9 October 2012

West Africa: The Bribery That Bridges Chad and Cameroon

Every day, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people cross the Nguéli bridge that links Chad and Cameroon.

Chadian police and customs officers posted at the border are reported to try to extort money from the individuals travelling to and fro. According to Jean, a Chadian citizen from the capital N'Djamena: "When they realize you are Cameroonian and do not speak Arabic, they are even more ruthless." Late last month, our correspondent set out for some firsthand observations of the alleged corruption. This is his experience.

Nguéli - I decide to cross into Cameroon from Chad on a mototaxi to see how things would go. When we arrive at the bridge but before we even begin to cross, a Chadian police officer notices me. From my features, he probably can guess I am Cameroonian.

He asks for my ID. While I am pulling it out of my pocket, a few banknotes also come up - that certainly whets his appetite. After checking my ID, he asks for my vaccination book, a document I do not have on me. Deep within, I am smiling, thinking: "Since when does a police officer check vaccination books? What does he know about vaccines?"

When I tell him I have forgotten my vaccination book, he replies that I have to pay 3,500 CFA francs (5.30 euros). The mototaxi driver, or clandoman as they are known here, remains silent. He is not asked to produce a single document.

I say to the officer that I did not have that much money. He then tells me to give him what I have. So I ask the mototaxi driver to hand the man in uniform 500 CFA francs, which I will refund on arrival in Kousséri, a Cameroonian city across the border. The clandoman hold a 500 CFA coin out to the officer, who quickly slips it into his shirt pocket.

In return, I receive no receipt, no vaccine. In fact, if he had offered to vaccinate me, I would have declined, for fear of having one of my veins cut open.

Trying to blend in

Once on the Cameroonian side, I decide to cross the bridge a few minutes later - this time on foot. I join a large group of Chadians crossing the bridge, some carrying luggage on the head.

As we get near the police officers, I try to disappear into the crowd of Chadian citizens. But my features give me away once again. From the crowd of pedestrians, I am one of the few to be called aside.

It's the same story all over again. One officer asks for my ID and I present it to him. He then asks for my vaccination book and I tell him that I had forgotten it. He then tells me to go back to Cameroon if I don't have it. When I point out that I live in N'Djamena, he suggests I call someone to bring over my vaccination book. I try to do so, just to see if the police will look for another excuse to extort money from me even after presenting those two documents.

But then I realize that my cell phone has no network reception. I point this out to the officer, who then suggests I "make a gesture". Pretending not to understand, I ask him what he means by "make a gesture". He insists: "If you don't have a vaccination book, you need to make a gesture." So I reply that I only have a 10,000 CFA francs note. He suggests I get change, which I do not do.

Instead, I go back to the Cameroonian side to attempt crossing the bridge inside a public transport vehicle for the price of 3,500 CFA francs. This time, I don't have to pay the police. However, the driver must negotiate hard to get across. He ends up paying a police officer 1,500 CFA francs - without a receipt. A real pain!

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