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In Guinea Bissau, Mercedes Benz is poor man’s car

For a first time visitor to Guinea Bissau, a country in West Africa which borders Senegal to the north and Guinea to the south and…

For a first time visitor to Guinea Bissau, a country in West Africa which borders Senegal to the north and Guinea to the south and east, will notice so many striking disparities with Nigeria. Whereas in Nigeria, Mercedes Benz car is still seen as a big man’s luxury car yet it is not regarded as such in Guinea Bissau, a poor and struggling country which receives much of foreign loans and supports to run their crisis-torn economy.
Nigerian diplomats serving in the country as well as military and Police personnel currently leading other soldiers from Burkina Faso and Senegal in the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) military in Bissau that brought their Mercedes Benz to the country are unable to drive them because it does not carry such dignifying aura as in Nigeria. And so, they have either parked or returned them home. And there are no rail lines in the country.
Throughout Bissau and beyond, Mercedes Benz cars are used as taxi cabs. There are many of them on the streets of Bissau. The passengers themselves do not like to board any other kind of cars other than the Benz to their destinations.
In fact, other kinds of vehicles used as taxis are not many on the streets compared with Mercedes Benz.  They are painted blue and white and are conspicuous and ubiquitous.
There are the old version of Mercedes Benz as well as the popular ‘baby Benz’ and the ‘Vee Boot’ Mercedes Benz. Many are old and rickety while there are not too old ones which ply these urban and dusty streets of Bissau. Not many have air-conditioners. And they rarely wind up their window glasses.
Investigations confirmed that the government public transport regulatory authority specifically preferred the Mercedes Benz brands to other form of vehicles as taxi cabs because they are wide-bodied and presentable.
According to Vierra Carlos who works in the national Policia authority in Bissau, the Benz gives their country a good image and easily disguises their standing as a poor West African country.
Speaking through an interpreter, Carlos said, “We like to use the Mercedes Benz as taxi cabs in our country. The government has approved of it. We are not very rich but the car can show the public that we are big and rich.  And as you can see, everybody likes it and they travel in it throughout the country.”
To ride in the Mercedes Benz taxi in Bissau is costlier compare with the buses. A passenger pays as much as CFA200 as against CFA100 in buses irrespective of the distance. As a rule, they use seat belt and do not overload like in Nigeria where road officials persuade drivers and passengers to use the seat belt, or where the drivers would squeeze in four passengers at the back seat and two in the front seat meant for one.
Although traffic is not orderly in the capital, but traffic police in Bissau are very strict with traffic rules.
Many do not wear official uniforms but lurk around.  They would quickly surface whenever any motorists flout the rule. They would then blow their whistles to signal that the one should stop immediately or, like in Nigeria, accost the driver and order for his papers and then go for the keys.
Neither do they spare the Mercedes Benz which appears to be their official taxi cabs even though private people are free to introduce or convert theirs for the purpose nor the public mini buses which too are ubiquitous.
Despite their seeming strict posture, at Chapa roundabout in Bissau not too far from Hotel Libya on the road leading to the Bissau Airport, the gendarmes and traffic officers make brisk business from defaulting drivers and motorists.
Our guide and host, Emeka Nweze who has been living in Bissau for seven years and an official of the Nigerian Community in Guinea Bissau said “Even though I do not mind whether it is Mercedes benz taxis or not, I board anyone that comes up immediately. It is true that they charge higher fares but they are also readily available. It is better to patronize them. They are registered and have a union so that they do not perpetuate crimes. They are not restricted compare with other taxis.”
He said it is only in Nigeria that people highly regard the Mercedes Benz as cars for the rich. “Here, they may not have such porch and glittering cars as in Nigeria but they do not see Mercedes Benz as a luxurious car or one meant for the rich. The common man, everybody rides in Mercedes Benz cars.  It is for the common people as public taxi.”