Archive for February, 2022

Barriers and checkpoints

February 22, 2022

Anyone who has ever been traveling by road in West Africa knows this to be one of the greatest nuisances imaginable: the road block. They are, in general, useless and time consuming, hold up traffic, slow down the economy (as the Economist newspaper once famously calculated when describing the gauntlet run by a beer truck in Cameroon) and serve no other purpose than to line the pockets of the usually vastly underpaid uniformed staff manning them. (Yes, there are women there, too, and they tend to be just as bad.)

Liberia has its unfair share of these pests: a piece of rope across the road with some old plastic bags attached to it marks the spot where you are supposed to park your vehicle and wait for whatever comes next. In the quiet backwaters that are connected to one another by (at times) extremely bad roads these things take a little time.

Someone in a uniform walks up. Gets close to the car. Peers in. Decides on the spot whether or not the passengers’ papers need checking. This decision is mostly determined by the question whether or not he knows the driver of the car and/or the person sitting in the front seat. If yes, the car gets waved through. If no, the decision is then informed by the extent to which the officer in question can be bothered to put in the extra work.

Like any force anywhere in the world, Liberia has its army of obnoxious time-consuming jobsworths and when you cover a long distance passing through dozens of these checkpoints you are likely to come across one or two. Almost always men, almost always bereft of even the most minuscule sense of humour and exuding an air that is supposed to make the traveller aware of the extreme gravity of his task. Unfortunately, that gravity is not matched by their rather lamentable station in life.

Yes, you may have dreamt of becoming Head of Immigration for the Republic at some point in your life but right now you have come out of a damp hovel somewhere in the sticks and are staring intently at a passport you don’t understand.

The passports, already checked and verified on arrival in the country, are returned in short order. Sometimes money changes hands between driver and uniform and this is to cement an already existing relationship or create a new one. Perfectly legitimate transactions, as these make progress possible. Our progress, that is, and the uniform’s pockets’ progress. The country’s…not so much.

Sometimes, however, the staged ponderousness gets the better of the officer. This happened on one occasion. As follows.

Driver slows down for the habitual rope-and-plastic across the road. Uniform saunters out. Bored face switches to studied gravitas when he spots the luggage: two white dudes sitting in the back of a car.

The question drops. ‘May we know who you are?’ Or something along those lines.

Sure. I am Bram and this is Martin. He’s the photographer; I’m the one doing the write-ups.

Not good enough. Without bothering to introduce himself he ups the game.

‘My superiors would like to have a word with you.’

Well that is perfectly fine. Out we go, passports in hand, getting ready for the usual scrutiny by two or more pairs of eyes. On one occasion, six pairs of eyes were needed to establish that we had arrived through the country’s sole international airport and that the relevant authorities of said airport had seen and stamped these passports. You will, incidentally, have a hard time getting into the country via that route without being seen by the authorities; when it comes to herding passengers from one predetermined slot to the next on their journey from plane to taxi or vice-versa, Liberians are hard to beat in terms of thoroughness. Anyway, back to our scene in the rainforest.

We descend from the car, walk up to a pair of rather ramshackle shops that pass for offices (clearly, the government does not consider providing a proper working environment for their staff a priority) and then…nothing. Where are the superiors? We should be in the shop to the right. The one to the left clearly has nothing to do with the proceedings and cares even less. We then notice that the shop to the right – is shut.

Our earnest officer gets smaller with every passing second at which point someone observes:

‘My maaaan (ubiquitous greeting) nobady here.’

We don’t feel the need to rub it in even further; his humiliation is already complete. But that’s being unfamiliar with Liberians. As we drive off, a barrage of invective ensues, clearly intended to still be within earshot…

‘Whaa the man wasting our time for!’ And further choice barbs for the hapless officer without superiors. He should not forget this episode in a hurry.

To be fair though, most of the time the checkpoints are cheerful affairs, manned by smiles in uniform who come up to the car with a heartfelt ‘How the morning/day?’, followed by a bit of banter, a few jokes and getting waved through. Depending on the country and who was/is running, roadblocks stretch from extremely tense and even deadly to these relaxed affairs. But the best roadblock on this trip had nothing to do with uniforms and everything with the state of the roads here…

One particular stretch in Grand Bassa is so impassable that the traffic has decided to create a bypass. All fine and good, except that this bypass runs right through somebody’s village. And so, one smart kid has decided to make the village and himself some money. His roadblock consists of a tree branch, solidly lodged into a cleft stick. No flimsy rope across the improvised and extremely muddy slippery road here, this is altogether sterner stuff.

As is the lad manning it. No way he is going to be deceived by our driver’s dog and pony show, pretending to be deaf and dumb, trying to wriggle through without paying.  Nope: you pay, or this branch here stays right where it is. For once, our intrepid front row team has to give in. Well done this lad! If you drive through our village, disturbing our peace and making our lives miserable, you will pay. Good modern thinking at work here, in a deep recess of Liberia’s forest.

The 75 dollar racket

February 4, 2022

The former temporary Arrivals building at Robertsfield International Airport is now a Covid 19 test centre. Every arriving passenger is required to go through a test before being allowed onto the next stage in the gauntlet Liberia’s principal airport tends to throw at you, even though those responsible for said gauntlet are generally very relaxed and very nice about it. They also plan the procession well.

So once you have been let out of the aircraft, you are not directed to the brand new Arrivals building (now fully operational) but herded into that temporary terminal, which may once have been used exclusively by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. From the early 1990s to 2019 the “KLM building” served as the Arrivals terminal, while the government was constructing – from scratch – a brand new one. The original hall was comprehensively destroyed during the wars that laid waste to this place between Christmas Eve 1989 and the summer of 2003.

Now, once you’ve been herded in you find yourself in a room where there are nice people sitting behind glass panes asking you for your passport details. If they don’t find what they are looking for you will be directed to another nice person who will take those details. This keeps you and nice person busy for the next 10 minutes. You then go back to the first nice person behind the window pane where your picture will be taken, biometrically. Congratulations, you have now been registered into the Government Of Liberia Covid Response Action and you may proceed.

To the next room. (I still cannot quite fathom how the airport authorities once managed to cram so many rooms into this relatively modest building; the new Arrivals building literally dwarfs it. Anyway.) Here, you are made to stand in a line – you do quite a lot of that on arrival here – before an open counter where a very nice and pleasant young man will ask you to part with seventy-five dollars for the privilege of having a Covid 19 test taken.

That’s right. 75 bucks. This is a clear and present violation of an agreement reached in January last year by ECOWAS ministers, who told the world (see article 16 of the linked communiqué) that in their member states the cost of a Covid 19 test should not exceed 50 dollars. So, against the wishes of an organisation that counts this country among its member states, Liberia has decided to rip off the travelling public to the tune of 20 dollars. Yes, I paid about the same late 2020 back in Abidjan, an altogether more pleasant affair, but that was weeks before this price control measure was announced.

I am now led past the counters while cracking jokes about getting my money back with the pleasant smiling young man who’s just taken a chunk of my travel budget. A left turn and I reach the entrance of another room. Here, passengers are made to wait in a relatively short line before being sent into…yet another room. (I knew you knew.)

Welcome to the heart of this operation. The Covid 19 Testing Place.

Five not terribly discreet cubicles have been created here and I am requested to direct myself to number 5, where another nice young man, having taken possession of my passport, is preparing his swab, readying it for the short journey up my nose. Left and right. It’s getting routine by now but it remains unpleasant. After all, I had one similar to this taken prior to departure at the princely sum of 69 euros.


I have clearly missed a trick here, which I tell the pleasant young man who is busy packing my swab into a small transparent tube whilst training his eyes and then one of his fingers (as soon as his hands are free) to a single five dollar note atop a small pile of scraps on his desk whilst pronouncing his desire to get rich too.

I pretend not to have taken the hint and prepare to leave when it dawns on me that a) he is still holding my passport b) five euros – I have no dollars – is a small price to pay for getting it back and c) this very pleasant team could in all probability and very easily change my test results and then demand a far heftier payment to have it changed back to what it was when I had mine done 35 hours earlier.

Getting the increasingly uncomfortable feeling that I’m being had, I proceed to yet another room a section of the same room opposite the heart of Operation Rip Off Passengers, to wait for my receipt and the result. From behind the counter, more very pleasant young men shout the names of their victims much in the same way the police at borders crossings in this region shout your name in order for you to have your processed passport back.

Oh yes, passport! Must not forget this.

Names get called, people saunter up to one of the counters and leave with their expensive trophies. They then form another short line (the last one!) before a table. Behind that table sits a unexpectedly earnest man who is concentrating very hard on doing vague things to your papers and receipts and then encircles the planet’s new magic word for 2022: “negative”. Have we really come to this…?

Welcome to president George Weah’s Liberia. Bring cash. Lots of it. You will need it. As does he. And his staff. Of whom there are many.