Monday, June 30, 2008

Stories I Like to Tell, Part I -- My Friendly Corrupt Policemen

I'm back in the US at the moment, visiting family and friends, and I realized (to my occasional embarrassment) that I tend to tell and retell the same handful of stories about Sierra Leone. It occurred to me that if they make good fodder for dinner-party chat, they would probably also work well for this blog. My apologies to those of you who are family or friends and have heard these already...

This first installment introduces some of my favorite neighborhood police officers. Before I tell the stories, however, I'd like to offer a bit of cautionary context.

1) Not all public officials -- and not all police officers -- are corrupt.
Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, not every public official in Sierra Leone is on the make. In more than two years in Sierra Leone -- and in part, I admit, thanks to luck and sheer persistence -- I've never paid a bribe or other "encouragement" to a police officer, immigration official, or government functionary of any sort. (I have paid "kola", a traditional gift now usually given as cash, to local chiefs, but I'd argue that's a greyer area.)

In that time, I've certainly encountered officials looking for some palm greasing, as evidenced by the stories below, but I've also encountered countless individuals who chose not to take advantage of a potentially lucrative situation. (As one example, a friend visiting from the US realized that he had a single-entry visa to Sierra Leone but plans to enter the country twice, on either end of a side trip to Senegal. He was clearly in the wrong, and legitimately owed the government at least the $100 difference in price between the two visas, but when we explained the honest mistake to an airport immigration official, he waved us through without even hinting for a bribe.)

2) Small-scale corruption is often a matter of survival.
When a senior government official embezzles hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for a life-saving project -- such as child immunization, school feeding, or rural road construction -- and buys himself a BMW and a big house, he deserves to be harshly judged. So too does a police detective who refuses to file a rape case unless the impoverished and terrified young victim collects enough money from family and friends to pay for paper, a pen, and transportation for the investigating officer. But when a low-ranking policeman paid approximately Le5,000 ($1.67) per day asks someone like me to give him Le15,000 to let me drive away with a cracked side mirror, I have a bit more sympathy (though I still refuse to pay). With skyrocketing food prices, the officer can hardly afford to feed his or her family on the normal monthly salary.

Certainly the collective impact of small-scale corruption can be enormous, and certainly such demands are more onerous on the transport drivers also scraping to survive than they are on rich expats like myself, but there is still something different -- in my view -- between a poor and poorly-paid small-time official scamming a bit of extra income, and a fat cat "big man" stealing big money. I don't accept either type of corruption, and go to great lengths to avoid paying even the smallest bribe, but I also don't judge the small official as harshly as I do the big man.

So, with those caveats, here are my favorite police corruption stories:

As a driver in Sierra Leone -- or, at least, as a foreign driver -- you generally don't face the kind of aggressive
harassment you might be led to expect by typical stories of West Africa. However, police officers do pull you over, frequently, if you are driving a car without diplomatic or NGO (non-governmental organization) plates. They invent moving violations or imperceptible problems with your vehicle to try to extort a bit of money. (Once, when I was still new to Sierra Leone, an officer insisted that my left headlight was a bit dimmer than my right headlight and threatened to arrest me. It was false and rather silly but hard to prove.)

I've discovered that the best approach is to greet them from the outset with enthusiastic cheer, chattering away in friendly
Krio before they even get a word in edgewise. "Officer, I am so glad to see you out here on the streets protecting us. How is your day going? Is the work too difficult? Is the sun too warm? Thank you so much for your hard work." Often, this approach preempts even the request for money, and after a quick and friendly chat, they wave me on my way.

Occasionally, I still find an officer who makes noise about this or that invented offence. My cracked side mirror is a frequent target, even though my car passed inspection (without a bribe) with the mirror just as broken as it is today.

The most memorable interactions, however, are with those officers that dispatch with the formality of pretending I've broken a law and simply ask point-blank for money. The first time this happened, I was driving down Wilkinson Road -- the main thoroughfare of western Freetown -- with a Nigerian friend of mine. The officer approached us with a smile and started chatting in rapid-fire
Krio. (I remember being surprised, as people usually don't expect me to speak and understand Krio as well as I do.) He told us that he'd decided not to act like his fellow officers and threaten to arrest us for some nonsense offense. He didn't want to bully us, he said. Instead, he would just ask us nicely to give him a bit of money.

I kept a straight (but friendly) face, thanked him for his fresh approach, and politely declined. He looked disappointed but let me drive away.

The second time was during a city-wide crackdown on unsafe vehicles and other offenses. The police department itself was quite open about the purpose of the crackdown -- to generate revenue for the department -- and bragged publicly about the hundreds of drivers arrested in a 72-hour period and the millions of
Leones collected in fines. I've no doubt that hundreds of others avoided arrest by contributing directly to the "revenue" of individual officers.

One afternoon during this crackdown, I was stopped by a cheery, ruddy-faced male officer with a somewhat grumpier female colleague. I gave my normal friendly greeting, and he replied with the following (conversation in
Krio, English translations in parentheses):

"U no sae wi dae pa dis check." (You know we're on this "check".)
Me: Innocently. "Oh? Us kin check dat?" (Oh really? What kind of check?)
: Chuckles. "Na u finances wi dae check." (We're checking you're finances.)
"Mi finances?" Chuckles. "Ow u go check mi finances? Bank no dae naya." (My finances? How are you going to check my finances? There isn't a bank here.)
: Chuckles again. "Well, na di finances na u pocket, na dat we dae check." (Well, the finances in your pocket, that's what we're checking.)
Now genuinely amused, turn out my empty pockets. "Ah beg, finances no dae na mi pocket." (I'm sorry, but it looks like there aren't any finances in my pocket.)

He smiled at me. I smiled at him. Then I drove away.
No "finances" changed hands.

A Plate with a View

Here is a gem of a story from the UK's Independent newspaper about perhaps my favorite place to spend a Saturday: Bureh Beach.

Below are a few photos of Bureh, including a table "with a view" and Prince, the proprieter mentioned in the story. The weathered old man is the coconut man, also mentioned, and a wonderful character.