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How we approach run-ins with the police over fake traffic offences

Christmas in Dar means police out in force on the roads, but traffic management seems to take a back seat to extorting money out of drivers as a little bit of extra cash for the holidays. We’ve been pulled over twice this last week at the same intersection, both times for going through a red light which was, well, not red!

Generally you get pulled over and straight off the bat the police officer asks you for your license and then tells you what your offence is. Arguing gets you nowhere at this point – there’s no photo evidence or the like so it’s your word against theirs and they hold all the power.

Traffic offences are fined TZS30,000 each (about AU17). They try to tell us that running a red is 3 separate offences: failure to stop, creating a distraction to other drivers, and reckless driving. That’s TZS90,000 all up (about AU50). For other white people, it might be more about the principle than the actual money, but that’s a pretty substantial amount for us. There’s nothing you can do about the perception that all white people are loaded (and of course compared to most Tanzanians we are loaded – just not as loaded as many of the other white people!)

The key to any interaction with the police is to maintain a cheerful and calm demeanour. Getting agitated or angry is seen as a sign of guilt. So we have conversations with them about the weather, my hair, our children, etc. One piece of advice we’ve received is to pretend that we don’t speak any Swahili as many police do not speak English but we have sometimes found this just makes them exasperated, and it closes off this relational option of dealing with the situation. It’s important to keep talking because at this point you don’t actually know what situation you are in yet.

If it’s a real charge, the officer will have a form to fill in, but both times recently they haven’t wanted to do that. The first officer messed around for a bit, chatting, talking about different ways for us to pay, alternatively threatening to lock up Arthur (who was driving) and saying we could work something out. The second time, the officer explicitly said, “Well, I could go and write this down officially or we could help one another out.” ‘Help one another out’ is code for ‘you pay me some money and I’ll let you off’ – a euphemism if ever I’ve heard one, since if he was really interested in helping he wouldn’t pull us over on a false charge in the first place!

We almost always choose the ‘off the books’ option, because either way we’ll have to pay money, but with that option at least we won’t get demerit points for something we didn’t do! Another factor is that we’ve been told there are plenty of fake forms around, so filling one out isn’t a guarantee that you’re doing things above board.

People have different approaches to these kinds of situations.

Some suggest never giving the police your license. Instead, have photocopies on hand.

Others have a copy of traffic laws and the rights of drivers and pull that out.

Friends who are embassy workers are forbidden from ever paying any money (though some do, we’re told.) Apparently the thinking behind this is that if they pay they might then become a target; at the moment their green number plates are protective and they rarely get pulled over. Additionally, they point to not participating in corruption or bribery as important to the development of Tanzania. But then, they have the luxury of a whole lot of back up: if they get in a sticky situation they have a whole office that deals with it and is there to help them out. Australia doesn’t have an embassy in Tanzania.

The question about bribery is an important one for a Christian. We know some Christians who say that because Christians must never pay bribes, the only option open to a Christian is to agree to go to the lock up or to request a court date. However, there may be more to the story.

RL Langston suggests in his Bribery and the Bible (previously mentioned here) that there is a difference between bribery and extortion. The former is using money to speed up a process or get your desired outcome, greasing someone’s palm. You are the initiator. The latter is where someone with power over you asks for money. The Bible soundly condemns bribery, but when it comes to extortion, it’s muddier – only the extorter is blamed, not the one from whom he or she is extorting money, though there are biblical examples of those who resist anyway. Since the police are accusing us falsely, while holding our licenses, these situations seem to fit into the latter. We definitely feel like victims in this kind of situation.

So most of the time we chat politely to the police for as long as possible to see if this will offer an alternate way out, or at least decrease the amount they’re asking for. How much we end up paying depends on the severity or graciousness of the officer threatening us. And then we leave, licenses returned to us, feeling horribly powerless and totally compromised and wondering what else we could do.

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

5 replies

  1. Tamie, having myself lived in a country where bribery was rife, I found this very helpful and practical, not least the distinction between bribery and extortion. Thank you.

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