Lome Airport – Corruption Central

“Where is my gift?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. A Togolese passport official had just asked us for a “service fee”, which we refused, and now the customs guy was requesting his share. And what blew my mind was that he was asking for a bribe just like that, in front of four other customs officials. Do these kind of things really happen in real life?

“Why should I bring you a gift?” Eduardo played stupid. “I haven’t even bought my mother a gift.”

The customs guy started opening up Eduardo’s backpack.

“What do you have in here?” he asked, trying to dig in deep, searching for something valuable, and pulled out our bag with dirty (and pretty stinky) clothes.

“Just clothes. Just dirty clothes. You want that as a gift?”

The guy finally gave up when Eduardo offered him a handshake as a gift, thinking we were especially thick who didn’t get his point.

As we picked up our bags, and took two steps towards the exit, the next official wondered:

“Do you have the money for my coffee?”

There was no “Welcome to Togo”. No “Can I buy you a coffee?”. No “Thanks for visiting our country”. Just corruption all the way.

So we felt very welcome to Togo. And got ready for a rough trip.


Nigerian Visa Part II – You Can Get It If You Really Want

“I can help you get a Nigerian visa!” The words sounded sweet, but it wasn’t the first time we had heard someone promise to help us to get the elusive document. But when Prince, a Nigerian living in Cotonou mentioned that he is friends with the ambassador, things started looking a little more promising. Only moments earlier, he had greeted the ambassador’s wife, a guest at his Benin Independence Day Celebration Party at the Obama Beach in Cotonou. So he seemed to be telling the truth.

Eduardo and I looked at each other. Maybe this was our chance. Maybe it would work out this time. Lagos was among the top reasons why we had decided to come to West Africa, and once again it seemed our dreams would come true. Maybe.

Our hopes faltered pretty quickly, as the “ambassador” turned out to be someone called Daniel that perhaps worked at the Nigerian Embassy, but wanted $800 to help us get the visas. We offered $300, but Daniel declined. Alas, we were back to square one.

But, wait a second! During our “negotiations” with Daniel, we had gotten in touch with a lady in Lagos who had read my blog, and she offered to provide us with an invitation. With Eduardo’s Peruvian passport (there’s no Nigerian Embassy in Peru), and the invitation, we decided to try on our own.

If the Togolese visa officials are corrupt, wait until you meet the Nigerians. The huge man in a bright pink shirt was intimidating. His face convulsed in mixed expressions of anger, surprise and ridicule. He stood up and leaned forward towards us, threatening us with his entire being.

“Why didn’t you get your visa in Peru?”
“There is no embassy there.”
“Who says there is no Nigerian embassy in Peru?”
“The Nigerian Government’s Immigration web page”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is.”
“Mr. Duarte, don’t you know you can call the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out if there’s a Nigerian embassy in Peru?”
“Well, no.”
“So how do you know there is no embassy in Peru?”
“There isn’t.”
“So why didn’t you go to the nearest embassy in another country?”
“It’s in Brazil [we made this up, we didn’t know]. That’s on the other side of the continent. Like how far Ethiopia is from Benin. It’s an eight hour flight.”
“Well, you should have gone there. I can’t give you a visa. You don’t fulfill the qualifications.”

After some begging, pleading, unscrupulous flattering, fake smiling, etc., our man said he can help us get a visa the unofficial way, but it’s going to cost us. He just had to talk to some friends at the border to make sure it was OK. He was lying, of course, trying to make us sweat.

After a twenty minute break, Eduardo was called in by himself to negotiate the fee [“it’s easier with men”], and we ended up paying only slightly more than we had offered to pay Daniel.

We finally did get our visas at the low cost of $320 (plus another $20 paid at the border, where we were interrogated in almost an identical fashion). Because the Nigerian visa process doesn’t end when you get the visa at their corrupted embassy, you have to cross the border, too. And they have all the power to deny you entry, if they feel like it.

So, yes, you can get a Nigerian Visa if you really, really want it!

Kano to Zinder – How Many Bribes Can You Pay in Seven Hours?

Theoretically, the road from Kano in Nigeria to Zinder in Niger should take about three and a half hours. It’s not that far (200 km), and the roads are actually quite good. But when travelling in an overloaded bush taxi, African style, things change.

The Nigerien driver, Moussa, was not too happy when we brought three pieces of luggage to the bush taxi stop in Kano. He was eager to get our business, but tried his hardest to get us to pay extra for our bags. We refused. Since everyone else brought lots of luggage, we weren’t quite sure what the problem was. Until the car started filling up.

Bush taxis are five-seat Peugeots that serve as public transportation between major cities. Often, this is the only method to travel in Africa. The goal of the driver is to cram as many people as possible into the car, and thus make as much money as possible on the route. Usually, this means three people sitting in the front seats and four in the back. But Moussa obviously needed more cash, so he made room for two women and a toddler in the trunk. The luggage was spilling out from the back, tied down with cords, and so we started our journey with nine adults and two children in a five-seat car.

Now, this method of travelling is not without problems, something Moussa must have taken into consideration when calculating the risks vs. gains. In Nigeria and in Southern Niger, there are police checks in every village. Given the bush taxis are legally only allowed to carry six passengers (and only carry as much luggage as would fit in the trunk), this gave the police a good reason to stop the car and get their bribes. In every village, at every police check along the 200 km route, Moussa paid the police a bribe of about a dollar. Which meant that every single policeman on the route, both Nigerian and Nigerien, was corrupt, and that it’s simply an accepted fact that no one even questions any longer.

However, the most interesting situation happened about 10 km before the border, at the Nigerian customs check. Suddenly the car stops, three men get out and get onto moped taxis. All the luggage is reloaded to fit into the trunk, and the poor women in the back finally get to sit on proper seats. We drive 2 km, and the car stops again. The men who had driven away on mopeds are sitting under a tree waiting. We reload the car and the two women get to go back into the trunk again.

Apparently, if the customs see that your car is overloaded, you need to pay a fine of 10,000 Naira (~$60). Unluckily, someone tipped off the customs guy, who caught us as we were reloading the car. A bribe of 2,000 Naira satisfied him.

Strangely enough, the immigration officials at the Jibaya border crossing were of the honest kind, and Eduardo and I didn’t need to pay any bribes this time. Phew!

So, in this style, seven hours and twenty-thirty bribes later, we arrived in Zinder, Niger.