Bribery is a way of life for many Ghanaians, as I realised on a memorable day trip to Lome, Togo, in the late nineties. What I witnessed on that journey seemed rather like a TV reality show, and it changed my view on corruption forever.
The show began at Aflao, the Ghana-Togo border town. I sensed something was wrong the minute I arrived at passport control. I saw a lineup of travellers moving very swiftly. Each person in the line directly paid some money and was cleared without having any travel documents checked.
I followed another queue and waited patiently for my turn to go through immigration and customs formalities. For no good reason, an official demanded that I pay a fee. I refused, insisting that my papers were in order, so I did not have to pay anything. The heated exchange nearly turned into a scuffle, but I stood my ground. Worst of all, a few people behind me in the line heckled me, protesting about the unnecessary delay.
Someone even offered to pay for me if money was the “problem.” Having failed to extort even a pesewa from me, the crooked officer had no choice but to let me go, not without a few insults, however.
Meanwhile, one could not help noticing at least a dozen people at the seashore crossing the border into Ghana with huge headloads of God-knows-what. There was not a single border guard in sight to check or stop them. Many of the couriers were bare-chested and bare-footed, a style of dressing I hardly expected at the official border between two internationally-recognized countries.
Togo passport control was no different. The officials, like their Ghanaian counterparts, wanted money, but I would not pay a cent, insisting that there was absolutely no reason for me to pay a bribe. They held me up for no good cause, but I got in at last.
The return journey was very eventful. The passengers on the bus that I boarded consisted mostly of traders travelling with merchandise in commercial quantities. Just before we departed Aflao, a self-appointed leader of the merchants, got up to address us, the passengers, to prepare us for what we were about to experience on the journey. She ended her lecture with an appeal for funds, urging everyone to contribute generously, to avoid “harassment” along the way.
I declined to put any money in the collection, explaining that I was carrying only a few personal items. I got dirty looks from some of the passengers.
We soon arrived at a police checkpoint where an excited policeman pulled our driver over and directed him to park at a strategic place off the highway. The leader quickly passed the money she had collected to the driver who then alighted, and had a real quick meeting with a policeman, out of view of the passengers. Then, the cop approached our bus, walked around it, as he took a few peeps inside.
Finally, he signalled the driver to go. As the driver pulled away, the policeman gave us a cheery wave, with a big smile on his face.
Just as soon as we got back on the highway, the leader stood up to make another speech. “As you know,” she began, “we have more checkpoints to go through, so please…” She passed the hat around again and raised some more money. Like an experienced auctioneer, she continued stirring up the contributors until she was satisfied with the amount raised.
I witnessed the same ceremony at the next checkpoint: leader passed the money to the driver; the money changed hands from driver to policeman; a mock inspection of the bus in a matter of seconds; finally the driver got the go-ahead.
There were at least four checkpoints between Aflao and Accra, and the traders contributed money to be used to bribe police officers at each and every one of them.
The climax of this “reality show” was the fact that many of the passengers rationalised bribery by claiming that was the only way to prevent the policemen from wasting their time while slighting the few people like me who refused to play their game. Isn’t that sad?
There was bribery at every turn of my excursion: money changing hands to let undocumented travellers cross the border without question, smugglers carrying goods across the border with no one in sight to stop them, immigration and customs officials demanding money even from legitimate travellers, traders and driver bribing the police.
It seemed almost everyone I encountered on that fateful journey was involved one way or the other. I knew what I was witnessing was wrong, yet I had no power to stop it.
Even though this story is from in the late nineties, the lesson is still relevant today. Corruption dominates the headlines in the Ghanaian news media, even as I write this piece. Bribery and corruption can be seen in other situations too, not just at Aflao border crossing or Kotoka International Airport.
The culprits include Ghanaians from all walks of life, not just people in high places. In some cases, corruption takes the form of organised crime, like the recent NSS scandal.
Frankly, we need to overcome this corruption mentality before we can even hope to build Ghana, our beloved country.
I came away from this expedition with a bitter lesson: apart from political corruption, many people in Ghana offer or receive bribes as a matter of routine; those engaged in this practice see nothing wrong with it, and worst of all, they expect every other Ghanaian to do the same.
Proofreading this post was easy, thanks to Grammarly, my favourite proofreader.
Written by: Theo Acquah
No Independence After Six Decades
Ten Reasons to be Happy about Ghana
The Name "Ghana" is a Misnomer!
The Shy Eagle
The CK Gyamfi Lesson
Cocoa: A Truly Golden Tree
Medical Vacation Not the Answer