Piranhas prowl in Kinshasa: Richard Dowden fights his way into the capital on his trip round Zaire

ABOUT a dozen people stood at the bottom of the aircraft steps, but this was not a welcoming committee. Their upturned eyes sized up the passengers with a look of greed and malevolence. A kindly Zairean couple I had met on the plane warned me to stay close to them and I shuffled on in their wake clutching my bag tightly. Between the aircraft and the terminal building, many attempted to 'help' me.

Having been in the country for a week, I was beginning to comprehend Zaire's privatised tax-gathering system in which civil servants collect their own wages. As I left Kisangani, even though this was an internal flight, the local immigration officer had taken my passport into his office and invited me in. It was all very courteous but I wanted him to make the first move. He thumbed through the passport pages twice and then solemnly read the magnificent copper-plate statement which says: 'Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty to allow the Bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the Bearer such assistance and protection . . .' etc.

I realised I was not going to pass freely and it was I who was going to do the affording. The only question was how much? I offered a handful of money. He counted it and looked up disdainfully. I dug into my pocket again. 'Is that all?' he asked. I shrugged and smiled. He gave back my passport with the air of a man who has been done down, even insulted.

Kinshasa's main airport, Ndjili, is the epitome of Zaire's kleptocracy. It has the reputation of a pool of piranhas. A colleague lost everything at gunpoint not long ago. Here, however, I had a saviour. Victor Ubogo is built like his near- namesake, Victor Ubogu, the England prop forward, and uses much the same techniques in getting from one end of Ndjili to the other.

He works for a British company as the 'protocol officer' at the airport and the company had kindly lent him to play for the Independent. He grabbed me by the arm, gave me a huge smile and swept off at a terrific rate, Ndjili's 'officials' bouncing off him. At one point he turned away from me and two men in uniform swooped, one demanding that I open my bag, the other that I go with him. Victor saw them off.

By the time we reached customs, Victor had accumulated some other players: a bag-carrier whom he said was reliable and his 'brother' who was even bigger than Victor. We formed a wedge. Victor strode past the customs officer talking all the time in a gabble of French and Lingala, the local language. Hands were outstretched towards me but Victor turned and in a rolling maul, pulled me through and then drew the man with my bag past the officers. His brother pushed from behind. Victor never stopped talking.

The line was in sight, we had reached the exit door when we were cut off by four officials in suits. They insisted we accompany them to an office. Victor argued and shouted, but to no avail. In the small side room I was invited to sit down - always a sign that negotiations are about to start. Victor never stopped arguing but in among the torrent of words I heard him say a word which made my blood freeze: journalist. I had been warned never to tell a Zairean official that I was a journalist. They are said to be touchy about their image in the Western press just now.

They set about my bags with gusto but I had, as usual, packed repulsively unwashed clothes at the top. It worked and they were deflected to my passport and documents. Victor banged the table and shouted names of top officials he knew. One of them, like a magic spell, worked - and suddenly we were released.

The week before Victor had got a visitor all the way through only to be stopped by an official who said that if he had paid everyone off he must have something to hide. He wanted to arrest the visitor for bribery. Finally he was persuaded not to pursue this corruption - for a small fee.