Dealing with Police Corruption in Guinea

Guinea, Money

Guinean money, a stack of about $200 worth

“Arrête!”

The calls from across the street rang out from a group of over-sized police officers who I knew were going to be trouble even before walking anywhere near them; a group of policemen in Guinea not doing anything in particular is always trouble.  In fact, attempting to avoid them, by walking on the opposite side of the road was exactly what was about to get me into trouble.

In choppy French the leader of the group – a man who stood about 6 foot 4 and must have tipped the scales at about 260 pounds of muscle – barked at us as he slowly approached.  Luckily, I was with the friend of a friend named Ali, a very well-educated and highly regarded translator, who offered to show me the way to the Sierra Leone embassy on his way home for the day.

“Where do you think you are going?” The officer demanded as he talked down to us both literally and figuratively as if we were children skipping class.” You are to walk on this side of the road!”

I apologized quickly but soon realized that this would be a whole lot more trouble than it should be.  A group of his colleagues soon crowd around us a in attempt to shake our confidence.

“You must pay for your crime,” the officer continued in his bellowing tone. “We must detain you.”

It was at this point that a wave of understanding from myself, and disbelief from Ali, shook through the air, and I have to admit I’m glad to have had Ali’s company because I’m not sure how I would have handled the situation on my own.

No photos of police corruption… so instead, here’s a view from the highway in Guinea

Without any hesitation Ali – who isn’t exactly a small man in his own right – stepped up with his own show of aggression and power.  And to me, his display of force was much more impressive based on the fact that we were outnumbered about 5 to 1; and they had guns.

“If you’re looking for money,” Ali yelled while standing nose-to-nose to the lead-corruptor. “You might as well take us to jail. We aren’t paying you anything! I am a government translator working for Minister So-and-So.  I am escorting this man to the Sierra Leone embassy.  We have done nothing wrong!”

You see, in Guinea the problem is that the art of the bribe has been lost.  A bribe is when one does something wrong and has to pay their way out of it.  In Guinea, when no one is breaking the rules, they’ll invent them and then abuse their power to coerce you into paying.

Part of the problem too is that there are just so many police/military people in the country that they are 1) underpaid, and 2) have nothing to do.  Thus, they spend their time trying to earn a little more money; abusing their power to do so.  It’s like a Johnny Depp character once said: “policing isn’t a career, it’s an entrepreneurship.” And seeing a white man like me walking down the road in a poorer suburb of Conakry is like watching a dollar bill floating towards you in the wind.

The view from my room in Conakry

“Ok, take them and put them in the truck,” said the officer as we were pushed a couple steps towards the police paddy wagon which was being guarded by two men with AK-47s.

I began to worry that Ali’s tactic was going to land us in Guinean jail, but he persuaded me to stay resilient and that they are bluffing.  Ali asked to talk to the commanding officer and was eventually granted the opportunity.  As he laid out our defense to the man in charge, the officer couldn’t even look Ali in the eyes and only stared down the road in agreement.  He knew that what his men were doing was wrong, but obviously turned a blind eye in exchange for a cut.  However, when confronted by someone with any sort of courage and intelligence, well, you could tell by the look of disgrace on his face that he was ashamed by his actions.

Eventually, the commanding officer exchanged a couple angry shouts with the original corrupting officer in Susu which I couldn’t understand and we were finally left to walk down the “right side of the road” without paying a penny.

Ali was furious.

“Do they think I am a boy?” He kept muttering. “I am not some uneducated boy!”

In my travels I have paid bribes before, but always in situations where I was breaking the rules: sleeping on an ancient pyramid, crossing borders in unregistered vehicles, etc.  But this was the type of abuse of power I had only heard of, and been warned about.

The truth is that along the way through Guinea I found myself battling police and military in this way about a half a dozen times more.  Thankfully, through Ali’s model of dealing with it, I managed to get through the country without paying a single “bribe”; although every step of the way it was a challenge.

Obviously, paying these bribes would be easy for me to do.  Most of those looking to extort me were looking for 5,000-10,000 Guinean Francs (0.80-1.60USD) but it’s a matter of principle.  If I pay them, it becomes the norm and not an abuse of power.  Moreover, I’ll say that in Guinea it wasn’t just me, le blanc, being targeted.  I saw countless people along the way having to deal with the police and military in the same way I did.  And they were just as unhappy about it as I was; but what are they to do?

At the end of the day, it makes for a very tense country.  The people don’t trust the military to protect them, while maintaining the military force drains the country’s coffers and stifles development.

I’ll end by quoting another line from a movie, but again not remembering each one.

“There are two types of people in this world: those who are afraid of criminals, and those who are scared of the police.”

Well, in Guinea it seems the lines between the two are blurred, but I can definitely say that I was much more worried about the police/military than I was thieves; and to be honest, I think so too were the civilians.  A shame really as each civilian I met along the way was so kind and welcoming.  I hope someday these people finally see the freedom of a non-military state, something that has never been the case.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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7 Comments

  1. Good article! I would add that, by entering the world of the bribe, you may open yourself up to unintended outcomes. Sure, it may be just an innocent couple of bucks, but you need to be sure it isn’t leading down a “blind alley”. Here’s my story of a bribe in Mexico City that nearly went really, REALLY bad: http://thetravelbureau.me/ramblings/para-servirle/

    Most times, the guys looking for money not accustomed to people standing up to them, and it will fluster them. As well, they know that they are in the wrong, and are typically not the “sharpest knives in the drawer”. So you can, and should, employ the Jedi mind trick. Call them on it. Refuse to pay. What are they really going to do? Arrest you? For what. And the louder you are, the better. Public shaming.

    In his book about circumnavigating Africa on his bicycle (with the imaginative title “Around Africa On My Bicycle”), S. African Riaan Manser tells how he didn’t pay one bribe in two years. His technique for police trouble? Smile, pretend you don’t understand. And if that fails, sit down on the ground and refuse to move. A sit-in. Whatever works, I guess…

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  2. By the way, Brendan…I once flew a helicopter from Luxembourg all the way down to Liberia. Worst airport to deal with (read: highest “landing fees” and other non-invoiced “incidentals”): Conakry. By an order of magnitude.

    The only airport where I thought I was going to get my ass handed to me: Nouadhibou, Mauritania.

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  3. Sad and frustrating consequence of weak institutions. Shitty you had to deal with this. I ended up paying my first bribe the other day in Abidjan. When you get there you will notice a lot of police checkpoints because of recent night attacks on military facilities. Usually not a problem during the day, but at night they may try to get some money off you. Even then, it’s usually harmless “can I get some $ for coffee or a smoke” type of stuff and you can just say no and keep going. But one night with the gf, going from one side of town to the other around 2 am, a single, seemingly drunk soldier manned one particular checkpoint and told us to get out of the car. He made up some bs that we couldn’t be out in a taxi at that hour and we would have to spend the night on the military base. We called his bluff …and then he told our taxi driver to leave without us. It was at this point that we gave him a 500 cfa coin and he let us go. Really shitty that this is the scene in Abidjan right now as it’s normally a nightlife town. Ca va aller…

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  4. It reminds me of South-East Asian countries. In Cambodia, you can simple bribe the police for running a local over which is crazy and they also keep telling expats and tourists “You have to pay for your crime or you go to the prison” for smoking weed.

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  5. Every country has some sort of corruption at every single level, but I’ve never heard of it like this!! So blatant and nonchalant of them it seems!

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    • Simon, it’s insane in Conakry especially… but the truth is that it’s just different. In North America we pay a ticket and with those tickets they pay the salaries… in part. In Africa, you break the rules you pay a fine (and the policemen’s salary) on the spot… much more direct. Of course this opens up the opportunity for low-level corruption, as is so often the case here.

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  6. I am currently in Cote D’Ivoire traveling around with my motorbike. For me it became a kind of a game when I get stopped at a road block from police or military men. At first most of them let me pass without even stopping me. With my Chinese motorbike with the rice bags on the back, a black helmet with a black visor, black gloves and all covered up and dirty I more look like a poor local then a tourist. When I get stopped I just smile and be very friendly to this guy’s. Most of them a very friendly in return. When I then admit that I hardly speak any French (what’s actually true) most of them give up talking to me because of their total lack of English. Sometimes they make gestures asking for money or tea, than I just pretend to not understand and soon or later they give up. Some could speak some English, these guys I just complement about their good English and they let me pass.
    With this strategy I passed about 4-5 road blocks every day without paying any money and having hassle. I am looking forward how it will be in Guinea.

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