By Faustin L. Kanuma
Picture source: ethicsofisl.ubc.ca
I first came to Burundi in August 2004. I came looking for business opportunities and a new challenge in life. Burundi, then was recovering from a long civil war with the main rebel group having accepted to down their weapons after a cease fire with the government. Not all the rebel factions had ceased to fight however, and Burundi and Bujumbura were not considered safe. But I am not one easily scared of travelling to new places because of the media set narrative that the place you are about to go to is “burning in ethnic chaos”. Nah. Not especially one in my own backyard. I’m Rwandan. Neither do I easily heed fretting relatives’ and friends’ advise not to travel to such places for the obvious reason that by refusing their advise, they would probably kiss me a teary goodbye, thinking that that would be the last they would see me alive again!
A few days later I was in a full mini-bus and on my way to Bujumbura with other jolly passengers. Nothing of incident to note on the way although I was wary because of the fact that a few years back it was common practice for vehicles to be casually and regularly stopped and travellers robbed of their property and money by marauding rebels. In some unfortunate incidents vehicles were torched along with their passengers.
Anyway I quickly settled in in Bujumbura and it was pleasant to note that at night the city did not descend into a shooting range with crazy gun totting fighters ready to tear it down block by block! A few days later I had someone bring my car over from Kigali and I fully blended in after changing the license plates.
Bujumbura then, during the day, because of the security situation tended to have very many police roadblocks and the men in blue seemed to be omnipresent. The driving experience wasn’t great because of the sheer number of police stops you had to make. The policeman would politely ask you for your documents and after briefly scanning them, he would even more politely ask you if you would do something about his burning thirst caused by hours in the burning heat! That was how a bribe was solicited then!
As a personal policy, I never ever hand out bribes and I always go to great lengths to have squeaky clean personal and vehicular papers by me at all times. So these gentlemen might have gone frustrated by my equally friendly reply that times were bad and I would do nothing to alleviate their miserable situations.
One day while driving from Kinindo on Boulevard Mwezi Gisabo (Route Rumonge) to town on pont Muha, I noticed an unusual sizable presence of policemen, right after the tiny bridge was a small heap of stones right in the middle of the road. Traffic was sparce around that time. It was a Saturday afternoon. I shrugged my shoulders and manoeuvered the car around the heap of stones and continued my way. I heard something like a string scraping on the bodywork and snapping! Immediately through the rear view window I saw commotion but I continued driving because I genuinely thought I had done nothing wrong.
Seconds later I saw through the driving mirror a white traffic police motorbike bearing fast on me with sirens wailing. I quickly packed on the side of the road near where the reception hall Crystal Palace is located. A very angry policeman asked me to get out of the car with all my documents. By now I was visibly shaken. Having leafed through the documents and finding no material worthy of prosecution, he asked why I had violated the police roadblock. I immediately, very politely begun by apologising and saying I had no idea it was a roadblock back there and had I known it was, there was no cause for me to violate it since I am a law abiding person. This completely disarmed him and he started calming down. The talk switched to small talk there and then. A few moments later he insinuated he would let me off the hook for a fee that was a fraction of the official fine. I had had a bad day that day and I was not ready to bribe a policeman and I told him to just write me a receipt to which he did in disappointment. He kept the driving permit and car document.
The following Monday found me at the desk of a busy looking front desk sergeant at the police station (police fines then used to be paid at the police station). I explained my presence to him. He got the “amande” receipt from me, glanced at it and pulled out a drawer which was overflowing with documents. He started rummaging through the documents but would constantly be interrupted by his cellular phone and sweat which he would dab away with his handkerchief. A few minutes of this and he motioned a junior officer over.
He instructed him to take the drawer on the side and told me to help the junior officer recover my documents from the heap! By and by I soon identified my documents and I was going to say something in relief when I saw the policeman giving me a strange winking eye. OK, I kept quiet. Then to my amazement, he trousered the documents, stood up, threw his hands in the air in a deafitist gesture and said, “Sir, we’ve failed to find the docs. Maybe they were taken to another precinct or they’ve not yet been handed seeing he committed the offence on a Saturday afternoon! ” WHAT? I was about to bark out but the junior officer gave me the eye that suggested, “chill out bro I got this! “
I was told to come back the following day. I walked out, the policemen followed me and ushered me out of earshot. “Listen, that was a serious, heavily punishable offence you committed there on the road, however seeing that you are new here, I’m willing to let you off the hook. Just give me 20.000 BiF and we call it quits!”
After giving me guarantees that I wouldn’t be in trouble in the future, I grudgingly gave him the cash and he gave me back my documents. And that was it.
What would you have done in my situation?
Faustin currently lives and works in Bujumbura