Taken to Task

I got a comment that claimed my post referring to Malawi police corruption was “making false statements online”.  Instead of just replying to the writer, I thought I make a post about it.  If one person commented, there are probably others who didn’t, but who feel the same way.

I’ve done over 70,000km on this trip now and have been stopped many times by police.  The first time I was stopped was in Turkey after about 50,000km.  I didn’t know that bikes and cars were subject to different speed limits, so I got a couple of tickets.  Once I hit Egypt the stops started coming fast and furious.  The stops have all been pretty much at road blocks of some sort and tend to follow the same pattern, no matter the country.  About half the stops are quick “where are you going?” things that slow you down, but that’s about it.  Of the remaining, about half involve showing your papers and take a little longer, but once again aren’t a big problem.  The remaining ones are where the fun starts…

Note: the following is a composite of a number of encounters and not a record of any specific one, it also only deals with traffic police, not the ones you encounter when walking through town.

You’re riding along, when out of the shade of a tree walks a police officer to wave you down.  You stop, turn off your engine, take off your helmet, and smile.

“Where are you going?”


“Where did you come from?”

“Monkey Bay”

“Let me see your papers.”

Here is when you get your first hint- if the cop is going to try something he usually won’t look your papers right away, he just wants them so you won’t ride off when he shows his hand.  He then goes for the classics:

“Show me that your turn signals, brake lights, head lights, and horn work.”

Strike one, every works perfectly.

Then he goes for something country specific:

“show me your breakdown triangle/fire extinguisher/reflective jacket.”

Strike two, all required items are present.

Now he looks at your papers, trying to find something wrong.

“Show me your proof of ownership/insurance/registration/import duty paid.”

Strike three, everything is in order.

Now comes the real turning point; is he willing to just let you go since everything is as it should be (more often than not, they do), or is he serious about getting a bribe?

When they decide to go for broke, they’ll ask you for something that no other officer has asked for.  For example, the day I ended up paying in Malawi, that officer was the only one to ask about the items he ‘fined’ me for- despite the fact that I was stopped 17 times that day and about 40 times in the week I was there (a record that no other country has come close to).  Another one was the only one to say that my COMESA insurance was no longer valid in Malawi, though he backed off when I insisted on a receipt that said COMESA was no longer valid.  Sometimes insisting on a receipt doesn’t work- though if they offer one, make sure that there is carbon paper between all the sheets; in Tanzania I was stopped and when I suggested that he use his carbon paper so that all 3 copies got written on, he got mad and sent me on my way…  Other times asking to go to the police station or seeing a superior officer or going to a bank for money works, and then, sometimes…  Well, sometimes you just can’t get them to drop it in anything like a reasonable amount of time, so you pay.  So far I’ve paid three times- twice in Egypt (both being border guards) and once in Malawi.

Not all cops in Africa are corrupt, but after countless stops I can smell the ones that are, and more than a few cops in Malawi smell to high heaven.

Oh, and to answer another question- after road conditions, police corruption is the most popular topic of discussion for riders and private overlanders.  Like how to get through a particularly bad stretch of road, tips on how to deal with corrupt cops and where to find them are dietary staples.  Malawi may not be on the menu as often as Mozambique or Egypt, but its far from just an occasional special.

I hope I’ve given you a better idea of where I’m coming from and shown that I don’t just throw around accusations of corruption for fun.  Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment(s).


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