Wranglin’ bureaucracy in Cotonou.

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Christoph’s blog

Negotiating a corrupt system

So, we’ve been in Cotonou for three weeks, waiting, planning, waiting, bribing, and waiting.

Frankly, it’s sad to see the dysfunctional reality of Beninese bureaucracy. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. This is West Africa, after all. But I didn’t expect it to be this bad.

We’ve been waiting on a document that everyone calls the BE. I believe it stands for “Banderole d’Envoie” but basically it’s a paper from the customs office informing the transportation authority that the motorcycles were indeed imported legally. We need that before we can even apply for license plates. According to the “law”, the BE should have been processed automatically after we registered the motorcycles in December.

In reality, we had to ride all the way back to the Togolese border to get things moving. There they told us that we had to go to another office in another city called Comé, where they keep the documents. In Comé we bribed the secretary 10,000 CFA (~$20) to handle our paperwork and she assured as a quick turnaround. Mind you, this process should have been started automatically, without any requests or bribes. After all, documenting imports/exports is the job of the customs office. We called back 3 days later. No luck. One week later. Two weeks later. Three weeks later…. nothing.

Getting desperate, I called on my friends at the cycling federation. The treasurer of the cycling federation is a military colonel, and he was disgusted to hear that his American friend and been given the runaround. He called the Comé office to “unblock” the situation. As it turns out, the boss hadn’t set foot in the office in three weeks, because he’s been out campaigning for political office. With elections scheduled for the end of February, it seems to be a political free-for-all. Anything goes. Politicians regularly hand out cash at their rallies, effectively buying the votes of mostly-illiterate rural populations.

A couple days went by, and I called the office again. When the secretary heard my voice, she hung up immediately. When I called back, the message informed me that my number had been blocked. Time for another motorcycle ride: 80 kilometers to Comé. At the office, the secretary tells me she’s never been treated so badly – she can’t believe we had a military colonel “threaten” her. I was sitting next to the colonel when he called her. He did no such thing – he’d simply inquired about the whereabouts of the boss. In any case, I explained that we hadn’t meant to offend her, but I made it clear this entire project was blocked by one signature.

Apparently this conversation was effective, or we just got lucky, because we finally got news that the BE was signed last Friday. We immediately went to the transportation authority in Cotonou. Once again, I took advantage of people who know people. This time, I counted on my friends at the Moringa Association of Benin, whom I worked with as a Peace Corps volunteer. The ABM president made some phone calls and relayed 40,000 CFA (~$80) into the right pockets. Hours later, we were in the office of the director of the transportation office. He cheerfully took our paperwork and assured as we’ll get license plates “soon”. And so it goes, more bribery, more corruption, but we’ll do whatever it takes to get on the road.

Any day now….

On the bright side, we’ve made the best of our time languishing in Cotonou. We’ve turned the motorcycles inside out, adjusting every component that might give us trouble. We’ve got every spare part. We’ve got great luggage racks. We translated our website into French. We’ve emailed Fulani leaders all over West Africa. We’ve got visas for 7 countries. We’re ready to go.

Sadly, the stereotypes of corrupt African leadership are true. Politicians and officials live off the bribes of the population. It’s engrained in the system. The educated minority cries fowl, but every few years the politicians go back to the villages, buy their votes, and head back to their leather chairs in air conditioned offices. Having lived over two years in Benin, I’ve come to love the people. I see great hope in the motivated youth, but it’s not clear how they’ll ever manage to buy their way to the top of a corrupt system.

We’ll soon be on the road, but the path to change in Benin won’t be so easy.

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4 Responses to “Wranglin’ bureaucracy in Cotonou.”

  1. MELISSA says:

    AS I READ YOUR BLOGS I COULDNT UNDERSTAND WHY YOU HAD TO WAIT FOR LICENSE PLATES. THANKS FOR THE DETAILED EXPLANATION. ALL IN ALL IT SEEMS LIKE IT BENEFITED YOUR PLANS TO TRAVEL YOU WILL BE ABLE TO ENTER COUNTRIES WITH CORRECT DOCUMENTATION.

  2. Christoph says:

    Yeah, we’d run into all kinds of trouble without the right paperwork. It’s too bad it takes so much time and bribery to get anything done here, but at least we’re doing it correctly. Thanks for following our project!

    Christoph

  3. meg says:

    Old timey cycling fans of yours from Snow Valley wish you good luck and a safe journey. Amazing photos, Christoph!

  4. Jaap Kok says:

    First: Thanks for giving me an opportunity to see your great and professional work!
    Having worked in development work in Benin from 2005 till 2009 with extended prior experience in other West African countries, I have to confirm your story on corruption in this country. It kills all initiative for business development, not just for the money involved but yet more though the fact that you never know which government agent of which ministry will rob you which day for what sum. An example: I support since 2009 the set up of a private business in small scale processing of meat. Our difficulty: The National Institute for Food Quality Control (DANA) doesn’t function, has no director, employees are not paid (though customers pay high fees for services) and even bribery doesn’t seem to work. Probably we will have to throw the towel in the ring as potential clients for sausages and hamburgers still believe in the importance of this (non-existing) institution. The effects of 10 years of “socialist” economy and bureaucracy are felt, especially because the kids of those years run the country now. But there are also a lot of very nice and hospitable people in the country of course!