Senegal Part 1: The Border Mafia

The border crossing between Mauritania and Senegal is supposedly the worst in West Africa. I have heard Rosso, the main border described by travellers as as ‘the armpit of the world.’ Famously difficult and corrupt it is reportedly impossible to navigate without paying a ‘fixer.’ For this reason we decided to opt for crossing the harder to reach, but hopefully calmer Diama border. 

Getting to the border was an adventure in itself. It took us the best part of 6 hours to cover 300km. The road from Nouakchott is under construction and therefore for the most part we were on diversion along a sandy piste. The frustrating thing is that much of the road is finished but still cordoned off, so as we were negotiating the deep sand we could see the perfect tarmac road just a few meters away. The landscape in this part of Mauritania is more monotonous and not as beautiful as before, it also is much more inhabited, on the way we passed numerous small villages. As we reached the fork in the road (one road goes to Diama the other to Rosso) we were chased by a guy in a car who waved frantically for us to pull over. He insisted that we must follow him and buy a Carte Brun (third party insurance which covers several West African countries) and became quite angry when we refused, telling us that we must have insurance and could not buy it at the border. As a rule of thumb I find that the more eager someone is to sell you something, the more wary you should be about buying it and in the end we just drove off. It was a good decision, as we later heard that these guys often scam unwitting overlanders into paying 10 times the going rate for insurance. 

As we drew nearer to Senegal, the sand turned to an earthy orange colour and we started to see trees, a sure sign that the Sahara was petering out. Around 50km from the Diama border we suddenly came upon marshlands, after weeks of driving through the desert I was immensely excited to see greenery again. The road to Diama takes you right though the Diawling national park. I say road, but it is really a muddy and corrugated track.  It was a fun (if bumpy) drive and apart from one passing bush taxi, we had the entire place to ourselves. We spotted flamingoes and pelicans, as well as many other birds I wish I was able to identify. We also surprised a family of warthogs and their 6 tiny piglets. Just before the border we saw our first Baobab tree, more than any border, this felt like the sign that we were leaving the Sahara behind us and entering West Africa.

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After such an adventurous drive it was a bit of a surprise to see anyone at the border, but you could definitely not describe Diama as hectic. On the Mauritanian side we went first to get our exit stamps in our passport and the officer asked us for a 10 euro ‘administrative fee.’ We had been warned to expect this, but were still surprised by such blatant corruption. I politely explained in my best french that I didn’t think this was correct as I had travelled to many countries and had never paid a fee for an exit stamp. The immigration officer said nothing and we waited. Two minutes passed in silence and then he stamped our passports, smiled broadly and announced that we could leave. Our next visit was to the customs officer who also asked us for 10 euros for the exit stamp on our passavant (a temporary import paper for the bike). He was not nearly as cheerful. When after less than 5 minutes it became clear we were not going to pay, he threw the papers down on the desk and gestured infuriately for us to get out of his office, but not before he had given us the required stamp. At the time I wondered why the officers bother, surely nobody actually pays these ‘fees.’ Over the past few weeks however, I have met numerous people who paid, most of them knew or suspected it was corruption but were in a hurry or just couldn’t be bothered with the hassle. It is frustrating because by saving themselves less 10 minutes, they guarantee that officers will keep trying with he next person.  

As we approached the Senegalese border, we saw a familiar looking Africa Twin. It was our friend Chi, from Dakha. He had crossed earlier in the day but had come back for his friends, a Dutch guy called Jim and a Czech guy called Jan, who were stuck at the border. Jim and Jan were both driving cars which were over 8 years old and did not have a Carnet De Passage (a temporary import document) and as a result they had been told that they had to pay 250 euros each. Whilst this was a lot of money, it was not as bad as other tourists we have heard of who paid 1200 euros when crossing at Rosso.  Unpicking what these fees are for and who the money goes to is a difficult task. Unsurprisingly no one at the border could point to anything in writing. Apparently there is a statement on the Senegalese customs website which says you must only pay the fees if seeking to permanently import the vehicle (a much more logical rule, which would exclude anyone on a tourist visa from paying) but all attempts to explain this fell on deaf ears. The particularly obtuse official Jan and Jim had the bad luck of dealing with told them ‘I am here to provide information, not to receive it.’ From what we gathered, most of the 250 euros goes to a private company, a kind of ‘border mafia’ who run both the Diama and Rosso borders and who, with the help of government officials are using this ‘rule’ to extort money from tourists. Clearly if it was a genuine rule, it would apply no matter what border you entered Senegal from and overlanders have been able to cross from Guinea Bissau, Mali and The Gambia without issue. As we arrived Jim and Jan were settling in for the night. They had plenty of supplies and had decided that they were going to try and wait it out. They figured if they stayed at the border long enough eventually they would be let through. 

We were expecting the worst, but in the end things on the Senegalese side went quite smoothly. Our visas were issued within a few minutes and without any requests for payment. We had a Carnet de Passage and so it should have been a simple case of getting this stamped to show entry, without any need to pay a fee, however the border official told us that they did not have the authority to stamp a Carnet. Instead he issued us with a 5 day Passavant and told us we could get the Carnet stamped at the customs office in Dakar. We tried for a while to argue this, but since the Passavant only cost 2500 CFA (approximately £3) and we were given a receipt, we weren’t too worried. 

Jim and Jan heroically stuck it out for 6 days at the border. Every so often we would hear reports from other travellers who had met them there. Numerous calls to their embassies and a visit to the border ‘chief’ in St Louis later, the price was dropped without any explanation to 150 euros. 

 

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