“Always act like you know where you’re going, even when you don’t,” the Nigerian travel agent offered unsolicited, after handing me my ticket for Lagos. I probably looked like an easy mark. After a year at the Toronto Star and 18 months at various British newspapers, I decided in early 2001 to take the plunge and become a freelance foreign correspondent in Nigeria. But I felt nowhere close to being able to even pretend I knew where I was going.
Africa had long fascinated me and it seemed like now or never. I chose Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, because in addition to being full of stories, compared to Johannesburg or Nairobi, few foreign correspondents were based there. The travel advisories didn’t help promote it as a business destination. They warned of visitors being stranded at the side of the road in nothing but their underwear after being robbed near Lagos airport. One correspondent recounted how his plane was held up before takeoff by armed bandits who jammed its wheels and emptied the luggage compartment. Meanwhile another journalist woke up to an AK-47 in his face.
I tracked down Karl Maier, The Independent’s former West Africa correspondent, who had just written This House Has Fallen, the bible for my Nigeria preparations. When we finally met in London, I was pretty anxious.
“How do I not get killed?” I asked him.
“Slow down,” he said and asked if I knew where I was going to stay my first night. He suggested the Ikoyi Hotel (which would become one of my favourite Lagos spots as much for its Otis Redding and West African Highlife soundtrack as the Star beer and suya beef skewers). He offered to ask his old driver to meet me at the airport. He also introduced me to the AFP bureau chief who offered to put me up for a night or two. This was the start of a chain of introductions that would help shape my overseas reporting career. The next link led to the NPR correspondent, who was looking for a roommate and who alerted me that oil companies, diesel-generator fees and security costs had driven Lagos rents to near London levels. I emptied my bank account before I left.
By dinner on my first day, I had met 80 per cent of Nigeria’s five-person foreign press corp, who were candid and generous with their advice. They told me where a journalist wanted to be when violence erupted: Not at the centre of things. Especially in West Africa, where experienced reporters had died recently, flash points were completely unpredictable.
My initial plan was to learn the lay of the land by working for a local newspaper, but that quickly changed. On my third day in Nigeria, I was at a newspaper office when I got a message to call the only correspondent I had yet to meet, the Reuters bureau chief. He invited me to drop by his office and offered me a job on the spot.
Nigeria taught me that in international news, often you are not so much competing with the other journalists on your patch as fighting for attention against every other story in the world. And when it came to tough spots, your fellow journalists on the ground were going to be the first to offer help.
D’Arcy Doran is a London-based journalist who writes for Canadian and international media. He was Shanghai bureau chief for Agence France Presse from 2008-2011 and before that was a correspondent and editor for The Associated Press in Britain, Singapore and Nigeria. He began reporting for newswires for Reuters in Nigeria. He has worked for the Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun and has written for The Independent, The Evening Standard and The Mail on Sunday. Doran received an honourable mention from the Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism in 2002 and The Columbia Journalism Review cited a series of his AP dispatches about Nigerian village women occupying an oil terminal as a model for “The Dream Newspaper.”