In to Africa: Travel security

May 23, 2011

(This is the second part of a column on business travel to Africa. To read the first part, click here)

Securing Africa
It is hard to generalise the security situation in Sub-Saharan Africa. Tim Willis of Travel Security Services (TSS) points to the criminality concerns in Nairobi, Freetown and Johannesburg, separatist activity in Nigeria and various political situations in others. For many, going to the continent for the first time, fear of the unknown will be the pressing factor. The key is to keep abreast of current situation in countries where events such as elections can have a significant bearing on the security situation.

For anyone travelling to a high-risk city, Willis recommends that a trusted local guide or security provider be used to support their visit, and to ensure they have arranged to be met on arrival by their local hotel or trusted local contact at the airport.

There is, of course, the danger of taking perceived security threats too seriously. I remember when my family moved to Port Moresby, PNG in the mid 1990s. We had lived in “edgy” places before (Freetown in Sierra Leone, Nairobi), but the security manager’s detailed description of the potential dangers that could befall us terrified my mother and I to the extent that we cowered in our hotel room for days before summoning up the courage to go out. Of course with sensible precautions we had no problems whatsoever.

And in Africa, you have to go out. You can’t do business with Africans if you are never in the country. This fact was underlined by my banker friend introduced in the first part of this column. “If you are patient,” he told me, “Africa can be very rewarding and in the end people really do value face to face interaction there, perhaps more than elsewhere.”

Willis concedes that though the “general socio-economic drivers and political situation [mean that] travel to Africa carries higher risks than to most Western business hubs, the risk of travel should not be overstated… with appropriate knowledge and precautions, there are few destinations in Africa to which it is inadvisable to travel for business purposes.”

Maxwell Lucas' risk map shows the majority of African countries fall into the low/medium risk category.

Declan Meighan of security specialists Maxwell Lucas agrees: “Over 65% of the countries within Africa carry the same travel risk rating as the US and Canada, low and medium. Crime remains the prevailing threat and you can become a victim in any major city in the world. Travelling through Africa poses a blend of First and Third World countries and as such each city has its own unique set of safety challenges for the employer and the business traveller.”

“I have worked all over the world,” adds Meighan, “but travelling through Africa is a different undertaking to any other continent, providing for some of the most interesting and frustrating experiences I have ever experienced… making it one of my personal favourite places to visit.”

Africa security tips from Travel Security Services

  • Dress as inconspicuously as possible and avoid ostentatious displays of wealth. Avoid displaying money, wearing jewellery or carrying valuables such as laptop computers or cameras.
  • Never mention that you are travelling alone or give out personal information.
  • Be aware of the city’s geography and avoid high-crime areas (often lower-income districts) if possible.
  • Avoid disputes, demonstrations, political rallies and commotions on the street. Do not stay to watch or photograph them.
  • Ignore verbal ‘bait’ from passers-by – do not get into an argument – and avoid eye contact with strangers.
  • If lost, do not stand in the street consulting a map – go to a busy shop and ask for directions, or consult the map there inconspicuously.
  • Always carry some form of communication equipment, such as a cellular phone programmed with numbers that would be useful in an emergency (police, embassy etc).
  • Memorise important local phrases (yes, no, how much, stop here etc).
  • Avoid walking in city streets after dark, especially if alone. If you are walking, take only brightly-lit, busy streets.
  • If you suspect that you are being followed, enter any busy public place and call for help.
  • Limit alcohol intake – individuals are more vulnerable to attack if they have been drinking.
  • Use only accredited taxi services with radio communication.
  • Distribute cash in more than one pocket, and keep a small amount in a top pocket to hand over to a criminal who confronts you. A dummy wallet – with a small amount of local currency, an expired credit card and some useless receipts – can be useful to satisfy a mugger.
  • Where possible, obtain small denominations of currency and keep the bulk of cash and cards in a money belt, which should only be accessed in private places.
  • If attacked, co-operate with assailants and do not make eye contact or sudden movements. Resistance is more likely to provoke violence.

More Africa travel tips from Round the World Experts

  • Passport control can be a little intimidating, but remember they are only doing their job, not trying to steal your details. Always do your research before leaving and so you’ll know exactly what forms you will need where. If in doubt, ask a reputable and experienced travel agent or check the FCO website.
  • Be sure to make provisions for duplicate paper work, keep copies with you as well as with relatives or somewhere online.
  • Most airports have local food and refreshments on offer don’t be afraid to try them. Use local eateries at airports to support local business and aid local development.
  • Check that if you have a room safe you can set the pass-code yourself. If leaving valuables in main hotel safes, put everything in a padlocked bag to dissuade light-fingered staff.
  • The safest and easiest way to get around major cities is by cab.
  • Get comprehensive insurance as par for the course, but people don’t be afraid to venture from the hotel and have a real adventure!

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