Posts Tagged ‘land borders in Africa’

Border crossings: same country, worlds apart

January 21, 2020

Dakar’s old Leopold Sedar Senghor airport was an indescribable mess with poor to non-existent information for the travelling public, even fewer facilities, swarms of mosquitoes and chairs that were clearly designed to cause maximum spinal damage to the largest number of passengers possible. It was upgraded earlier this century and the situation indoors improved markedly. It involved monitors with flight information you could actually read.

One thing remained firmly in place and that was the scene outside.

Upon putting your nose out the door you’d be accosted by an army of hustlers and touts, all wanting to put their hands on your money by selling you telephone cards you didn’t want, change money you didn’t need or offer discount prices for hotels you had no intention of staying in. By far the most persistent lot were the members of – arguably – West Africa’s most tenacious taxi racket.

Having attached his person to you with indissoluble glue, a tout would not let go until you were ‘safely’ deposited in one of the ubiquitous black-and-yellow French or Japanese contraptions waiting in a badly lit parking lot (many flights had and still have the inconvenient habit of arriving very late at night). Objective attained, the tout, the driver, the person overseeing the running order, the person manning the entry/exit of the parking lot and anybody else who thought it necessary to stick his oar in were going to discuss the amount for which they were going to fleece you. Of course, there was a way around the scam, which was to just keep walking away from the airport building, in spite of the ever more insistent utterances and gesticulations of the tout who was seeing his cash dispenser disappear, and post yourself OUTSIDE the airport gate at the next crossroad, where you could pick up taxis for the normal tariff. It would happen, on occasion, that a member of the aforementioned taxi mafia thus scorned would drive up and stalk you equally insistently but would eventually get the message after hearing for the eleventh time that you had no need for his vastly overpriced services. With the new airport, that’s all gone and, frankly, it’s not being missed.

The old airport. Now a strictly military zone.

These days, you arrive at a magnificent new facility, the Blaise Diagne International Airport. (There were rumours at one point that it would be named after Senegal’s third president who started the project, Abdoulaye Wade, but that did not happen.) Entry and exit are remarkably orderly. Immigration? Walk up to one of the squeaky clean counters, hand over your passport. You’ll be asked for your phone number, you then place your fingers on the EU-funded scanners (the officer will kindly help you if you don’t understand how it works) while looking into a small camera, your passport gets stamped and off you go to the luggage hall.

Outside, there a just a few taxis, which stands to reason because the thing has been built some 50 kilometres away from Dakar – and you only have to make it clear ONCE that you are taking the very reasonably priced airport bus for just under €10 and away they go. There are, would you believe it, working ATMs. I feel a pang of wistful longing for the rattling, coughing, wheezing conveyor belt that would spew out your luggage at the old airport, permanently indicating that it was five seconds from giving up the ghost for good – but this particular brand of nostalgia never lasts longer than, oh, three seconds. I am a heartless b*st*rd. Sue me.

The glittering new hall of Dakar’s new airport.

The new airport is an oasis of smooth efficiency. Even when it went massively over budget (bit like the Amsterdam North-South underground, which may be the most expensive piece of pipe ever laid in human history) it is well-ordered and, what’s more: it is smack in the right place, roughly the equal distance from Dakar, the seaside resort of Mbour and the railroad centre of Thiès. Moreover, it is an integrated part of a gigantic urban development area called Diamniadio, previously an unassuming hamlet where two trunk roads met. I hope to be able to delve into that at some point in the future. Here are some impressions, from behind a very dirty window. Public transport, hey…

Diamniadio, under construction

Diamniadio, with Senegal’s ‘Emergence’ logo prominently on the façade. 

Compare and contrast this with the two main border crossings with neighbouring Mali, located deep in deepest Senegal. They are Kidira (the northern crossing) and a hamlet somewhere behind Saraya (the southern crossing). Saraya is reached after a smooth ride from Senegal’s ‘capital of the East’, Tambacounda, using a brand new road all the way to the mining town of Kédougou, a good 200 kilometres south. This is followed by another stretch, shorter but in really poor nick and bordering on the catastrophic the closer you get to the border. Once across, things get marginally better. The road takes you straight to Kita, a mere hop from Bamako.

The road between Tambacounda and Kidira currently looks like this. Now, imagine nearly 200 kilometres of that… True, this is the rainy season but those potholes don’t go away when the rains stop. Nothing could be further from smooth efficiency here! When you travel by bus (as I frequently do) you will almost invariably end up at the border in the dead of night, thanks to the bus company’s time tables. This road takes you to the hub of Kayes, and from there it is another truly gruelling 600 kilometres to Bamako.

It does not really make much difference whether you take the slightly larger post at Kidira or the smaller (slightly less unpleasant) post after Saraya, the ritual is the same.

Everybody files out of the bus. Outside is a policeman who will collect identity cards, loose papers and even a passport or two from the 70-odd passengers on the bus. He takes his haul into a open space adjacent to a sparsely lit building – and disappears inside.

And then, for quite a while: nothing happens.

Then, the door opens. Out comes another policeman with a stack of identity cards. These are usually the first ones to go. Now you have to strain your ears because he will call out the names of the owners of these tiny documents. Once. Rarely twice. If you miss it, you’ll have to wait until the whole not terribly merry crowd has been called and reclaim your card.

Once your name has been called you saunter, walk or strut (in an unexaggerated manner if you please) to the officer holding your card. If you are NOT a national of the country you are now leaving, you will be taken indoors and made to pay. (The same applies for the control posts inside any country, frequently referred to as “petit boutiques” by the travellers.) And even though I am subjected to exactly the same mediaeval treatment, I don’t pay. To some, this is passport privilege and I would agree. To the travelling public at large, this is an egregious dereliction of duty by taxpayer-salaried officers who get away with this behaviour because hardly anyone is supervising them, even less reporting them. But it is happening. Raising a stink about it will empty your pockets even faster and you may end up in jail. These uniforms are lord and master here and they have ways to remind you of that simple basic fact.

Of course, this practice makes a complete mockery of the idea that we are somehow in a free travel zone, as declared every so often by the assembled heads of state when they meet. The gap between their air-conditioned rhetoric and the dusty realities on the ground is staggering.

If people could afford travelling like this, they would, at the drop of a hat. Would you believe it…I wrote this ten years ago!

This happens everywhere and if you think for a second that this is a uniquely West African phenomenon, think again. These are humiliation rituals and the argument always used is that ‘the other side’ (in this case: Mali) started stealing from travellers first. How on god’s green earth are you going to build a thriving commercial region of some 350 million people, let alone continent-wide unity if you turn every single border crossing into a bloody ordeal? And that’s before we get to the next stop: Customs. They will take their sweet time checking every single item on the bus if they haven’t been paid off by the chaps running the bus operation…

I can guarantee you that when you are travelling on a bus you will spend at least three hours at every single border crossing like this: waiting. This was during the day, on the Mali-Senegal border, whilst travelling into Senegal. Do not make the mistake of pointing your phone at either an official building (recognisable by the national flag) or an officer. You will get yourself into colossal amounts of trouble for nothing.

This is a picture I took a little while ago in the delightful city of Marrakech. In the cramped worldview of those to the right of the political spectrum, the name of this city has become synonymous with the supposed existence of a Treaty that Opens All European Borders.

No such Treaty exists. The Marrakech Compact is a non-binding agreement aimed at what the United Nations term ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’. Nothing about present-day migration is safe, orderly or regular and this is mainly because the European Union and individual European governments want it that way. There has never been a European Open Door policy; the entire EU policy is built around this central notion: keep as many of them out. As my colleague Linda Polman outlines in her meticulously researched book (review coming up shortly), European governments, like the EU, have standing policies designed to make life for migrants and refugee hell on earth.

Unlike the EU, which allows for free travel within its space and tries to keep everybody else away from the Eurotables that groan under the weight of affluence, West Africa must sort out its internal travel woes first. When the Marrakech Compact was voted in the United Nations General Assembly, all nations from the region voted in favour with the exception of two absentees, Guinea and Togo. More importantly, ECOWAS, the union of fifteen West African nations ranging from heavyweight Nigeria to minnows like Gambia, Benin and Togo and everything in between, has committed itself repeatedly to free travel in its huge five million square kilometre space, allowing its 350 million inhabitants the pleasure of moving from Dakar to Niamey and from Abuja to Conakry, hassle-free. On current evidence, and in spite of all the declarations about free travel and trade, these freedoms only exist if you are prepared to fork out ridiculous amounts of cash (when you own a transport business) and allow your pockets to be picked if you are a member of the travelling public. Not only is this grotesque, it also ensures that West African consumers pay far more for a piece of merchandise than is needed.

The Falémé River marks the border between Senegal and Mali

Sure, the view is great. Now, how about turning these bright visions and vistas into reality. Hello ECOWAS: this is 2020 calling…you’ve got work to do. Clean up the borders!!