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Painful Travel in West Africa (bureaucracy, corruption, lack of leadership)

Despite 31 years of work toward freedom of movement in West Africa, travel is still extremely painful and cumbersome for everyday citizens within ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States).

"While ECOWAS urged member states to establish national committees to monitor the enforcement of the provisions contained in the protocol as reinforced over years, travelling in West Africa is still one of the most painful and difficult experiences for community citizens. Even where monitoring committees exist, their work is somewhat opaque and has not generally been credited with effectively promoting knowledge of or compliance with the protocols. The system of harmonized immigration and emigration documents foreseen by the ECOWAS Council of Ministers in 1992 has not been implemented anywhere. Yet, at regional level, there is no ECOWAS Summit without an expressed will to plant the seed of what could be called a borderless West Africa. The New Vision 2020 that came into force in 2006 reaffirmed the will to open borders to Community citizens.

"If ECOWAS can boast to be the most advanced REC in Africa by suppressing the visa requirement when travelling to any of its member states, effective enforcement of decisions taken at regional level to accelerate the flux of community citizens is not yet forthcoming. The obstacles to the effective enforcement of the Protocol are many. They include, inter alia, the following: (i) Different official languages in addition to diversities in social, political, and economic backgrounds and situations of member states (ii) Absence of adequate mechanisms to control infiltration of criminals and other human or drug traffickers (iii) Lack of harmonization between national laws and policies with ECOWAS protocols and decisions (iv) Inadequate road infrastructure just limited to national territories (v) High prevalence of illiteracy and poverty that place populations in situations where travel documents, even birth certificates, are of little importance (vi) Absence of mechanisms for the settlement of complaints for the harassment and abuse of human rights of citizens by member states, their officials, or agents (vii) No awareness from individuals to claim damages such as denial of rights as those enshrined in the protocol.

"Consequently, many West African migrants leave their home countries without proper travel documents and enter host countries irregularly even though if they were in possession of travel and health certificates to which they are entitled they would have been able to enter through regular channels. Even though many decisions have been taken to reduce to the minimum the requirements to enter a member country, those have not yet filtered down to border posts and to some of the airport immigration and customs points.

"Officially, most ECOWAS member states do not charge fees for Community citizens' right to visa-free entry for stays of up to 90 days. There are reports from across the region however of unofficial payments being made at border posts to facilitate such entry and stay. While some payments are made based on coercion, particularly at land borders and including even refugees, some are apparently freely offered by travelers accustomed to the expectations of underpaid customs and immigration officials or by those seeking to take advantage of the entry and stay provisions without possessing the requisite travel document and health certificate. In terms of ECOWAS residence permits, the protocols neither prescribe nor proscribe fees for their issuance. It appears however that all ECOWAS states levy such fees, with rates varying from less than US $10 annually to nearly US $400.

"The ECOWAS passport is currently only used by Senegal, Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Guinea, and Liberia though Ghana will apparently make it available in the near future. Given the relative scarcity not only of passports but of travel and identity documents altogether in some countries in West Africa, the recent meeting of ECOWAS's Trade, Customs and Free Movement of Persons Committee in Accra, Ghana, on 25-27 September 2007 recommended amending the definition of “valid travel documents” to include securitized and harmonized national ID cards. In the meantime, it requested Member States to accept national Identity Cards for travel within ECOWAS as is the case in Union Economique et Monetaire Ouest Africainne (UEMOA) countries. At present, a “valid travel document” is defined by the 1979 Protocol as “… a passport or other valid travel document establishing the identity of the holder with his or her photograph, issued by or on behalf of the Member State of which he or she is a citizen and on which endorsement by immigration and emigration authorities may be made [or a laissez-passer issued by the Community to its officials].”


The story of the continued failure for 30+ years to implement meaningful freedom of movement reformes in West Africa speaks to the broader problems of corruption, bureaucracy, lack of strong government leadership, and the hollowness of international pronouncements of group policy objectives in regional cooperation agreements. This may also indicate a broader "prisoner's dilemma" effect in the liberalizing of border restrictions—none of the actors has a strong incentive to be the first to initiate cooperative behavior, and in the absence of strong communication within the group, progress is dramatically slowed. There is an indication however of slow progress tending toward improvement, but not even close to the goals initially set out at the beginning of the process.

Average: 2.5 (2 votes)


West Africa Insight, Centre for Democracy and Development, Vol 1, No 9, September 2010, page 3.