Thoughts on officials wanting bribes

Many of the queries I receive from readers concern bribery of officials. A couple of summers ago I ran across some examples of it on a trip through East Africa, and I thought it would be worth mentioning one as an attempt to allay readers’ fears about the topic.

            It’s often the case that police and guards who are expecting a bribe are quite friendly about it – so much so that you may need to pinch yourself and do a quick reality check as to what is actually going on. Recently I was travelling through Kenya in a 1970s Range Rover hired locally and was stopped at a routine police check. The cop peered through the window and took in the expat driver and large piles of safari kit and did a quick calculation. He looked at the Rangey. “This car has a Public Service Vehicle sticker. Do you have a Public Service Vehicle Licence?” I stifled a grin – here it comes, the scam. I knew I didn’t need one, but of course the cop wouldn’t hear of this. “No. I have an International Driver’s Licence, this is fine”. The debate began. The cop insisted that I couldn’t drive any further, they would have to impound the car, I would need to appear in court tomorrow morning, and so on. All attempts to intimidate so that the cop could then turn friendly, and offer an easy get-out clause, involving a financial benefit to himself. It’s a time-worn pattern.

Fording the Tana River, Kenya

            Of course I tried the obvious, calling the hire company, asking to see the duty officer, blah blah, but the guys on the checkpoint were old hands at this. Of course, says Mr Friendly Cop eventually, there is an amicable solution. (Here it comes.) You can buy my colleagues and I lunch. Oh yes? I said – What sort of lunch? “Well, you could buy us a goat”. It was evidently some sort of endangered species rare breed goat, offspring of Billy the Kid and Goaty McGoatface, because it set me back £40. I paid up with a wry grin and trundled on, now quite a bit of cash lighter and running an hour late on these red mud roads where I still had a long way to go.

Crossing the Equator, Kora Reserve, Kenya

            The point is that it’s usually not a hostile or dangerous situation, if handled correctly. There is an attempt to intimidate, but they know they are in the wrong and so do you. There is seldom any way of getting out of it unless you can fast-talk them, or unless good luck intervenes. Do not try to be aggressive. Technically you can report them at the next major police station in the country, but it is of course Murphy’s Law that you then run into the same cop a few days later and he now has a grudge to bear – or that the cops you do the reporting to are sympathetic to their colleague. So be laid back, smile, be friendly. Take selfies with the guy, give him a soft drink from the coolbox, maybe a cigarette, and prepare yourself usually for a minor payout. Sad, but that’s the way of things in many parts of the world – and its often the only decent income the impoverished cops get.

            I spend much of my time in the UAE and the Persian Gulf at the moment, and so am not always able to answer queries regarding needs for immediate help for travellers passing through Egypt. If you are passing that part of the world and need shipping or customs help, or need a vehicle or accommodation talk to Brit Nick Rockingham at We Know Egypt – email or by local phone 012 2799 3732. As regards Egypt for overlanders – it is still possible as a route, though Sinai is closed to all 4x4s and the police are nowadays getting more willing to stop and fine for spurious reasons.

                      One last thing – a query. LRO reader Ben Dutton has contacted me asking if anyone knows of the whereabouts of any of the 110s used by New Zealand Expeditions to cross Africa and then travel to Mongolia in the 90s. The trucks were sold in Ulaanbataar in 2002 and Ben is trying to track them down. Anyone know of them?

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