Border Crossings in Equatoria
Crossing a third world border is often an exercise in patience, frustration and skulduggery. As the truck passed through equatorial Africa, we encountered our share of difficulties entering and exiting the small countries there. Without the wisdom of Dragoman and the cleverness of our drivers, we might have spent half the trip sitting in no man’s land between borders.
At each border crossing you must clear customs and immigration of both the country you are leaving and the country you are entering. Doing so with a large, commercial vehicle raises issues of taxes, insurance and a host of other reasons for delaying you.
Lucky for us our leaders normally kept the passports and presented the documentation at a border for us. I think they were afraid of us passengers either losing valuable documents or shooting off our big mouths in front of sensitive officials. Or maybe they were simply sparing us the trouble of tidying up our appearance. On the truck our informality in dress went to new highs (or lows to be more accurate) as the trip progressed. When you present yourself to a representative of a foreign government, it is advisable not to look like someone who rarely spends money (e.g. a budget backpacker) or someone who has no money (e.g. a hippie).
Our drivers, on the other hand, felt that, since they were working as tour leaders, drivers and mechanics, they were exempt from this civility. Inevitably they would saunter up to a guard post in dusty, muddy and/or greasy clothing, practically daring the officials to challenge their legitimacy. Their only concession was to put on a T-shirt and sandals.
With patience we usually won stand-offs because no border post wants to keep a busload of tourists idle when they could be out spending. Or so we thought until Nigeria and Zaire where the bastards preferred we do our spending right there at there at the border!
We also thought that, being an organized, recognized tour, the officials would be reluctant to over hassle us because it could jeopardize future tours (and bribes) through their border crossing. Once again that was before we got to Nigeria or Zaire where no one thinks beyond tonite’s beer.
A further complication, in our case, was the multinational composition of the passengers. Different nationalities incur different visa requirements. The attitude of country A toward citizens of country B can depend on:
- Whether country B colonized A in the past – this can be very good or very bad
- Whether country B has anything country A wants – for example, arms, food or money.
- Whether country B’s ambassador stayed awake during the last speech by the President, prime minister or chief despot of country A.
Mali to Ivory Coast
My diary does not indicate any problems at this border although it is possible unexpected fees were levied. I do remember sitting at a roadblock shortly thereafter being scrutinized by a big army man with a big gun. During this time the Spousal Unit reached into an overhead storage compartment and extracted a small, square toiletries bag. Mr. Army mistook it for a camera and went ballistic because he thought she was photographing him. When you are aware that many African armies are largely uneducated, badly trained and poorly disciplined, the sight of one of their worst hopping mad at you is quite disturbing.
Dave kept reassuring the man that nobody was taking any pictures. The situation remained tense for a few minutes as we waited for the soldier to storm aboard and confiscate the cameras or, worse yet, confiscate the Unit. I think we were lucky because the apparent prosperity in Ivory Coast probably meant our man got paid regularly.
Ivory Coast to Ghana
This border crossing went smoothly possibly because the Ghanians speak English and seem to have forgiven the Western world for carting off most of its population as slaves centuries ago. Or maybe everyone was more amenable since we had gotten bonafide visas next door in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast.
Ghana to Togo
After learning that acquiring a visa for Togo in Accra, the capital of Ghana, would entail a personal interview and $20 for all non-Americans, we elected to proceed to the border sans visas and try to bluff or bribe our way in. Twenty dollars seemed a bit much since the truck was going to transit the country in a single day.
At the Togolese border there was shouting about “favors” between our leaders and the border police. However, since we had used up our Ghanian visas, they couldn’t send us back and capitulated for everyone except the Australians. God knows why the Togolese have it in for the Aussies but the three of them had to present themselves to the border officials. And it didn’t end there – the next day the Australians actually had to get proper visas at the police station in Lome.
Side note – while we were parked along the beach waiting for the Togolese to call our bluff, we observed a remarkable role reversal between the local men and women. The beach was essentially a public toilet flushed twice a day by the Atlantic Ocean. When a woman had to pee, she spread her legs wide apart, hitched up her skirt or wrap a bit, a let it fly – while standing up! The men, on the other hand, crouched down or squatted while doing the equivalent. Time and time again we witnessed this phenomenon, leading the boys on the bus to astutely conclude the women wore no underwear. The women on the truck refrained from speculating about the men.
Togo to Benin
We bought two day visas for Benin at the border even though we planned to stay for four days. Our wise and caring leaders hoped that no one on the Benin side would notice that we overstayed our visa when we left.
Sharing a campground with another overland truck, we learned that the Benin – Nigeria border is closed but expected to open soon. Apparently Benin closed its border posts for a couple days to celebrate a holiday without telling neighbouring Nigeria. To retaliate, Nigeria closed its border with Benin for the last two weeks, at massive inconvenience to everyone.
Benin to Nigeria
Well, the Benin officials did notice that our two day visas had expired but they granted us free extensions. Perhaps we were lucky because we had selected an obscure border crossing that we hoped would be easier.
We wandered down a dirt road and arrived at the Nigerian border post, much to the surprise of the officials there who were enjoying a couple weeks off. Parking in the shade we ate lunch and then sat and waited on a hot, sticky afternoon.
Time passed and it became apparent nothing was going to happen even though Dave and Helen had submitted all the appropriate documents, photographs and money. The officials sat on the steps of their post talking, laughing and watching us play scrabble and hackysack. Finally we put up the tents and fixed dinner despite a huge thunderstorm.
The next morning our leaders continued hassling the border officials. “Entrance fees” changed hands. The officials spent the previous night in town partying with the “fees” collected from a Swiss couple in a Land Rover who are waiting with us. When the money ran out at midnight, the officials had the audacity to come back and demand additional “fees”. The Swiss refused so now the Nigerians wanted to get as much as they can from us.
They wanted to confiscate all the cameras and forward them to the border post where we will exit Nigeria. We aren’t that stupid and refused. Finally, after a few more hours of sitting, the passports returned properly stamped and we drove away on a rutted muddy road where the guidebook says bribery and corruption were invented. Oh Lordy!
Inside Nigeria we encountered many hassles with roadblocks – 18 of them in the 30 Km between the border and the first significant town. The barking officials were quite annoying although words like pompous, arrogant and dishonest better describe them. Sometimes they wore only T-shirts and sandals; other times neatly-tailored camouflage fatigues and aviator sunglasses. We were stopped by border guards, army people, policemen, customs and immigration officials, agriculture and narcotics inspectors, plain clothes detectives – anyone who could throw a log, a rope or a nail-studded board across the road. Each had his own particular interest in our documents, movements, and motivations.
Weapons are usually displayed prominently at the road blocks. You cannot ignore a checkpoint. Dave and Helen frequently must wait as some guy drinks a coke sitting under a tree, ever so slowly flipping through every page of all nineteen passports. Here is a typical exchange between one of these officials and our driver, Dave.
- Official: “Where are you going?”
- Dave: “Lagos.”
- Official: Where are you coming from?”
- Dave: “Benin.”
- Official: “What is your purpose?”
- Dave: “Tourism.”
- Official: “Give us a gift.”
- Dave: “Are you corrupt?”
- Official: (hah, hah) “Oh no, we just want to be friends.”
- Dave: “Fine, but no money. Can we go now?”
- Official: “No, I must see passports.”
- Dave: “This is the eighth checkpoint in the last 13 kilometers. Each one looked at our passports. Why are these so many checkpoints?”
- Official: “Security.”
- Dave: “Can we go now?”
- Official: “Then you have something for me?”
- Dave: “Yes, a big smile.”
- Official: “Nothing else?”
- Dave: Absolutely nothing! Can we go now?”
- Official: “OK.”
- Dave: “See you later.”
Sometimes we could see several roadblocks at once stretched before us in the road. It was ridiculous. Progress was slow. Dave put black shoe polish on the frames for the window mirrors to prevent officials from climbing up using the mirrors for handholds.
The members of the group organized a Nigerian checkpoint contest. To win you must guess the total number of road blocks that stop us in Nigeria. Wave-throughs don’t count and there must be a verbal exchange. A roadblock or checkpoint is defined as follows:
- There must be some sort of barrier in the roadway.
- Men in or out of uniform must flag us down.
- Weapons must be visible (waving them is OK but no shooting so we can distinguish a roadblock from a robbery).
Nigeria to Cameroon
Well, we were never robbed outright although dealing with Nigerian officialdom often gave one that impression. The checkpoint contest was won by none other than yours truly. In eleven days the truck encountered 37 checkpoints and 25 wave-throughs. And this tally did not include a final worry when we exited Nigeria. This is a long, sad story so you may as well get comfortable.
Mike was an Australian citizen who quit his job teaching English in Nagoya, Japan to relocate to an Israeli kibbutz. To ease the transition he signed up with Dragoman to go overland from Ghana to Nairobi, an eleven week journey through central Africa.
Dragoman informed Mike that he needed to obtain visas for Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria in advance. He dutifully requested application forms from all three embassies in Japan. Ghana and Cameroon readily complied but nothing was heard from the Nigerians. Thus, two weeks before his departure, Mike finally called the Nigerian embassy in Tokyo. Little did he know that his ability for world class sucking up was about to take a quantum leap upward.
It was too late to get the visa from the Nigerian embassy in Australia and Dragoman said it could do nothing in London. Maybe he could overfly Nigeria, they suggested. So when Mike called the embassy, he tried to ask the right questions.
- “What do I need to submit to get a Nigerian visa?”
- “A visa application and personal history form.”
- “Do I need anything else?””No.”
- “Are you sure?””Yes.”
- “What about a driver’s license?””No.”
- “An immunization card?””No”
- “A photography licence?””No”
- “A barber’s license?””No.”
Later he called the embassy again to verify its address and was informed that mail-in applications were not accepted. Mike immediately called his travel agent in Nagoya who quoted him a fee of $200 for sending the necessary documents to an agent for hand delivery to the Nigerian embassy. Since the loss of a day’s wages and a round trip ticket to Tokyo on the bullet train would cost at least that much, he agreed.
- “What about a letter of recommendation and proof of financial means?”
- “No, they don’t want anything like that!”
The agent forwarded the documents which were promptly rejected by the embassy.
“We must see a letter of recommendation from your company, a description of your itinerary, your return ticket, and $200 for each day you plan to stay in Nigeria.”
Mike shifted into panic mode putting this documentation together. He even had his parents in Australia write a letter stating what a wonderful son he was and how he had always looked forward to visiting Nigeria.
Other requirements were not so easy to solve. For example, to produce the $2000 he needed for a ten day visa, he found a friend with that amount in the bank, borrowed it, converted it to traveler’s checks, and sent the checks to Tokyo by courier. After the embassy looked at the money, the entire procedure was reversed. (Mike’s personal funds had already been converted to local currencies that he would need on the trip).
A further complication was that Mike had already purchased a one way airline ticket from a discounter which was very difficult to change. However, a round trip ticket was eventually found at a price increase of $200 plus another $200 penalty for changing the original ticket so close to departure.
Through it all, Mike clung to his mantra: for every problem, there was a solution – whatever the Nigerians throw at me, I can handle it. With time running out, the embassy informed Mike it only processed visas on Wednesdays and Friday. Mike was flying out Wednesday. So he made emergency arrangements to pick up his passport from the Nigerian embassy on his way to the airport if the embassy could not finish processing his application on the preceding Friday.
The embassy came through on Friday, affording Mike peace of mind for four days. This assumes the rest of his life was in order despite the fact that he was relocating to the other side of the globe. So that is how a minor $40 expense mushroomed into $600 nightmare.
As the Dragoman truck approached Nigerian immigration to leave the country, Mike resigned himself to one final headache: he had a ten day visa and we had been in Nigeria for eleven days. But it was Mike’s lucky day as the border officials failed to notice the discrepancy. They requested only a single gratuity – a pen – which Mike quickly provided.
There is a point to this lengthy dissertation. Don’t underestimate African border crossings or under-appreciate the efforts of anyone who helps you get across.