Making Movements Possible: Transportation Workers and Mobility in West Africa



This article concerns the social process of mobility control in four West African countries: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Ghana. Migration has long been an important aspect of West African social, cultural, and political life. This study explores everyday enforcement of international and internal mobility control, and the ways in which Africans respond to and resist the actions of security agents. I accomplish this using ethnographic evidence gathered when travelling over 10,000 miles in Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire over a period of nine months. In addition, data were gathered through participant observation while crossing international borders 23 times in a sub-region of West Africa, and participating in 169 security control checkpoints in total. This evidence is supplemented by 29 interviews with transportation workers across the four countries studied. Augmenting the traditional social science literature on migrant networks with an approach proposed by development economists, this article shows that transportation workers play an essential role in mobility control in West Africa. The theoretical insights derived here contribute to a larger project of bringing borders and transportation into the same frame of reference as migration in academic study. This project sees movement through interaction, rather than simply through the systems approach so commonly applied in the literature and shows that in the countries under study there exist unstated, implicit social norms among transportation workers, their clients, and security agents, which constitute a key mechanism for migration. These actors operate in a series of structured relationships, which can be described as institutionalised, and which create a series of important exchanges governing movement in the sub- region.


The movements people make in West Africa, within their countries and between countries, cannot occur without social interactions between various actors: transportation workers, passengers, and security agents in particular. These interactions help shape migrations and are based on the socioeconomic arrangements, cultural practices, and political realities of the region. Despite the significant amount of research that has focused on migration in West Africa (Adepoju, 2002 and 2004; Adepoju and Hammar, 1996; Amin, 1973 and 1974; Annan-Yao, 1996; Arthur, 1991; Bilger and Kraler, 2005b; Bocquier and Traoré, 1996; Cordell et al., 1996; de Bruijn and van Dijk, 2003; de Haan et al., 2002; Konseiga, 2005; Makinwa-Adebusoye, 1992; Rain, 1999; Touré et al., 1992; van Dijk et al., 2001; Zachariah and Condé, 1981), the role of mobility control and transportation as they affect people’s movements has yet to receive extensive critical attention. Following Bilger and Kraler (2005a), I analyse migration in the specific forms and context in which it occurs by placing migration, transportation, international borders and mobility control in the same frame of reference.

Africa is a continent where a considerable part of the population “leads a mobile way of life” (van Dijk et al., 2001: 14; see also, IOM, 2005) and West Africa, in particular, has highly mobile populations, accounting for over forty per cent of the continent’s migrants (Zlotnik, 2003). The literature on migration in Africa is vast and new research trends are continuously emerging. Recent studies focus on the feminization of migration, the diversification of destinations, the issues of brain drain and brain gain, trafficking and human smuggling, and the intersection of migration and the spread of HIV/AIDS (Adepoju, 2004).

Despite this vast and growing literature, the condition noted by Akin Mabogunje in 1970 that most migration models’ relevance for handling migration patterns in developing areas has hardly been considered remains true today. In particular, this article considers the relevance of migrant networks models for Africa. While often noting migrant networks as an empirical reality in Africa (de Haan et al., 2002; Gugler, 2002), few studies adopt networks as an organising principle or unit of analysis (cf. Andersson, 2001). Building on Guilmoto and Sandron (2001: 150), I argue that transportation workers are part of the “market of assistance to migration” that emerges to supplement the networks formed by migrants’ kinship, friend and community ties. My approach departs from the dominant conception of migrant networks as employed in the social science literature by arguing for the amplification “migrant networks” to include transportation workers and security agents. More broadly, given the importance of transit migration in Africa (Brachet, 2005) and the increasing involvement of non-migrants, including smugglers and coyotes in many areas (Içduygu and Toktas, 2002; Spener, 2001), the lessons learned here have important implications for other regions of the world as well.

Historical and Sub-regional Context

Stark geographic, climatic, and economic differentials exist between the coastal countries, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, and their landlocked northern neighbors, Burkina Faso and Mali, which affect population mobility in the region. Pauline Makinwa-Adebusoye refers to the “region’s two contrasting but complementary climatic zones – the forested rainy belt along the Gulf of Guinea and the drier grasslands along the southern border of the Sahara desert” which have affected the development of the zone’s particular patterns of population movement (1992: 63). In particular, the various resources available in these different zones affected pre-colonial trade routes, colonial strategies for the economic exploitation of the zone, and post-colonial development strategies.

In the pre-colonial period West Africans migrated as warriors, settlers, traders and scholars. The ancient African kingdoms spread their empires by invasion, conquering and annexing new lands in the search for new human and natural resources. Well known for their activity in West Africa, traders have long been a highly mobile group. For centuries predating colonization West African trade routes criss-crossed the region taking ivory, gold and kola nuts north, and bringing salt and cotton cloth down to the forested areas. In addition, the spread of Islam in the region is associated with trade and invasion or jihad, but it is also associated with the religious migrations of Koranic students and Islamic scholars (Launay, 1992).

Although these migration patterns remained salient, the “new political and economic order of the colonial authority fundamentally changed the nature and patterns of population mobility [in all of tropical Africa] due to new economic relationships between the richer and poorer areas” (Gould, 1974: 353). The colonial policies in West Africa were based on an unequal distribution of economic and industrial programmes (Arthur, 1991). The French agenda during the colonial era was based on the development of a plantation economy in the coastal states and encouraged migrations for the northern zones through various policies such as pre-stations and taxes.

The unequal development between the coastal regions and the hinterlands continued into the independence era. Little change to the migration patterns established in the colonial period occurred after independence (Annan-Yao, 1996; Makinwa-Abebusoye, 1992). However, one major change that occured after independence was the raising of barriers and restrictions to movement through legislation with measures requiring work permits, visas, and the implementation of currency controls (Gould, 1974; Whitaker 2005). This was common for the West African countries establishing independence and some attribute the creation of sovereign states as the end to liberal attitudes toward population movements (Makinwa-Abebusoye, 1992). Therefore, it becomes important to study the ways in which African migrants navigate these relatively new internal and international security controls as they continue to move about their continent in deeply rooted patterns.

Migrant Networks

Over the last thirty years the theoretical trajectory of migration studies has moved towards intermediate level analyses. In Africa, household-strategies models dominate the literature (Bryceson, 1999; Cordell et al., 1996; de Haan et al., 2002; van Dijk et al., 2001), while other theoretical approaches are generally under-explored. However, in other geographical contexts, such as the Western hemisphere and Asia, migrant networks models are gaining popularity. In her review of the role of networks in migration, Monica Boyd (1989) claims that centering networks in migration studies mediates between the over-socialised view of the macro-structural approaches and the under-socialised perspective of the neo-classical models. They show how structures are channeled through social relationships that act as conduits of information, and social and financial assistance. These models treat migration decisions as facilitated by the establishment of social networks based on family, friendship, and community ties that reduce the costs of migration by giving migrants access to information about the receiving zone (Massey and España, 1987; Massey et al., 1998).

For the African context Josef Gugler (1971) started writing about networks a generation ago. Collaborating with William Flanagan, he studied the socio-cultural organization of rural-urban migrations and argued that “the world of the migrant and that of his homeland are not separable entities – they are both part of a wider society, a society which has reached a high level of instant internal communications and is defined by nationwide institutions” (Gugler and Flanagan, 1978: 67).

The empirical evidence that exists demonstrates the role of networks in assisting migrants. Many scholars of African migration report that the presence of relatives in receiving communities helps make migrants’ moves easier and assists them in finding work (Andersson, 2001; de Haan et al., 2002; Gugler and Flanagan, 1978), or a place to stay (Andersson, 2001; Coulibaly et al., 1980; Gugler, 2002). They also discuss the role migrant organizations play in the politics and development of the sending area (Gugler and Flanagan, 1978) and the great efforts and expense undertaken by migrants’ friends, families, and co-ethnics to repatriate migrants’ corpses for burial at home, often even travelling with the coffin across impossible roads (Gugler, 2002).

Migrant network theories have yet to sustain as concerted a critical appraisal as earlier migration theories (Pessar, 1999), especially not in terms of their applicability to African cases. The critiques that do exist are largely theoretical and relate to the failure of migrant networks models to incorporate the lessons of network analysis as an analytic framework (Boyd, 1989; Gurak and Caces, 1992).

Gurak and Caces (1992) remark that the migration literature widely accepts that migrant networks based on kin, friendship, and community ties link sending and receiving communities, but tend to see them as closed and insulating structures. As such, the literature fails to describe empirically how migrant networks operate (Gurak and Caces, 1992). Echoing this appraisal, Vertovec (2004) explains that most social scientific research focuses on kinship, friendship, and community-based networks that assist in selecting migrants and channelling their movements and settlement. He advocates an approach instead that takes account of the multiplexity and multioplicity of contemporary migrant networks.

Thus far most researchers have focused on the symmetrical relationships of hometown actors and ignore the role of others even though empirical studies show that actors exogenous to the hometown can influence the development of migration networks as well (Griffith and Kissam, 1995; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001; Spener, 2001; Wilson, 1998). In addition, a few studies challenge the assumption of the reciprocal nature of network exchanges (Mahler, 1995; Menjívar, 2000; Portes and Sensenbrenner, 1993), This is essential since migration networks have “multiple functions; reciprocal and asymmetrical relationships – with exchanges of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ social capital – develop among migrants (including between close kin), as well as between migrants and non-hometown network participants” (Krissman, 2005: 17).

To benefit more fruitfully from network analysis, migration studies should take into account the defining characteristics of networks beyond a simple understanding of ties between migrants and their home areas or family, friendship, and co-village relations. Wellman (1979: 1203) describes network analysis as:

an analytic perspective which focuses on structured relationships between individuals and collectivities [that] gives attention to (a) structured patterns of relationships and not the aggregated characteristics of individual units analyzed without reference to their connectivity, (b) complex network structures and not just dyadic ties, (c) the allocation of scarce resources through concrete systems of power, dependency, and coordination, (d) network boundaries, clusters, and cross-linkages, and (e) complex structures of reciprocal relationships and not just symmetrical relationships or simple hierarchies (cited in Gurak and Caces, 1992: 160).

The argument presented here draws on these characteristics of networks, Krissman’s (2005) claim that non-hometown network participants also play an essential role in the migration process, and the importance of centering “weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973). Doing so, this article describes the complexity of the links that exist between various actors in the migration process in West Africa, notably drivers, passengers, and security agents, as they interact to structure the social processes by which migration occurs in the region. In particular, it focuses on the structured relationships between drivers and their passengers, most of who have never met before, and drivers and security agents, to uncover the multiplex ties between them. Doing this, I build on existing notions that migration and migration systems are institutionalised in the developing world (Mabujonge, 1970; Guilmoto and Sandron, 2001).

In Africa, and the Third World in general, scholars remark on the institutional arrangements solidified by migrant networks (Castles, 2000; Massey et al., 1998, Held et al., 1999). Mabujonge (1970: 1) identified the “informal control subsystems,” that, along with modes of formal control, perpetuate and reinforce international flows along certain pathways. Similarly, Guilmoto and Sandron (2001: 144) describe the transformation of migration patterns into an institution which they characterize as a “quasi-autonomous system, with rules and norms, allowing specific individuals and organizations to attain their objectives”.1 Essentially the migration institution is a system of rules that contextualize exchanges. These rules reduce coordination and information costs by limiting the variety of possible choices open to individuals and collectivities participating in migration processes, and they produce the routinization of practices that stabilise these processes into institutions (Guilmoto and Sandron, 2001). Guilmoto and Sandron (2001) note that border-crossing is one particular moment in which these institutional arrangements are essential for migrants. During border crossings “external mechanisms” function as components of networks and compensate for the services migrants’ personal networks cannot provide (Guilmoto and Sandron, 2001: 150). This analysis describes the essential role of transportation workers in several West African countries as they form part of a system that assures the successful movements of internal and international migrants of all kinds.


Over the course of nine months, from October 2005 through June 2006, I conducted both ethnographic fieldwork and 29 formal semi-scheduled qualitative interviews with transportation workers in Burkina Faso, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. During this time, I also travelled extensively in these four countries and participated and observed in mobility control procedures at the internal and international checkpoints we encountered.

In addition, I travelled more than 10,000 miles in various types of passenger transportation vehicles including converted pick-up trucks, station wagons, mini-buses, and larger buses. While travelling, I crossed the international borders between these countries a total of 23 times, representing all of the possible combinations of countries under study. Since some countries require multiple types of entry and exit control at their international borders (some combination of police, gendarmes, and health and customs agents), I observed 82 security controls at international borders. In addition to this, I observed 87 internal controls, for a total of 169 mobility control checkpoints.

I developed fluency in the French of the region and in Bambara, and had pre-existing relationships with several drivers working in the area as I lived in Burkina Faso for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2000–2002. These men served as key informants in several important ways. Firstly, through informal conversations with them for a period of three months before beginning the collection of interview data, I developed my interview schedule. Having adopted a continuous, emergent, inductive approach (Becker and Geer, 1960; Glaser and Strauss, 1967), these conversations were instructive in helping me to identify new areas of investigation. In addition, these key informants gave me the names and contact information of several other drivers working in the sub-region whom they believed would be good informants. Therefore, I used snowball sampling techniques (Biernacki and Waldorf, 1981) to select a non-random, convenience sample (Weiss, 1994) of 29 transportation workers in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Ghana.

Most of the men who participated in this study were drivers of passenger transportation vehicles, be they station wagons, minibuses, or large tour buses (see Table 1). In general, they were divided equally between those who own their own vehicles (most of whom are drivers of Peugeot station wagons, or smaller taxis) and those who worked for an employer. They ranged in age from twenty-three to fifty-eight years old, with an average age of thirty-four. In terms of their years of experience working in transportation, they averaged twelve years, with a range of two to 33 years (see Table of Selected Interview Respondents). All of them had experience with both local and international transportation, some having worked routes between only two countries, others having traveled and worked extensively across West Africa. They represented a mixture of married and single men, and their levels of education varied significantly. Several of the respondents had no formal education at all, while two had completed high school, one of whom has a university degree in accounting.

Table 1. Selected Interview Respondents
NameAgeYears WorkingLocation of InterviewNationalityOccupationDate of Interview
Amadou324Sampa, GhanaGhanaianDriver3/9/2006
Ousman295Sampa, GhanaGhanaianDriver3/9/2006
Moussa244Sampa, GhanaGhanaianDriver3/9/2006
Mama247Banfora, BFBurkinabeDriver2/16/2006
Moumoumi308Banfora, BFBurkinabeDriver1/13/2006
Dou3615Sikasso, MaliMalianDriver5/24/2006
Idrissa4729Sikasso, MaliMalianDriver4/27/2006
Salif3010Bobo, BFMalianDriver5/10/2006
Tiyi4012Ouangalo, CIIvorianDriver4/18/2006
Djehou275Korhogo, CIIvorianDriver4/20/2006
Abdoul4615Ouangalo, CIIvorianDriver5/27/2006
Djiemi18n/aLoropeni, BFBurkinabeStudent8/24/03
Sonabana48n/aLoropeni, BFBurkinabeHomemaker8/26/03
Ollo21n/aLoropeni, BFBurkinabeStudent8/24/03
Ini18n/aLoropeni, BFBurkinabeStudent8/24/03
Tifielé3916Loropeni, BFBurkinabeCultivator8/26/03

I conducted interviews in French, Dyula, and English (and often in a combination of two languages), with no translators, all of which were tape-recorded and fully-transcribed. They consisted of open-ended questions about work experience, with specific questions about drivers’ relationships with their passengers and with security agents. I specifically asked drivers to make comparisons between the various countries in which they had worked and across time periods. In addition to the interviews, I conducted participant observation at bus stations, and in public transportation vehicles while travelling. Over the course of nine months I frequented bus stations in Banfora and Bobo-Dioulasso (Burkina Faso), Ouangolodougou and Korhogo (Côte d’Ivoire), Sikasso (Mali), and Sampa and Wenchi (Ghana).

While this is certainly a case study, because of the extremely urban-biased and low motorization rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, one vehicle per 135 people, (Ellis and Hine, 1998) there exists a “similarity of dynamics and constraints” (Weiss, 1994: 27) for a large portion of African migrants who must travel on public transportation.2 Therefore, I argue that this research can be considered as a generalized analysis of the role of transportation workers in migration processes for this sub-region of West Africa. Drawing on the notion that African borders act as socio-economic, political, and cultural formations I created index files (Whyte, 1984) into which each informants’ responses were subdivided into these themes. I then repeated this “open coding” (Emerson et al., 1995: 150) process to fracture and organize my ethnographic field notes. Finally, I reviewed these index files to identify salient similarities, differences, and variations for each of these themes. The data presented here come primarily from the index file on the socio-economic characteristics of border-crossings.

Managing The Road: The Responsibilities of Drivers

Drivers’ perspectives and experiences

So, when we arrive somewhere we must take the passengers into consideration like they were our children. It is because of them that we went to Côte d’Ivoire in the first place. So we must get along with the authorities.

-- Tibieré,3 26 August 2003

Tibieré was a contract labourer in Côte d’Ivoire for a few years in the 1980s and then worked in transportation for sixteen years on a route between southern Burkina Faso to northern Côte d’Ivoire. By referring to the passengers as children, he is not indicating their inability to deal with the situations that arise while travelling on their own, but rather the degree to which the transporters feel responsible for their passengers’ welfare. Some passengers travelling across West Africa are experienced migrants, traders, and adventurers having had extensive dealings with security agents at internal mobility control checkpoints and international borders. But the majority of people crossing these formations each day are less frequently on the road, and they rely on the assistance of transportation workers to ensure that they arrive at their destination, particularly when they do not have proper documentation. Moumouni, a 30-year-old Burkinabe driver who has worked in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso for eight years explains, “The client [passenger] is not habituated to the agents. You know, there are clients who, if they see an agent, they tremble, they are afraid. They do not know what to say”. Other drivers express similar impressions about many passengers’ lack of experience on the road, their pride causes them to speak rudely, angering agents, and preventing their progress towards their destinations.

To avoid these problems, in this sub-region of West Africa, public transportation drivers very often assume the role of intermediaries between their passengers and the security forces that regulate internal and international mobility control. For example, Mama, a 24-year-old Burkinabe driver, with seven years of experience working in transportation, describes his role when a passenger confronts a problem, such as security agents retaining his identification documents. He explains that “when an agent takes a passenger’s papers I must intervene so that he lets him go. That’s because it is me who drove him on the road where the agents stopped him. So, I take responsibility all the way until he arrives at his destination”. In fact, drivers take this responsibility so seriously, that they rarely, if ever leave a passenger at a security control post4. When asked if he had ever left a passenger behind because of a lack of proper documentation, Moussa, a 24-year-old Ghanaian driver, who grew up in the transportation business, replied:

I will not do it. We the drivers, the policemen know us down there. We are afraid of the policemen on behalf of the passengers. So any moment you leave the passenger [with the police] it means that you kill the passenger. And that is not a good thing. As a driver you must not do such things.

Moussa’s explanation of his inability to leave a passenger at a security checkpoint reflects the position of other West African drivers in these areas as well, all of whom describe their unwillingness to leave a passenger at a control post because of a lack of documents. They comment that by leaving one person today they jeopardise their clientele base for tomorrow because they will gain a reputation as a driver who cannot, or will not, protect his clients from problems on the road. Mama states, “When you do this work right for a person, on his return trip he will wait for you. But if you did not do right by him, when he brings 10 people with him, they will not get into your vehicle. So it is better to treat them right, even if you do not know them”. This statement reflects Krissman’s (2005) call to reconsider the importance of non-hometown actors in the functioning of networks. Mama makes clear that he seeks to assist all of his passengers, even those that are external to his personal in networks.

In this situation there is a complicated relationship between the driver and his passengers. The passengers are to be feared, as they determine the driver’s future client base, and they are to be respected and protected, all at the same time. The relationship defies simple hierarchies (Wellman, 1979), and as network analysis indicates, the driver-passenger relationship is structured on patterns of relationships between the groups and is not particularly dependent on the individual characteristics of either driver or passenger.

Passengers’ perspectives and experiences

Passengers recognise the central role that transportation workers play in their ability to travel in this sub-region of West Africa. In particular many younger Burkinabe whose parents or family members own land and continue to live in Côte d’Ivoire, describe being entrusted to drivers by their relatives for their trips between the two countries. Djiemi, who was born in Côte d’Ivoire and only returned to Burkina Faso in his teens to attend secondary school, recounts how his father enlisted the assistance of a transportation worker to get him and his brother back to Burkina Faso after they had visited and worked for him during their summer vacation:

Our father looked for a vehicle for us. He entrusted us to a chauffeur and said that if there was a problem, the chauffeur should negotiate with the police for us and if the police asks for money to say that there is 1000 CFA apiece for these children, and if he does not accept to offer 1500 CFA apiece.

Although their father did not know the driver personally, by entrusting his sons to him Djiemi’s father assured that his boys, who were in their mid-teens at the time, would be spared from negotiating with the Ivorian authorities themselves. In a similar instance, Ini, a teenage girl who has extensive family in Côte d’Ivoire, describes how her older brother enlisted the assistance of a chauffeur, who was a friend of his, to secure a safe place for her to sleep if the vehicle she was traveling in had to stop for the night. Although in the second case Ini’s brother relied on someone with whom he had a prior connection, we can see that Djiemi’s father relied more explicitly on the structured relationships between security agents, passengers, and drivers in the region, knowing that the driver would assist his children.

Whereas the transporters help migrants in many situations, there are also many instances in which passengers help each other. Both Sonabana, a female migrant, and Ollo, a teenager at the time, described situations in which older men helped them along the way:

I should say that in going there, there are not too many problems. Especially, if there is a man next to you, you who are a woman, he pays for your food while you are on the road.


The man sitting next to me, who had two kids, told me to help him with a kid. So I took one of his kids ... and he told me that he was ‘behind’ me and he would take care of me during the trip…. When the police would take my card he negotiated for me all the way to [the next major town] where he got out and I continued alone.… For food, it was he who paid for me all the way until he got out.


These examples demonstrate Rain’s (1999) claim that social ties are often immediate. Ollo’s benefactor, for example, was a man he had never met, and with whom he only had a relationship lasting a few hours. But it is a relationship based on existing structures, in which there are norms of reciprocity and assistance which can also be assymetrical (Krissman, 2005).

A field note, recorded on the border between Ghana and Burkina Faso, illustrates this as well:

December 14, 2005: Hamele Ghana – Hamele Burkina Faso

The bachet5 finally arrives at Hamele around 4 a.m. after a gruelling 12 hours of journeying on the bumpy dirt road that runs north-south on the extreme western edge of Ghana. As the passengers get out, they stretch their weary and cramped legs and each begins to go his or her own way: some going home to their families and others making their way to Burkina Faso to continue their journeys. Bouba, a young Burkinabé man, returning home after visiting his mother in Ghana for the first time in twenty years, and Desiré, another Burkinabe and a more experienced traveler in the region, start along the road to Burkina Faso. They have just met in the bachet that brought them here and Desiré has offered to accompany his new friend across the border. The two men walk away from the bus station for few minutes before Desiré begins to doubt the route he is taking and backtracks to try again. Eventually he finds the path he is looking for: an unofficial route around the border post which is located only a half-kilometre from the centre of town. Bouba has a Burkinabé identity card and could probably cross the border officially with little problem, but he chooses to avoid interaction with security personnel because he does not have a yellow fever vaccination card (a requirement for anyone crossing into Burkina Faso). Not wanting to cross fraudulently, for fear of being caught for illegal exit from Ghana, I decide not to take the same route as the others and opt to cross at the official police checkpoints. I proceed through the security checkpoints in Ghana and Burkina Faso and eventually go on to the bus station to wait for a bus to take me the rest of the way home. Bouba and Desiré are already there.

In this example, Desiré, a more experienced traveller, assists Bouba to circumvent security controls during his first ever crossing back into Burkina Faso from Ghana. This assistance complements Bouba’s personal networks, which are incomplete and unable to assist him in this particular instance (cf Guilmoto and Sandron, 2001). Bouba does not have a yellow fever vaccination card and would probably have been asked to pay at the exit of Ghana, the entrance to Burkina or both. Realising this, he relies on the assistance of another passenger to conserve his money and to cross the international border clandestinely.

Strategies For Travelling and Crossing Borders

Managing papers, money, and negotiations

Because of their determination to have their passengers travel safely, West African drivers in these four countries engage in a number of strategies to ensure their passengers’ arrival. In particularly difficult regions, drivers can collect the papers of all of their passengers so as to keep them out of the hands of security agents. Burkinabe drivers often did this in Côte d’Ivoire in the period right before the rebellion of 2002 because at the time Ivorian security agents were exacting large sums of money from any passenger with a Burkinabe (or Malian) ID card. At that time, the drivers preferred to lie and say that everyone was undocumented rather than to allow the agents to check each passenger’s papers one by one. Instead, they tried to avoid contact between the passengers and agents by taking a collection from the passengers at the beginning of the trip and using the money to manage the road. Before 2002 in Côte d’Ivoire and still today, by offering a sum6 to the agents immediately upon arrival, drivers can often avoid having their clients checked for papers and quicken the process, assuring faster arrival. In this manner, it is clear that the networked relationship between drivers and their passengers is not merely dyadic (Wellman, 1979), but is more complex, involving security agents as well.

When traveling with undocumented passengers, other drivers often ask the person in question to sit next to him in the front of the vehicle. The driver often presents this person as a relative or even as a “protected” person (one that the driver has promised to assist beforehand in his or her interactions with security agents), and explains the case to the agent, hoping the agent will not charge the person a fine. Some drivers with more experience claim that they can get several passengers through security checkpoints as “protected” because of their relations with security agents. Undocumented passengers who know the road well often present themselves to the driver before leaving the station, explaining that they have no papers, but want to go to a certain location. The person may offer what he or she can afford and the driver will decide if he can take the person and use the money offered to take care of the expenses he will incur on behalf of the passenger during the journey.

If all else fails, drivers and passengers resort to paying agents to let them pass. In Burkina Faso, passengers who can afford it pay an official fine, and get a written receipt from security agents, which can be used for a period of 24 hours and costs 3000 CFA (US$ 6). However, because times are increasingly difficult economically, due to the rebellion in Côte d’Ivoire, many passengers simply cannot afford to pay the entire fine. They often offer what they have, usually giving it to the driver to hand off to the agent for them. Amadou, a 32-year-old taxi driver with four years of experience in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire explains how this works on the road between Sampa and Bondoukou:

If you tell us, we can take 3000 CFA and arrange the road with it. When we arrive at the police we can say that you are our older brother and ask them to pardon you. We give them a little; they can tell us to give them 1000 CFA and we can ask to give 500 CFA. We pay a little here and there until we arrive.

However, if the passenger has no money, the driver himself often pays on his behalf. When asked if he has paid for a passenger in the past, Ousman, a 29-year-old Ghanaian driver, with five years of experience driving the road between Bondoukou and Sampa, replied:

Sure, that can happen, especially for a person whom I know and respect. If the passenger doesn’t have the money and I see that the agents are causing problems, I can take money from my pocket to give to the agents. When we arrive, if the person pays me back I accept it, but if not I do not make a case out of it.

Interestingly, Moussa mentions that because he has such long-standing relations with the agents on the road that when they know it is he who is paying on behalf of a passenger, they often do not collect the money.

The preceding examples demonstrate that drivers make decisions about how to allocate resources from passengers to agents (Wellman, 1979), groups with asymmetrical power relations (Krissman, 2005). They try to minimise the amount exchanged from passenger to agent through a variety of strategies, assuring that the passenger will cross the border, or mobility control checkpoint, and make it to his or her destination. However, agents and drivers are not equals in terms of power either, as Idrissa, a older Malian driver with 29 years of experience on the road as a chauffeur of both passenger and goods vehicles explains: “Here, in Mali, we the drivers are like fruit for the agents. They do what they want to us and no one can talk”. He is referring to the amount of money that drivers pay to security agents. Drivers not only make financial arrangements for their passengers but often have to pay themselves as well, especially when their vehicles are not properly documented or insured.

Sometimes, if agents are not willing to let passengers without proper papers (or even passengers with proper papers in certain areas) go without paying, and neither the passenger nor the driver has the money to pay, drivers engage in long negotiations, asking the agents to excuse the passengers. Abdoul, a 46-year-old Ivorian driver with 15 years of experience, describes spending as much as two hours at a time at certain checkpoints:

I always make do so that the passengers can leave with me because they have already paid. All drivers are not the same, but with me, we go together. One time I was taking a person without any papers or money. We spent almost two hours asking the agents to let us go. The other passengers insulted me so much they tired themselves out. But the person had already paid his fare. When the agents saw that I was pleading with them so much, eventually they let us go.

Quite simply, Djehou, a 27 year-old transporter in northern Côte d’Ivoire, states that “between the passengers and agents, if the driver himself is not beside the passenger, he will not arrive at his destination.”

In some cases drivers’ determination and patience win out over the agents’ agenda, be it to make undocumented passengers pay official fines, or asking passengers to pay other sums of money. However, for the most part, transportation workers’ ability to intervene on behalf of their passengers and act as their intermediary with security forces is predicated on the relationships they maintain with the agents on the road. This is clearly a contested relationship in which drivers must protect their passengers, and their own economic interests against agents, but it is also a relationship that transportation workers characterize as friendly, or as an alliance. Salif, a Malian driver with 10 years experience on the road, says that the security agents have become like his relatives after years of interacting on the road. Mama, for example, explains that from his point of view the agents are kind, because if they wanted to they could totally block the drivers, whose vehicles lack proper papers, from working at all. Because of the economic downturn in the region, caused by the problems in Côte d’Ivoire, transportation workers’ revenues are down. This, coupled with rising oil prices, means that many drivers who would prefer to properly insure their vehicles and pay for other complete documents, must remain without proper documentation. In fact, of the seven Burkinabe drivers I interviewed, only one had a complete set of documents at the time of the interview. Owing to the rebellion, none of the Ivorian drivers did. Tiyi, an Ivorian driver with 12 years of experience in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, refers to the security agents as his “brothers” who make his tasks easier by helping him find solutions to the problems posed by the Ivorian rebellion. In particular, he and the other Ivorian drivers note that Burkinabe agents have become increasingly relaxed with drivers whose vehicles lack proper documentation because they realise the difficulties Ivorians are facing living in the rebel-held north where there are no functioning social services, and the problems Burkinabe drivers are facing due to falling clientele.

Giving gifts and rendering services

To create and maintain positive relationships with security agents, transportation workers provide them with a number of services and favours. Moussa describes the need to “pamper” the agents in Côte d’Ivoire, while Dou, a Malian driver who has worked for 15 years in transportation, refers to how drivers “gently flatter” agents so as to be on good terms with them. Drivers often transport security agents and/or their relatives free of charge and bring them items back from other areas where they are less expensive. For example, the Ghanaian drivers bring gasoline into Côte d’Ivoire for security agents. Some drivers take items to the city to be repaired or charged while others simply bring gifts of bread, beverages, yams, or other items to agents. Tiyi states clearly his position related to the requests he receives from security agents:

Everything they ask of me, I accept. Why? Because of my passengers. If it’s just for me, I know that it’s a small fine that we can take care of between us…. With passengers it’s not the same thing. What we can understand, a passenger cannot understand. So we are obliged to submit to the agents so we can take care of our passengers.

The other drivers describe similarly the reasons they render so many services to the security agents on the road. Amadou says that if the agent tries to ask the passengers for money he will be ashamed to do so in front of a driver who has treated him well. Similarly, Ousman claims that when the agent looks at an undocumented passenger all he will see are the favours the driver has done for him and he will let the person go. Indeed, as network analysis indicates, these relationships are not merely characterized by simple hierarchies, but involve complex elements of reciprocity as well. Oftentimes security agents need drivers’ services, especially because they are somewhat immobile owing to their careers – they are often stationed in rural zones for weeks at time with little or no access to the goods and services of the city. They need drivers to bring them items they need or desire.

Seeing this, Djehou, an Ivorian driver, turns the notion of submitting to security agents on its head: “It is up to the chauffeur to appease tensions between passenger and agent. And because of the driver’s regularity, the agent is obliged to submit and to let him pass.” Regardless of who is submitting to whom, Ousman says it precisely, “You know, the police and the drivers, they are one people. We eat together”.


As I have shown for this sub-region in West Africa, there exists a common set of rules and understandings that govern the ways in which drivers, passengers, and security agents interact. They operate in a series of structured relationships, which can be described as institutionalized, and which create a series of important exchanges governing mobility in the region. As there is significant room for development and refinement of migrant networks theories, especially in Africa, where their application has been sparse, this approach extends the limited scope of a networks approach to migration. Benefiting from the lessons of network theory, and an institutional approach to migration, which looks at migration from a Third World perspective, this article demonstrates some important aspects of the way in which networks operate in migration in West Africa. The interactions occurring between driver, agents, and passengers at international borders and internal mobility control checkpoints are structured by patterns of relationships -- which only operate because of their interdependence. They occur within complex networks, not simply involving a pair of actors, that distribute resources according to systems of dependency and power. The relationships between drivers and passengers, and drivers and security agents, depend on a reciprocity that defies simple hierarchies. These networks operate to create a system in which passengers in West African transportation can rely on the assistance of drivers (and sometimes on other passengers), even those to with whom they have no pre-existing connection -- indeed these are institutionalized ties, not personal or community ones. This institutionalization, organized according to the needs and objectives of the various groups involved, serves to guarantee that drivers have passengers to transport, agents are making extra money on the road, and passengers are arriving at their destination, papers or not. Being based largely on “weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973) this institutionalization expands the scope of migrants’ community-based networks, assisting them even then when they are travelling far from home, or where they know no one.

The article presented here, contributes to an overall analysis that makes several important contributions to social science theory, methodology and to our knowledge of African mobility. First, this project is a multi-sited cross-national ethnography of an understudied social process. No other ethnography of migration conducted thus far in West Africa (e.g., Amselle, 1978; Fièloux, 1981; de Haan et al., 2002), has attempted to use as extensive a multi-national approach as the one employed here, nor has any study on African borders applied a comparative approach (e.g., Flynn, 1997; Lentz, 2003; Miles and Rochefort, 1991; Nugent, 2002). In addition, the majority of countries this research addresses are former French colonies, which are inadequately treated in the English-language anthropological and sociological literatures (Cordell et al., 1996). As a part of the world that many Western researchers have tended to neglect due to linguistic limitations and cultural unfamiliarity, this understudied region will prove particularly interesting for assessing existing understandings of mobility in general, and in Africa in particular.

By empirically documenting what is going on at West African security checkpoints and international borders, this research has important policy implications as well. Standardizing mobility control procedures, and strengthening uniformity across countries, would assist in the free movement of persons in the region (which has long been a goal of West African regional and economic institutions), as well as the movement of goods since so many mobile people in West Africa are travelling with items for trade. Both the Republique du Mali (RM) (2005) and Côte d’Ivoire (RCI, 2005) note the importance of transportation in poverty reduction strategies and highlight the problems associated with road blocks and security in hindering trade. In addition, security checks and the abuses of agents towards northern passengers played an important role in the Ivorian rebellion, and the consequent restructuring of security in the Ivorian north. It is important to reform abusive practices to prevent similar problems from developing in other regions, particularly in southern Mali where security agents seem to be taking more and more liberties in extracting money from passengers and drivers.

However, these factors do not absolve individual passengers of their responsibilities to respect the laws of their countries and of the countries in which they travel. Because of the structured patterns of interaction determined by the common understandings described in this paper, passengers tend to be able to predict how much they will pay on the road between origin and destination depending on the status of their documents. For those who travel regularly, it is often beneficial to maintain proper documents, and many do. But for those who travel less frequently, the decision to remain without proper papers reflects a cost-benefit decision in which the price and administrative inconvenience associated with obtaining documents outweighs the price and inconvenience of traveling without proper papers. Some passengers therefore simply neglect to get papers, even though they could if they wished. However, others, especially those with low levels of literacy (a very significant proportion in this part of the world), would benefit from information sharing and sensitization activities to help them realize the value of proper documents. Finally, the costs of making proper documents (which include paying for photos, paying administrative fees and reproducing official documents) makes them unattainable for many marginalized groups, in particular younger women and elders of both genders. Therefore, procedures to reduce the costs of making identification papers and to facilitate the process of obtaining them would greatly ease movements in the sub-region.

Finally, this article makes an important contribution to studying movement on the African continent, and elsewhere. By bringing structures and experiences of transportation and processes of border crossings into the same frame of reference as migration and migrant networks, this study contributes to the vast literature on African migration and on networks in unique ways. This approach, instead of viewing migration as a system and analyzing its determinant and consequences, sees migration through an interactional lens, as a process.


I would like to thank Peter Adler, Molly George, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Jennifer Hubbert and the anonymous reviewers and editorial staff of this journal for their comments on this work. Funding that made research possible was provided by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the UCSB Department of Sociology, and the AED David L Boren Program.

  • 1

    For Guilmoto and Sandron (2001: 142), an institution is “a set of socioeconomic rules … that seek to define the conditions in which choices, individual or collective, regarding allocation and utilization of resources can take place.” Their explanation of the functions of these migration institutions echo the findings on the ways in which migrant networks operate to assist migrants and perpetuate migration systems in the face of changing political and economic circumstances.

  • 2

    The French term transport en commun is more directly translated as “mass transportation” in English; however, this term does not accurately reflect the situation of African transportation. I prefer the term public transportation, although this is not to imply that these are public services subsidized or provided by states.

  • 3

    All names presented here are pseudonyms. I have retained a name that represents the ethnic and/or national background of the informant. In most cases, these can also indicate religion.

  • 4

    During the over 10,000 miles travelled in my ethnographic research I only saw two passengers ever left behind by transportation workers in any context. The first was a young man who had “stolen” a wife against the will of her family. The incident was reported, and the police arrested the young man. In the second case, a young mendicant was traveling the completely opposite direction of his destination, and the drivers passed on off to an appropriate vehicle.

  • 5

    A bachet is generally a Peugeot pickup truck that has been converted to carry passengers. Benches are placed in the back and a baggage rack is fixed above the benches.

  • 6

    In my interviews with passengers, many think it is normal to leave some money with the security agents along the road, even when their papers are in order. They describe their contributions as helping agents get some lunch, tea, or water as they sit in the hot sun working all day. In addition, in my interviews with transportation workers, only two ever used to term “corruption.” Instead, these exchanges are usually referred to as “arrangements,”“leaving some money,” or “managing the road.” Although the passengers and drivers do not see paying agents as “bribery” or “corruption,” of course from the perspective of their governments, this behaviour is indeed illegal. In particular, in the nationalist territory in southern Côte d’Ivoire these exchanges represent undue payment – what we would normally refer to as bribes. However, in the rebel-help north, there are currently no functioning civil services issuing and renewing identity cards. Since Northerners are unable to renew expired cards, they are there mostly carrying cards that have expired since the rebellion of 2002. For this reason, I am reluctant to refer uniformly to these exchanges as bribery because in many instances there are no proper channels currently existing and passengers’ lack of proper documentation is largely not a choice. Many in Côte d’Ivoire are living and travelling in a rather lawless zone. Additionally, Brachet (2005) notes that in many instances in Niger, and I witnessed this in Mali as well, the fact of being asked to pay money, and the amounts exchanged are not necessarily related to a passengers’ lack of documentation. In many cases passengers with proper documents pay the same or more as non-documented passengers depending on their national origin or apparent wealth.