Hauling goods from Dakar to Bissau and back - a view from the driver's seat

Tuesday, December 25 2012

Bright Gowonu with Craig Duncan

As part of an ongoing series of firsthand reports on the challenges facing drivers in West Africa, Bright Gowonu from the USAID West Africa Trade Hub’s Transport team hitched a ride with a truck driver on the Dakar-Tambacounda-Bissau transit corridor between Senegal and Guinea Bissau. This is his report.

In the Senegalese capital of Dakar, it’s not easy to find a truck going to Guinea-Bissau.  There’s a whole motor park full of trucks in the city, but every vehicle there is bound for Bamako in Mali. I drive around the ports, factories and other major loading points in Dakar and nearby Rufisque, but the story is always the same: everyone is going to Bamako.

At my wit’s end, I return to Dakar and knock on the door of a USAID Trade Hub partner company’s office. After undergoing some security interrogation I am allowed to enter.  The company’s corporate communication manager for the region promises to try to find me a ride. After some hours I get a phone call inviting me to meet Moussa, a truck driver who hauls goods to Bissau.  Yes, Moussa will give me a ride, but on two conditions: I will pay some money to him and his mate, and pay for their meals and drinks throughout the journey.

I have no other option. Moussa and his mate Cheikh turn out to be a friendly, helpful and disciplined pair. Moussa is 35, supporting his two wives by driving between Dakar and Bissau on behalf of a truck owner who pays him 80,000 CFA per month plus a bribery budget - a roll of banknotes which he carries in his pocket to distribute to insistent police, gendarmes and other roadblock personnel. Moussa speaks Wolof, Arabic, and just enough French to understand road signs and demands for bribes at non-Arabic-speaking checkpoints.

He has an impressive collection of talismans to provide spiritual protection against accidents and unforeseen events. There are two tied around his waist and one on his right arm, as well as a further six around the steering wheel.

Cheikh, 23 and similarly attired, is learning to become a truck driver. His apprenticeship involves keeping the truck clean, making sure the load remains secure, preparing tea and running errands. He is also responsible for looking in the side view mirror when Moussa is overtaking. On the return trip, when the truck is empty and there’s a decent piece of road between towns, Cheikh will get a turn at driving.

Loaded with 2,600 cartons of stock cubes, our truck leaves Dakar. My job begins: noting all checkpoints where transit trucks are forced to stop and pay bribes to police, customs, military or gendarmes along the 1,200 km corridor. The Senegalese part of the corridor is a fairly easy passage: of the 35 checkpoints I count, only 5 demand bribes, and our longest hold-up is only 15 minutes. At the Salikanie border, Senegalese Customs give Moussa an official receipt for his 50,000 CFA as transit fee , and with no further problems we arrive in Cambadju, Guinea-Bissau.

For the next stage of the trip, Moussa pays Customs 25,500 CFA (receipted) for an escort service to take us along the 54 dusty, un-surfaced kilometers from Cambadju to Bafata Customs post. There, we pay a second Customs escort to take us 138  from Bafata to Safim at the cost of 45,000 CFA (also receipted). It’s worth it: with the paid escort, all the other checkpoints leave us alone. We are left at Safim to travel the remaining 15 kilometers into Bissau city alone.  

Just as we’re approaching the receiving warehouse in Bissau, our truck scrapes the side of a diplomat’s car which is parked badly by the roadside.  The diplomat’s driver sees it happen.  This is very bad indeed. Moussa has all the necessary insurance documents, but past experience tells him that the city police are not kind to Senegalese drivers, so it is now a race to unload the truck as quickly as possible, and get moving again before the police can arrive. We drive into the warehouse and offload the stock cubes. The receiving trader is delighted that his goods  have arrived in only four days, so he  pays Moussa immediately and gives him a 10,000 CFA bonus for fast delivery. We all jump back into the truck and speed off.

We need a good night’s sleep before the return trip.  Moussa and Cheikh spend the night in their truck on the outskirts of Bissau. I myself am in dire need of a proper bed for the night, so I check into a hotel in the city center. The next morning we set off again, this time with an empty truck. We are about to experience a whole new form of harassment.

Moussa’s truck is roadworthy, and he has every necessary piece of documentation (as is required in order to haul goods for Nestle, whose representatives checked the truck fully in Dakar) but unfortunately this is of little interest to the police in Guinea Bissau. Their modus operadi in most instances is to flag the truck to halt, then demand one document or the other. With the document in his hand, the officer moves to the back of the truck and beckons Moussa to get out. The officer looks at the document, scrutinizes Moussa’s face, and mentions some arbitrary amount which Moussa must pay to get his document back.  The first suggested sum typically ranges from 30,000 CFA to 25,000 CFA, and each time, the powerless Moussa needs all his negotiating skills to beat the price down as low as he can. I watch 4  negotiations of this kind, each taking up to an hour.

At Bantandjam, things get dramatic.  Held up for 10 minutes by a policeman whose checkpoint consists of a chair by the roadside, Moussa decides he might be able to just drive away from this one. He begins to do so, but the officer is insistent: hanging onto the side of the moving truck, the officer repeatedly screams “Give me 6000 CFA!” through the window in Moussa’s face. Moussa surrenders, hands over the money and slows down so the officer can dismount with his takings. 

At the border, Moussa parts with a final 12,000 CFA bribe, which is what it takes for the Guinean police to allow him to re-enter Senegal. The Senegalese part of the return trip is much easier, and eventually we arrive back in Dakar. Moussa is happy: he has made it home with his wages and bonus intact, and he can return to his wives.

As I travel more and more West African trade corridors in this manner, I begin to see a pattern emerging: generally, there appears to be a strong link between the degree of poverty and the level of extortion in a country. My experiences travelling to Guinea-Bissau were more or less identical to my experiences on the Cotonou-Niamey corridor between Benin and Niger: Guinea-Bissau and Niger share similar poverty levels and similar lack of road governance, and the size and frequency of bribes demanded are also nearly identical. By contrast, security forces in the wealthier nation of Senegal demand far fewer bribes, regardless of which country a truck is heading to.

Another similarity across the region is the positive role of official customs escorts. Trucks travelling from Benin to Niger also pay for escorts along much of the Cotonou-Niamey corridor, and similarly, this works out cheaper overall because no further bribes are demanded from an escorted truck.  However, the situation for empty trucks returning to their place of origin along this corridor is also similar: once unescorted, they are preyed upon by almost every checkpoint.

I travelled with Moussa and Cheikh as part of the ongoing USAID-UEMOA Road Governance project, which studies eight important trade and transit corridors in West Africa. The project collates, collects, processes, distributes and disseminates data and information on delays encountered at the checkpoints and border-crossings, as well as bribes paid at these checkpoints to police, customs, military and gendarmes in Ghana, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal , Niger, Mali and now Guinea-Bissau.

What do you think of the trials and travails of West Africa's transit truck drivers? Tell us more in the comments section below.



Jonas Aryee wrote 1 year 7 weeks ago

Motivation of our Policemen

That is an interesting but very familiar story. I agree with Bright Gowunu when he says bribery level correspond with living standards. I guess there are more questions to be asked by before attempting solutions which will obviously involve education. However, apart from education what else can be done? I am from Ghana. I can confidently say that even making inter-city trips or just driving intra-city comes with its own stress. Some policemen will not even check doucment but go straight to demand money for trivial things like water, battery for touch light to occasional christmas or easter bonuses. There some that will let cars with defects -no working lights etc to pass will preying on the posh one they think might can offer them something.I have always said that these policemen can make money from legally enforcing traffic regulations if they are given a percentage of the charges imposed by the courts on traffic offenders. Why do I say so? Most cars in developing countries are second hand and they have one fault or the other. Driving is out cities is a scary venture. People drive dangerously, park anywhere at anytime etc. this is all money. but because the Policman will not benefit in anyway from the charge the court imposes on the offender he will take something lesser on the spot and let offenders off the hook

On trade facilitation, I think african countries need to be serious with road infrastructure and road governance. The modal split could also be looked at. Other modes such as rail and coastwise/ short sea shipping must be developed and encouraged by policy.


Chris wrote 1 year 4 hours ago

Nice piece!!!

Good work Bright.

My only issues is that we may have to look further into your proposed "function" between poverty and extortion levels on our corridors, since I think there are more variables to this equation. Nigeria is not considered as poor* relatively, but registers significant levels of extortion at road barriers and check points. 

However, I think this is a good piece of reportage which should be applauded. 

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