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Cameroon: The Shackled Continent

What are the consequences of Africa’s deficient infrastructure?

January 11, 2005

What are the consequences of Africa's deficient infrastructure?

Guinness Cameroon, the local arm of the global beverage giant, was very helpful. The managing director, Brian Johnson, asked one of the trucking companies that deliver his products to let me ride with them.

The head of logistics, a personable Scot named Ross Paterson, gave me a schedule that turned out to be as realistic as a James Bond movie.

At 2 p.m. on a Thursday in October 2002, I was to join 1,600 crates of stout on board a big truck bound for Bertoua, a small town in Cameroon’s south-eastern jungle.

As the crow flies, this is about 500 kilometers — as far as from London to Edinburgh, or New York to Pittsburgh. The journey was supposed to take 18 hours, including an overnight rest stop.

It took four days — and when the truck arrived it was carrying only two thirds of its original load.

Along the way, the scenery was staggering. Thickly forested hills stretched into the distance like a stormy green sea, punctuated with explosions of red and yellow blossoms.

Beside the road were piles of cocoa beans laid out to dry in the sun and hawkers selling engine oil, tangerines — and 12-foot pythons for the pot.

I was able to survey it all at leisure, not least because we were stopped at roadblocks 47 times.

These usually consisted of a pile of tires or a couple of oil drums in the middle of the road, plus a plank with upturned nails sticking out, which could be pulled aside when the policemen on duty were satisfied that the truck had broken no laws and should be allowed to pass.

Sometimes they merely stared into the cab or glanced at Martin’s papers for a few seconds before waving him on. But the more aggressive ones detained us somewhat longer.

Some asked for beer, which they couldn’t have because it was in a locked cage on the back of the truck and Martin had no key.

Some complained that they were hungry, often rubbing their huge stomachs for emphasis. One asked for pills, lamenting that he had indigestion. But most wanted money and figured that the best way to get it was to harass motorists until bribed to lay off.

At every other roadblock, they carried out “safety checks.”

Typically, Hippolyte had to climb down and show the truck’s fire extinguisher to a gendarme relaxing in the shade of a palm tree, who would inspect it minutely and pore over the instructions on the side. Similar scrutiny was lavished on tail-lights, axles, side- view mirrors and tires.

Strangely, no one asked about seat belts, which Cameroonians wear about as often as fur coats.
At some roadblocks, the police went through our papers word by word, in the hope of finding an error. Some found fault with me, although I tried to avoid confrontation by pretending not to speak French.

One frowning thug declared that my Cameroonian visa was on the wrong page of my passport. Another insisted that I was obliged to carry my yellow fever vaccination certificate at all times, which was not true.

Most of the demands for bribes, however, were directed at Martin. Because trucks have to abide by so many more regulations than passenger vehicles, truckers are easier to catch out breaking some trivial rule or another — and the Cameroonian police persecute them accordingly.

In the town of Mbandjok the police decided that Martin lacked a particular permit and offered to sell him a new one for twice the usual price.

When he asked for a receipt, they kept us waiting for three-and-a-half hours. A gaggle of policemen joined the argument.
The total number of work-hours wasted (assuming an average of seven policemen involved, plus three people in the truck) was 35 — call it one French working week. And all for a requested bribe of 8,000 CFA francs (about $12).

The pithiest explanation of why Cameroonians have to put up with all this came from the policeman at roadblock No. 31, who had invented a new law about carrying passengers in trucks, found Martin guilty of breaking it — and confiscated his driving license.

When it was put to him that the law he was citing did not, in fact, exist, he patted his holster and replied: “Do you have a gun? No. I have a gun, so I know the rules.”

Cameroon’s robber-cops are worse than the African norm. But even without their attentions, the journey would have been a slog.

Most Cameroonian roads are unpaved — long stretches of rutty red laterite soil with sheer ditches on either side. Dirt roads are fine as long as it doesn’t rain, but Cameroon is largely rainforest, where it rains often and hard.
Our road was made impassable by rain three times, causing delays of up to four hours.

The Cameroonian government has tried to grapple with the problem of rain eroding roads by erecting a series of barriers with small gaps in the middle that allow light vehicles through but stop heavy trucks from passing while it is pouring.

The barriers, which are locked to prevent truckers from lifting them when no one is looking, are supposed to be unlocked when the road has had a chance to dry. Unfortunately, the officials whose job it is to unlock them are not wholly reliable.
Early on the second evening, not long after our stand-off with the police in Mbandjok, we met a rain barrier in the middle of the forest. It was dark — and the man with the key was not there.

Asking around nearby villages yielded no clue as to his whereabouts. We curled up in the mosquito-filled cab and waited for him to return, which he did shortly before midnight.

The hold-up was irritating, but in the end made no difference. Early the next morning a driver coming in the opposite direction told us that the bridge ahead had collapsed — so we had to turn back.

Six hours, 11 roadblocks and three toothsome sardine sandwiches later, we arrived in Yaoundé, the political capital, where Guinness has a depot.

The alternative route to Bertoua meant passing a weighing station, where vehicles weighing more than 50 tons faced steep tolls.

Since we were ten tons overweight, Martin needed permission to offload 600 crates. But it was a Saturday, the man in charge was reportedly at lunch, and we did not get permission until the next morning.

It then took all morning to unload the extra crates, despite the fact that the depot was equipped with forklifts. Finally, after 25 hours without moving, we hit the road again and met no roadblocks for a whole 15 minutes.

For much of the rest of the journey — which took another 17 hours — I was struck by how terrifying Cameroonian roads are. Piles of rusting wrecks clogged the grassy verges on the way out of Yaoundé.

We saw several freshly crashed cars and a couple of lorries and buses languishing in ditches. None of the bridges we crossed seemed well maintained.

And when we arrived in Bertoua we heard that two people had been crushed to death on a nearby road the previous day, when a logging truck lost its load onto their heads.

Adapted from “The Shackled Continent” by Robert Guest © 2004 Smithsonian Books. By arrangement with Smithsonian Books.