Kotoka International Airport, Ghana’s only international airport, is getting a facelift and it’s beginning to show. From the new “visa on arrival” desk to the expanded arrivals immigration hall and luggage pickup carousels, the much-needed renovation project, which apparently started in 2014, is helping ease some of the congestion travelers experience through the port of entry. As they say however, beauty is only skin-deep. What about the other, more arduous surgery? The one that expunges memories of power plays and solicitation by airport officials and staff, saves the country millions of dollars, and securely establishes Ghana as the gateway to West Africa it claims to be? When does that work begin?
Stepping off the plane around 8:30pm on June 16, 2016, I was tired, but happy to be home. After days of dreary, cold weather in Germany, I didn’t mind that I had walked right into a travel guide or blog post: the balmy, hot Ghanaian air rushing to envelope itself around me while the unmistakable hint of salt danced about. As myself and the other passengers were transported by bus from the aircraft to the arrivals door, I caught a glimpse of bright lights in the distance: the very lights guiding workers through the night as they worked on constructing the new airport terminal. Terminal 3.
Only moments earlier, a KLM crew member had announced over loudspeaker, “Photos and videos on the airport premises are prohibited”. This is a first, I thought to myself, before shrugging it off. Maybe they want to keep things under wraps until the official unveiling, I reckoned – to offer a pleasant surprise to those who have yet to see the renovations.
Having already filled my arrival form, it took me five minutes to get through passport control and make my way over to the carousel. It would take another 30 minutes before my suitcase came into view. While waiting, I checked the Uber app periodically to see whether there were any cars in the vicinity. I finally found one as I placed my luggage on the airport stroller and headed towards the exit: it was five minutes away. After putting in my request, I continued towards customs control, bracing myself for the usual questions: “What did you bring me?” “Where and why did you travel?” “What’s in your bag?” Nothing. Not a single question. Well, that’s different, I thought to myself. Different, but welcome. After 14 hours of total travel time on subway, train and airplane, I was tired and looking forward to taking a shower and going straight to bed. The clock said 9pm, but my body knew better: it was 11pm. Jet lag had me running two hours ahead of time.
“Madam, taxi?” “Let me help you. Where are you going?”
I declined the offers from the blue-clad airport taxi drivers and called Eric, the Uber driver who told me he was nearby and would arrive soon. Since I was already outside, I asked him to meet me at the taxi stop opposite the arrivals hall. A few minutes later, he called to inquire about my exact location; I told him to look out for a woman in a black top and jeans with a purple suitcase. Soon enough, a car with the number plate details listed on the Uber app came into view. I waved at Eric and he slowed down. He barely came to a stop before a man in uniform appeared – out of nowhere – with a yellow clamp, which he quickly fastened to the rear tyre of Eric’s car.
“Excuse me, what’s going on?” I asked the officer.
He ignored me, turning his attention to Eric who had gotten out and was walking over. I watched as Eric explained how he had literally just arrived at the airport and that he had come over because I called and asked him to.
“You’re not supposed to park here,” the officer cut in.
“Since when?” I interjected. “I’ve traveled many times this year – the most recent being in late May – and nobody ever told me not to get picked up here. I usually get a taxi here. When did that change? Was it announced? And if that’s the case, what about all these other cars dropping off and picking up passengers along the curb?”
I gestured to a taxi and parked private cars in the distance. He ignored me again. Eric motioned to me to wait and walked off to talk to the officer. By this time, I was frustrated because I knew what was about to happen: the driver would offer to pay a small amount to the officer in exchange for removing the clamp. I wanted no part of it, and although I wasn’t within earshot, knowing what was about to happen was enough to make me feel complicit. Corruption, the very thing wrecking our society to shreds had reared his ugly head at the airport, welcoming travelers to its bastion of power: Accra city, the capital of our so-called democracy par excellence.
While I have been propositioned numerous times to pay a bribe, I have only ever paid it once, albeit somewhat unknowingly. It was my first and last time, and coincidentally, at this same Kotoka International Airport. The main difference between the 2005 incident and what happened that June 2016 night was the fact that the first was inside the departure terminal while the other was outside with the so-called parking attendants and traffic control officers.
The corruption in #Ghana is so bad, it greets you at Kotoka International Airport. Yet we think we’ve got “Gateway to West Africa” down pat.
— #AskJemila (@jabdulai) June 16, 2016
I still remember the shame I felt after I paid that bribe in 2005. It was my first time traveling outside Ghana alone. I was on my way to college, both excited and scared. While waiting in line to check-in, an airport staff member informed me that one of my bags was over the 23kg weight limit.
“But that’s not possible,” I responded. “I weighed both my bags at home before leaving and it was under the limit.”
The officer simply replied that it was the airport’s weighing scale that counted. My mother suggested I remove some of my things for her to take home, which I did, somewhat reluctantly. We weighed the bag again. Lo and behold, the weight was still the same.
“Sister, your bag is overweight,” the officer said again with a straight face.
I just looked at him, confused. I needed to check-in soon or else I would miss my flight. “What’s the problem here?” a voice behind me said. Turning I saw another person in uniform. “He’s saying my bag is overweight even though it was under the weight limit when I checked it at home,” I responded.
“But this one is easy oh. We use the airport’s weighing scale so that’s what is official. If you go to the counter you will pay like $100 because it is overweight. When is your flight? Don’t you have to check-in soon? Let me help you. Do you have X cedis?”
Looking at my watch, I nodded absentmindedly, then reached into my bag for my purse. Give it to me, he said. I hand it over. He walked over to the weight checker and whispered something to him. A few minutes later, I was waved through to the line. “Have a safe flight madam,” the weight checker said, a cheeky smile on his face. It was then that I realized I had just paid a bribe.
At the check-in counter the agent asked me to put my suitcase on the carousel. Immediately a red light lit up with the numbers 19kg. I would find out later that the airport weighing machines are sometimes tampered with to add extra weight.
I not only felt cheated, I felt like a cheat. Since then, I vowed never to pay a bribe. And yet here I was again 11 years later, possibly an unwilling accomplice in a bribery scheme at the same darned airport.
My reverie was broken when I heard some shouting. One of the airport control officers had flung open the door of a car that had apparently stopped in the “no parking zone” and the car was speeding away. He hit the back of the car and the open door almost crashed into the Uber driver’s vehicle. Eric shouted in frustration: “You see what you are doing? Are you trying to dent my car?” I walk over to the duo who had been joined by two other officers. Another officer would do similar a few moments later, almost hitting a woman crossing the street.
“Excuse me, what’s your name, officer?”
“My name?” he responds.
“Yes, your name. I like to know who I’m speaking with.”
“Oh, his name is Joseph Owusu,” one of the other officers chimed in. “And mine is Doctor. K. Oduro.” His colleagues burst into laughter shouting “Doctor, doctor!”
Ignoring them, I addressed Owusu, and asked again what the situation was. He responded that we have to pay a fine of 100GHS (approx. $25). When I asked why, he pointed to some signs. Until then, I hadn’t seen them. As it turns out, there was a truck of sorts on the pavement with personnel wearing similar uniforms. Unless you were in the middle of the road, you couldn’t see the signs. I explained to the officer that I’m a frequent traveler and this was the first time I was hearing of this policy (or even seeing the signs, quite honestly). I inquired again when the policy was implemented. He ignored my question, walked over to the front of the car, issued a ticket and placed a paper on the bonnet.
Annoyed, I followed it up with a string of other questions: Did you announce the new policy? Do people know about it? How come there is no signage that says there is a penalty for parking here? How come these cars have been parked here for over 30 minutes now and many others have just come and gone with no word from you? I saw one of your men chasing down a car with a clamp in hand. Chasing down a car – is that how you handle the situation? What exactly is your system here? I don’t have 100GHS on me – and how do I know that the 100GHS you mention is the official fee? Do you have any documentation to support this?
Another, younger, official chimed in: “Herh sister. You have to pay the fine. If you don’t pay it we will bring a tow truck and you will pay another fine – a much bigger one.”
“I don’t have a problem paying a fine if it is legit,” I retorted. “But I am really curious because this is the first I am hearing of this policy and I would like to be better informed so I avoid any future fines.”
Eric, the driver had been silent this whole while, visibly shaken. Turning to him, I asked him if he had a direct number for Uber, which he unfortunately didn’t. He decided to call another driver who might. We waited. The young officer shouted again, telling Eric to move his feet away from the car tyre, because “it’s an offense” and he would be “fined again”.
Until this moment I hadn’t thought about recording the episode. The sheer arrogance of the officer compelled me to do so. I took out my phone, opened Snap Chat and begun recording. Over this time period, about six cars (taxis especially) parked in the supposed no-parking zone with no questions asked. In one instance, an officer walked over to the car and came back tucking something into the pocket of his shirt. Remember the two cars which were parked for over 30 minutes? Their owners returned, an officer walked over to them, and within a minute or so they sped off. I didn’t see the officers writing them an invoice.
“Did you see that Eric? They are taking bribes,” I said. Hearing that, the younger officer walked up to me, his finger in my face, “You think you can come from wherever you came from and just try to change things? Respect yourself.”
“Don’t put your finger in my face. And as far as I can see, I’m not the one in uniform. You’re the one acting unprofessionally.” By this time I was very annoyed, not so much at the so-called fine, but rather at the clear bias, bribery and corruption. The officer walked off, still muttering.
“That’s what they have been doing, these officers,” a young man who had been in the vicinity the entire time said. “They are just taking advantage of people. It’s not nice.”
I looked at the time on my phone. It was past 10pm. I’d been out of the airport for at least 45 minutes. Eric found the number he was looking for but after a few tries and no pickup it was clear we had a decision to make. We each had 50GHS, so decided to find the officer and pay the fine. “Make sure you get a receipt,” I told Eric as he walked off. Soon enough there was another commotion. I walked over, only to find out that the invoice they left on the car was a copy, not the original.
“Where is the original,” we asked Officer James Adjetey (the name on his uniform).
“It’s torn,” he responded. “We didn’t want to give you the torn one so we gave you the copy.” We asked for a new invoice, but he told us he couldn’t write another. How convenient.
After some back and forth, Eric decided to take the original, torn version and inquired about where we could make the payment. The officer motioned into the distance and Eric asked him to remove the clamp and get into the car so we drive over.
“No, we can’t do that,” he said. Eric and I look at each other confused.
“You can take a taxi and go over there to pay and you will get a receipt – or you can pay to us here and we will remove the clamp and you go. That’s easier,” the officer added.
I stopped Eric as he was about to give the officer the money. “Do you have a receipt?” I asked the officer. He responded in the negative. “Who will pay for the taxi ride to the office?” He told us we wouldn’t have to pay.
In the end, Eric went with him to the office, paid the fine, and got a receipt, while I watched the car and my luggage. Eric would later confirm that the taxi driver was not paid. I guess that explains why some taxi offenders were left to go scott free.
All that said, I can’t say I’m too surprised by the incident. There was a similar incident last year at Abidjan’s Houphouet-Boigny International Airport, also late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, targeting travelers who were clearly tired. Then, as now, the officers were evasive in answering questions, so I asked for a supervisor and told him he could send the invoice to my employer since I was on official business. In this recent episode, it was evident all four or so Kotoka International Airport officials were somehow complicit and backing one another up. I wouldn’t even be surprised if those at the ‘office’ were accomplices too.
I’d told the officers I would be writing about their so-called “new policy”, so here we are. I had hoped to get some insights from the airport management directly, but my leads so far have led me nowhere. I did however speak to blogger and satirist Efo Dela who worked with one of the companies based in the airport for four years. He not only confirmed my suspicions about the conveniently parked truck being a distraction and ploy to get you in “their trap”, but also admitted there’s no real fine system. In his words:
@jabdulai nope. From what i remember the park attendants just randomly pull numbers out of their heads or they tow the car away
— Efo Dela (@Amegaxi) June 17, 2016
Now, you might be wondering why we didn’t just pay the fine immediately. It’s simple: there were too many unknowns, too much inconsistency, too many unanswered questions. From the selective choice of ‘offenders’ to the fact that none of the officers seemed to know about the so-called new policy. From the vehicle conveniently blocking the signage, to their unprofessional and erratic approach which put public safety in danger. And let’s not forget the torn invoice and their reluctance to let us go to the office to make an official payment for a receipt. All of it.
Small pay or otherwise, it’s the murkiness of our so-called systems that make bribery and corruption easy. The same reason why our President will falter during a BBC interview when asked whether he has ever taken a bribe, only for allegations to crop up weeks later of him receiving a “gift” as Vice-President. The same reason why many would rather criticize Manasseh Azure Awuni for delving deeper into the so-called “bribe” rather than ask for evidence to the contrary. The very reason why all our responses to purported instances of corruption have been contrary to what happens in many other countries.
I can only hope that this article offers some insights to other travelers on being vigilant once they arrive at Kotoka International Airport, because unfortunately the facelift is a ruse. We are still rotten to the core. But in the event that it does reach anyone who cares or is responsible enough to actually make some much-needed changes, here are some suggestions:
Make the policies clear: Is there a fine or isn’t there a fine? Does it apply to someone who waits for 30+ minutes or for anyone who so much as ventures towards a curb? Make the policies clear so we all know what to expect. Better still, improve the current website by including a section on announcements and airport policies.
(Stop blocking the) Signage: At any sane airport there is signage to guide people, particularly since most of the people there are likely to be strangers – travelers passing through or first-timers visiting the country. There is no way you can expect each of these people to know the rules and regulations in a country unless you tell them. Create signs that clearly indicate areas where people can or cannot be picked up or dropped off – and don’t block them with official cars. Some suggested wording “No stopping at any time,” “Drop off and pickup only. Maximum wait time 3 minutes,” “No parking. Penalty of 50GHS and possibly towing,” and so on.
Announce any new policies: When I was transiting in Rwanda a few weeks ago, the airline crew made the following announcement: “Passengers disembarking in Kigali should note that Rwanda has instituted a new policy regarding polythene bags. Polythene bags are banned and will be confiscated at border control. Please hand over your polythene bags before entering the country. Failure to do so will result in a fine and possible jail time.” After that who will dare say they didn’t know? It’s also important to announce via radio, TV, newspaper, and – whenever management does set up those channels – social media.
Announce the fine amounts: Many public officials take advantage of passengers (and potential investors or tourists) when the details concerning fine amounts are not clear. Any public entity truly committed to managing or reducing corruption will stipulate what the fines are for various offenses. And if that’s not spelt out, well, as they say, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.
Teach professionalism, customer service: As one Twitter follower shared, a friend of his was subjected to a similar incident at the airport and was left quite frazzled and disappointed. This was a first time visitor to Ghana – someone who could have been a repeat visitor, an investor, and/or advocate for tourism in Ghana – and this was his first impression of the so-called ‘Gateway to Africa’. And you know what they say about first impressions.
For travelers who encounter corrupt officials, here are some ideas for dealing and reducing the risk of having to pay for a bribe:
Ask questions: If nothing at all, it will unnerve them and it will give you insights which you can use to prevent falling into their trap another time. Did I mention it will unnerve them?
Ask for or take down names: Joseph Owusu, Dr. K. Oduro and James Adjetey were a bit uncomfortable when I asked for their names. And while it may seem far-fetched, should the opportunity ever arise to have them take responsibility for their irresponsibility, I will not hesitate in offering up their names.
Make sure you have a paper trail: If the system is as corrupt or deep seated as it is in Ghana, it probably won’t help much. But by going through “official” channels and leaving a paper trail you reduce the chances of them absconding.
Record or film the incident: The younger officer was clearly uncomfortable with me holding my phone. It might not guarantee threat of punishment, but knowing that the incident is being recorded could sway the balance from low threat of punishment to a higher threat of punishment. At the end of the day, corruption and bribery is a cost-benefit analysis. The higher the benefit of engaging in the act (or the lower the threat of punishment), the more likely one is to engage in bribery and corruption.
We can throw on as much paint as we like and introduce the newest technology into the airport building (and by extension, the country), but until we take a serious look at curbing corruption and improving the professionalism of airport staff to ensure that unsuspecting travelers are not duped or taken advantage of upon entry, the best we can claim to be is the “Gateway to a bed of corruption”.
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Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.