The police officer pulled over the wrong car. Our vehicle was carrying a reporter with his microphone rolling and Joe’s brother.
Patrick and I were stuck in pretty horrendous, yet typical, Monrovia mid-day traffic. A police officer was walking through the cars stuck in traffic. He spotted us, tapped on our window, and asked Patrick for his papers.
A bit about John Patrick Van Rensburg: He’s a very tall, white South African 20-something with long locks of brown hair. Let’s just say he stands out like a sore thumb in Liberia.
A bit about Joseph Richards: He’s Patrick’s older half-brother, also a South African, and has been doing business in Liberia for seven years – selling diamonds, fixing potholes, and opening a beachside resort. Joe knows a lot of powerful people in Liberia.
When the officer approached our car, Patrick was very friendly, greeting the cop as if they were old friends. (Patrick says they had met a few times before.) But Patrick didn’t give him his license. In fact, he didn’t even acknowledge the request.
After a few minutes with the police officer repeatedly asking Patrick for his license, and Patrick steadfastly ignoring him and making chit-chat, the police officer said he was going to take Patrick down to the station. Or, the officer offered an alternative: Patrick could pay him $20 Liberian dollars, about 30 US cents, and we could go on our way.
Patrick refused to acknowledge any of this was happening.
At this point, I couldn’t figure out what was going on here. I thought: Just give him your license. Or let’s pay the tiny bribe and be on our way. (Being the generous guy I am, I offered to pay the entire bribe myself.) Patrick wouldn’t budge though. He knew the game.
If Patrick handed over his license, the police officer would be in total control of the situation. The officer could walk away with the documents, as cops have a habit of doing in Liberia, and dramatically increase the asking price of the bribe.
On the other hand, if Patrick paid the bribe, Patrick could easily get a reputation as the guy who is willing to pay bribes. Word gets around quick. This cop, and every other cop in town, would be stopping Patrick all the time. (Not like they weren’t already.)
Patrick also knew the cop had no real authority to do anything. Patrick wasn’t breaking any laws when the cop asked to see his license. There’s no real system for writing tickets in Liberia. And the cop wasn’t going to throw Patrick in jail.
So, the three of us waited.
After about 10 minutes with the cop standing in the street beside our stopped car, he actually got inside and sat with us.
How long would the cop detain us before he got what he wanted? Would Patrick lose his patience and pay the fine?
Then the game began to shift in our favor. After about a minute in the car, the cop noticed my microphone and recorder. He asked, “What’s this?” Patrick quickly blurted out (in Liberian English), “The man a reporter for BBC. He going to report on Liberia now like this. You must make a good picture of Liberia, not like this.” Strike one against the cop
Now the cop was in a tough spot: He’d been caught on tape asking for a bribe. Patrick sensed his advantage and pressed the cop: Why had he pulled over only OUR car? The cop tersely replied, “I don’t discriminate,” then invoked his right not to incriminate himself by putting his finger over his mouth, refusing to talk. (This was a new one to me, seeing a cop refuse to talk.)
Next, Patrick started to lose his patience. We’d been detained about 15 minutes. Patrick got out his cell phone and dialed up his big brother, Joe. Strike two.
After a few seconds with Patrick on the phone to Joe, the cop broke his silence: We could go. Patrick refused. We were now in total control. The cop was on tape asking for a bribe, and perhaps worse, he was about to endure the wrath of Joe.
Then Patrick blew his top. He started yelling at the cop, “Shameful. Shameful. Shameful,” and demanded that the cop get out of his car.
The cop got out of the car very quickly.
Then, Joe arrived. Nobody messes with Joe. (There are a lot of Joe stories in Liberia. Click here for my favorite…) Joe stormed over to the cop, and began cussing like you wouldn’t believe. Within 10, maybe 15, seconds, the police officer walked over to our car and began apologizing for the confusion. Before he could finish his sentence, Patrick slammed on the accelerator and peeled off.
OK, an interesting tale. But what conclusions can be drawn from the incident? I drew three.
First, police officers have very limited power in Liberia.
Second, many police officers are corrupt.
Third, it’s hard to blame them for their corruption.
To point number three… Police officers make a small salary in Liberia, about $80 a month. They take bribes to take home a little extra pocket money to put more food on the table. They’re not getting rich by doing this.
And it’s not just the cops taking bribes. Corruption is endemic in Liberia. The mentality of taking what you can get, when you can get it, goes back to former Liberian warlord turned president Charles Taylor. Taylor paid his soldiers the same way the Caribbean pirates of old were paid: Your salary was whatever you could plunder. That mentality – take what you can get – still exists, to a certain degree, in Liberia.
The day I spent with Patrick, we drove close to three hours on the road together passing through many checkpoints, which basically serve no purpose other than for cops to put up a rope, stop your car, and demand a bribe. The cops seemed to let the cars freely pass, but when the tall foreign man with flowing hair approached the checkpoint, we got pulled over every single time. The game was exhausting. (Let’s also be fair to Liberia, there are many countries where bribery is a way of life.)
Despite Patrick and Joe’s anger, and embarrassment, over the bribery incident, they said they did feel some compassion for the cop. What would they do if they were in his shoes? They agreed: probably the same thing.
(Photos: Jason Margolis)