Last night I was on my way into town to eat sushi and go to a hip hop concert when I got stopped by the police. Traffic stops in Burkina Faso are alarming: there I was, rolling along, when suddenly a guy in military fatigues and a reflective vest jumped into the road 30 feet ahead of me, requiring me to stomp on the brakes with my whole body weight and squeal to a stop right in front of him. Looking at the other motorists blazing past me, it quickly became clear why this was the modus operandi. As soon as the savvy motorcyclists around me noticed the guys in orange vests lurking in the twilight next to the road, they either banged a U-turn or revved their engines and cycled to fifth gear, blazing through the checkpoint and challenging anyone to leap out in front of THEM.
So there I was, heartrate at about a trillion and one, face to face with a policeman as kamikaze moto-men shrieked past me on my left. He told me to turn off my engine and remove my helmet, and then said that I had committed an infraction by riding my motorcycle in the designated motorcycle lane. “This moto is too big, and you need to ride in the road with the cars,” he said, and then asked for my registration papers, which I didn’t have on me. This isn’t as big of a deal as it sounds: more than half of the motorcycles on the road are unregistered, and you don’t need a driver’s license or insurance to ride a motorcycle here. I was sober as a judge, wearing a helmet, had actually slowed down for the traffic stop, was riding a bike with functioning headlights and mirrors, and meanwhile helmetless people on unlighted bikes with no plates were streaking by close enough to clip my rearview mirror. I pointed this out to the officer, but it became clear that this kind of logic wasn’t going to get me far. “We will now impound your bike, and you will have to come to the commissariat tomorrow and pay a fine of 12,000 Francs ($20) to recover it. Failure to appear within 48 hours will mean you forfeit your motorcycle,” he told me, and then paused and said “or, you can pay an incident fine right now, and I’ll let you go with a warning.” Unfortunately he had forgotten his receipt book at home so he wouldn’t be able to document the transaction, but he was willing to take cash, no problem.
I had places to be and was already late to meet a friend, but I don’t like coercion. “No receipt, no fine” I told him, and so he shrugged and wheeled my bike over to the side of the road where about two dozen other motos were lined up, waiting to be loaded onto pickup trucks and driven to a holding lot at the commissariat. Vendors had already set up to sell cakes and cigarettes to the hijacked moto riders, and people milled around eating snacks and chuckling among themselves whenever an overzealous officer got his foot run over by an escapee. Dear reader, I was in a pickle. I didn’t want to pay a bribe, but I also knew that if they took my motorcycle I would have to spend a lot of hours and francs at the commissariat on Saturday to get it back. I weighed my two options, determined that I didn’t like either of them, and decided on Surprise Option C: phone a friend.
I called my coworker Elie, who used to work with the police and knew the district commander for the Patte d’Oie neighborhood, where I had been stopped. I called him up and explained my situation, and he texted me two minutes later with a name and number that I could call. I called the number he sent me, and then found the commanding officer at the traffic stop and handed him the phone, saying “Commander Benoît Kaboré would like a word with you.” The officer talked on the phone for two minutes, then handed my cellphone back to me and walked away without a word. 10 minutes a later a junior officer sidled up to me and asked if I was the one who had Commander Kaboré on the phone earlier. I told him that yes, I had dialed my dear friend Benoît to chat and mentioned my current situation to him. The officer nodded, checked my drivers license for the sake of form, and then told me I could go. I didn’t pay anything, didn’t get a ticket, and spent 45 minutes total at the traffic control. On the way home I passed the same traffic stop, and the commander who had spoken with Commander Kaboré on the phone waved me through.