European colonialists have for decades been blamed for dividing West Africa, yet, having been given the opportunity to break down the barriers, all we have done is to dither. Our leaders meet regularly on this project and tell the media sweet stories of what they want for the West African region but it looks like in their hearts, they don’t mean what they say.
Either they are afraid of what would become of their political power if the region is united or, they simply do not understand and share the vision of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Somehow too, if the leaders have decided to break away from the dreams that our forebears had in ECOWAS, they must say so and let the masses know. Nobody would then be deceived into thinking that West African borders are coming down to allow free movement. If that is the case, then, they should also stop attending ECOWAS summits, which are increasingly becoming a waste of our money and time. However, if they want to keep up with the dream, then, they must be sincere and let information on all their decisions flow to the people.
For now, the people are not sure where we have reached in this whole ECOWAS project. Some West African nationals who have taken advantage of the free-movement arrangement in the region are becoming disappointed because of the way their host countries are treating them. If we claim to be uniting the region, then the public education must follow so that everybody is aware of what the ECOWAS project is all about.
Since the organisation came into being in 1975, one of its aims has been to break down the artificial boundaries that have separated the people in the region. For this reason the founder fathers pledged to create a one and a united region. It means that Ghanaians could move freely into any part of the region and be welcomed. The desire to break down the barriers was echoed at the 10th anniversary Summit in Lome, Togo. I was there and heard the Beninois leader at the time, Matheiu Kerekou, who became the Chairman at the end of the Summit, make a pledge that West Africa was to be united.
Several leaders have repeated this commitment. On June 18, 2014 at the Summit in Accra, former President John Dramani Mahama said, ECOWAS expected to transform itself into an ECOWAS of the People by the year 2020. This was followed later by another speech by President Mahama in which he said, the organisation was considering the introduction of ECOWAS Biometric identity cards, which will improve the movement of goods and persons, across West Africa.
He said the introduction of the Community Citizens Biometric Identity cards was welcome because it had features that made any quick verification of identity at anytime and anywhere in the sub-region possible. “As registered ECOWAS Community citizens, our people should be able to move freely in West Africa and enjoy all the opportunities opening up in our member states.”
He urged members states, particularly, border officials “to take all the legal and necessary steps to remove all challenges or bottlenecks to trade and commercial activities within our region,” adding that, “the lingering difficulties that many enterprising West Africans citizens face in doing business across our borders must be addressed.”
“Some of our business men and women complain that in addition, to paying all the relevant duties and levies, they are still confronted with situations and hindrances that often make it prohibitive for them to do business within our region,” President Mahama said. As part of the education to sensitise the people about the breaking down of the barriers, posters were produced to say that every West African had the right to move into any country of his/her choice to establish. Before this poster was released, the hierarchy of ECOWAS knew about this, the various agencies in the member countries were given some notification.
Therefore, the agitations that are coming from across the member states of ECOWAS do not bode well for the organisation. In Ghana, local traders claim their Nigerian counterparts and other nationals are taking over their businesses. In the communities, there is growing dislike for Nigerians. Some Ghanaians claim when they get to Nigeria, they are not welcome. Similar stories have come from Ghanaians who have travelled to Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo. Some of these complaints border on xenophobia. Sadly, our leaders are not doing anything to control these early signs of disapproval from the people.
What may be the case is that, there seems to be little intelligence sharing among the countries in the region to enable them to monitor activities of criminals. This may be a tough one given the fact that it is only our official entry points that are given some modicum of attention. The rest of our borders are porous and anyone can enter from anywhere. For this reason, some criminals are likely to slip through and engage in illegal activities. However, this argument proves that in spite of all the talks that have gone on, we have not prepared for the eventual pulling down of the barriers to make the dream of “ECOWAS of People” a reality.
The civil and public servants must be blamed because after attending the meetings and Summits, it becomes their responsibility to ensure that whatever decisions that have been taken are passed down to the appropriate quarters and what needs to be done is taken care of so that we profit from the travel and pay diem expenses that these officials take.
A classical case is the ECOWAS Brown Card under which motorists will pay for insurance policies to cover their travel into member countries. Sadly, a large number of the motorists who travel across the borders daily, especially those who have not gone through any formal education, have said, they are not aware of this. What is interesting is that, those who run the scheme, once a while receive media coverage for holding some education campaign. How come the people they are supposed to educate do not get the information, only God can tell!
There are other projects that ECOWAS has embarked upon over the years to serve the people. Unfortunately, it is the lack of information that is not making the people feel the impact of these initiatives. For instance, how many young people know about the EOWAS Youth programme that gives training to young people to set up their own businesses. Perhaps, we have politicised these programmes and only those who share the same political views are sent out to be trained. Besides, there is the ECOWAS Youth Service fashioned along the lines of the American Peace Corp and yet, not many young people know about this.
From all that one sees about what ECOWAS has been doing so far, it is clear that if care is not taken, many years of building the organisation will come to nought. In fact, the people want to see the ultimate, which is the breaking down of all artificial barriers. If we don’t do this, we should stop blaming our colonial past!
…with Francis Kokutse