Travelling around the African continent during COVID times has its own challenges – PCR tests, wearing masks all the time, manoeuvring around lockdown measures of countries, or walking the thin line through airport traffic and restaurants in countries where masks are not enforced.My trip to the headquarters of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in Libreville, Gabon, was no different. The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) may be headquartered in South Africa where we are at level three lockdown, but we just can’t avoid missions to our national offices or partner institutions, as most of them are still operating close to normal. I had to make my way to Libreville to avoid another postponement of our long overdue engagement with this important Regional Economic Community.Libreville is one of the unforgettable cities on the continent, thanks to its sophisticated urban landscape and location along the edges of the Atlantic Ocean with its enticing waves. But getting there became an unexpected adventure; and exiting was like the proverbial journey around the globe.Gabon is very resolute in its response to COVID. All arriving passengers are subjected to PCR test at the airport even if you did yours at your point of of departure. Furthermore, all international airlines are limited to a maximum of two flights a week. The result however is that flights in and out of Libreville are very scarce, and full when available.
Reaching Libreville under these conditions is a mountain to climb. The road is not recommended by nationals. Still, I forced my way, insisting that we should proceed to ECCAS. When we checked in at OR Tambo airport, the Rwanda airline staff were reluctant to let us through since we did not have a confirmed connection to our final destination. We reached a compromise to be checked in to Doula, the industrial hub of Cameroon.
I consider Doula my home ground, having been to this city many times – with friends, during my days as an academic, and for work. It was there where I had a rare, memorable encounter with the late Brenda Fasi when she was in Cameroon to perform. I was lucky to be on the same flight with her as she landed to a thunderous reception, by a crowd playing her Vulindlela, full blast, from speakers carried on top of a car that led the town-bound procession. We were both headed to the same destination, Yaounde, and even stayed at the same home, the Hilton. The last time I saw her was on our return flight to home from Doula. I remember her being so furious, speaking to my face, telling me how her instruments were stolen by her hosts.
So, I knew, in Doula, we’ll have to push, to hassle to find a connecting flight to Libreville. We found a partner in another hassler eager to make a quick buck from stranded foreigners. He got us into a VIP lounge for a small fee. Next, we were in a cab, as he accompanied us to Afrijet offices in town where we were lucky to get our three seats. This airport is full of vultures who will give you a low exchange rate for local currency if you don’t know your way around here.
Our efforts as makeshift hasslers were well rewarded. When this small Afrijet aircraft landed in Libreville after a short, 40-minute flight, we were among its fortunate passengers. We were relieved, but just exhausted from all that hassling between the morning when our flight from Kigali landed, to the early evening when we arrived in Libreville. The warm, airport reception from colleagues from our AU office in Libreville, turned the troubles we have just had into just a mere adventure to the African tropics. Our meeting with ECCAS was a cherry on the top.
Our next destination was Chad for an event organised by our national office in the capital, Ndjamena. Chad and Gabon are neighbours, and the distance between their capital cities is just over 2000km.
We had been toying around the idea of exploring ground transport as an option to head back to Doula where flight connections were less of a challenge compared to Libreville. By air, it takes only 40 minutes to make this trip. But the road is a different story. Gabonese colleagues in our office discouraged us. My friends in Cameroon warned us that the road trip could take hours, perhaps even ten hours or so. Flight options to next door, Chad, were not just pricey, but were also taking us through Paris.
We got emboldened when our ECCAS hosts told us that they do use the road occasionally. They even helped us secure a shuttle service to take us to the Gabon border, to cross into Cameroon.
Our plan was to hit the road the following day, first thing in the morning. We had some paperwork still to navigate – a government permit we will need to be allowed across the border during lockdown. The combined efforts of our AU and ECCAS colleagues quickly secured us this paper.
Myself, I had another problem which I had forgotten. Travelling on South African diplomatic passport has one disadvantage. You can find yourself in the crossfire of reciprocal retaliation by African countries against the hard immigration barriers of my country. All South Africans are required to have a visa to enter Cameroon. Being the afternoon before my departure, I did not have enough time to get this visa. Our office moved into action; I also called around for advice. My colleague in Cameroon, rightly so, referred me to the South African embassy either in Libreville or Yaounde. I called the former and encountered an embassy reception officer who was more keen to play the gatekeeper than offer counsuler service that I am entitled to as a South African citizen. I was saved by decisive action of the efficient head of our AU office who activated her contacts in the embassy of Cameroon in Libreville, who were kind enough to overlook legal requirements and quickly issue me a visa. All systems were now in place. We were ready to roll – so we thought!
Our shuttle arrived in the morning as expected. The driver was there, and so was the owner in jeans, with his associate dressed in a black suit. Instead of hitting the road, we experienced a long delay which I thought was because of an omission on the part of colleagues in my delegation. However, I would learn later that the owner kept on renegotiating the agreed fee, to push it up and up. He played his tricks on us several times, exploiting our desperate situation, causing us delays. He also wanted to be paid in cash, and on the spot – not through electronic transfer as per internal controls in our office. One ECCAS colleague came to our rescue, and issued the owner a cheque. We were now set and ready for the road.
The twin bakkie took off. I was squeezed but relaxed at the back, thinking of the six hours the driver told us it would take him to reach the border. From there, we were going to cross to Cameroon to find a local shuttle service to Doula. Given all the time we had already lost negotiating the shuttle fee, the best case scenario was to make the three hours from the border to Yaounde where we could spend the night. The journey to Doula for our two-hour, afternoon flight to Ndjamena, could happen the next day.
As I was running this scenario in my head, the car suddenly stopped, the driver jumping out. I realised we were back to our point of departure. We could see the owner with his associate through the front windscreen. He tried another trick to query the fee. Not again, we thought. We had already agreed to pay him about five times the going rate, but he still wanted more. It was now midday. The Gabon border closes at 18h. We were clearly not going to make it. We had to pull the plug on this circus. The owner was caught unprepared by our reaction; he thought there was no limit to our desperate state. He had clearly overplayed his hand. He was left with his tail between his legs as we headed back to our hotel.
Our office found us an evening flight via Istanbul. It was a long way to go next door, to Chad, but it was the only viable option. As we were boarding our flight, relieved, we thought our troubles were over. But we were wrong.
We got into Istanbul quite early in the morning where we secured our boarding passes for our connecting flight to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. As we were about to board our flight we realised that our office had mistakenly put me on another flight scheduled for the afternoon, about twelve hours away. We had to call home to wake up colleagues at 5am. They responded well and rectified their mistake, just in time for me to join the queue to board the flight.
Then, another scene started on the margins of this queue. Airport security were refusing to allow my two colleagues who were travelling on AU passport to board the flight. The tall, hefty, Turkish male security guard, was adamant, standing his ground. His argument was simple – he did not know what is this AU, and had never had to deal with AU passport holders. As he couldn’t find any reference to the AU passport in his manual, we resorted to Google, and pulling out of our laptops emails about our official mission, hoping to convince him. It didn’t help trying to tell him that Addis Ababa is our headquarters because he didn’t know what is the AU in the first place. His colleagues joined our web-browsing research effort to help us convince their stubborn boss. They could not hide their embarrassment as they paced around trying to hide their faces.
The boss’ ego had to give in. All passengers were now on board. The aircraft had been waiting for us in its parking bay for about 20 minutes. One of his colleagues pointed him to a reference on the internet which he reluctantly accepted to allow us through – but after some heavy tongue lashing from him to show he’s the boss. We accepted this verbal abuse the way a sheep would consent to being slaughtered. We were just happy to go through this unnecessary iron curtain.
I am now on an Ethiopian airline flight, wishing that the journey ahead of me will be less stressful. I’ll spend this night in Addis Ababa to connect to N’djamena tomorrow morning. By then, it would have taken me more than two days to travel the 2000km between the neighbours, Gabon and Chad.
I am less concerned about another COVID test I’ll have to take in Addis Ababa as the one from Libreville will expire tonight. My main worry is my luggage. I lost my principal suitcase between Kigali and Doula, and requested Rwanda airline to send it back home. I am counting on my colleagues who are still to make their way to N’djamena to add it to their luggage. I had to buy some clothing items and cosmetics in Douala and Libreville to be presentable at my meeting with ECCAS. Now, these newly acquired items are in my small suitcase that I have left behind in Istanbul because of the mix up about my connecting flight.
I am thinking about options because I know that Chadian protocol will not take kindly to a fellow arriving for official business dressed in a black and white sweater as if he’s here for an Orlando Pirates soccer match.
Eddy Maloka is the CEO of the APRM Continental Secretariat.