Assistant Professor of Political Science Melissa Labonte is spending 10 days in Sierra Leone and will send occasional dispatches from there – depending on the reliability of the power supply and her Internet connection.
No one in her right mind would drive around Freetown without wearing a seat belt for three very good reasons: Most of the locally-owned autos here are Frankencars, quite literally glued or bonded together from car parts hailing from the ends of the pre-air bag era auto world; many drivers are unlicensed and daring – this is especially true of motorbike okada riders (there is a frightfully apt saying, “no traffic for okadas”); and, it’s the law. That said, the Frankencars do get you to where you need to be, the okada associations provide valuable jobs for otherwise unemployed youth and, as for the law in Sierra Leone, it is truly in the eye of the beholder. The beholder, as it so happened in my case on Tuesday morning, is the Sierra Leone Police.
As my driver, John, and I headed across town in between interviews today with UN country team agencies, we approached a major roundabout linking a number of feeder roads. Traffic was heavy and a small group of police had lined one side of the road. As soon as they spotted me, they scrambled over and halted the car. One of the officers pointed at me, and said something along the lines of “I saw you without your seat belt on! You put it on just now when you saw us!” Instant deer-in-the-headlights moment for me! John uttered one word: the four-letter one beginning with “s” and ending with “t.” Then, the officer screamed at him, “And your seat belt is broken! You could both go to jail for this!” Before I could even get the words, “Are you kidding?” out of my mouth, they demanded our IDs. I showed them my passport but I wouldn’t let them take it. John wasn’t so lucky. They wrestled his ID out of his hand and that was it. Shakedown 101: We were theirs until they either got some money or decided to let us go.
There we stayed, for the next half hour. The officers quickly pulled John out of the car, berated him in Krio, and threatened him not to speak in English. They wanted to know why I was in Freetown and why I was out on the roads at that moment. I tried to convey (calmly, calmly) the work I was doing, who I was meeting with, and (big mistake) that we were both wearing our seat belts when they stopped us and had been since leaving the UN compound. At that point, one officer looked me squarely in the eye and asked if I was accusing her of lying because, for this, she would definitely take me to jail. I tried changing the subject. And so we continued, back and forth. The officers seemed OK with allowing things to escalate to a certain level, but stopped short of, say, directing me to get out of the car or hauling us both off to the station house. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, it ended. One officer said to me, “I am letting (John) go because of you. You should thank me for this.” And I did — in a restrained, but sincere, manner.
My next interview was with the World Bank country manager. I was very late. I offered apologies and mentioned that I had just had my first shakedown.
“How much did you give them?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Superb,” he responded, without blinking an eye. “Now, let’s talk.”