Corruption kills tourism

I’m in Mozambique for seven weeks consulting to Mozal – the nine year old aluminium refinery that in 2000 helped signal to the world Mozambique’s successful return from the dark ages of the civil war.

It’s a beautiful country, but one that is firmly planted in the 3rd world – this is a very poor society.

With poor societies there is high motivation for corrupt officials, and sadly it seems the police on Mozambique’s roads are no exception.

The police in corrupt places are not there to help you – they are there to help themselves. Mozambique has no tourist police (a staggeringly good idea used in several countries) and so the regular police are free to extract as much money as they can from tourists and expatriates.

While the number of roadblocks and random stops has apparently fallen a lot over recent years, there are still far too many. Each time you are stopped the primary motivation of the police is to extort money from you, not to enforce the law. This means you need a well developed sense of patience and tolerance is required to drive any distance.

I’m driving a big ugly 4WD here, and it is a very different feeling than a motorcycle. Not only is it much slower in traffic and dirt roads, but it feels that I will be in a much worse situation when I am stopped. The motorcycle does attracts attention, but it is also easy to coast by checkpoints very easily. Meanwhile the policemen’s attention is easily diverted from extorting money to a conversation about the bike, my travels and so forth. A big ugly 4WD gives no such advantages, and I am not looking forward to being stopped.

My fellow consultant and I were taken aside by several expatriate colleagues on Friday and given a few handy hints about how to deal with the local police, should we be stopped.

It seems the local police divide into the “white shirts” and the “grey shirts.” The white shirts themselves are invariably well pressed – these are the traffic police and the ones I have seen seemed to take their job seriously. The grey shirts less so – they appear to be soldiers, and go around in utes with several men on the back. Apparently they chase you down and then surround your vehicle with AK47 toting men. They are a lot less reasonable to deal with – and it’s also hard to be rational when there are that many guns pointing at you.

The advice we received for both types of police centered around what to do and how much to pay. Stop and obey orders of course, and politely insist you did nothing wrong. Some recommended only handing over copies of your documents, while others said they have never had a problem handing over original passports, licenses and car papers. (I certainly used originals in all my motorcycle travels, but kept photocopies hidden on the bike as a last resort backup). Some said you should refuse to pay, unless you were clearly in the wrong, while others said a US$4-12 payment should see you on your way. All said that you should keep your speed down in the towns so the white shirts should not bother you – that’s good advice regardless as towns have plenty of people walking on the road.

So we were warned, and while I had a clear weekend my colleague did not. He was stopped just three minutes from the hotel, at 6:20am, at the beginning of a 7 hour journey. What’s worse, it was by the grey shirts.

His car was indeed surrounded by the AK47 toting men, and the boss alleged the running of a stop light (not true). Extortion demands started at US$50 – and after a lengthy discussion the payment extracted was a still unreasonable $12.

Corruption comes in many forms, and corrupt police are a sad indictment on a society. Worse yet it means stopping and thinking before every potential journey – do you really want to run the gauntlet to get to the supermarket, restaurant or elephant park? My colleague and I have both travelled in places like this before, but Mozambique is causing itself very real economic and social harm by allowing these activities to continue.

New Zealand is a very rare place – one of the few where I still trust the officials. We should feel good about that.

Published by Lance Wiggs


4 replies on “Corruption kills tourism”

  1. Hi Lance,

    I visited Mozambique in 2002, traveling from Swaziland to Malawi in a VW combi van no-less.

    What got us through was a lot of luck, and a lot of small notes. Like you, bargaining started at $50, and ended around $4.

    Take a lot of basic stuff like cigarettes, king size Rizla, matches, lighters whatever. – these are great to trade with.

    If I was to go again, I’d take a lot of t-shirts, and trade what I was wearing – they seem to think its much more valuable if you are wearing whatever it is you are trading…

    Good luck! look forward to more stories from you.


  2. Many of these guys don’t get paid or if they do it is many months in arrears. “Corruption” is therefore considered a part of the job. You get the job to make a living, you make a living by collecting, and pocketing, fines.

    Which is why you can bargain.

    Get it wrong, and you could be shot which would, of course, be a bummer.


  3. What is required is a travel agencies that pays all these “fees”, in the same way some tickets pay departure and airport taxes, themselves a form of corruption that impacts negatively on tourism.


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