Nov, 2017: Africa is an amazing continent full of stunning natural diversity, beautiful people and rich culture. It’s also a continent hamstrung by corruption. While corruption comes in many forms, by far and away our most common experience was with police corruption on Africa’s roads. During over 35,000km on the road in 15 different countries we certainly met some super friendly police who were genuinely excited to have us in their country. It should also be said that police in some African countries work under very tough conditions with minimal to no pay. BUT, unfortunately there are also a bunch of opportunistic African coppers out there attempting to take advantage of their positions of authority. While we were stopped by roadside police a LOT in our nine months in Africa we’re proud to say that we paid very little baksheesh (bribes). We wanted to share our experiences with police corruption in Africa and specifically how you can avoid paying bribes to corrupt coppers.
Are all African police corrupt?
Before people get up in arms that we’re generalising too much by accusing all African police of corruption, let us assure you, we’re not. Africa is a huge continent of 50+ countries filled with an enormously diverse population of different cultures. And, as is always the case with humanity most people are inherently good with only a few bad eggs tarnishing the image of all the others. We were stopped by road side police in nearly every African country we drove through. Most of the time they just wanted to know who we were, where we were going and what we thought of their country. They’d then send us on our way with a big smile and a wave. When you’re trying to cover long distances these incessant stoppages are frustrating but that’s the just the way it is. TIA*.
Is paying a bribe really all that bad?
This is a mildly contentious topic. We have seen fairly heated online discussions where people get on their high horse saying that paying bribes should NEVER happen. The usual refrain is that paying bribes only encourages more police corruption and that in doing so you’re ruining it for the next person. In principle we absolutely agree. But. After nearly two years travelling in Latin America and Africa we’ve come to the view that while paying bribes should absolutely be avoided at all costs, sometimes you simply can’t. Perhaps you’re travelling by yourself and feel your personal safety is in danger. Or maybe you’re travelling with children and don’t want to put them in danger. From our experience, the most likely case is that you simply do not have the time to debate with the police. In all these cases, even the biggest ethical crusader will be hard pressed to avoid paying a bribe. Indeed, if you feel that paying off a crooked copper is what you need to do to get out of an unsafe situation then please just pay up!
What are some of the things we’ve been charged with?
During our encounters with police corruption in Africa we were charged with a wide array of alleged offences, some more ridiculous than others. Most things we argued our way out of while others we begrudgingly paid up. Things we have argued our way out of:
- Unsecured load: We had a few chunks of fire wood secured to our roof rack by bungie chords but the police decreed that they should have been fully covered by a tarp.
- Illegally transporting fire wood: When the police couldn’t get us on the above charge, they tried to say it was illegal to transport wood from one national park to another even though we had paid top dollar for it.
- Reflective triangles not reflective on both sides: While we didn’t know at the time we later learned that this was a legitimate offence in Zimbabwe. Why on earth would you need two reflective triangles (reflective on both sides) both in front of and behind your car when one side of each triangle is facing your car???
- The back seat is NOT for luggage: Apparently according to Zimbabwean law, the back seat of a vehicle is for passengers only. Any luggage stored there is illegal!
Things we have payed bribes for…..gggrrrrrrrrrrr
- Speeding: In Kenya, we were in a bit of a hurry to be somewhere and were caught doing 59km/hr in a 50km/hr zone. After requesting they document the fine properly and give me an actual ticket they said the fine would be several hundred dollars. Alternatively if they didn’t write out the fine we could pay a fraction of this. As we were in a hurry and didn’t have the energy to argue we paid.
- Driving without a license: In Addis Ababa I stupidly left home without my drivers license. While I had a certified copy of both my UK license and my international license this wasn’t enough. Again with an absence of time and the insistence of an Ethiopian who was with me I payed around USD25 to avoid going to the police station.
Where did we find the most police corruption?
Without doubt Zimbabwe was where we were stopped the most by opportunistic police looking for bribes. Tanzania also wasn’t great for police corruption. In Zim we heard that police were so under funded that they had mandated revenue quotas. While I’m almost certain this is often the case in some developed western countries, in Zim it was taken to a new level. On our worst day driving between Harare and Bulawayo we would have been stopped 10-15 times and spent around 3.5 hours on the side of the road arguing with the police. We were threatened with fines, being taken to the police station and a few court appearances. In nearly every instance it was made clear that while we had ‘broken the law’ a simple cash payment could be arranged to get us quickly on our way. Luckily we always had the time to argue our case and after a while get on our way without handing over any cash.** That brings us on to the crux of this article about police corruption in Africa, how to avoid paying bribes.
10 ways to avoid paying bribes to corrupt police
The obvious answer to this from those do-gooders out there is don’t break the law. This is all well and good when the law is well documented and consistently applied by police with integrity. But, when you’re dealing with police who are just looking for a bribe what can be done about it? In our experience, the single most important factor in how to avoid paying bribes to corrupt policemen is time. Corrupt roadside coppers looking to make a quick buck bank on the fact that most drivers can’t be bothered wasting time on the side of the road arguing about traffic infringements (legitimate or not). They hope that for the average traveller it’s WAY easier to just pay the money and give them a filthy look as you drive off leaving them in your dust. They don’t expect you to pull over, bust out the coffee pot and biscuits and make it apparent that you’re happy to wait all day if necessary.
Before we go on, we want to reiterate that the personal safety of you and those travelling with you should be your NUMBER ONE priority at all times! As above, if at any time you feel that your personal safety is compromised then for god’s sake PAY THE BRIBE and get out of there. Don’t be a hero. With that said, what methods did we employ to avoid paying bribes to corrupt police?
- Be prepared: In many cases, especially in Zim you can avoid a lot of hassles but doing your research. Some countries have some weird and wonderful requirements but they’re easy enough to address beforehand. There is loads of information out there on forums such as Overlanding Africa or Overlanding Sphere. We also found the Automotive Association of South Africa to be a great source of information. Unfortunately though, sometimes this simply isn’t enough.
- Be polite but firm. Whenever we were pulled over by police we would always make an effort to be friendly and polite but also firm and confident. You want to show respect for the individual and their uniform but also that you aren’t intimidated by them or it.
- What is the problem? Next is to identify whether this is just a run of the mill meet and greet the foreigner or whether they are actually charging you with an offence. If it’s the latter you need to decide whether you accept it or are you going to argue your case.
- How much time do you have? In our experience, this is the single biggest factor in avoiding paying bribes. If you literally have all day, you’re in a strong position. Settle in, get comfortable and make sure the police know that you have as much time, if not more, than they do.
- Check the camera and check the signage. If you are accused of speeding make sure you ask to see the camera to check the speed. You always want to be aware of if there was appropriate signage i.e. was there actually a sign indicating a change of speed or are they just making it up. In Tanzania some policemen tried to charge us with speeding when there was no signage at all to say we needed to slow down.
- Is the law written down? Now you want to identify whether your infringement is documented or not. Sometimes a tatty looking exercise book would be produced while other times it would send the police into an awkward exercise of trying to state the relevant law code. Either way this is a good way to demonstrate to the police that you’re not a push over.
- Don’t hand over original documents. We usually carried a certified photo copy of our drivers license and passport so the police couldn’t walk away with our originals. We also kept all our key documents and any superfluous cash in our digital safe. This may sound a little paranoid but it removes another opportunity for police leverage. Also, often when we told police that our originals were in the safe they couldn’t be bothered waiting while we got it out so just waved us on.
- Never hand over cash on the side of the road: If you’re sure you haven’t committed an offence but the police keep insisting then you need to make it very clear that you won’t be handing over cash on the side of the road. If the police are dodgy they aren’t going to be happy about this and may try to intimidate you but you need to stay polite and firm. This is also where you really need to have time as this can take a while. You also need to be prepared to go to the police station. Indeed you may want to request to go to the police station. The reason being, is that if a policeman or woman is corrupt, they certainly don’t want to be filling in paper work and they most likely don’t want to explain the situation to their superiors.
- Threaten to call your embassy: While we didn’t try this personally, we did meet an American guy who did actually work for the US embassy in Harare and he said that it worked a treat. Corrupt police don’t really like the idea of them getting on the radar of foreign officialdom so this may be enough of a deterrent to get you on your way. Obviously you need to be prepared if the police call your bluff and actually ask you to make the call. Having a random number programmed in your phone should do the trick.
- Argue, argue, argue! Sometimes we were on our way in minutes. Another time it took two hours of arguing. This would usually start in a jovial and friendly manner but at times we would need to be very firm. Regardless, you need to be ready to argue, argue and argue some more.
If you do the crime, be prepared to do the time
We haven’t written this blog to give people carte blanch to do whatever they want when driving through Africa (or anywhere else). If you break the law then you need to be prepared for the consequences. Sure the locals might be all over the place; that truck isn’t actually designed to carry 100 passengers; and that car in front of you should definitely NOT be on the road. But, if you’re driving 100km/hour through a 50km/hour zone then I’m sorry but you’re breaking the law. I’m absolutely no angel on the road but if I know I’m in the wrong then I pay up. The thing is, we really HATE perpetuating police corruption so if we think we’re in the right and we have time on our side, then we’re ready to argue our case. If you feel the same then hopefully these tips will help you to avoid paying bribes to corrupt African police.
*NOTE: TIA = This is Africa
**NOTE: We should point out that this paragraph is based on our personal experience in Zim. Others travelling in Zim at the same time experienced far less hassle from police corruption and in some cases had no problems at all. It should also be said that in late 2017, after 37 years in power Robert Mugabe stood down as president of Zimbabwe. In the months since we have heard from overlanders travelling in Zimbabwe that police corruption has been reigned in with tourists experiencing very little to no hassle on the roads. Hopefully this trend continues.