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Roadblocks Magnets for Corrupt Activity in Ivory Coast - 2003-10-17

In the southern commercial capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, road checkpoints set up by police and the military are multiplying. The official reason for them is stepped-up security, but the roadblocks serve as little more than collection points for corrupt police.

The roadblocks first went up a year ago to serve as security points on the main roads in and out of Abidjan. French peacekeepers positioned themselves along a line of partition between the rebel-held north and the government-run south before the signing of the peace agreement in January.

But the roadblocks remained, and new ones have been added inside and outside the city.

An armed policeman stops a driver on a road leading east out of Abidjan. There is no rebel activity in this region, and never has been. Still the roadblocks, usually made of piled-up tires, stop motorists every few kilometers.

The policeman asks for the car's title, registration papers and a driver's license.

The policeman asks the driver to get out of the car. This is when the extortion process begins. The policeman will find something wrong with the car or he will say some paper is missing or is incomplete.

He will ask for the equivalent of between $10 and $20 to return the papers. That's more than a day's wages for most Ivorians. To avoid paying anything, the negotiation process can be very lengthy.

In recent weeks, following the rebels' decision to suspend their participation in a power sharing government, the number of roadblocks in Abidjan has gone up exponentially.

All divisions within the police and army set up both official-looking and informal roadblocks at all hours of the day. They whistle to stop cars and buses, posing aggressively with guns, rifles, even rocket launchers.

At night, they ask for beer. Policemen and army officers, approached at several barricades, refuse to comment on their activities or have their picture taken.

At the Adjame train station in a busy market area of Abidjan, passengers pile into a communal bus, known as a Bgaka.

Bgakas are often targeted at roadblocks because they transport mainly immigrants and northern Ivorians, who are often poorer than southerners. Some northerners don't always have the necessary identification papers and they are often hassled, making it difficult for them to commute to work.

They say some of their friends or colleagues who weren't able to pay at roadblocks were taken to police stations and were never seen again in Abidjan.

Often these immigrants and northern Ivorians say they have resorted to sleeping next to their workplace during the week to avoid paying extortion fees. But they usually end up paying on their day off, because the roadblocks are up day and night, seven days a week.

Ivory Coast's new Security Minister Martin Bleou has said repeatedly the government is cracking down on what it calls "police racketeering." The government has even set up a special anti-corruption unit to limit extortion, but there aren't enough honest cops to enforce its policies. Mr. Bleou was unavailable for comment and no one at his ministry would speak to VOA.

Olga Didia, who is from the south, said the government should do more to dismantle the barriers.

"We can't complain too much. It's because of the conflict going on that they set up all these barricades. But authorities should still try and limit the roadblocks. If someone's sick and if they have to quickly get care they will lose a lot of time with all the checkpoints. They should have the checkpoints at the main arteries but not everywhere in the city where it gets to be a big inconvenience," he said.

But driver Doumbia Abdoulaye said he's figured a way to cut deals with police, so his minibus isn't stopped at certain roadblocks. He won't give details on how this works, but he said now he doesn't mind the checkpoints as much as he used to.

He said that at one checkpoint on the main road going north out of downtown Abidjan, he never gets stopped anymore. He said it's more the small checkpoints that bother him. He said most bus drivers and police have an understanding.

It's not just the roadblocks anymore where extortion is thriving. A Lebanese merchant, Mohammed, who refuses to give his last name, sells plastic household goods at his shop in Adjame.

He plays Lebanese music in his shop to get through the day. Mohammed, who also refuses to speak on tape, said policemen are now coming into his shop every day to ask for money.

He said he can see them driving around in new fancy cars. Once when he refused to pay, he said, a policeman asked him to take his shirt off. He says he refused and asked the policeman to take off his pants.

The police have their own explanation. Although none of them would speak on microphone, several told VOA there is unequal pay among different police units, and some officers get paid so little, they have to supplement their income at the roadblocks.