Taxing cost of West Africa roadblocks

By Stephen Evans
Presenter, Business Daily, BBC World Service


If you go by bus from Abidjan in Ivory Coast to Lagos in Nigeria you soon come across your first roadblock.

Image caption,
It is difficult to know who is manning most of the Ivory Coast road blocks.

At the start of the journey in Ivory Coast, you cannot say these roadblocks are unofficial because they are manned by the police.

But they do seem to be over-done.

Ivory Coast must have the keenest speed cops in the world, stopping motorists every few miles.

Crippling cost

Or is it just another form of taxation? Business people certainly think so

Jean-Louis Billon, president of the country's Chamber of Commerce and the chairman of the SIFCA group, which trades in palm oil, rubber and sugar, says: "We feel that we are financing the Ivorian crisis."

He believes that the political class in power does nothing and just sits there while businesses like his pay for their way of life.

He says a truck might get stopped a hundred times on a long route.

Each time the driver hands over a relatively small amount, but it adds up to a burden that might make the whole journey unprofitable.

"A business like cashew nuts could not function just because of road blocks," he says.

"The price of the goods in the truck was less than what you had to pay on the way to the port, so the people working in this business just had to stop operating."

Even if no payment is extracted, it all slows up the journey.

One estimate made by an organisation called Trade Hub, says a journey that would take five days in the US - say between Chicago and Newark - would take two to three weeks in West Africa, and cost $4,800 compared with $650 in the US.

This is even more remarkable when you realise that labour costs in the US are 25 times higher.

For economic life, it is serious, whereas for a bus full of journalists it can provide a spectacle.

When we are stopped, we usually buy the police off with BBC wall charts for the World Cup, and that seems to keep people happy until the next time.

No choice

At the bus station in the centre of Abijan where bus routes from all over the country merge, Diaby Ismail runs the family bus and truck company.

Image caption,
Things must change if the younger generation is to prosper

"We get to the road block. They will ask you for your paper for the vehicle. They will tell you to give them something before they let you go," he says.

"If you don't give the give the people manning the roadblock anything, they won't let you proceed."

Transport businesses in Ivory Coast are passed down from father to son.

Most of Mr Ismail's buses are 15-20 years old. There are holes in the seats and some do not have rubber on them.

"When you sit down it is really hard and when you get up your buttocks are really hot, but there are no other means of transport," Mr Ismail says.

Since June 2008, a committee established by the army's chief of staff has dismantled a lot of road blocks.

"One journey which did have between 15-20 road blocks has been reduced to four or five," Mr Ismail says.

Heavy burden

For ordinary local people, though, transport is a pain.

It is not just payment which has an economic cost. Delay does too.

Even for those too poor to keep the police happy with fat bribes, moving goods is a real chore.

I watched a taxi driver load 50 sacks of rice into his creaking old black and orange cab at the border between Ivory Coast and Ghana.

It had been brought in a taxi to the border, unloaded and then re-loaded in a Ghanaian taxi.

Eventually, there was only room for the driver, and the floor of the car scraped the concrete as it pulled away.

There has to be an easier way.

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