x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Brushes with bribery on the road through West Africa

When faced with a demand for a bribe, the first rule is "negotiate", Chris Guillebeau.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 184.

Psst … have you ever paid a bribe? Don't worry if you haven't, because it's not usually something to be proud of in the UAE or anywhere else in the developed world. But in some countries, it's a regular occurrence to be asked for money for nothing. Sooner or later, you'll probably need to pay up.

A few years ago I was coming back to Sierra Leone from Benin. Both countries are in West Africa and fairly close to each other, but travel in the region is anything but easy. Because of a lack of cooperation between former British colonies and former French colonies, I had to travel through four different airports on three different airlines - all in one day. By the time I got to the final stop in Conakry, Guinea, I had been asked at least three times for money by government officials. It was tiring and stressful, and by the time I got to the last guy, I was fed up.

"You know what?" I said to him. "Sometimes you have good luck, and sometimes you have bad luck. Today, sir, you have bad luck. Maybe next time you'll be the first person to ask me for something, but today you are the last and I have no money left to give. Can I please go?"

It was a bit risky, but he gave me back my passport and waived me through.

The next time I wasn't so lucky. I was driving around Lomé, Togo, and I mistakenly turned the wrong way down a one-way street. Almost instantly, I was surrounded by five policemen, who asked me to stop and turn off the car.

Realising my mistake, I apologised and asked if I could go. The officer in charge shook his head and said I would have to be punished for my crime. Punished? I told him I was sorry to hear that, but what exactly was the punishment?

He turned to speak with his other officers. I noticed that one of them had taken my driver's license and walked off with it. The officer in charge came back over to me. "Well," he began. "We must take you to the police station. There you will pay a fine and write out a statement admitting your guilt. You might have to stay a long time. However, if you want to go now, you can pay US$20 [Dh73] and we'll forget it."

By this time a large crowd had gathered around the car, and I noticed that a number of other policemen had joined the discussion. I agreed that I had done the wrong thing, but said it was an honest mistake, I was terribly sorry. "Would it be all right if I paid one dollar?" I asked.

We then began a long dialogue of negotiation about my fine. At the end, he asked for $5 (Dh18) and I gave him about $4 (Dh15) in local currency. He hesitated and I looked down at the dashboard. Sitting there was a map of Cuxhaven, Germany, where I had been a few months before. I handed him the map and said, "Here, please take this small gift as well." All of a sudden, my driver's licence reappeared and the chief waived me off. It was the best $4 investment I had made in a long time.

If you're ever in a situation where you need to pay $4 and a map of Germany, here's some advice. Start your negotiation very, very low, or even with zero. If it appears inevitable that you'll need to pay, ask the agent to tell you "what would be fair".

Laugh at this number or, alternatively, get very quiet and explain that you don't have much money. Bribes are rarely a take-it-or-leave-it figure, so be sure and negotiate the final amount.

The next time I was unable to avoid paying a bribe, it was $10 (Dh37) for permission to transit in another West African airport - even though I had a valid visa that provided the approval. I wasn't happy about it, so I asked for the official to sign a piece of paper that showed I had paid him. The request didn't go over well, and I learnt another important lesson. In the business of bribery, there are no receipts.