HARBEL, Margibi – When traveling out of the country, many Liberians like to take locally made food products with them, as their family members abroad rarely have access to the food of their homeland.
Open their luggage and the smells of dried fish, palm oil, dried meat, and spices start to permeate the air. But once travelers arrive at the Roberts International Airports, they often face unnecessary hassles and procedures lacking transparency from airport screeners. Many travelers interviewed said they found many of the procedures to be unnecessary and seemed purposely designed to extract bribes from passengers.
Maima David, a woman in her 50s and a resident of Harbel, told The Bush Chicken that when she last visited her son in the United States of America, she was forced to pay US$10 because she was carrying a gallon of palm oil. She said a baggage handler assisting her said she needed a certificate from an agent of the Ministry of Agriculture that cost US$5. The balance money, he told her, would be used to pay off the screener in the terminal, who is an employee of the airport.
An airport employee, who would only speak anonymously, said airport screeners make a significant amount of money by charging travelers carrying food items. The employee said screeners will make up a variety of reasons why a passenger’s luggage is not fit to travel to coax the traveler into paying bribes.
For instance, the source said screeners could determine that the meat the person is travelling with is not dry enough, and the passenger would resolve to bribing that agent.
On other occasions, screeners will say they cannot allow palm oil, without giving any specific reasons.
The reasons given for soliciting bribes are never posted publicly in any space, whether on a government website, or along the walls of the terminal. On one occasion, a Bush Chicken personnel traveling outside the country asked for a document providing a listing of prohibited items. An airport screener responded with, “It used to be on the wall here, but it fell down.” Meanwhile, along the wall was the usual list of prohibited items such as a firearm and explosives.
Andrew Jimmy, a former agent of Delta Airlines, said these issues travelers have with food items are solely created by airport screeners and the airlines and their staff do not share the same concerns. He said most of the pressure comes from the screeners who create unnecessary protocols to get money from the travelers.
On its website, Brussels Airlines prohibits food products that are perishable, such as cheese and fresh or frozen meat. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines prohibits “any products of animal origin” while Kenya Airways and Royal Air Maroc do not list any food products as prohibited.
Ebenezer Mass Wilson, coordinator of media and public relations at the Liberia Airport Authority, operator of the Roberts International Airport, told The Bush Chicken that the issue of travelling with food items is coordinated by personnel of the Ministry of Agriculture and the airlines on which the travelers are flying.
He said the airport, as the facility provider, ensures that the items are screened in keeping with aviation standards.
“LAA/RIA has in place a non-solicitation policy to which all personnel comply,” he said, adding that “allegations of extortion on the part of personnel of RIA/LAA are farfetched.”
When The Bush Chicken contacted the head of quarantine of the Ministry of Agriculture assigned at the Roberts International Airport, James Cooper, he declined to speak on a variety of issues, including charging travelers transporting food stuff. He referred all questions to the central ministry.
Meanwhile, Michael Brown, a young Liberian in his early 30s, told The Bush Chicken that whenever he takes food stuff to his sister in the U.S., he gets his friends who are screeners at the airport to help ensure he does not run into problems.
“I do not waste my time on these so-called inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture or Health. They just scheme on passengers with food stuff and charge whatever comes out of their mouth and thereafter, give them a fake paper that they are clear to travel with their food stuff,” Brown added.
When contacted, the Ministry of Health’s Sorbor George said he did not yet have enough information to speak on the specific issues. He promised to do his research and get back with more information.
Featured photo courtesy of Jefferson Krua