It stipulated the right of citizens to enter, reside and establish economic activities in the territory of other member states and offers a three step roadmap of five years each to achieve the freedom of movement of persons within fifteen years. The first phase regards the right of visa-free entry, phase two deals with the right of residency, and phase three concerns the right of establishment in another member state. The first phase has been fully implemented. The second phase, the right of residency, has also been implemented, given that citizens had obtained an ECOWAS residence card or permit in fellow member states. The third phase, the right of establishment, is still being implemented in most member states.
But 40 years since the noble idea was muted, movement across the borders has remained largely a nightmare. The situation became worse with the rapid increase in population in West Africa and the attendant pressure from thousands of travellers as they demand for realtime attention at the points of documentation and facilitation. Although tourism was not listed officially as an important economic activity in West Africa then, its ascendancy as a global player and important foreign exchange earner, has made it a new occupation, indeed, a low-hanging fruit waiting to be plucked in the region. With about 280 million people, 40 airports, 15 countries, 10 per cent of the total travel transactions in Africa happens in West Africa but out of the 5 per cent of global tourism that comes to Africa, West Africa has zero percentage because of the constraints to seamless travel within the sub-region. Its slow growth can also be traced to the general lack of understanding of what tourism really means and how the travel business should be conducted. Some of the factors affecting its development include lack of promotion, extortion along the routes, poor facilitation, challenges of documentation, and outlandish behaviour of security agencies at the borders. The absence of basic road infrastructure has equally brought frustrations to those who shuttle across the borders daily and it is even worse for long distance travellers and transporters who deploy their vehicles and staff and also offer services to keep the regional economies running. A first time visitor from Lagos to Accra, for instance, who is not familiar with the challenges of driving through the borders, may be in for a huge surprise, a disappointment, that will eventually negate all the ‘good tales’ being told about the warmth and hospitality of sister countries like Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Liberia, The Gambia etc.
It is to ameliorate these issues that every year, Accra Weizo, a dedicated tourism event, holds in Ghana as a forum to promote seamless travel in West Africa. Mr. Ikechi Uko, publisher of Africa Travel Quarterly Magazine and organiser of the event said Accra Weizo is an avenue to promote tourism in West Africa. For this year’s event, the Ghana Tourism Authority(GTA), in collaboration with the organizers of Weizo, arranged a 3-day familiarization tour for delegates to Greater Accra, Eastern and Volta Regions, among other side attractions. On June 19, 2018 a team of Travel Writers from Nigeria, left Lagos by road in a chartered bus operated by ABC Transport en route to Ho, capital city of the Volta Region. If you are going from Nigeria by road, for instance, apart from buying your ticket, first time travellers pay N2,000 extra to ‘disvirgin’ their passport. And even if you are a regular flyer, you must pay for your passport to be stamped and if you don’t have a yellow card, you pay additional N400. This also applies to those with ECOWAS travel document. Drivers claim that the money is used to ‘settle’ the security men at the borders. And this is true as we discovered during the trip that money exchanged hands from time to time at the posts, starting from the Nigerian side at Seme and ending at the Togo side of the Aflao border. As we drove on, I noticed that between Vespa bus stop on the Badagry expressway and Seme border, there were more than 20 posts manned by the various agencies, Police, Custom, Immigration, NDLEA, Port Health, DSS, all of them protecting their area of jurisdiction and turning those spots into cashcows. I noticed that we stopped as soon as we passed the bridge before the Suntan Beach Badagry. Here the driver announced that we would spend some time to enable him sort out our documents. “Passengers, please go down and ease yourselves, and also stretch your legs, we will spend about 20 minutes here before we continue.” So, he went away with our passports and some money, Naira notes. While waiting for the driver, I observed that a luxurious bus owned by Chisco Transport (Nig.) Limited that was ahead of us and had been cleared by the security men, turned right into a road that I knew led to the deep sea port under construction. Not long after, another big bus followed the same route.
When our driver came back, we boarded the vehicle and after one more stop, this time at the post manned by officials from Port Health department, we proceeded to Seme. At the border, the story was the same, the driver must ‘drop’ something before the passports are stamped. Well, as travel writers, we soaked in every activity with our phones and accessories, because we felt that what was happening was contrary to the current zero tolerance for corruption of the Buhari regime, but here we are witnessing high dealings at borders used by all sorts of people, even those from other countries.
The road across Seme border, currently in use, is in a poor shape. That is why only small buses of 18 passengers and below, cars and carts as well as motorcycles ply the bumpy, rough, waterlogged route. As it were, luxurious buses no longer pass through Seme. They make a detour, some kilometres after Badagry and drive up to Idiroko border and then cross over to Porto Novo side of Benin Republic. This merry-go-round, prolongs each trip and it can only be imagined what cost the operators write off as they struggle to keep travellers on the road, just because Seme border is not passable. Our journey from Seme through Cotonou to Togo was uneventful. Apart from the ‘settlements’ at the Benin side of Seme, we had a smooth ride through to Togo until we arrived at Hilla Condji border. Hilla Condji is a popular post on the West Coast corridor. It’s a busy market place. Here too, it was business as usual. We were asked to alight and work across the posts, about four in number, while our driver was asked to drive the empty vehicle across. A local staff of the company who met us on arrival, guided us through the formalities. At a point, we were counted physically and our guide paid 200 CFA for each passenger. As we moved on, he advised that we could change Naira to Cedis, insisting that we would not get a better deal anywhere else, including Accra. So, some of us obliged and converted our Naira to Cedis, at the prevailing rate of N10,000 to 133.3 Cedis. We bought a few things to chew and drink from the horde of hawkers around while we waited for our driver. We spent more than 40 minutes at Hilla Condji before moving on to Lome. The road from Cotonou to Lome is narrow but good. It is a single carriageway, but well maintained despite the huge traffic. At the Togo side of Aflao border, our driver also paid some money before we were allowed to drive over the short distance to the Ghana side of Aflao. The immigration guy welcomed us to their post and conducted a light search on all the baggages and allowed us to go, without asking for money. From the Aflao border we travelled through towns and villages for over two hours before arriving at Ho capital of the Volta Region. There were several police posts along the road. They would stop us, ask a few questions and allow us to go. It was a great outing.
However, travelling through the borders without a valid identity card, could be very expensive. You need to get the proper documents to travel and be ready to pay extra for facilitation. While commuters complain about the delays and extra fees for clearance, transport operators bemoan the high operational cost and unnecessary delays at the borders. Unless the Nigerian, Beninese, Togolese, Ghanaian governments and others take drastic steps to stem the tide, the sub-region will continue to miss out on the gains of travel, tourism and hospitality. On these routes, a six-hour journey, like from Lagos to Owerri can take more than 10 hours, no thanks to the unnecessary checks carried out by border agencies and their stooges. The federal government must do something to curtail this ugly trend and impress it on other countries in the region that have borders with Nigeria to also do so, as soon as possible, otherwise, all the structures put in place to facilitate travel within the subregion will remain illusory.