Travel: A Closer Look at West African Border Issues


Image Source: Wilderness Travel

Virgin Passport”. This was the first controversial term I heard when planning my trip and a good example of an abused use of context. I was told I had to pay more if this was my first road trip across the West African borders. As much as I struggled to grasp the concept or raison d’etre behind this, I had no option but to pay the exorbitant fare. My destination was Togo but I had to cross through the borders of Benin (Seme, Cotonou, ouidah, Grandpopo, Hilacondji, aneho) on my way. I have heard stories and watched YouTube videos about how widespread bribery and corruption are perpetrated on the borders of West African countries but this was my first time experiencing them first-hand. 

The first odd thing about the road trip was the presence of so many roadblocks stationed and manned by both military and paramilitary personnel, I could hardly tell if they were actual borders or just money-minting counters and booths. I could see that the bus driver had a stack of white envelopes with defined amounts which he handed over to scary-looking officers at every stop. I began to wonder if the government was aware of these levies or if they were just legalized forms of corruption.

I wasn’t so surprised witnessing this practice within the Nigerian territory; because as Nigerians, bribery is so normal, especially in public institutions where you still have to pay bribes for services or rewards that you have duly earned. I never knew this was the practice in other French-speaking West African nations across the Trans-West African Coastal Highway. 

I wasn’t so bothered about the money that was being collected, I was more concerned about the level of security details these soldiers ignored in exchange for white envelopes. In normal circumstances, our passports were supposed to be checked. Items of baggage were also supposed to be inspected, meanwhile, all of these procedures made no sense to the officers in an era where the proliferation of arms fuels the activities of terrorists and bandits in the region, how astonishing!

I finally arrived at Lome, with no fuss and no fur, and that was when I discovered that the exorbitant fee I paid to the transport company included money for bribery. If I had decided to cross the borders using bikes, I would still have to pay for those expenses, except that it would be less. The upside to using the transport company was that I did not have to bargain with the customs and immigration officers, nor did I need to come down from the bus at every stop.

My experience took a more unfriendly turn when I decided to visit Ghana from Lome. I experienced corruption blended with the African form of racism and stereotype, one which is more painful because of my love for Mother Africa. I took a bike this time due to my budget constraints. I had a challenge communicating with the bike man, not just because I am bad at French but because he only understands pidgin French and the local language Ewe. I asked him to take me to Aflao border. 

Aflao border was where I was expected to board a bus to Accra. The bike man started the trip, and on my way, I met with some Ghanaian immigration officers, I explained to them the purpose of my visit and they asked for my nationality. I told them I was a Nigerian, a statement which I ended up regretting.  Immediately upon hearing that I was a Nigerian,  the immigration officer chanted ‘money! money! money!’ and then asked me to come down from the bike. He then asked me a lot of questions which made me feel like an outright foreigner, like a black African in a land of White supremacists. He finally allowed me to go after parting with some of my cash but told me that I followed an illegal border. I was quite surprised because my bike man never mentioned to me that he was taking me through an illegal route. I talked to my bike man about that, and he asked me to ignore them. 

I soon appreciated the first immigration officer after I met another one. I haven’t really understood the dynamics behind everything yet. That day I later learnt that being a Nigerian was not something you should publicly mention when crossing the borders. 

The second immigration officer also asked about my identity, he initially thought I was Cameroonian,  but I made the foolish mistake of showing him my passport. After reminiscing on my recent experience, I realized he would have allowed me to pass for the regular bribe amount if I remained silent. 

My Nigerian identity earned me special client treatment but in a negative way. I ended up feeling like a retired US worker in the hands of Nigerian Cybercriminals, In literal terms, I was vulnerable. Just like the previous immigration officers, they told me I was passing through an illegal border. I became fed up with the whole illegal border slogan, and I told them, I had given up the trip and I would like to turn back. They insisted that I must pay them whether or not I decide to continue with the trip. It was like a trap. I began to wonder why the illegal border existed in the first place because they seemed like well-paved roads although not tarred.

I was charged 35,000 CFA, an amount I later negotiated to 14,000 CFA. They made sure to strip me of all the money I had and even offered an after-sale service to help me calculate how much it would cost me by bus to Accra. According to them, they were doing me a favor. I could visibly see the code of deceit, cheating, and corruption written all over their face, but to them, it was just a regular business. I still had to pay the Ghanaian police a token after I was done with the immigration officers. I was then told by the immigration officers to hide my passport and never reveal my true identity, I was told by them to only show my student ID card since it shows I am a student from Togo. This is a piece of advice I have already learned from my experience.

I finally got to Aflao and boarded a bus to Accra. There were borders and roadblocks on my way, but I stuck to the code of conduct, Never mention you are a Nigerian, Hide your passport and only show your student ID. The rest of the trip, however, was less scary as I was already in Ghana.

Would I have faced the same ordeal if I followed a legal border? Maybe NO, Maybe YES. The experience and story differ for different individuals. Along the line, I have met and listened to the stories of other people, foreigners, and individuals who had both good and similar bad experiences. 

However terrible these experiences are, they taught me some very vital lessons. First, I learned that corruption has no national identity and it’s our collective responsibility as Africans to fight this ugly menace. Secondly, I felt obliged and motivated to work hard enough to make Africa a better place. A continent where you don’t have to bribe anyone to cross the borders.

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