Thursday 4 July 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Liberia to the Ivory Coast

Dear Viven,

This crossing required a good deal of time, effort, patience and even some courage to get through without paying a bribe or illegitimate 'fee'.  It wasn't our hardest, but in retrospect it may have been the most dangerous.

The information in this letter is accurate at the time we crossed the border on 23 June 2013.  We are one British and one Canadian, driving a 1996 right-hand drive Toyota Hilux Surf from Paris to Tanzania.

Our previous crossing was from Sierra Leone to Liberia, and our next crossing is unknown.


Visas were required in advance.  We visited the Ivorian Embassy on Rue Commerce in Conakry Centre-Ville on Friday 14 June, arriving at 2:15pm.  After waiting for 15 minutes we were summoned into a glowing, happy man’s office.  He insisted on telling and writing for us his name: Santini Saidei, consular assistant.  Santini asked a few questions, switching between French and English, and had us fill out forms at his desk.  He asked for passport photos, Yellow Fever vaccination certificates, passports and money, and said the visas would be ready by Tuesday at 2pm.  After the ten minute interview we waited in the comfortable holding room with couches while he prepared a letter stating that the embassy was in possession of our passports (a necessity for us, as we were traveling quite far from Conakry for the weekend, and faced many greedy, corrupt gendarmes).  The happy man forgot about the letter, so we ended up waiting until 4pm. 

We returned on Tuesday 18 June at 2pm, and received our passports with Ivory Coast visas by 2:30pm.     Santini remembered to retrieve the embassy letter regarding our passports; this was called a laissez-passage, much like the single-country version of the carnet de passages.

Insurance and Carnet
Both Brown Card insurance and one page of our carnet de passages was required to enter the Ivory Coast.  As with Sierra Leone, Liberian officials were typically dumbfounded by our carnet, as apparently very few people do what we are doing here; but this was more of a speedbump than a problem.

French is widely spoken in the Ivory Coast, or more properly Côte d'Ivoire, which is perhaps the most francophile nation in West Africa.  There are about 70 other languages in the country, and English is often understood in the well-established tourist sector.

In the Ivory Coast we returned to the West African franc (CFA), which we last used in Guinea-Bissau. From Guinea-Bissau we carried a large enough chunk to get from the border to Abidjan, where we knew there was ATMs for both Visa and Mastercard, and also exchanged our remaining Liberian dollars (LRD) for CFA at the border, at a rate of LRD 155 = CFA 1,000.  ATMs (Visa and Mastercard) turned out to be widespread outside of Abidjan, with at least two in Man, and more in other cities and towns along the way.

The Route
We drove on some dismal Liberian roads (it would have been better if they weren't paved at all, given the deterioration) from the Liberian capital of Monrovia northeast through Totota to the border crossing at Loguatua, leading to the Ivorian city of Danane.  The roads, though bad, remained passable until the border, but then immediately upon entering the Ivory Coast became difficult dirt (mud) tracks.  Though it is only about 20km from the border to Danane, where the road becomes paved, the route is probably difficult at any time of year, and perhaps impassable during heavy rain.  For the condition and season that we crossed, I would advise against anything but 4x4s or motorcycles.

Only a few kilometers outside of Sanniquellie, a few hours drive before the border, we got our second flat tire of the trip.  Luckily, we were close enough to the town for me to hitch a ride, find a jack, replace both our front tires with the two extras we had strapped to the roof, and get on our way in a few hours.

The Border
We arrived at Loguatua on the Liberian side at 4:30pm, and had to dance around the customs building (to the right of the road) while one officer looked at our carnet de passages and another at our vehicle registration.  Both were holding out for money or bribes, but we outwaited them both and got on our way.  The immigration building (to the left of the road) housed some happy police who chatted with us for a bit, and then said they needed to refer our passports to someone else.  They asked what we thought of Liberia, and we said we were loved how friendly people were, and were pleasantly surprised with how little corruption we came up against, that not a single official had asked us for money or gifts.  As soon as we finished saying this, the two men smiled, agreed that Liberia was great for corruption, and then in all seriousness, asked us for "a gift to remember you by."  It was a very sad moment, and when we did not give anything, they actually looked confused.

The Deputy Commander to whom our passports were referred was a real grump who didn't say a word, but merely looked thoroughly at our pages, gave us stamps, and sent us away.

We crossed the river to the Ivory Coast side, parked at the first checkpoint, got assailed by the half-dozen officials there for gifts and money (back in French West Africa...), and visited on foot the police office for passports and the Douane office for the carnet.  At the police office, one soldier was playing on a MacBook Pro, so we were quick to mention this in order to make him feel stupid if and when he asked for money (he didn't).  We were processed quickly and efficiently, and then let go by 5:30pm.

The whole process from arrival to departure took one hour.

After about ten minutes of driving from the border we arrived at a military checkpoint.  We played the "I-don't-have-time-for-this-game" and hoped to be waved through, but we were summoned from the truck.  The commander eyed us up, while his sunglassed lieutenant tried to intimidate me with a bone-crushing handshake, that I simply returned in kind.  A couple on a motorcycle were passing through, and paid CFA 1,000 each.  When our passport details were entered into their logbook and our documents thoroughly inspected, the short-and-shirt-wearing commander told us to pay.  I asked why.  He asked who I was to ask him why.  I said we only had Liberian dollars.  He snapped his fingers at a scared woman at the military camp who gave us an incorrect rate of change (in our favour) and I got out the LRD 115.  I asked for a receipt.  Everyone laughed.  The commander asked who I was to ask for a receipt.  I ignored this and got a pad of paper, and wrote out the receipt.  I asked for the commander's name.  The commander asked who I was to ask for his name.  I said I could have anyone's name.  Everyone laughed.  The hard-faced lieutenant pointed at his lapels and asked what that meant.  I said military.  He said yes.  I said, does that mean you don't have a name?  Everyone laughed, now nervously.  Someone in the back of the now-gathered crowd said it wasn't 'normal' to ask for a receipt from the military.  The commander was getting pissed off, but we continued to be difficult yet kind and patient (in other words, acting dumb).  He got into my face, and I realised that not only was he about to stop thinking rationally (and thus, of the consequences for, say, arresting/hurting/killing us) but that he was being humiliated, and might need to show his troops who is the big man.  Just as I considered just paying up and getting the hell out of there, he shouted in my face that he didn't want my money.  I said good, closed the notepad with the 'receipt', and got in the truck.  But now he wouldn't lift the barrier.  I said I could just go around it.  He was furious, and ordered his man to raise the gate.  We drove out and didn't look back.  I was nervous about being suddenly chased all the way to Danane.

This encounter took about 20 minutes, and a lot more was said, all in French.  But that's the gist of it.  Maybe I was being too cocky and stupid?  Yes, but at the same time, we have come this far without paying a single bribe, paying a single 'fee' without a receipt, or giving a single 'gift'.  I won't pay the first time without a fight and a damn good reason (such as, I suppose, keeping our lives).

What We Needed

In Conakry
  • €220 (€110 each), paid with CFA 145,000
  • Yellow Fever certificates
  • Passports
  • One passport photo each
  • About 30 minutes
At the border
  • Money: 0 (CFA 2,000 demanded at a military checkpoint)
  • Passports with Ivory Coast visas
  • Carnet de passages
  • Vehicle registration document
  • Brown Card insurance document
  • Drivers' Licence

Yes, I promise to be more careful.  But don't just say to me "it's the African way" - Africans, like the couple on the motorcycle who wouldn't think of not paying the commander / god-in-shorts, deserve better than that.

Happy trails,


Fixing the flat tire
Sound a little American? 
0 km.  I got in trouble for taking this photo 'without permission'.