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Checkpoint Hell

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Page context: Home > Transport International Magazine > Issue 19 April 2005 > Checkpoint Hell

It is time to end the scourge of police harassment on West African roads, says Nazi Kabore

In June 2004, participants at a road transport union seminar in Accra, Ghana, reported that, despite their best efforts, the problem of police harassment against drivers is alive and well in the West Africa. On roads and at borders, drivers, drivers’ mates and even passengers are still the victims of extortion, threats, humiliation and unnecessary delays at the hands of many of the officers responsible for road traffic control.

This is a problem acknowledged by governments in the countries concerned. Most recently, in December 2004, a meeting of customs and police ministers from countries of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) noted: “…along the corridors of the Union, the persistent and systematic use of Customs escorts, which are very costly and a cause of delay, excessive roadside inspections along main trunk roads, including levies, the dispersal of checkpoints at borders and the continued existence of long, complex and fairly pointless Customs and administrative formalities and procedures.”

Legal instruments addressing the issue have been adopted by WAEMU and by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). These include the convention for the regulation of inter-state road transport (the TIE Convention) and the convention relating to interstate road transport of goods (the TRIE Convention). But the abuses continue and, in some cases, are getting worse.

Union representatives at the Accra seminar denounced in particular the following countries:

- Côte d’Ivoire, where the number of checkpoints, including in Abidjan, has grown exponentially as a result of the crisis there;
- Burkina Faso, where officers, particularly those from Fada Customs, use threats and blackmail to extort money from drivers and passengers;
- Benin, where even town halls have established duties for vehicles that cross their jurisdiction; and
- Mali.

A “fresh spate of inspections” was also noted along the Togo corridor with Ghana, but Togo was pinpointed as suffering less from police harassment than other countries in the sub-region. According to unions, officers there do not demand exorbitant sums and are more respectful of drivers and other road users.

Stops and payouts

Various abuses are committed at the numerous checkpoints on major trunkroads by the officers responsible for inspection work. Moreover the very existence of so many, often blatantly unnecessary checkpoints, which cost drivers dearly in time and money, often constitute an abuse in themselves.

In October 2002 road transport unions in Burkina Faso agreed (during a seminar sponsored by the ITF and the trade union solidarity centre of Finland – SASK) to calculate the number of checkpoints at which a goods transport vehicle would have to stop when crossing Burkina Faso from the Mali border (Faramana) to the Togo border (Cinkansé) en route to the port of Lomé. They were also asked to calculate the total undisclosed costs that a driver has to pay per checkpoint and the time lost as a result of these stops.

Along this stretch of road measuring less than 900km, the participants listed 25 police and customs inspection posts, equating to an average of one stop every 36km. These inspection posts cause them to lose a total of three hours and 20 minutes. To that figure we must add half a day’s worth of formalities at the border if the vehicle is loaded. One allows for two to three days at the border if the driver arrives between 11:00 and 15:00 on a working day or at the weekend, and refuses payments to the customs officers.

If the driver discovers that the documents covering his vehicle or load are out of date, he and his companions may be there for a week – unless he or his boss greases the officers’ palms.

Even if all documents are in order, the unions calculated that each crew has to pay 26000 CFA Francs (39.70 Euros) in illicit fees for vehicles registered in Burkina Faso and 47,500 (72.52 Euros) for foreign vehicles. The officers responsible for inspections explain to them that they “cannot live on papers”.

For their part, the public passenger transport union representatives identified 16 checkpoints along the 350-kilometre long Ouagadougou-Kantchari (Niger border) trunk road, causing a delay of 111 minutes. On average, their members pay out 12,750 CFA Francs (19.46 Euros) per day in illicit fees.

In the city of Ouagadougou, the taxi drivers’ union reported seven national and municipal police checkpoints where officers extort 1000 CFA Francs per checkpoint.

An example of the extent of the corruption was exposed at the 2004 ITF Road Transport Action Day at the Paga border crossing between Burkina Faso and Ghana. The ITF secured prior agreement from the authorities to close the border while a union meeting was held for truck drivers arriving there. The drivers were then promised a clear run to Ouagadougou. That day drivers reported to the local union that the ITF Action Day intervention saved each truck driver about 23 Euros in “illegal taxes” – a great deal of money to the drivers.

Legalised bullying

The harassment of drivers also includes legal procedures in the event of an accident. In certain countries, such as Benin and Togo, even though ECOWAS regulations are applicable, drivers involved in accidents are systematically arrested and thrown in jail.

Their vehicles are impounded, the owner is required to attend court in person and is obliged to compensate the victim without further ado, even before judgement has been given concerning the accident.

Nor are passengers spared police harassment. As one Nigerian trade unionist reports: “At police stations, passengers are unloaded and taken down a corridor that leads to an office, where they are forced to pay 500 to 1000 CFA Francs per person in order to recover their identity cards or vaccination books and to be able to continue their journey.”

It is difficult to challenge a system of corruption that may be deep rooted within official structures. In certain countries for example, in order to be appointed to road traffic inspections, officers pay their superiors 500,000 CFA Francs (763.35 Euros), an investment that they have to render viable. In addition, extorted money is shared and a proportion of it is passed up to those superiors.

Nonetheless unions have been actively engaged in organising awareness raising campaigns among drivers and owners, as well as participating in negotiations with the competent authorities. They have also staged industrial action on many occasions in recent years, including a blockade of the Côte d’Ivoire border, national strikes in Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and other actions. They may be encouraged by vehicle owners to overload with passengers and goods, or commit speeding offences, in order to make their vehicles competitive.

Vulnerability to abuse

Road transport unions have identified several key factors that make drivers in West Africa particularly vulnerable to harassment and abuse, some of which are of their own making, though they may arise from ignorance or economic hardship.

Many drivers lack knowledge of the rules and procedures governing migrant transit. They may be encouraged by vehicle owners to overload with passengers and goods, or commit speeding offences, in order to make their vehicles competitive.

Meanwhile the low incomes of drivers may tempt them into certain forms of illegal haulage and trafficking.

The principal cause of police harassment though, according to the unions, is the tendency of many officers responsible for inspections to consider the road as a prime source of additional income and enrichment.

Unions have acknowledged their own failure to implement agreed policies and strategies for tackling harassment, but they committed at their Accra meeting last June to a clear set of practical steps to address the problem.

Fighting back

Unions agreed they could reduce drivers’ vulnerability to harassment by encouraging them to be better equipped for their journeys and more aware of regulations, and by offering them support along the main routes.

They agreed to ensure that prior to departure, drivers had up-to-date documents covering vehicles and loads, as well as passenger documents (including ECOWAS travel permits and vaccination cards, in particular). This would make it easier for them to instruct their members to refuse all undisclosed payments and, if necessary, to take spontaneous secondary action in favour of any colleague who was a victim of abuse.

They hope where possible to extend the union service to depots en route and at borders so as to raise awareness, assist members in difficulty, and if necessary report back to their superiors. They agreed to report any major abuse to the ITF and to the superiors of the offending officer.

Governments are also beginning to respond to the problem. Over the last two years, the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso have passed legislation reducing the number of checkpoints on the main international trunk roads. Immigration and customs posts have been built alongside one another at certain borders with the aim of reducing waiting time.

It is now a matter of using national union activities, organised under an ongoing ITF/SASK-sponsored project, to train organisers, shop stewards and union representatives so that they are able to assist domestic and foreign workers in the sector, particularly where they face police harassment.

Road transport workers in this sub-region are challenged enough by the poor state of infrastructure, the dilapidation of many vehicles and the common presence of highway robbers. But unions believe they have developed the right approaches to tackling one major scourge of the industry, and that in so doing they can help make drivers’ lives a little easier.

Harassment of drivers: what unions can do

  • Ensure drivers travel with up to date documents
  • Instruct members to refuse undisclosed payments
  • Train union representatives in awareness raising and practical assistance skills
  • Where possible take action in support of abused colleagues
  • Extend union service to depots and borders
  • Report major abuses to ITF and to superiors of offending officer
  • Encourage governments to offer incentives for good practice.

Section home:
Issue 19 April 2005

Other pages for Issue 19 April 2005:
After the Tsunami | Open skies: open to whom? | Container congestion | A Brighter Lookout? | Beating the Aggressors | TI Briefing 10: Multinational Companies in the Rai | Commentary: Return of the welfare state? | Reflections: Readers’ priorities for 2005 | Commentary: "Violence is normal" | Working life: Blue skies and spiral landings | Comment: Dockers prepare for an unwanted fight

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