How to Avoid Fines and Bribes on African Roads

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Most countries on the African continent have a bad reputation because of the corrupt police and culture of bribes, especially on African roads. Various people and reports warn and even advise against driving through certain areas or entire countries. Despite all that, I was keen enough to purchase a car in Kenya and pursue my dream to travel across Eastern Africa and Southern Africa on African roads.

After having passed through more than ten countries, I have collected some quite interesting encounters with the police.

Nevertheless, I can honestly and proudly say that I have not paid a single fine or bribe!

Sadly, many fellow travelers, as well as local residents, fall into the trap. On my journey, I have seen countless tourists paying small fines without questions or resistance. Others told me about the fines they had to pay along the way. Even more, striking are local residents. It seems like many have given up completely and accepted the rotten system of the African roads.

They are frequently tipping - a synonym for bribing - police officers. At the same time, they criticise the corrupted police and politicians. In my opinion, everybody can take action to change this and this is how it can be done:

#1 Try to avoid breaking the law in the first place

Road taxes on border crossing from Botswana into Zimbabwe

This should actually be a no-brainer for everybody. Road laws and regulations have been created for a - mostly reasonable - reason. Inform yourself about the most obvious rules in each country before hitting the road.

Educate yourself: The statistics and numbers when it comes to bribery are alarming in Africa!

Classic examples are speed limits, parking fees, seat belts and security features (emergency triangle, first aid, fire extinguisher or a safety vest). Also make sure to have the right documents with you, such as driving license, insurance and a copy of the car’s logbook.

#2 Do not support the bribe culture by any means

Road conditions

Bribing is a question of ethics and philosophical mindset. I am coming from a European nation with many regulations and clear punishments. If you are caught breaking the law, the authorities are obliged to make you accountable. Paying any kind of a bribe is undermining this system and promoting unfairness.

Read more: Check out how African police got creative when trying to get the bribes!

It creates a competitive “survival of the fittest” world, where the stronger and authoritarian people out force the more obedient ones. Never play this game, even developing countries have clear laws.

#3 Question accusations and request evidence

Driving in a desert

In order to comply with the first two insights, a prove or legal reference is essential. Every authority should have its justification and reasoning. Usually, this is documented in extended constitutions and regulations. Representing people, such as police officers, should be able to identify themselves and quote the given regulation.

Always be sure to have all the proper documentation. If you're traveling around Africa by car, the most important piece of document is by far Carnet de Passage. It provides you with smoother border crossings and it saves you much time and money. 

As an accused offender, you have the right to understand the offence. If you seriously broke the law, you should pay the fine and get a proper receipt. Do not accept half-hearted excuses and threats.

#4 Talk to the police officer patiently and always be friendly

One of many police checks

Starting a conversation with a smile and a friendly greeting can make a difference on African roads. Even seemingly treacherous police officers are only human beings and have feelings. They might have a difficult life and their own problems.

Police is very aggressive sometimes toward foreigners, so be careful how you deal with them. If you're still thinking of buying a car in Africa to do this epic road trip, then I really motivate you to do it! It's an amazing experience filled with awesome memories and people. 

Their role in society as controller and punisher does not make things easier for them. Signalling thankfulness and acknowledging their valuable services is very powerful. Initiating a positive small talk can also divert from the issue and break the tension. Treat your opponent as an integral person and leave in a positive way.

#5 Create distractions and confusion by talking about nonsense

Stunning roads

There are many ways to deal with authorities. Showing insecurity and weakness only offer more grip for unjustified actions. Countering strongly and decisively can trigger a devastating game of power. From my experience, humour is the most effective and positive approach.

Changing the subject completely and even asking questions forces your opponent to think. When executed right, this can release some tension and make all participants laugh.

One of the most effective topics worldwide is football. Then, both parties gain something - an experience, not a bribe!

These are my personal insights after a dozen real experiences on the African roads. They might not be applicable to every single situation but have been certainly proven to be effective.

Adrian Sameli founder and editor of aSabbatical.com
Travel mindfully to meet local people around the world and embrace new cultures. Get inspired and inspire others!