Abidjan — A heavily built female immigration officer grimaced as she scrutinised my passport, page by page searching for an Ivorian visa.
REPORT BY NDAMU SANDU
“Visa no,” she said attempting some English after I told her that I did not speak French. I handed her an invitation letter, which, I was told, was going to help me secure a visa on arrival at Félix Houphouët-Boigny International Airport.
Unable to read the letter which was written in English, she called a male officer who, after scanning through the two-page letter, told her to stamp my passport.
After stamping my passport, the immigration officer forced a smile and said “bienvenue [welcome to] Abidjan.”
It was indeed a smooth bienvenue for me as I later learnt that other delegates who had come earlier for the March 21-26 joint 6th AU Commission (AUC) and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) meeting of experts and ministers of Finance and Economic Planning had a torrid time at immigration.
Despite brandishing an invitation letter, jointly signed by the AUC chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and ECA executive secretary Carlos Lopes, the immigration officers confiscated their passports, insisting that they had not been informed that some delegates’ visas would be processed at the point of entry. Those affected included delegates from southern and East Africa.
Holders of diplomatic passports were not spared either, as their passports were confiscated only to be released almost a week later, following the intervention of the Ivorian government.
It was a bad advertisement for a country that wants to show the world that it is moving forward following a decade-old civil war and has a vision of becoming an emerging country by 2022.
In his official opening address of the joint meeting, President Alassane Ouattara was on bended knees for his officers’ heavy handedness offering “apologies to anyone of you who might have been inconvenienced while you are here”.
Abidjan is the commercial capital of the West African nation and in 2011 was named as the third largest French speaking city in the world after Paris (France) and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo).
The city would have been heavily congested had it not been for the multi-laned one way roads that made it easier to navigate. Police officers were stationed at almost every intersection to control traffic, especially during peak hours.
Some abandoned buildings are riddled with bullet holes, a stark reminder of the civil war.
Armed soldiers and police officers could be seen patrolling the streets, ostensibly, to ensure that peace prevailed, though there were fears that it portrayed the country as a police state.
A taxi driver usually gives an accurate picture of the country to any visitor. In Abidjan taxis constitute the major mode of transport and are in two categories: yellow and red. Yellow taxis pick and drop passengers at any point, while red ones are hired and carry passengers to their destinations of choice.
Despite the huge role the taxis play in the transport sector, they portray a picture of greedy people capitalising on the language barrier.
French is the language of communication and if one does not speak it, they have to be very good at non-verbal communication symbols, such as gestures and facial expressions among others.
While some French speaking countries are embracing English, the Ivorians love their French.
Ivory Coast belongs to the eight-member West African CFA franc monetary zone alongside Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Niger, Togo, Guinea-Bissau and Mali. The currency of the day is the franc.
A journey that normally costs 1 000 franc (US$2) would be fared at 3 000 franc (US$6).
Asked why he had charged that much, the taxi driver replied “traffic”, referring to the jam that stretched for a kilometre. Even with the traffic jam, taxis always find their way nonetheless.
Taxi drivers will conveniently claim they don’t know your destination, never mind that there is a map with directions and an address of a particular destination.
Or they will ask a security guard about the destination and that officer is paid. The catch is that the payment made to the security guard is factored into the total fare to be paid.
But not all taxi drivers behave that way. Senegalese immigrant, Henri Diallo is different.
“Plateau, far, far deux mille cinq cent céfa [2 500 franc],” he said, gesturing his two fingers on one hand, while holding a 500 franc coin in the other.
The man loves his national team and yearns for the past successes of the Teranga Lions.
“Henri Camara, he is good. El-Hadji Diouf, Ferdinand Coly and Tony Silva all good. Lions of Teranga, good,” he said trying to engage in a conversation notwithstanding the language barrier.
“Henri Camara, aaaah good goal.”
Camara scored the golden goal against Sweden that took Senegal football team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 soccer World Cup, becoming the second African country to attain that feat after Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions at Italia ‘90.
Ghana was to achieve such a feat in South Africa, three years ago.
Abidjan is hot and humid with temperatures hovering around 25°C. Vendors sell cold water sachets to motorists from 6:30am every morning.
Every taxi driver has a towel with which to wipe sweat. Some innovative operators supply passengers with serviettes, as the heat is often unbearable for foreigners.
too many security checks
Félix Houphouët-Boigny International Airport could rank as the best guarded airport in the world, if counting the number of soldiers and police officers is anything to go by.
Leaving the country is also a hassle. Security checks start at the entrance on your way to the check-in desk manned by three police officers.
In the queue, the passport and passenger’s itinerary are checked by at least three airport officers.
One takes pictures of both the passport and itinerary of each and every passenger. After immigration, one goes through security checks three times en route to boarding.