Police corruption exists in all countries. In some places, the vice is more prevalent than elsewhere, though.
While all African countries have their fair share of dirty cops, the phenomenon manifests itself in quite different ways from country to country.
Having travelled across the continent for 14 years, I am no stranger to police corruption in Africa, so this is my humble overview of it:
DRC: Friendly and direct
The Democratic Republic of Congo is notorious for corruption. Their police force is no exception.
Few encounters with the police will happen without money changing hands, or at the very least, a request for that to happen.
Like most of their compatriots, Congolese police officers are overwhelmingly friendly and polite, but also direct. A typical conversation with one of them, quickly gets down to business with a “Vous avez quelque chose pour moi?”, always said with a smile, and followed by a small laughter as if it were a joke (it isn’t).
Nigeria: Armed beggars in uniforms
Nigerian cops, on the contrary, display few signs of friendliness.
When stopping at a traffic light, or at a police block, expect a beggar-like request for some money. The paupers will be happy with even pocket change.
Expect a far more aggressive approach if the officer of so-called law decides to blame you for any wrongdoing (whether factual or not). Make sure you car door is locked, lest you have an aggressive, armed person sitting next to you, shouting the next moment. If you have no cash, or they believe you don’t, expect a request for any other commodity you might have in your car, be it groceries, your sunglasses, or even your half-finished latte!
Gabon: Bemusedly unprofessional
Gabonese officers are unlikely to even approach you unless they have at least some perceived irregularity to clutch on to.
If they do, expect a jovial oh-wow-how-did-that-happen approach, all while laughing it off. Next, a bit of tentative legalistic strictness may follow, all while laughing and smiling, explaining that they like you, and that they don’t really want do anything, but they have to.
Finally, expect an akward whisper in your ear, explaining that they are not going to do anything after all, but that they would appreciate a “donation” at your own discretion.
Mozambique: “Screw the law, we just want your money!”
In stark contrast to the beauty and friendliness of the country in general, Mozambique may very well have the worst police force in the world.
During daytime, they are conspicuous by their absence (sleeping off the hangover from celebrating the previous night’s loot?). In the late evening and night, you will find them crowding improvised road blocks where you least expect it. The first thing they will ask for of you’re a foreigner, is your passport. Allegedly, you are required to carry it on you at any time. Whether you have it or not, doesn’t really matter, as they will immediately assume the role of immigration officers, querying the validity of your visa, or point out any imaginary irregularity they can think of. You may even get “fined” for wearing sunglasses while driving, so don’t be fooled into believing that the harassment is about anything other than your money.
Again, make sure your car is locked, but be firm at your on peril. These cops are nasty, and not always sober.
South Africa: The Excited, Hungry Dog
South African police, unfortunately, is no longer an exception on the continent in terms of police corruption. While the uniforms be be cleaner and sharper, and the officers in a league above other African police forces in terms of eloquence and appearance, the facade quickly turns out to be just that.
Your overall impression of the country is likely to dwindle fast as you observe a visibly happy officer, excited by his catch, talking with baited breath about the severe consequences of some minor irregularity. As the purported perpetrator gets tired of listening to the endless lecture, and digs out some pocket changes, there goes the last illusion of South Africa, as the officer digs into the handful of coins like a hungry dog.
Kenya: Strictly legalistic, but..
Kenyan cops have a well-deserved reputation for their friendliness. Unlike their counterparts in most countries on the continent, they are generally even happy to help when required, or to give directions when asked.
They are also unlikely to bother you unless they can point out some actual wrongdoing on your side. Trust them to look attentively for any sign of it, though.
In the unfortunate event that you are on the wrong side of the law, the cops will still act strictly professionally, but firmly.
No time really for long discussions, or lectures about the letter of the law. Simply the fact that the perpetrator will have to face the judge in an annoying process, which will result in a relatively small fine after wasting a lot of time.
Eventually, most police officers will then be open to a discreet suggestion to “solve” this issue, whereupon a negotiation follows until a relatively small amount of money changes hands.
I do by no means at all condone of, or encourage corruption. I hate it with a passion! Rest assured that when you travel in Africa, you will encounter this vice, though. This blog post is about my personal observations from across the continent. When facing some of these situations, I sometimes get harsh and daring in a way I would not recommend to others who don’t know exactly what they are doing.
You and I both know what the right thing is: Do not take part in it! When rejecting such approaches, be consciously aware of the risk involved, though.