Traveling through West Africa by car (Part 2) – From Senegal over Mali, Ghana, Togo and Benin to Nigeria

I wrote about traveling through West Africa by car in a previous blog post, covering the route from Morocco to Gambia. Since then I made it to Nigeria (without a carnet de passage), in this post I´ll write about what is important to know when traveling further south.

Necessary documents

All documents listed in my earlier post are required except the fiches, since after leaving Senegal the police or gendarmerie will hardly bother anymore to take the details of all passengers. I managed to enter Ghana and Nigeria without a carnet de passage, though there are people in different forums who say that they were asked for it and even others who report that they were not permitted to enter Ghana without having one. I personally think you can cross the complete west coast of Africa without a carnet. How will be explained later on.

The route

Gambia -> Senegal -> Mali

From Banjul you can catch a ferry every hour to Barra and then enter Senegal shortly after. In Senegal they usually wouldn´t let you in if your car is older than 8 years and without having a carnet. Though, if you explain to them that you only need to cross Senegal to enter Mali and that you won´t stay more than 24 hours in their country, they will let you in, sooner or later…
Just have patience and expect that they will first neglect your entrance, act as if your case is finished and care about other people. Just put yourself in the end of the queue again and insist, when it´s your turn again, that you only need to cross Senegal to enter Mali.
You probably need to pay something between CFA 2000 and CFA 7000 to obtain the laissez passer (I saw locals paying CFA 2000). You could try to use the strategies explained here (todo: link) to get around this fee, but considering that is normal to buy the laissez passer and that they already made an exception, why not just pay for it? The route I took was Kaolack -> Tambacounda -> Kidira -> Kayes -> Bafoulabé -> Kita -> Bamako

You can get a visa for Mali at the border near Kidira for CFA 15.000 and the laissez passer for your vehicle for CFA 5000.

Note that it is important to start your journey early in the morning for several reasons:

  • the roads in Senegal and Mali have wide & deep holes and dead cows and bulls, which got hit by a truck, are sometimes lying in the middle of the road. Both, the holes and the cows are even harder to spot in darkness
  • you will see people carrying big things on their heads, driving bicycles or donkey carts on the side of the road. In complete darkness, especially when there are cars going into your opposite direction and blend you with their lights, it is hardly possible to see anything else than the lights of the car on the other lane
  • borders close at a certain hour and if you don´t want to sleep at a police station or in a hotel you need to arrive in time

Mali -> Burkina Faso

A visa for Burkina Faso is not anymore issued at the border but you can get it at the Burkina Faso embassy in Bamako. I applied for it around 9am and could pick it up around 1pm on the same day. A 30 day, single entry visa costs CFA 47.000.

Route: Bamako -> Bougouni -> Sikasso -> Koloko -> Bobo Dioulasso -> Ouagadougou

Crossing the border near Koloko was fairly easy, the only fee to pay is for the laissez passer for CFA 5000.

Burkina Faso -> Ghana

I got my Ghana visa at the Ghana embassy in Ouagadougou. There are reports from other travelers who say their visa application was declined with the reason given that visas are to be obtained in their home country before coming to Africa and are not anymore issued to non-residents.
After filling out the Visa application and paying CFA 20.000 (official fee is CFA 17.000 but everybody waiting in the hall payed 20.000 to “speed up” the process) to the lady at the entrance office I was ordered to see the assistant of the ambassador. He asked me why I had not applied for the Visa in my country, I responded that I couldn´t plan in advance when I am going to be in Ghana. “We are not issuing visas anymore, you should have informed yourself beforehand, please wait outside”. After 1 hours of waiting I got my visa. Note that the official waiting time is 3 days but all people at the embassy got it the same day because of the additional CFA 3000 to “speed up” the process.

Crossing the border at Paga without a Carnet de Passage
This wasn´t easy at all! Several overlanders reported that a carnet de passage is absolutely necessary to enter Ghana. I arrived around 6pm and the border was closed already, I thus slept beside my car and returned to the customs office around 8am the next morning. When the customs officer recognized that my car was from Spain I was asked for my carnet.
As he heard I had none he said I couldn´t enter Ghana by no means and asked me to return to Burkina Faso. I talked to several other people and finally found a solution.

Apparently there is an option to import a foreign car into Ghana with a temporary import bond from the Ghanian state insurance company (the SIC, slogan: “Our promises are sacred”).
The nearest SIC office is located around 40km from Paga, in a town called Bolgatanga. I convinced an officer to let me go to Bolgatanga with my car in order to get the import bond. He issued me a temporary 4 hour access to Ghana. Together with an declare agent I went to Bolga and got the import bond for GH$100, lasting 3 months. My original car papers were held in Bolga, I was given a photocopy and was advised to pick up the original papers when i would leave Ghana. I told them to send the papers to Aflau, the place where I planned to leave Ghana and enter Togo.
With the declare agent I returned to the border in Paga where my agent collected around 8 stamps and signatures and gave a little money to some officials here and there. He demanded GH$100 for me but I managed to get his services for GH$60. The whole process lasted around 7 hours.
My papers were send to Aflau where I picked them up about 4 weeks later.
Note that the Ghanian custom officers were very strict, I doubt that I could have bribed them to give me a laisser passer. It seems to me that getting the temporary import bond or having a carnet is really the only option to enter Ghana with a foreign car.

From Paga my journey took me over Tamale and Kumasi to Accra. About 40 kilometers before Accra the “road” was in terrible condition, I don´t know if there´s another one to take but these 40km took me about 2,5 hours.

Ghana -> Togo

A 7 day visa is issued at the border in Aflao for CFA 10.000. The laissez passer costs CFA 6000.

Togo -> Benin

A 48 hours transit visa is issued at the border in Aného for CFA 10.000. The laissez passer costs CFA 5950.

Benin -> Nigeria

Nigeria Visa: You can get a Nigeria visa in Accra. They ask for a letter of invitation, a statement from an organization that sends you to Nigeria and you have to proof that you are a resident in Ghana for over 6 months. I had none of these requirements. After explaining my mission (crossing Africa from North to South) they told me to bring my carnet, my ecowas insurance and my car papers. Even without the carnet (I told them in all other West African countries I didn´t need one) I got the Visa 24 hours after applying for it for US$100 + US$70 (non-resident fee).

I read several forum posts stating that it is impossible to get into Nigeria without a carnet, it is for sure not easy but here is how I managed it:
At first there was a Benin police lady who tried to make me pay CFA 20.000 for a stamp in my passport which is needed to exit Benin with my car. She said that without that stamp the Nigerian customs wouldn´t let me into Nigeria. This was in fact true, I though managed to find another friendly police man who gave me the stamp for free. The next step was the immigration office (two guys sitting at wooden table).

I was asked the following questions:

  • What is your motive for coming to Nigeria? (Tourism and transit to Cameroon, and listing all the countries I already past)
  • Why didn´t you get the visa in your country? (Cause I came overland and couldn´t plan in advance when I was going to enter Nigeria)
  • Where are you going? (Lagos, I have a friend in Apapa, Point Road)
  • Where are you going afterwards (Benin City then Calabar)
  • Are you a journalist (No)

I then had to fill out a form and take it into an office and was advised to bring “something good” afterwards. In the office next to the wooden table my passport got stamped. After being asked for “something good” I gave them 400 Neira (N) and also left 400N with the guys at the wooden table. I moved on to the place where they issue the laisser passer. There I met a pastor in front of the office and engaged him in a long conversation about my trip, listing all the countries I passed which left him quite surprised. We then talked about the differences in the West African countries and the pastor asked me which country I liked most and which least. I told him that I could have normal relationships with people everywhere except in Ghana because I had the impression that everybody just saw me as a money source. After explaining my charity mission he said something like “I want you to have a good impression about Nigeria, I will talk to the people in the office, wait a minute”. After about 10 minutes he returned and told me to go into the office where they would issue my laisser passer. The office was full of people, with a lady at the desk being the boss. I actively told my whole story about crossing all the West African countries up to Nigeria which also left them very surprised. “You are a brave man”. Another lady past her phone to me, she knew somebody who knew German and wanted me to talk to him. I was then asked for N7000 which was quite OK already, as I was happy to see that I would really mange to get the laisser passer. I then explained my charity mission, telling them how I raised funds for Gambian orphans and that they should consider me and give me the laisser passer for N3000. The boss lady said that she really likes my project and that i should pay the 3000N. With my new laisser passer I wanted to start my trip to Lagos.
Now it got a bit crazy: About every 20 meter there was a stop: Immigration, Anti Drug Squad, Health control, Bomb Squad, etc. Each post blocked the road with some sort of chain and raised it up just when I wanted to pass, while other locals just went through. When being asked if I had something for them I said something like “Yes, a lot of love and a question How do I get to Lagos?”.
I couldn´t get around paying N1000 at an immigration post but that was it.
Two times people blocked the road and pretended to be police men, I then asked for their ID and if they couldn´t provide it I just took off.

Psychological tricks for dealing with the police and border posts

The main strategies about how to deal with local police men are covered in my previous post. I though have some few things to add: From the moment on I entered Ghana the police started to be a little bit more demanding. They usually ask you for your documents until they find any small problem and then ask you for “something good” you have for them. If all your documents are in order they might check you vehicle, trying to find anything which is not right. If everything is right, they might just say “So, what do you have for me?” out of the blue. You can either have some really cheap but exotic present (I had little tea packets from Gambia) and invent it has some special effect (increasing libido etc.) or say that you already paid the something at the last stop.

Human to Human communication and actively leading the interaction

This is by far the best strategy ever, in my opinion for any interactions between people, if you are good at this you can forget all the other strategies.
Quite often when being stopped by the police I did what I call “human to human” communication: Imagine a human being is like an onion with 3 layers. From the inside to the outside these layer would be:

1. Human (here we are all the same)
2. Nationality (German, Nigerian, etc.)
3. Role (police man, tourist, etc.)

When engaging into any interaction with anybody down here, I try to forget about layer 2 and 3 and only act on layer 1, from human being to human being. In this state I am totally centered, totally me and I perceive my communication partner as a human being, not as a police man. This is not a strategy, I do it naturally. If you act from your own center everything just “flows” naturally. Just think the police man is a fellow human being, a friend and treat him accordingly. A typical interaction would then be like this:

Police man gives you a sign to park at the side of the road, you park, police man approaches you, you roll the window down
Police man: “Good evening”
You: “Hey, good evening, how are you? (smiling, shaking his hand or even better doing the rastaman greeting by offering your fist and slightly putting it against his fist, then touching your heart with an open hand)
Police man: “Can I see your papers please?”
You: “Of, of course” (handing your documents to him)
You: “This is the road to xxx, right? You know I was coming from xxx but I want to make sure I am on the right road”
Police man: “Oh yes, you just go straight, always straight. What are you going to do there?”
You: “Oh, you know I came with this car driving overland from Germany to Ghana and…”
Police man: “With this car, are you serious, how did you manage”
You: blablabla

It is very likely that after this he or she will not ask for a bribe. You can use any moment to actively lead the conversation to a different topic. Let´s say he/she asks you to show him the content of your trunk, on the way to the back of the car you can then point out a little dent and tell the story how it happened, asking some questions or simply looking at him just being you, a human being. It will lead to a nice encounter for both of you and make it really hard from him/her to ask for money.

Surprise them and get some respect

Note that from Ghana on policemen are not used to encounter overlanders as they are in Morocco or Gambia. They thus have a lot of respect for people getting so far, especially when you do it in a normal car like mine. Just by naming the countries you crossed and telling some stories about difficulties you had will leave them surprised, making them shake your hand and being really friendly.

Posted by fab on February 26, 2012
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