Oshugbo, Nigeria, 1992: I had wanted my wife and daughter with me, but my wife strongly vetoed that. Our daughter was only 18 months old. Though our daughter was not travel-ready, my wife thought I should go. At the end of my three-month stay, we would meet in the middle. (Vienna. Great city for romantic reunions!)

Sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency, I had a position at Obafemi Awolowo University in northwest Nigeria. Shall I describe the typical phone call? It was scheduled and placed by the Osun phone company, to be made from their office, and they insisted that their employee would monitor the entire call. Length allowed, three minutes, and very expensive. Speaking over a crackling line, we were inevitably cut off before the time had passed. Not much could be said other than “I’m fine, miss you, love you, weather stinks.”

Nigeria was under the rule of dictator Ibrahim Babangida, and its political conditions were fragile. Having lost an election, he declared it invalid. No students to be allowed on campus; they would demonstrate. If the students were kept away, Babangida might be able to continue his grip on the country.

I was appointed visiting faculty to be housed on the grounds of the guarded 13,000-acre campus. I would join the faculty, who mostly also lived on campus. Directly upon arrival, I was forced to form new plans. Since the students were kept away, I could at least try to interview colleagues in my field, take advantage of research available in the campus library and spend my time writing. Knowing phone conversation to be impossible, I would try to make appointments for meetings. Progress was made. After about a month, I got the word (via telegram): “The U.S. government can’t guarantee your safety. Strongly suggest you leave the country in the next 24 hours.”

They had given me 24 hours to make the 280 kilometers to Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. (This drive takes around four hours, though longer when the highway is partially blockaded as it was by bonfires.) Can you imagine trying to make the phone call to report that you were making a warm exit out of Nigeria?

After making it to the airport, I was booked on the next flight out for London. Yet another ugly phone call. What would I say? “I’m going to get out of Nigeria. When I do, I’ll call you. Love you! Weather stinks.”

Flames were licking up the side of the wheel well as we wove through sporadic, ugly, burning tires along the highway. I felt relieved when there was a Nigerian army sergeant riding shotgun in the bulletproofed government Chevrolet Suburban the U.S. had furnished for our dash from the Lagos embassy compound to Murtala Mohammed Airport. I was equally lucky to be have a CIA guy assigned to move me, bags and all through to departure.

Safe in London, I must admit I loved for once making a phone call. “Hey darling, Nigeria’s in flames, they ordered me out. Long story! What say we meet in Vienna two months early? Get your folks to baby-sit? Weather might be cool, but nice.”

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