International travel is a key part of the global economy. Countries around the world generate billions of dollars every year and create jobs for their citizens in the travel and tourism industry. However, travelling within Africa is becoming increasingly unpleasant, thanks to some state security employees at some international airports whose conducts are nothing short of criminal. Especially, the Accra, Abidjan and Lagos international airports.
There are common occurrences at these three airports that I am familiar with and have experienced, making using these airports comparable to travelling by road along the borders of these countries, where immigration and security officers intimidate, harass and extort money from travellers in broad day light.
On November 4, 2014, a young Ghanaian lady who was travelling to South Africa for graduate studies was bullied by Ghana Immigration officials at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, and they snatched all the money she had on her.
This young lady was travelling for the first time out of the country, and when they saw her passport they knew she was easy prey! The official behind the counter refused to stamp her passport unless she pays! Being uninformed and naïve, she pleaded with this official, but he would not budge, insisting he wouldn’t stamp the passport until she pays.
Scared and confused, they pushed her into the small room in the right corner of the immigration processing area of the airport. Anyone who has ever travelled out of Ghana knows this area.
While there, they asked her to empty her handbag, and she did. They then snatched the only money she had on her – $150 the only cash the struggling family could raise for her to go to school – they took it off her!
“The man took the money and said I should go,” she told me.
“I told him I didn’t know anyone in South Africa, but all he said was ‘you will manage’. When I called mummy and told her about it she cried,” she said.
On June 27, 2014, I was returning from Lagos through the Murtala Mohammed International Airport.
While at the boarding gate, we noticed uniformed officials asking for money from travellers. Angered and appalled by the conduct about three of us passengers started commenting and expressing our disappointment at the behaviour of the airport employees. And then one passenger heading to Sierra Leone told us about how some of them had asked him for money. “I told them I don’t give money, but I can send them mobile phone recharge card,” he said. And then he pulled out a piece of paper with about eight mobile phone numbers to show us.
“They all wrote their phone numbers for me so I could send them the phone cards,” he said with a smirk in his face.
Only last Saturday, I was returning from Ivory Coast through the Aeroport International Felix Houphouet Boigny in Abidjan with a colleague. Our departure was around 4pm, so we got to the airport around 2pm.
Everything was ok, until we had gone through immigration and were heading to the boarding gate. Just by the staircase leading to the boarding gate, two gentlemen stopped us and demanded to see our passports. We obliged, my colleague and I. And the next question, to my colleague – “how much money do you have? Follow me into this room!” Then I knew something was not right. By the way this gentleman was speaking French, and we both told him we didn’t speak French.
He retorted in French something I understood to mean he also didn’t speak English. I then asked that he gets one of his colleagues who spoke English to communicate with us, but he wouldn’t.
The other gentleman with him, spoke some English, but it was of no help. I then insisted that I would come along with my colleague with the young lady’s experience in my mind.
The catch was, my colleague was travelling out of the country for the first time, and he was a likely weak prey! So I decided to go into the small room with him! The guys were not amused.
They then demanded to see my money. I brought out my wallet and the cranky fellow took out the money and counted them – $1700! I had some cedis and CFA francs but this guy was more interested in the US dollars!
“You are not allowed to take out all this amount,” he snarled at me!
That was when I knew the plot had thickened! These guys were out to extort money from us! I thought.
I protested, still insisting he should get us a colleague who spoke English, but he won’t.
Meanwhile, the other guy who spoke some English told us, it is only UEMOA residents who are allowed to take out more than $4000 and since we were not and we are also not resident in Ivory Coast, we are required to pay 14 percent of the amount to his boss upstairs! He said these pointing to a poster in the small room lighted only with a candle! Apparently the lights were off at the airport!
As you would expect, I became livid and said this is an act of intimidation!
I put out a call frantically to one of the organizers of the conference we just attended, but couldn’t get through.
I tried to use the ECOWAS tag! But these guys were insisting on UEMOA. UEMOA is the French acronym for the West African Economic and Monetary Union made up of eight countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal.
Even though, Ivory Coast is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), there was no information on ECOWAS members, they were simply lumped together with travellers from other countries!
During this period a Chinese man was also dragged into the room. He told them he didn’t speak French, and he would like to call his host, they just said he should go.
While, we were still arguing the guy who said he only spoke French and that’s what he would speak to me, left the room and the other one said we could leave. Adding that, I shouldn’t have argued with them, but I told him I wasn’t arguing but it was a case of miscommunication as they spoke French and I spoke English. Clearly, that was what it was!
It’s unacceptable that employees working at an international airport would insist that travellers who use that airport from around the world should speak the official language of that country. Shouldn’t it be the other way round? That the airport if it was interested in serving its international clients would hire other staff who spoke other languages to make life easier for travellers?
These incidents might look like they are isolated, but this is how officials at our airports treat travellers they see as vulnerable and extort monies from them.
While, other countries are working hard to improve waiting time for travellers at their airports and improving professionalism, this is how some officials at the Accra, Abidjan and Lagos airports treat travellers and it’s a shame!
By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi