Monday, May 21, 2007

Mandiana Customs scam, night in the Savannah, Barrages de Selingui, Mali

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Once dawn breaks I am up again, trying to locate the facilities of this shabby place I spent the night. The couple with the motorcycle episode still on my mind, I find my way to the washroom, and what a washing room it is.


There is flowing water however and I have my shower under the fresh morning sky, the cold water from the well helps me to clear my mind at once. I have a difficult task ahead of me, and I need lots of luck to get my merchandise out of the customs clutches. So mad the whole story sounds, no one would ever imagine the agonizing moments I go through with these officials. Like leeches they prey on their targets, remorseless their approach to empty your pockets.


The night before I visited the local hawkers and to my astonishment I found quiet palatable food. Without a meal the whole day I longed for a dinner, and I found it in form of a decent Spaghetti Bolognaise, and some 'sauce 'd arachides' a peanut butter based sauce with stewed rice. Amazingly, the dishes were of agreeable taste, and reasonably cheap.


The appointment is set to 80.00 AM and I drive up to the main junction that links the western border Bougoula, with the northern and eastern route, to Kankan and Niani. The customs building is a simple tin roof thatched house, but the main negotiating room is on its left, and is comprised of a raw concrete floor, some wooden chairs, and a grass covered rooftop, open to all sites, so that the traffic can be observed. Whatever passes through here, is subject to pay road tax, in one way or another. The capital is far and here the officials can act as they see fit.


The night before I drove up to the main junction, the Customs officials on duty sitting near a bonfire in one of the huts erected to control vehicles that pass through here. I was asked to report the next morning, having no choice I will follow the order. Again the officer who we found at the entry point to Mandiana tells me that I do not have valid car papers, and thus adds to my already big problem..


I drive up the yard, and after the initial exchanges of welcoming : 'bienvenue', the officials, three of them, begin their process. All eyes are focused on the big Renault articulator, now parked at the side, under scrutiny of the customs. They will not let go of this truck till they receive their share The one in charge appears, with the copy of the transit invoice in his hand and tells me the amount involved. The figure is somewhat less than at the Bougoula border,  but it is still beyond my acceptable figure 


When I insist that the value on the invoice is incorrect, the official displays the transit documents, and I realize the blunder made by my own staff. The valuation on the documents contained an error, committed by the Ivorian Customs. The whole crew of the truck has by now assembled around the vehicle and I request the original invoice issued by our company back in Ghana. Here the amount is a complete different amount, and I produce it as evidence. Seeing an opportunity slip by, the man in beige now tries to be stubborn. I am now in full steam and ask him to physically check the load instead. Upon his instruction a few bales loaded are released and the weight is being taken. By multiplying the number of packages he derives at the figure on my invoice. This solves the puzzle and he grins. We know the icebreaker worked. We have all settled into the straw- hut and two official in a hammock are explaining the procedures, and warning of the 'brigade', the customs flying squad that seizes all goods that are not properly declared. All to intimidate us and to find ways to extract more money.


Once the final calculation comes out we are to pay in the region of 3000 US Dollars, still high but of course much less than the previous figure. Now it comes to the finals, the crew is invited to have lunch with the officials, I politely refuse indicating to my stomach. They withdraw behind the house to  .savor he local specialty 'cailler'. When I see the fermented milk, with thousand flies swarming around it, and the sugar being added in large amounts, I return to the point of the vehicle, finding a place in the shadow under a large Acacia tree and wait for further developments. I feel the deal is nearly done. With the meal over, the people return to prepare the final release documents. Without telling anyone in the group I know I have a most important meeting to attend in Europe, after 3 days in Prague to be precise. How I will reach there I don't know. We are in the middle of the bush, no airport, only rough roads leading into three different directions, one of which is towards the north to Mali, and I know that I will have to take this route. I urge to conclude the deal, already 10 days have passed since the truck has entered Bougoula border (Encounter at dusk, part II). With a few twitches in the final figure we agree to the amount. Now all the attention is on how much money everyone will collect from the deal.  Smiling faces abound, I realize we are done. I am preparing to depart, handing over the amount to the woman in charge of the consignment, to be paid against official receipt. And with the new friends made waving goodbye, I set off towards Niani, the border with Mali. The time is 15.00 PM, and I have to drive approx 300 km through Savannah road to reach the border town, also know to be a smuggler's haven.


Continued : Night in the Mali savannah .


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