Readers of this blog may have noticed that my posts have tended toward the negative as far as the Central African state is concerned. Today, I have positive news: in February, it became illegal for people to pay taxes to officials in their offices. Instead, good citizens must go to the bank, where there is now a special window marked “public treasury.” People deposit directly into various departments' coffers. In the first month with the new system, revenues more than tripled. The introduction of a basic technology thus eliminated a massive amount of pay-yourself-government (corruption, in common parlance). Of course, money deposited in bank accounts may still wind up building ministerial villas in the provinces, but at least this way there's a potential for more transparency.
This morning as I pulled into the market in Sibut, two hours' drive north of Bangui, I heard a familiar voice call out, “Louisa!” I know no one in Sibut, except maybe for the guys at Restaurant Destroy (the name shares sign space with those of the various humanitarian groups who have patronized the establishment), where I usually get an avocado salad and omelet. I opened the door and saw, to my surprise, a friend from Ndele. He works for some Sudanese merchants by accompanying their truck to DRC to buy coffee and then make the long trek north again to Am Dogon, Sudan to sell the beans. Along the way, they stop in Central African villages and peddle Chinese-made pots and tea sets, toothpaste, and dates. My friend's truck stopped in Sibut to await a money transfer of 200,000 CFA (more than $400) to pay for the rest of the voyage to Bangui. He estimated that in all he would pay 550,000 CFA in road barrier fees for the the Ndele – Bangui journey. Gendarmes, soldiers, police, water and forests ministry guards, and other entrepreneurial sorts set up barriers to extort fees on the roads. Because of the armed group insecurity in Ndele, they can now demand more from voyagers – especially “foreign” Muslims – as a kind of proof of loyalty. Pretty much the polar opposite of the efforts to de-personalize taxes described above.
I can't help but wonder, upon seeing the bedraggled, beaten-down trucks that ply this trade, how on earth they can make a profit from selling an occasional tupperware set and some mid-grade coffee beans if they must pay thousands of dollars in bribes for every round trip. And yet they keep doing it.