I am now the holder of an official Ghanaian motorcycle driver’s license. I feel like a bit of my inner (or not so inner?) rebel has been lost, but as consolation, I ended up paying no more than the official 34 GHC fee and a 1 GHC dash to get it, so I feel like I am still pretty bad-ass.
Corruption at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority in Accra is brilliantly orchestrated. Applicants never pay a bribe directly to an official. When applicants come into the office, officials direct them to a handler. The handler, who is in no way officially associated with the DVLA, helps the applicant through the process—he assists with getting passport photos, filling out paperwork, and sending the applicant to the correct offices. The handler knows the process in and out, and has friends in the various offices.
The handler keeps the process as opaque as possible, often meeting with officials without the applicant present. The handler makes it a point to pay the applicant’s fees without the applicant present, hiding the true cost of the license fee. The handler then asks the applicant for a sum larger than the true cost. If asked about the discrepancy, the handler will say that the extra is needed to dash the DVLA officials so that they will process the application the same day. Presumably, the extra is actually split between the handler and the DVLA officials.
The beauty of this system is that no one can ever be caught for corruption. If an applicant complains, the only person who has ever asked them for extra is the handler, who is not affiliated with the DVLA and is just taking a fee for helping the applicant with the process. The handlers will never complain about the DVLA officials, because they make their whole living off the system.
So how did I get off with a 1 GHC dash?
I was smart, but I also got lucky. Before going in, I asked around about the cost of a moto license, so I knew it would be in the range of 30-40 GHC. Then I got assigned a handler who far overplayed his hand—he asked for 200 GHC to cover the cost of the license—lucky. I got lucky again when I said the price should be “30 to 40 Ghana”, and he thought I said “34 Ghana”—which turned out to be the exact price of the license. At that point, he pulled me aside, and admitted that the license cost 34 Ghana, but said I would need to pay extra to dash the officials to get the license that day. It’s possible that he may have actually slowed down the process on purpose; we hopped around to a lot of offices.
I decided to call his bluff. I started loudly talking about how I wanted a receipt for everything, and how I couldn’t trust him, because he had just tried to tell me it cost 200 GHC for a license. Exclamations and tongue clicks—Ghanaian sounds of disapproval – began emanating from the crowd around us. One woman poked the handler, asked “200 Ghana? For a license?!” and shook her head reprovingly. “Okay, okay” said my handler, and he ushered me back inside. A moment later my paperwork was approved. My handler and his brother the DVLA official shook their heads ruefully and speculated out loud about how I had known the price.
After seeing the receipt in my paperwork, I paid the handler the 35 GHC for the 34 fee. He left without giving me change. I thought he would be back, and I would have given him a small tip for his help, but apparently he was afraid I would start yelling about 200 Ghana again, and he left me to complete the process on my own, which I did with no trouble. He kept the 1 GHC change—but I kept his pen.
Here are tips to help avoid be extorted for money in Ghana:
1. Do your research. Know what the process should be, and know how much fees should cost.
2. Use the “R” word—receipt. Since receipts must be turned in, the amount listed there is the official price, and total receipts must equal total cash turned in. Always ask for a receipt to make sure you are paying the official rate, and that the money you pay goes to Ghana, not someone’s pocket.
3. Hold on to your important documents. Once your passport, license, or other difficult-to-replace document is in someone’s hands, you will have to convince them to give it back. And they may hope you will convince them with cash.
4. Be willing to spend time rather than money.
5. Be willing to call bluffs.
6. Don’t have tons of money on you. It’s hard to extort someone for more than they’ve got.
7. Know when a dash is okay. If someone is truly doing something extra for you, outside of their normal job, or if the dash is actually to compensate a handler for their assistance, it can be appropriate.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.