When our political leaders decided to set up the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), they did so with a clear mind that the people in the region deserve to be united. That is why over the years, they have put in place various protocols that will make the unity of the people and the breaking down of artificial barriers possible. Unfortunately, things are not moving in the right direction. Whatever friendship that was envisaged and expected to lead to the free movement of people and goods is not being taken seriously.
The Yoruba in Nigeria say, “because friendship is pleasant, we partake in the entertainment of our friends’ entertainment, not because we have not enough to eat in our own house.” It seems this proverb is lost on many of our state actors across West Africa. Since 1975, when ECOWAS came into being, the ordinary people who should see its benefit have been denied this. We continue to see ourselves as strangers in one another’s country. It is even a lie that we are friends across the region because we are more related. Having put laws in place, if we want to be integrated, no West African should be barred from living in any country in the region.
I have relatives in Togo with the same surname because we come from the same root, what has divided us is the artificial boundaries that were created by the colonial powers. Therefore, when our political leaders decided to form ECOWAS to break down the barriers to movements of the people in the region, they wanted to correct a wrong that was meted out to us many years ago.
So, either the dreams of the ECOWAS leaders to integrate the region is a big joke or, perhaps, some of our state actors, especially, the Immigration Services across the region have not been properly briefed that protocols and conventions have been ratified and by that, free movement of the people in the West African region is allowed by law. This means it is wrong for any national, who can prove that he is a West African to be seen as an illegal immigrant in any member country. At least, that is what we hear the politicians and the diplomats of the Commission say at the various summits. And l have covered many – from the tenth anniversary in Lome, Togo till now.
That is why l was angry when l read a report by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on last August 6, 2017 that 18 people declared as illegal immigrants had been arrested by officers of the Nigeria Immigration Service, Ogun Command, at Akonu village, Bode Olude area, and were to be repatriated to their countries of origin.
My anger stems from the fact that the ECOWAS Secretariat is in Abuja, Nigeria and so these immigration officers should have known that no West African is an illegal immigrant in another country in the region.
Public Relations Officer of the command, Olaniyi Mobolaji, who was quoted in the story said, 10 of the 18 illegal immigrants were indigenes of Benin Republic while eight were Togolese. These people were alleged to be residing and working illegally in Nigeria. And isn’t that what ECOWAS is all about now that our leaders claim they have broken down the barriers?
Maybe officers of the Nigerian Immigration Service do not know of the Igbo proverb that says, “where one falls is where his God pushed him.” So, these West Africans whom they wrongly see as illegal, but who are not so under the law, have a divine reason for coming to Nigeria. On the other hand, it is possible that officials of the Service have not been briefed by the politicians who attended the 35th West Africa Monetary Zone Convergence Council meeting in January last year where, the Vice President of the ECOWAS Commission, Toga Gayewea McIntosh, said the Communities’ biometric Identity Card, which aims at facilitating mobility and promoting security in the region, will become operational that same month – which is over a year ago.
McIntosh said the identity card will help to ensure the freedom of movement across the sub-region. Our own former President John Mahama hinted at this biometric card on October 7, 2014 when he said, the Commission was considering the introduction of an ECOWAS Biometric identity card, which he said is meant to improve the movement of goods and persons, across West Africa. He accordingly, urged member 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.”
In addition to the biometric cards, ECOWAS officials have also been talking about the dream to become an Economic Community of West African People by 2020.
We are in 2017 and if we should still be considering our neighbours as illegal immigrants then, what have we achieved so far? On paper, every ECOWAS citizen has the right to live freely in any country in the region. Unfortunately, this is not the case and no one knows whom to blame.
I keep asking ECOWAS officials what happens after they have taken decisions. Do they pass these on to the various organisations that must implement them? If not, why is this so? Our officials should not be seen to be attending summits only to return and then keep quiet on decision that they have taken. It is this silence that has made the Ghana Union of Traders Association (GUTA) complain over the years that Nigerians are taking over their jobs. If someone had properly briefed them that, there were protocols that had been signed that gave these people the right of abode and to set up in Ghana, there would not be any misunderstanding.
Sometimes, l wonder why our officials refuse to pass on vital information to the people. Over the past few years, there have been training programmes for ECOWAS youth to gain skills. Unfortunately, not many people know about this. We are not sure whether Ghanaian youth have been given the opportunity to enjoy some of these training programmes. This is because more often than not, our officials only attend meetings and then keep the information to themselves.
If you speak to most drivers, not many of them know about the ECOWAS Brown Card, the Insurance policy operated in the region that allows a driver to take his car across the border. In the absence of information getting down to the people, our officials have created room for some state agencies to harass people. I have met Nigerian visitors who told me, they did not know of the Brown Card and that they entered Ghana by paying at the borders. As a reason, the Police stop their cars and demand money – something that should not have happened if the information was passed down.
These bad acts by our Immigration officers and the Police must be stopped because it is holding back our dream of integration. We need to let our officials know that they have for a long time been holding back the dreams of many in the region.
…With Francis Kokutse
Today Newspaper (Ghana)