THE BLOG
18/10/2013 10:39 BST | Updated 15/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Detained in DR Congo

Last week I was detained in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My crime? Taking a photograph of a vegetable stall. Taking photos is officially illegal in Congo, though the law does not count for much here.

A guy in a Manchester United top took me into the police shed and sat us down. Though suspicious of the legitimacy of this self-proclaimed undercover officer, I was hardly in a position to bargain.

For the next 20 minutes the guys in the police station argued amongst themselves as to what course of action should be taken for this heinous act. Eventually, someone in uniform walks in and sits down behind a desk. The room fell quiet as he called us over and explained that the reason I had been detained was because they suspected I did not have the correct documents.

Firstly he asked for my passport, and then my invitation letter. I produced both. Other bystanders present in the room went on to suggest other documents I should be asked to produce. Eventually, the suggestion was made that I produce my 'Environmental Permit'. This is not a document that exists, but in the theatre of Congolese corruption, it provided a perfect excuse for a spot of casual extortion.

The guy in uniform burst into a rage, ranting on presumably about the audacity of a Westerner visiting his market without thinking to bring along his environmental permit.

Meanwhile, some other guy was brought in. He started crying. All the cells behind us appeared to be full so he was locked in the toilet with another chap. It was all getting a bit heated.

This farce continued for another three hours. More and more 'officials' turned up, with their eyes on the prize of whatever they would manage to extort out of us. The commander explained to me that due to our proximity to the front line, they feared we were spies for the M23 rebels.

I'm not sure how stupid they thought the rebels were, but I am pretty sure no rebel group would be dumb enough to employ a 6 foot 4 westerner and send him to an area where many people have not seen a westerner before in person for the purpose of taking photographs of vegetable stalls. Pretty conspicuous.

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A friendlier face of Congolese security: the (sadly drunk) security guard at my hotel. I thought it safest to befriend him.

Of course, the reason I was detained was not due to the illegality of photography, nor to my lack of an environmental permit, nor even to my employment as a rebel spy. It is all theatre; corruption has become cultural. And when state officials are not paid, as is the case in Congo, who can blame them?

I was eventually extorted of 20 dollars, and as I left the fighting began over how this money would be divided out commenced. This is the reality of daily life for Congolese.

Investment is needed to construct stable non-corrupt institutions. But without the assurance that investment won't just be lost to corruption - as much of it will and is - investors will continue to stay away from Congo. Breaking this corruption trap is one of the biggest problems facing the country.