The idea of free movement within West Africa has long been touted as a catalyst for regional integration, economic growth, and social development. The establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975 aimed to facilitate this vision by promoting the free movement of people, goods, and services across member states. However, despite decades of efforts, the reality on the ground reveals that free movement in West Africa is still a myth. Various barriers, including bureaucratic hurdles, security concerns, and limited infrastructure, continue to hinder the effective implementation of free movement protocols. On a roadtrip last week from Benin Republic to Ghana, the experience was horrible with our multinational team.
We were joined in Cotonou on Sunday by a Nigerian colleague who did not complain much about his experience at the border between his country and Benin. But the nightmare started when we commenced the trip to Accra, the capital of Ghana.
Infrastructure Deficiencies and Limited Connectivity
One of the significant obstacles to free movement in West Africa is the inadequate infrastructure and limited connectivity within the region. This journey of more than 345 km weakened us enormously physically despite the fact that we had a stop in Togo. Most of the road accidents we have noticed while traveling could be avoided if the roads were smoother and there were enough overpasses for pedestrians at the necessary points. After leaving the capital of Benin, we did not find any footbridge until Lomé where some are under construction. Ditto for the areas far from the capital in the next country. “I wonder if those in these areas have wings to fly across the highway.”
Poor road networks, inefficient border crossings, and the absence of reliable transportation systems hinder the movement of people and goods. Traveling across West African countries often involves arduous journeys, long delays at border checkpoints, and high transportation costs. Insufficient investment in infrastructure development and connectivity projects has hampered efforts to promote seamless movement within the region.
Free movement in West Africa: Bureaucratic Hurdles and Inadequate Policies
At Hilacondji (the border between Togo and Benin in the south) there was a long queue of vehicles waiting to complete formalities to continue their journey. “The most annoying part of my job is the hassle at the borders” complained a driver of a long vehicle who spent the night there.
On the side of the Beninese immigration service, our Ghanaian colleague was almost robbed by an individual who stood close to the police to ask for money before letting him pass. It is suspected that he is complicit with the immigration officers since it happened in front of them. Nevertheless, our companion ignored him, and continued walking through the border without even being interrupted by the security personnel. I had simply shown my identity card and the police let me in. My Nigerian colleague did the same.
On the side of the Togolese officials, each of us was asked to present the yellow fever cards or to pay 1000 CFA francs ( $1.6). It was a long line since they asked for a COVID-19 vaccination card too. At the immigration office, I crossed after presenting my ID, but all my foreign colleagues were asked for 1000F CFA each. Basically, “either you pay or you don’t get in”. “No one is allowed to take out their camera!” “Be careful, not even your mobile phone!”. It didn’t even seem worth arguing with the officers. I didn’t have the privilege as a national to help them. I was told to take a distance from them. My team finally paid 1500 FCFA for both before we were allowed to continue the journey together.
A similar situation occurred when we were entering Ghana through Aflao the following day. Foreigners are also constantly victims of this scourge. You have to pay and repay. Yes! To stamp my passport I was asked to pay 20 GH cedis ($1.7). And to just enter with the ID card? “Master, you still need to pay! You cannot just enter for free,” blurted out one of the agents while the other left his arm outstretched and moving his fingers in the interval of a few seconds. Eventually we had to pay 40 Ghana cedis for both of us foreigners.
The yellow fever vaccination card is also required here. We showed them and the journey continued. But paying is not done! In Sogakope, about 108 km from Accra, there is another checkpoint which delays travelers.
Our driver was pulled over. The immigration officers had subsequently approached the bus to question each of the passengers where they came from. All foreigners were ordered to go to the office, a room near the road, to “settle their account”. “20 cedis or your bus will leave you”. Here, everyone paid except a lady. She insisted on understanding the reason why she had to pay despite getting her passport stamped at the border.
While ECOWAS has made significant strides in developing policies to facilitate free movement, the practical implementation remains lackluster, member states have been slow to adopt and fully integrate these policies into their national frameworks. Inconsistent interpretation, application, and enforcement of protocols, such as the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, undermine the concept of free movement. Cumbersome visa requirements, complex residency procedures, and excessive documentation demands persist, impeding the smooth movement of people across borders.
Security Concerns and Fragmented Border Control
In recent years, security concerns have further complicated the achievement of free movement in West Africa. The rise of terrorism, transnational organized crime, and smuggling activities has prompted member states to tighten border controls and security measures. While security is undoubtedly essential, the implementation of stringent border controls often leads to harassment, extortion, and delays for legitimate travelers. The lack of coordination and intelligence sharing among security agencies across borders exacerbates security challenges and inhibits the free movement of people.
Economic Implications and Missed Opportunities
The failure to achieve free movement in West Africa has severe economic consequences. Restricted movement inhibits cross-border trade, slows down regional integration, and limits the potential for economic growth. The inability of businesses to access regional markets easily hampers investment and stifles entrepreneurship. The free movement of skilled labor is essential for addressing skills gaps and promoting knowledge transfer, but barriers prevent the movement of professionals, limiting opportunities for economic development and innovation.
The Way Forward for Free movement within ECOWAS
To transform the myth of free movement into a reality, concerted efforts are required from both ECOWAS and its member states. Harmonization of policies and their effective implementation should be prioritized. This entails streamlining visa procedures, simplifying residency requirements, and reducing bureaucratic obstacles. Strengthening security cooperation among member states is crucial to address common threats while ensuring the protection of human rights and facilitating legitimate movement. Additionally, investment in infrastructure development and connectivity projects is essential to enhance mobility and trade within the region.
Despite the aspirations of regional integration and economic growth, free movement in West Africa remains an elusive goal. Bureaucratic hurdles, security concerns, infrastructure deficiencies, and limited connectivity continue to hinder the progress towards achieving seamless movement within the region. It is imperative for ECOWAS and its member states to tackle this issue.
By Yaou Mensah Agbenou