It’d been several months since I’ve been whistled down by policemen here in Abidjan but on my first night out in the city in 2012 there did seem to be a good number of police out after hours. After cutting across a junction in a way that probably made a sleek Cadillac with the registration plate ‘Alpha Blondy’ stop sharply, I was whistled over by a couple of policemen. In former times, I would have greeted this situation with apprehension, but it was actually reassuring. Things went without incident and we shared a joke about my French and my English. I think there are three main things that influence how things go when you’re signalled to stop.
Firstly, you need to have your documents in order – a local driving licence being the key thing. I find it extremely rare to have anyone ask for ID papers nowadays, something that used to be really common and opened up all sorts of avenues for difficulties. With a vehicle check you just need to have your insurance, car papers and driving licence. I’ve known ex-pats who used to fume about roadblocks but never had any of the right papers.
Secondly, I think there’s the way you handle discussions with the police officer. Everyone has their technique – some speak to them from the start as some bribe-demanding village idiot. I prefer to keep things respectful (“bonsoir chef”), be quick to smile and parry away things with a smile and a joke.
Thirdly, is obviously the general roadblock culture, which I’ve really seen change quite sharply in the past few years. Things have improved under the new government, but it would be unfair not to say that this also follows a trend that we saw in the final years of Gbagbo’s presidency as well. All my experiences in the last six months have been almost entirely professional, respectful and sometimes even enjoyable (I don’t include in this of course the civilian roadblocks in Abidjan during the crisis when youths scraped their machetes menacingly on the road in front of the car, but that’s a different matter).
This trend can only be a good thing. I think there’s nothing that scares non-Africans (and almost certainly Africans as well, though they may be more used to it) more than a few roadblocks around the city, which leave many new-arrivals frequently re-imagining scenes from Hotel Rwanda.