Greetings from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Tonight my taxi driver (Capri) picked me up at 8:30 from the office, and soon after we were stopped by a traffic cop for a “routine inspection.” He checked Capri’s license, inspected the headlights, called Capri out, then told us to go down to the police station. Capri asked me to step out and look at the headlights: one was slightly dimmer than the other, but both were amply bright and this never would have warranted a citation in the United States. This cop was looking for just one thing from the taxi with two Americans.
A bystander, a restaurant owner named Daouda [a variation of my own name], intervened and entreated the police officer until he relented and let us go. Daouda then invited me to his restaurant, an invitation I will most definitely take him up on.
This wasn’t that unique; cops seek bribes all the time and in many countries, but tonight it struck me as particularly onerous, a stark sign of the subversion of the rule of law by money. I can’t say I’ve never paid a bribe: Once I gave $20 to some Ugandan border guards after 45 minutes of interrogation and a threat of a jail. But tonight I was prepared to go the mat. [Of course, it’s easy to “be prepared” to go to the mat until one actually has to. I had always imagined I’d be cool and collected if I were ever mugged, but the first time it happened – in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2000 – I was a disaster.]