Sunday, August 29, 2010


In order to fully appreciate today's post, you need to know two things about Gabon:

1) There are four types of number plates in Gabon: yellow ones, which mean "I'm just a regular citizen"; blue ones, used by government officials; green ones, used by diplomats and the like; and finally red ones, whose meaning we're not really sure about. It is not customary for the police to stop people with blue or green plates.

2) Gabonese police is extremely corrupt. They organise regular blockades on the roads, where you have no choice but to slow down and, if they wave at you, stop. And then they will do whatever it takes to get money from you, even if it is, as they put it, 1000 francs for a coke.

Right, now I can get to the point. As Jandro works for the EU, we are lucky to have the right to use the green plate. This way, we are hardly ever stopped by the police and when it happens, they are very polite and do not demand money if we present all the papers they ask for. I am, therefore, not very much used to dealing with the police.

It so happens that, Jandro being away for a few days, I went on a little trip with two friends, using a yellow-plate car belonging to one of them. We were thus stopped by the police at the very first opportunity, which made the driver swear: Oops, I have lost the car's papers, actually, she told us. I was rather curious to see how the situation was going to develop. Here's what happened.

The policeman comes up to the driver's window. He puts his head in the car (literally), looks around and begins:
- Good morning, ladies and gentleman. Are you going to Congo?
- No, not as far as that. - we explain (we were just outside Libreville). The policeman asks for all possible papers. Our friend the driver starts looking for them, even though she knows perfectly well she doesn't have them.
- I would like to see your residence permit. - the official asks our friend, sitting at the back. - Are you a soldier?
- No. Here's the permit.
- Uh la la, monsieur, you will get out of the car. Your permit is valid till the end of August.
- So?
- So, it's not valid anymore. - the policeman comes up to the other side of the car, to speak to my friend, who would not get out.
- But it's still August. It's valid till Tuesday, actually. - my friend insists.
- No, no, it's not valid. - he keeps the permit. He looks at me. - Tourist?
- No, I live here. - I say, showing my carte de sejour.
- I'm still waiting for those papers, madame. - he addresses the driver again. She opens the glove compartment, where the policeman spots three 5000 franc banknotes. He suddenly becomes extremely excited and nearly shouts. - Oh, no, that's fine, it's all fine. - he gives my friend his residence permit back. - It's good, all good. Just give me 5000 francs and I'll have some palm wine. It's all good.

5000 francs is 7,5 euro and rather a lot of money. None of us is used to paying the police, but it this case we quickly consented. Having no papers, we could have been in real trouble.

It does scare me, however, how helpless most people are when stopped by policemen absolutely drunk with power (and less figurative alcohols), whose only job seems to be to extort money from the citizens. Nearly everyone has a story of how they were made to pay for some idiotic flaw in their car (e.g. it was dirty) or for the lack of certain paperwork (Can I see a medical certificate stating that you are fit to drive? Otherwise how am I supposed to know that you're not epileptic?).

Luckily, we have managed to stay away from the police up till now. We hide behind our green plate and try to deal with them as little as possible. Especially those who get drunk on palm wine while on duty.


  1. One of our team mates was sited for "vehicle abuse" because they had luggage on their luggage rack on the roof of the car. Gotta love Gabon!