Despite the adoption of the first protocol to the Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment in May 1979 by member-states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the region is far from the actualisation of the objectives of the protocol due to the non compliance by member states.
The protocol, which at its first adoption, offered a three-step roadmap of five years each to achieve freedom of movement of persons after fifteen years, is grossly neglected by security and agencies at the various borders across the ECOWAS region due to entrenched corruption in the system and lack of political will by governments.
At present, citizens from the region pay different illegal fees at the borders to get their passports stamped and even higher fees for those without passports despite the ECOWAS Passport introduced in December 2000 to exempt holders from intra-regional visa requirements and to function as an international travel document.
The worst is that movement of goods, services and projects across the region is hampered by the many administrative bottlenecks, work/residence permits, many charges/fees, multiple roadblocks, trucks permits among others that impede trade and travel integration across ECOWAS, and further resulting in the loss of an estimated annually revenue of $10 billion from poor trade and travel exchanges in the region.
As well, the total money extorted from passengers in the name of passport stamping and illegal fees paid by truck drivers at the ECOWAS borders is estimated at over $800 million a month, with barley 20 percent going to government treasury due to the illegality of the fees.
While the longest distance in the region by road is Dakar in Senegal (3570 kilometers), it takes longer to cross the 460 kilometers distance between Nigeria and Ghana due too many barriers installed by corrupt officials to extort money from unsuspecting citizens of ECOWAS.
Seme Border, between Nigeria and Benin Republic is rated the worst of all the borders in the region in terms of numbers of barricades, extortion of money, waste of man-hour and poor facilities, according BorderWise, an international border survey outfit.
At present, there are 16 barricades travellers have to cross at both sides of the Seme Borders with each passenger paying an average of N2000. The fees, which exclude N5000 for passengers without passports, and N2000 for virgin passports, are not constant. “Some days I pay N400 at the Nigerian side of Seme Border to stamp the passports of my 10 passengers, 700 cefa at the Benin side of the border, but I have never been given receipts for the money paid since my five years on this route”, driver of an Accra-bound commercial bus said.
However, it is different story at Hila Conji, the border between Benin Republic and Togo. The border officials extort 1000 cefa from each passenger and refuse to stamp the passports of travellers who refuse to pay, delay the driver or threaten to impound trucks whose drivers argue on the amount to pay for settlement.
Aflao Border, between Ghana and Togo is rated the best for the fast services, neatness and the preciseness of the Ghanaian immigration, a virtue that did not rub-off on the Togolese immigration. “The Ghanaian Immigration collects 3 cedi to stamp in each passenger, but they will tell you why they do so and offer you receipt if you insist. I like their approach, they do not insult like their folks in Hila Conji and Seme borders”, Emeka Onyeka, another driver on the Lagos-Accra route, said.
But Veronica Monye, a regular traveller on the Lagos- Abidjan route (a further 984 kilometers), queried the payment of fees no matter how little. “If ECOWAS protocol supports free movement of goods and citizens of member states, why are we paying? She asked.
“It is time the region wakes up like the East Africa region that is enjoying overflow of domestic traffic and the South African countries block that are booming with regional trade integration. That is also why we are using Accra Weizo, a travel expo, to encourage seamless travel across the West African region. If 10 percent of the over 300 million population of ECOWAS travels within, the region will prosper, but you need to stop the restrictions at the borders”, Ikechi Uko, a travel expert, said.
In line with Ikechi, Monye also noted that ensuring strict compliance to the ECOWAS protocol on free movement will see many corrupt border officials sacked, barriers opened, extortion reduced, cut time of travel, and revenue leakages blocked.
“Governments across the region should show seriousness at stopping the madness and corruption at the borders. The present administration in Nigeria should show example as many people are looking up to Nigeria, especially now it claims to fight corruption. The new border facility at Seme Border is world class, so why allow corrupt officials to stall its opening with flimsy excuses of security and skilled capacity”, she opined.
As Monye rightly observed, it baffles that the ultramodern border facility financed by the European Union at Seme Border is yet to open after months of completion. While the average travellers calls on both governments to settle their differences and open the facility to truly aid seamless movement, the border securities and agencies on the other hand, are not happy sanity has finally come to deny them access to illegitimate fees, which many are using to build houses, live large and also bride their superiors to remain at the borders, seen as juicy posting.