all their passengers wear the helmet, something that is practically impossible in Nigeria.
The road from Cotounue to the border between Benin Republic and Togo also makes for a good ride. The Benin-Togo border is a lot more organised than the Seme border with proper offices and 'less corrupt' officers, at least that was the impression they gave us. However, at this point, travellers are required to come down from their vehicles and cross the border on foot. In a way, this is a good thing because it gives travellers the opportunity to stretch their legs as well as buy one or two things.
At the Benin-Togo border, a number of currencies are legal tenders including Nigerian Naira, American Dollars, Ghana Cedis and the West African CFA franc which is the currency of Togo. Here, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo languages are widely spoken in addition to English, French and the local language.
With familiar 'buyables' like suya, fried and roasted chicken, fried yam and potatoes and lots of fruits available, there's definitely a little fun here. Things can be relatively expensive here though, for instance small bottle water goes for N100 while can or plastic coke goes for N200.
If you intend to business in Ghana, it's probably better to change your Naira to Ghana Cedis here, it's safe and cheaper than doing so in Ghana. On your way back to Nigeria, this is also a good place to change your money back to Naira. You can also buy or sell Dollars here.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, I felt more at home here than I did at the Seme border. Oh, I forgot to mention that if you want to 'pee' at this border, just toss a N50 note to the locals and there you go.
The road from Benin-Togo border to Togo-Ghana border is in good shape and also delights motorists. At the Ghana border in Aflao, we got down from the bus with all our luggage and headed into the arrival hall for some searching. If you're travelling in a small bus, expect to spend just about 10 minutes here. Checks for a big bus will take more time, but don't worry you'll also enjoy the cool breeze filtering in from the beach across the road, while you wait on the queue.
Ghana border: By far the most organized of all the borders on the Lagos-Ghana Route
Of all the borders you'll pass on that route, Ghana immigration is by far the most organized both in terms of structures and personnel. In fact, there's a feeling that you're passing through an airport immigration. I must say that Ghanian immigration officers are well trained and efficient, you'll not hear such expressions as "anything for the boys" or "wetin you carry". After the checks at this point, everyone in your bus will get their passports back having been stamped all the way from seme boarder.
Barring the incessant and annoyingly endless stops by Nigeria immigration and other agencies on the Lagos-Seme sector, travel time from Lagos to Ghana boarder takes about 5 hours. It would even take a lot less if the Nigerian sector of the road was good. But it isn't. The return journey from Ghana to Lagos is pretty much the same except that it's in reverse.
Is Begging in their DNA?
On our way back from Ghana, there were three incidents which I found remarkably shameful. At the Seme border, I wanted to take pictures for my story but someone on our team told me it wasn't allowed for whatever reason. I then spoke to one of the guys around and he confidently told me to take photos only to ask me for money after I had taken the pictures. Yes, in Nigeria, you have to 'sort' someone to take a picture of a public property built with taxpayers' money.
Secondly, at the Nigerian immigration office at the Seme border, a plain-cloth woman introduced herself as a senior immigration officer and asked us to declare our cash if anyone had more than a million Naira with them. Of course nobody had, well nobody accepted they had. But as we were about to drive out, she began to beg us for money, in fact, she ended up extorting some money from our driver. At that point I couldn't help but wonder if begging was in their DNA.
There was another little drama at one of the checkpoints after we had entered Lagos. After having passed the Benin-Nigeria border and having passed about 5 checkpoints we were stopped by the Nigerian health agency. They asked for our yellow cards but we insisted we weren't going to give them. Why would they be asking for yellow card when we were already in Lagos? Does it mean yellow card is a requirement to move from one part of Lagos or Nigeria to another? Do they even know their Job description? If the health officers knew their jobs and wanted to check people's yellow cards, they should have been at the border which is the entry point. It is at the border that public health diseases and illnesses are detected and taken care of. Anyway, after a few minutes of arguments, they let us go without seeing our yellow cards. Of course, what they wanted was money but they met the 'wrong' people.
The ABC Effect
Despite the constant fever and frustrations we faced on the Lagos-Seme sector of the journey, the ABC Transport driver cushioned the effect and provided part of the fun. I never got his name, but the driver was very professional, very patient and very cooperative. He never lost it and never exchanged words with any of the numerous agencies we encountered on the way. He didn't beat traffic lights, he didn't abuse other road users and most importantly, he didn't overspeed. If you are planning to travel from Lagos to Ghana by road, ABC Transport is probably your best choice, they are safe and reliable. Oh, you can be sure of eating freshly made and hot jollof rice on your way, provided by ABC Transport at the terminal just before you hit the road.
Travelling from Lagos to Ghana by road is not as bad as you may have read or heard from people. It can in fact be full of fun. However, there are a few challenges which all stem from the Nigerian sector of the journey. First of all, the stretch of road from Alakija by FESTAC Town to the Seme border is really bad with the attendant holdup almost all along. This expectedly increases the journey time by about two hours on a 'normal' day. In fact on our way back, it took us over 5 hours to drive from Agbara to Amuwo Odofin due to bad roads and holdup. If you're travelling for an important appointment or meeting, it's advisable to travel a day earlier as there's a possibility of spending the whole day on the road.
Another challenge is that, as if bad roads and holdup are not enough, there are too many checkpoints and too many irregularities perpetuated by too many agencies. Passports are checked only at the three borders but your vehicle can be stopped as many times as possible before you even get to the Seme border. But in sharp contrast, once you pass Seme border, you may not meet a single checkpoint till you get to Ghana.
By distance, travelling from Lagos to Ghana is pretty much like travelling from Lagos to Onitsha in Nigeria. But because of too many 'mouths to feed' on that route, the fare is triple of that of Lagos-Onitsha route. The status quo on this route needs to be challenged. If Nigerian government and Nigerian immigration services are serious about the fight against corruption, the Seme border would be a good place to start.