Dilemma on the road

It happened just ten minutes after we crossed the border from one Eastern African country to another – the first police stop. We were waved to the side by an officer who needed to see the driver’s licence, registration, and check inside his car. It was a routine stop, but the atmosphere felt different from what I had experienced during the past six days of my assessment trip, much of which involved driving for hours around the country.


After he checked the trunk, the bad news came – apparently, we had been speeding. The officer showed us his speed camera, which read ‘60’. In the residential zone we were passing through, the maximum was 50 kilometres per hour, and the angry look on the officer’s face did not bode well for us. 


My driver and I both knew we had not been speeding. In fact, just ten minutes before we’d been discussing the new speed limits for cars driving through towns, and he had been keeping a close eye on his speedometer. In addition, his car was equipped with a tracker, which was connected with his company’s operations room. Through this system, his speed at any given point could be verified by the team back in the city. But if you learn anything from doing a lot of driving in Eastern Africa, it’s this: never argue with the police officer.


“You can make this go away, no problem,” the officer said. “We just need a small payment and you can be on your way.” He wanted a bribe. 


Situations like this can present a real dilemma. When you are in a hurry and need to pass a police checkpoint to make a meeting on time, catch a flight, or check into a hotel and continue an important trip, there isn’t time to get embroiled in a legal dispute in a rural town. Yet paying bribes is illegal, and the country’s president has initiated a crackdown on corruption and lawlessness. It is not a good idea for foreigners to test the limits of the system by paying illegal bribes – even to get through a simple checkpoint. So what’s the solution?


I’ll admit, my driver got a little bit upset. After all, he knew he hadn’t been speeding. But the officer wouldn’t change his mind. Either we paid his small bribe, or we had to appear in court two days later – that meant two days staying in this small town, and two days lost of my trip. My driver got out of the car and went to speak to the officers. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but crossed my fingers it would work out.


When he came back across the road, all seemed to be well. We drove on and I asked what had happened. 


“I refused to pay the bribe,” he said. “Instead, I told them I will pay the official fine for speeding. It’s ten times more, but they have to give me a receipt and  at least this way the government gets the money and the officer doesn’t profit.” Although the stop delayed us, I reached my hotel just before dark and successfully checked in.


Sometimes it can seem like there is no way to get out of an uncertain situation like this without acceding to the officer’s demands. We always recommend that you avoid paying bribes if possible – whether by requesting to pay an official fine, asking to see the authority figure’s supervisor, or drawing attention to the bribe request if in a public place. It’s never a good idea to expose yourself to additional legal risk, especially in a foreign country. Ultimately, your local contacts, like my driver, will often be able to advise on the best tactic if you find yourself in a similar situation – being asked for a ‘facilitation payment’ or ‘extra fee’ to guarantee something that should come for free. This local expertise is invaluable and can help make sure you have an easy and hassle-free trip – and get to your hotel on time!


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