A guide to pragmatically losing your shit with troublesome African immigration officials

Requests for bribes on the Tangier-to-Cape Town trail have been far less prevalent than one might expect. I can count on one hand the number of times an official has demanded an under-the-table payment. But they do happen, starting around 2ºN, near the Cameroon-Gabon border if you’re heading south. It’s good to be mentally prepared.

With one possible exception – a suspicious (and extortionate) 40,000 CFA ($84) “visa handling charge” demanded by the embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Cameroon – never once have we actually paid a bribe. So here are three successful ways of dealing with immigration officials who make trouble where there is none.

First, it’s obviously a good idea to remain calm when faced dealing with anybody in a position of authority who’s trying to make your life difficult, be it a policeman, an immigration official or a grumpy waiter. But as you’ll see below, every so often a moment comes along when it’s useful to lose your cool a little bit. Provided, that is, you immediately regain it.

The ethics of paying “dash,” as it’s called in Nigeria, are a separate discussion. I realize it’s a commonly accepted way of doing business, and I know many of these officials are ridiculously underpaid and consider these payments as tips in lieu of salary. Suffice to say I don’t play along because I think it’s bad for everyone concerned. If an official fee is required, I’ll pay it, but I’ll also demand a receipt.

THE NON-DISCUSSION. At the Campo border crossing from Cameroon into Equatorial Guinea, where a wooden

boat crosses the mouth of the Campo River to the (in fact closed) Equatorial Guinean border post, the guard checking my passport at the jetty jots down my details on a separate piece of paper, not the ledger itself. That’s a common tip-off that a demand for generosity is forthcoming.

He murmurs quietly in French, “Blah blah blah blah blah blah l’argent [cash].”

I only understand one word, but even that’s not necessary, because he rubs his fingers together and rests his hand back on my passport and waits.

This is my first direct demand for a bribe in all of Africa. I simply shake my head. “L’argent? Non. C’est pas possible l’argent.”

“Pour qua?”

“Pour qua? Pour qua…” I’m stumped. “C’est pas possible, c’est pas bon.” That’s about the limit of my French. I don’t know what else to say, so I shake my finger at him for added emphasis.

There’s a man lying on a cot in the shack, watching this whole exchange.

“Blah blah blah blah, blah blah, blah blah, le libre,” the officer explains, pointing to the book. “Blah blah, blah blah blah, l’argent.”

“Yes, I know what you’re asking for,” I say in English. “But I don’t really see the reason for it.” I smile to lighten the mood. “Can I have my passport back please? Si vous plait? Mon ami?”

“Blah blah blah blah….” We’re at an impasse.

We look patiently at each other for three to four minutes until finally, he brushes my passport back to me with the back of his hand.

Really, it’s that easy? Just say no?

“Merci,” I tell him, taking the passport. That’s that.

THE CONNIPTION. So I’m at the Cameroon-Gabon border at Kye-Ossi. Because I already have that Campo exit stamp in my passport from my failed bid to enter Equatorial Guinea, I’d like to try to sneak out of Cameroon without having to explain the existence of an exit stamp on a single-entry visa.

I walk right past the final checkpoint, looking into the hut to try to make eye contact with the guards playing Parcheesi, and when I get none, continue. Unfortunately, one of the guards spots me on the bridge and sends a little kid to drag me back.

In the hut, a great deal of discussion ensues about the type and validity of my visa. My explanation of the existing exit stamp seems to hold water, but they finally tell me I need to go back into town and get a second exit stamp. I’d gone right past the immigration office a few kilometers back.

Mohammed, a guard from the Bafoussam region up north, kindly drives me into town to take care of the stamp; in the end, I tip him 1,000 CFA ($2) for that, which is what I’d have paid for two trips in a motorcycle taxi anyway. I don’t consider that a bribe.

Along the way, however, the following little drama ensues at the immigration office.

Behind the counter sits a Silent Lady and an English-speaking Good Lady, and in an office on the other side of the vestibule sits a French-speaking Bad Lady.

As soon as we arrive, Mohammed begins discussing my passport and visa with the Good Lady – in what language, I don’t remember, but it’s not the one you’re reading. They seemed to be discussing the same bureaucratic issues as the earlier guys in the hut – something about visa types, validity and entry dates. I was sure that everything, no matter what they were saying, was in good order.

Bad Lady then comes out of her office, looks at the passport, starts yelling, and returns to her office.

“So what exactly is going on here?” I said to Mohammed. He says something in turn to the Good Lady.

“Where did you get this visa?” asks the Good Lady.

I think for a moment. “Abuja, Nigeria.”

The Silent Lady remains silent, and then, out of the office behind my back, the Bad Lady returns, this time a shrieking terror of a woman. She comes right up to my face and yells at me in French. I don’t understand a word.

“Why is this lady screaming at me?” I ask the Good Lady.

“You see what the problem is,” the Good Lady replies. “You received this visa on January 19, correct?” She points to the visa date.

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“But this stamp,” she says, pointing to the little sticky fiscal stamp next to the visa signifying my payment of 50,000 CFA (about $100) for the visa. “This is a stamp from 2010. So it’s not valid.”

Oh my, oh my… Like I said, there are also times where it’s useful to manufacture a little righteous outrage.

“What!?” I yell, banging my fist on the counter. “What is this bullshit!? I paid for this visa, and if you have a problem with the stamp, call the goddamn embassy in Abuja and talk to them about it! You know who you should talk to? Her name is Big Mama!

“This is not my problem!” I continue. “The visa is valid, and I am not paying a single extra franc. Not one CFA! I want my exit stamp, I want it now, and I want to get out of this country!”

Woah. I don’t think they were expecting that. Neither was I.

“No, no, it’s not a problem,” say Good Lady, laughing.

“Good,” I reply calmly. “You know I really loved being in Cameroon. It’s a great place. The people are friendly here and I’m sad to leave.” All true words. “But I don’t know why you have to create these problems on my way out. This obviously is not my fault.”

“No, no, it’s not your fault,” says the Good Lady. “There is no problem.”

Meanwhile the Bad Lady has gone back into her office and returned with a set of 2011 fiscal stamps. She is pointing at them and shouting at me again.

“OK,” I say, raising my voice slightly. “Why is this lady yelling at me again – and why is she pointing at this stamp, when I already told you it wasn’t my fault? What’s the problem?”

“It’s no problem,” says the Good Lady. “The problem is, you went to the border without stopping here. Why did you do that? That is your fault!”

“Yes,” I say meekly. “That was my fault. I’m sorry. But the thing with the stamps is not my fault.”

“Yes, that was your fault, but the other thing was not your fault. Now go into the office and get your exit stamp.”

It turns out the Bad Lady is the police inspector herself, in charge of stamping and signing all the passports. Oddly enough, the moment I sit down opposite her desk, she’s all charm. When she asks my profession, I tell her I work on the Internet.

“Internet?” she says, laughing. She reaches over to her laptop and hands it to me.

I start up Windows as she’s entering my details into her ledger. “Yeah, well, looks like you’ll need a wifi signal to get the internet to work here,” I say. She doesn’t understand a word. “C’est pas connexion.”

She pays no attention as she stamps and signs the passport. Ka-chunk. The end.

I don’t know what exactly they were trying to pull here. Most likely, they were expecting me to apply some sort of lubricant to ease my passage. I don’t know if I handled the situation “correctly,” but I have a feeling that with potentially troublesome officials, it’s sometimes good to remind them you could – not that you’d want to, because you’re such a happy guy – make a scene at any moment.

Be careful what you pretend to be, though. If you act like you’re losing your temper, you may well lose your temper before you’ve even realized it. And that’s bad.

THE “LET ME USE MY PASSPORT AS A PROP IN THIS DISCUSSION” TRICK. I had another, less exciting stand-off with a guard demanding a fee for his services a few moments later, entering Gabon. He had my passport, but I wasn’t waiting for a stamp, since the immigration post itself is in the next town, Bitam. This man had again copied my info onto a separate piece of paper and wanted to be paid for the service of adding it to his little ledger.

I try the “just say no” approach but after a few minutes, he still has my passport. So I try a new trick.

“Look,” I say, raising my finger and pointing at the passport on his desk. “I want to show something to you.” I was speaking English and he didn’t seem to understand.

I open the passport to the Gabon visa page and point to the stamps and the signature. “As you can see here, I’ve already paid all the required fees. It’s already been signed and stamped by the consular officer in Yaoundé. There’s his name. You see?”

I go over the stamps and signature again. “So I’ve already paid all the necessary fees,” I say, closing the passport and keeping it in my hand. “Which means that nothing more should be required, no? So please, explain to me –” (passport goes into my pocket mid-sentence) “– about this service fee. What is it for exactly? And will I get a receipt for it?”

I trace the outline of a rectangular receipt with my fingers and made a writing gesture. I sit down as if to await his response.

It doesn’t matter by now, because he’s lost possession of the passport, his only upper hand. To regain it, he’ll need to manufacture a pretext of forcing it back from me, and that’s a line he probably doesn’t want to cross, since that’s, well, a bit like daylight robbery, given he already has all the info he needs.

We sit in silence for a few more minutes before he waves me off. The end.

2 thoughts on “A guide to pragmatically losing your shit with troublesome African immigration officials”

  1. Mr. W. Savage, Great writing, great stories, great adventure. I especially enjoy the hilarious parts.

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