After landing at Lagos airport after midnight, we couldn’t see much from the plane. As we taxied to a full stop, the ground crew directed us to a finger-shaped landing pier, where a neatly dressed woman was waiting to greet us, her hair and skirt blown around by the downdraft from our slowing turbines. As we disembarked, she introduced herself as our “protocol person,” whose services had been arranged by our local broker to facilitate our entry into Nigeria. Without any further pleasantries, she briskly ushered us toward the passenger terminal, where I hoped we wouldn’t be detained for long. This was one border I was eager to cross quickly.

As she escorted us firmly toward the gate, she filled us in on her depressing raison d’être: Given the state of affairs at Lagos’ Mohammed Murtala International Airport—one of a handful in the world formerly classified as “insecure” by the U.S. Department of State—foreigners are strongly advised not to even attempt entry without engaging the services of a reliable, reputable protocol person first. Without someone like her in our court, she explained, we stood a good chance of becoming victims of “criminal activity.”

Among the many illicit pursuits commonly practiced in and around this den of iniquity, extortion by corrupt immigration and customs officials ranked high on the list, followed by loss of travel documents to con artists, and last but not least, hijacking and robbery by crooked cab drivers.

As we waited inside the ...

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