by Robert Guest, author of The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption, and African Lives (Smithsonian Books, 2010)
I once hitched a ride on a truck through a West African rain forest. The journey was supposed to take less than a day, but it took four. The dirt roads were fine so long as it didn’t rain. But we were in a rain forest, so it rained often and hard, turning our route into a swamp. A collapsed bridge slowed us down, too. The worst delays, however, were caused by police road blocks, of which we met 47.
Every few miles, we’d see a couple of rusty oil drums and some barbed wire in the middle of the road, and we’d have to stop. A plump gendarme would check our axles and tail-lights and pick over our papers, hoping to find a fault he could demand a bribe to overlook. Sometimes, this took hours.
The pithiest explanation of why travelers in Cameroon have to endure such mistreatment came from the policeman at road block number 31. He had invented a new rule about not carrying passengers in beer trucks. When I put it to him that the law he was citing did not, in fact, exist, he patted his holster and replied: “Do you have a gun? No. I have a gun, so I know the rules.”
Africa is poor today for many reasons, Continue reading