Posts Tagged ‘checkpoints’

Yaoundé night theatre

December 11, 2009

This town shuts down at midnight. Incredibly, the government has decided that after midnight folks should be at home recovering and getting ready for work the next day. The order has ostensibly been issued to address the drinking habits of the Cameroonians although you could easily translate this into yet another attempt to control people’s movements…

In any case, celebrations (even those pertaining to a successful film festival), tend to start and end early. If only to avoid the annoying roadblocks and checkpoints that insinuate themselves onto crossroads and thoroughfares as the evening progresses.

Years ago, the Economist wrote a story about a beer transport from the Cameroonian port city of Douala to a place in the interior. The correspondent calculated that the numerous checkpoints along the way, the delays and payment of bribes amounted to fully one-third of the value of the cargo.

No economic loss in our case but still, it was interesting to observe. We were passing through one of those vital crossroads in town and sure enough, there they were. Uniforms, guns, flashlights, torches, the lot. The gendarmes target taxi drivers because they have money. And Christmas is around the corner. So basically, the uniforms look for anything that might not be in order. If they find nothing, they invent an infraction.

Stay in the car. It is late and dark. The taxi driver has left. He is discussing his predicament (always something to do with missing paperwork) with two of the uniforms, one male, one female (the latter usually being even more difficult to deal with). The discussion goes on a bit. Meanwhile, uniform number three is walking around the vehicle asking for our papers. Never leave home without papers or a duly legalised passport copy. (I have precisely such an item glued to my chest.)

The discussion heats up. ‘I can take you to the police post,’ we overhear one of the uniforms say. The taxi driver’s reply is inaudible.

On it goes. At one point, after some 15 minutes, we decide it’s enough and get out of the car.

‘We’re getting another cab.’
‘That’s not necessary, we’re done here.’
And indeed, driver gets behind wheel in a state of aggravated agitation. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my papers, these people…’
‘Yes, it’s almost Christmas. They need the money….’

It’s a choreography, it’s a piece of theatre. It’s acted out hundreds of thousands of times across the length and breadth of the continent. It’s annoying, comical, can be threatening and usually ends after some protracted negotiation. Checkpoints, a disease this continent needs like it needs a new strain of animal flu. But it will be with us for some time….

The rest of the trip, through a city whose 2 million inhabitants have suddenly vanished from the streets, is uneventful. But even the little kiosk right across the road from where I stay and where I had a lovely relaxed evening the night before – is already closed. Dommage.