The sweat shiny, black face and dull black uniform of the huge Congolese policeman blocked out most of the weak overhead light from the yellowy street bulb barely illuminating the traffic circle guarding entry to the outlying suburb of Brazzaville. His right forefinger prodded my chest while his left forefinger and thumb rubbed against one another millimetres from my nose as his paint-stripping breath nearly made me gag. “Give money!” he demanded in French over and over again in an increasingly loud, strident and hectoring tone. I turned to Christophe Beau, my French speaking but South African resident guide in the back of the taxi and saw his side of the car was surrounded by similarly black clad policemen fingering an assortment of automatic weapons. “Leave the old man alone,” he said loudly. “He is a sick, old man and needs his medicine.” You guessed it, I was the sick, old man he referred to and I was – sick and tired to my back teeth of being harassed and blackmailed by the very police, army and gendarme personnel who should have been protecting me and upholding the law.
I was also worried. OK, afraid if the truth be told. A colleague of mine had been killed in similar circumstances some years ago in the DRC. Roadblock, bribe demanded, shot fired, he died and the sub-human savage who shot him melted away never to be brought to justice although many must have known who did it. Like being bitten by a very poisonous snake. The snake slithers away no better off but you are dead.
It was 01h00 on Saturday 4 June, 2016, and this was the 17th check point/roadblock/extortion point – call them what you will – at which we had been stopped since leaving Ouesso in the north of the Republic of the Congo (ROC) the previous morning at 09h00 to travel to the capitol, Brazzaville (on the north bank of Stanley Pools, on the massive Congo River, 840 kms to the south), over what we had been assured was a good tar road with a maximum of six check points.
By now Christophe and I had worked out a well-rehearsed routine, which had reduced the amounts of money extorted from us but it had not stopped the army captain at the previous extortion point from making us unpack every one of our suitcases in the road while he went through every item slowly and deliberately. This included examining every photo in every camera, shining a torch into our camera lenses, inspecting every cartridge for my rifle and even breaking the seal and opening the tube containing vitamin B effervescent tablets in my medical kit. It took him 1 ½ hours!
This was typical of the harassment we underwent and, make no mistake, we were singled out for it. During the entire 15 hour trip, I never saw another vehicle stopped and treated the way we were. As soon as they saw we were whites, the whole demeanour of the drunk and bored police/gendarme/army personnel changed. The ‘chef de poste’ was eagerly summoned and the shake down and threats began in earnest. We also heard but I could not confirm that, ever since President Obama criticised the recent presidential elections in ROC as not being free and fair, which they manifestly were not, Americans and, by association, other whites were singled out for this kind of treatment.
In which other country in the western world, for example, are only whites asked to show their passports before entering a domestic airport? In which international airport in the western world, after presenting your valid passport with a valid visa, are you asked for, “The other paper” by the crooked immigration officials. In my case, this ‘paper’ turned out to be the invitation to visit the Congo issued by the Congolese government itself, which is a visa requirement and is retained by the issuing embassy, which makes it conveniently impossible for you to provide. In another instance, at Ouesso, scores of kilometres from any border, we were accosted by two different sets of customs officials and “The other paper” eventually – I say eventually because my South African firearms licence and temporary export/import permit would not suffice – which the corrupt buffoon wanted was the original invoice for my 38 year old rifle.
In the first case, we had to wait an hour for our meet and greet person to return to his office to fetch a duplicate original of the invitation to visit, a copy of which he had personally delivered to the immigration officials that day and, in the second, we had to call the police who reluctantly agreed to “register” my rifle to find a face-saving way out for the customs crook.
But I am getting ahead of myself. What was I doing in this unsavoury, God-forsaken place? The ROC is slightly smaller than Montana, sparsely populated – most of the some 4,8 million populace reside in the south west – leaving the north virtually uninhabited. It has been rule for 26 out of the last 36 years by another of those classic African kleptomaniacs and despots, Denis Sassou-Nguessou who, despite his attempts to censor the report, was shown to “have over 110 bank accounts and dozens of lavish properties in France” worth over R1 billion according to Wikipedia. Far more worrying, The World Factbook of the CIA stated that the ROC is a “source and destination country for children, men, and women, subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking…and are subjected to domestic servitude and market vending by…Congolese nationals”.
Despite being the fourth largest exporter of petroleum products in Africa, little of the revenue has been spent on or in the country. For example, there are only 1 212 kilometres of tarred road and unemployment is running at nearly 50%. Most of the rest seems to have funded Sassou-Nguessou’s luxurious lifestyle and, for example, in one six year period, he spent over R20 million on suits and shirts from one shop in Paris alone. When questioned, he explained that he changed his shirt three to four times a day and never washed them but used them as Kleenexes afterwards. He reminded me of Mobutu, probably the epitome of this kind of “leader,” and the conversation my then boss had with Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN at the time, shortly after she had met with and offered Mobutu $90 million per annum for life to step down and end the ongoing conflict in the DRC. She added that the total DRC debt of $8 billion was equal to what the US estimated he had stolen from the country. Oh, and incidentally, he refused the offer. Not enough, he said!
Well, I was in ROC to explore the northern 300 000 hectare concession leased by Congo Hunting Safaris/Congo Safaris/Agagia Safaris (Congo Safaris) controlled as to 70% by Tielman Neethling (TN), a cattle farmer, game rancher and butchery chain owner from Namibia, in the hopes of finding an elusive forest sitatunga. I had booked the hunt through Christophe Beau of Grand Safari at Huntex in 2015, as he was marketing these hunts for Neethling. He told me the following:
- TN had spent about R16 million improving the camp and infrastructure of the hunting concession over the previous three years.
- Next year (2016) he was sending new vehicles and aluminium boats plus motors to the Congo, in the latter case to assist the hunting of forest sitatunga from off the rivers.
- According to Christophe, if I booked during the dark moon early in the dry season (June), when the water levels in the rivers were still low and the vegetation higher than them, the forest sitatunga came out of the forests to feed in the rivers and we might have a chance to shoot one in the river or be able to track it from the banks.
When he promised to accompany me in and out of the Congo this, plus the special show price for the two week hunt, clinched the deal.
Now, I am an African. I have been the CEO of a gold mining group quoted on the London Stock Exchange with subsidiaries in nine African countries and have hunted in a further 19. I am not a novice to African travel, with or without firearms, and have long since had their golden rules etched onto my internal hard drive but I have never remotely come across such shameless, blatant, pervasive and voracious corruption, dishonesty and incompetence as I did in the ROC, accompanied by such clear and unequivocal threats should you not comply.
Apart from the attempted bribery and corruption on arrival at Maya Maya Airport in Brazzaville, the first inkling we had that something was awry was later that morning waiting to catch the flight to Ouesso. Christophe received a call from Tania Roux, the wife of Vian, the camp manager and senior PH at Bonyo Camp, our destination across the Sangha River at Ouesso and some four hours by car away to the north east of the small town. She said that he and the other three South African PHs in camp had been ordered to leave that same day by Edgar Ewany Opani (EEO), a bible toting and quoting Congolese (who was a 30% minority shareholder in Congo Safaris), failing which he would have them arrested and jailed. Christophe immediately called EEO who denied all knowledge of the basis for the call from Tania. What to do? Forward seemed the only answer.
It was a relief to eventually arrive at Erik Stockenstroom’s well built, original Bonyo Camp. I had booked a safari with him many years previously but it had been cancelled after the Congolese government summarily cancelled his bongo quota and he, in turn, was kidnapped, assaulted, tied to a tree in the rainforest and left to die, while his young, female South African camp cook was repeatedly raped in his absence. I sincerely hoped that, in the interim, things had improved but you can judge for yourself.
Things were not well in the camp and the following allegations were made:
- The two shareholders in the company holding the Congo Safaris hunting concessions were at loggerheads with one another.
- EEO, who currently lived outside Pretoria on a luxury golf estate, was seeking to illegally hi-jack Congo Safaris for his own account and, to date, had misappropriated between R3 million ($200 000) and R6 million ($400 000) provided by TN.
- This included, for example, R500 000 ($33 500) transferred directly to EEO by TN for payment of customs duty owing on five new Nissan Patrol vehicles and a 40 foot shipping container with four aluminium boats and motors plus building materials bought by TN and sent to ROC for use by Congo Safaris. EEO, despite numerous requests, had failed to pay the duty resulting in these assets of the company languishing at Point Noire, the ROC port on the Atlantic, for over eight months.
- A further R1,7 million had been paid to EEO by TN to secure the Tala Tala hunting concession for Congo Safaris but it ended up being awarded to an associate of EEO, one Jean Luc Damy, a businessman from Point Noire.
- Kengi Yemele Hypolite, known as Steve, a Congo Safaris staff member appointed by EEO, had similarly misappropriated funds and, for example, charged the company four times the amount payable to the government for work permits for the four South Africans, some R200 000 in total. When EEO was challenged on this by the South Africans, he accused them of placing temptation in Steve’s way and made no attempt to help them recover the money.
- The South African staff at Bonyo Camp, the camp manager, the well-respected and highly experienced Vian Roux, plus three professional hunters, had been threatened by EEO, both verbally and in writing, that unless they left camp on the day we arrived, they would be arrested and jailed.
- A new camp manager, the controversial Andre van Deventer (who had previously run the camp when the equally controversial, Gert Saaiman, had leased the concession), was due to take over the management and PHing duties on Monday, 6 June. Mr Van Deventer is a member of an even more controversial family and his name and that of his ex boss have been associated with rhino poaching on more than one occasion.
- More importantly, from my point of view, was the following:
- My hunting license was not in camp and I could not hunt legally without it.
- The only vehicle in camp was an old, completely unroadworthy Toyota Hilux, which literally had no brakes at all, no lights, no 4×4 capacity, no winch and no mud tyres. The latter three characteristics were essential for travel in the wet, muddy rainforest and the absence of the former two, rendered the driver liable to arrest.
- Christophe Beau, while acting as my guide, did not have a Congolese work permit and my designated professional hunter was one of the four South Africans who were about to leave.
- I was not prepared to share a camp, let alone hunt, with Van Deventer.
On the advice of Christophe Beau, there appeared no alternative but to leave camp when the South Africans did that Friday 3 June, 2016, and so began a very long and difficult journey back to Brazzaville over the next two days.
As the next flight from Ouesso to Brazzaville was in three day’s time and arrived too late for the connecting flight to Johannesburg, necessitating a further two night stay in Brazzaville, we decided to drive to Oyo – about half way to Brazzaville – and catch the Monday morning flight to connect with our Kenya Airways flight later that same day. Later we learned that all flights to and from Oyo were cancelled as the president was visiting the town to entertain the president of Gabon. So, there was nothing for it but to drive to Brazzaville.
The first 390 kilometres over the brand new tarred road built by the Chinese the previous year lived up to all the promises – we passed a total of two cars heading in the opposite direction and encountered only two extortion points, at one of which our driver, Yannik, was fined 10 000 CFA (about $16) for having a perfectly valid driving licence. The only excitement was when he became too Harry Casual and the car – a second hand Chinese vehicle in good condition – left the road in a corner we entered going way too fast. Nothing that a good ‘kakking’ out could and did not prevent from happening again.
Even at Obouye where we encountered our first major check point – police, immigration, customs and army were present in numbers – the young police lieutenant, although examining our papers and my rifle carefully, sent us off with a policeman and army sergeant for company to ensure we were not harassed at the next extortion points and so we were handed on until we reached Oyo, President Denis Sassou-Ngessou’s birth place.
We were told he visited the town only four times a year but had built himself a palace there, plus a huge glass and chrome airport building, as well as a substantial, luxury, $400 per night hotel for his daughter to manage, complete with swimming pool, tennis court and gymnasium. Amazing how the tin pot dictators of these banana republics mimic one another again and again and again. You wonder if it is a communicable disease.
Oyo was the start of a Monty Pythonesque movie – and now for something completely different. Yes, the road was still tarred – in places – but it looked as if it had been mortar bombed and strafed from the air and the extortion points increased dramatically in both number and ferocity.
After being stopped at 21 extortion points – as we came closer to Brazzaville, the armed and drunk police/gendarme/army personnel dispensed with all formalities and simply demanded, “Give money!” loudly, frequently and while waving around their automatic weapons in a threatening manner – we arrived at our hotel at 02h00 after a 15 hour, nightmare trip – an average of 40 kph for the journey from Obouye to Brazzaville.
Our exit from the country was even worse and the corrupt Kenya Airways manager at Maya Maya International Airport refused to load my rifle and ammunition on my return flight despite having been advised in writing four days previously to do so by Kenya Airways who had transported them and me from Johannesburg to Brazzaville a few days earlier. In the end, after being shown the email from his Johannesburg office to this effect, which my travel agent forwarded to me on my phone, he reluctantly did so but then charged me US$150.00 because I had three suitcases – one for my rifle, one for my ammunition (a Kenya Airways requirement) and my personal suitcase. To date, despite numerous requests by me and my travel agent, I have received neither an apology nor a cent from Kenya Airways. It appears as if the Congolese disease is spreading fast in Africa and, if you can avoid flying Kenya Airways, you should!
It seems to me as if the embedded “culture” of ROC is one of lying and deceit. There is no decency, law, order or justice other than that which emerges from the barrel of a gun or flows from the dispensation of cash and contacts. This kind of behaviour only cascades downwards and, looking at the example set by their president, is completely understandable. Any person proposing to visit or do business in ROC should have his head read.
The really sad thing is that, by allowing EEO to sacrifice Congo Safaris on the altar of his short sighted and personal greed, the Congolese have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The groundwork had been laid, the money invested. The business was starting to grow and develop – 15 hunts had been booked for this year. Everything was in place to build, staff and equip two more camps and open up and build the infrastructure in two more concessions. The number of jobs for the local people would have tripled and the knock-on effect in support services and suppliers for the three camps would have been significant in this dirt poor, rural area. But no, just as happened to Robin Hurt and George Angelides previously in the DRC, the Congolese seemingly cannot help themselves and resort to the most disgusting forms of dishonesty to take what is not theirs. They and hunting are the long term losers.
One last thing. I would not have come out of this Congolese debacle in one piece but for Christophe Beau. His ability to defuse most of the ultra tense situations by engaging the extorters, cracking a joke, talking to them about soccer and other diversions was nothing short of brilliant. To compound his good deeds, he has repaid all clients who booked hunts through him with Congo Safaris, including me, for the full costs of their safaris although, to date, Neethling has not repaid him. I hope Neethling has not caught the Congolese disease and exhibits a similar degree of honesty and decency, repays Christophe and refunds the travel costs to those of us who incurred them.