Call for review of ECOWAS protocol unwise, says Omoweh
Cattle breeders come all the way from Fouta Djallon in Guinea and follow through the River Niger to harass us here. They have their own route for grazing which has existed for over 500 years. That is what they still follow. At that time, there were no cites. But now cities have been built.
The imperial powers came and created various countries. But irrespective of this, the Fulani still follow that same old track for grazing. That is why when they come to a place they once used for grazing and it is now a town, they don’t want to recognise that. They still take that track all the way to Dar es Salam in Tanzania. This is the nature of African borders.
So, when you say you want to control them, it will take a proper and deep rethink on the part of government. A study we did for the North West and North East revealed all kinds of issues such as porosity of the borders and its implications.
Let’s say your brother is on the other side of the divide and somebody wants to come and put up artificial boundaries, will you respect it?
The free movement protocol of ECOWAS does not permit terrorists. So, if terrorists are infiltrating, it is not the free movement that should be scrapped. What we need to do is that each country should set up proper surveillance.
Border control is not an easy business. America has been trying to stop people, particularly criminals, from passing through Mexico to the United States, but they have not succeeded.
African borders are porous. Whatever physical constraint you put there to check movement, people will scale them. Look at the Mexico border. They dug almost a 20-feet gully with barbed wire to separate the U.S.A. But people still climb and cross over.
In Banki in Borno State, you stretch your leg and you are in Niger Republic. These are towns that had existed before colonial time. They speak the same language, they are the same people, and they intermarry.
So, there is no way you can separate them. Look at the Sahel region. It is such a wide, sandy desert. How are you going to control that?
Immigration officers will not even stay in those places. For instance, Maradi is in Niger Republic. But we take it as if it is a town in Nigeria. People buy cars in Benin Republic and drive them up north to Maradi, and then drive them into Nigeria because customs is very weak.
I think the way to check criminals is a function of how we take security at the borders. For most West African countries, security at the borders is chiefly at the main immigration checkpoints.
The rest of the borders are just bare and porous. Look at Sokoto State. It has 20 entry points either into Niger or Benin Republic.
These are mainly illegal routes, not just for smuggling alone, but also for some other infiltrations.
When member states adopted the ECOWAS protocol, there was no problem about herdsmen and Boko Haram. But the reality today is different. Was the concept wrong?
There is no policy in international relations that does not have a drawback. What is important is for the member states to understand where problems are and to how to tackle them.
When you talk about the security implication, I don’t think people having freedom to move is the issue. Rather, I want to believe that if the member states do security checks adequately, they will be able to tackle these people.
For instance, if you want to move arms, it is not a straightforward business, especially for light and middle-sized weapons. You can, for example, dismantle a rocket launcher into three pieces. I can hold a trigger in my pocket and move.
Another person can handle the rocket itself and pass it through the border. But if you are not making efforts to check this, stopping the movement of people will not reduce terrorist attacks.
In international relations, it is said: ‘In the world of the strong, the weak also live’. How do they survive? They survive by surprise attacks. They don’t need to carry machine guns or artillery to carry out attacks.
If we have to tackle the insecurity, I don’t believe closing the borders will solve the problem. What we should find out is who the arms sellers are, because terrorists cannot operate without the supply of arms and ammunition.
Who are those selling arms to them? If you say somebody is a terrorist, it is because he has capacity to destabilise the country and his community. And that capacity is in the kind of weapon he has. Who are those producing the weapons? Who are the buyers? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking. If we check the movement of arms, particularly these smaller weapons that you can carry with ease, it will help immensely.
What will be the implication of Nigeria’s push for more stringent border control within ECOWAS?
If Nigeria does that, I am sure it will receive several knocks because we account for almost 85 to 90 per cent of the GDP of West Africa. What does that suggest to you? The business flow of West Africa is in Nigeria!
I know of a friend in Dakar, Senegal, who drove down here to buy a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. He said it was cheaper to come and buy the vehicle in Lagos or Port Harcourt. And in the next 48 hours, he is back to Dakar. There is a custom checkpoint for West Africa.
If you are carrying goods from Nigeria to Dakar, you may not go through the coastal areas. Going through the Sahel is a shorter distance. You drive up to say Niger where there is what we call one checkpoint for customs.
Once you get there, they will check your goods. And if there is any need, they will give you a customs officer to accompany you.
If there is no need, they will give you a paper and that will take you all the way, a little bit after Niamey. And you drive straight to Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso.
Instead of going down to Ivory Coast, you go straight and overseeing Bamako in Mali and then you are hitting Dakar. If you are looking at West Africa, it is so linked.
Maybe they don’t even know the implication of these things. What we are even trying to promote is the Africa Economic Community, built on the feasibility of economic groupings in West Africa, East Africa and in Maghreb.
If Nigeria dares make such proposal, I am sure it will be shot down. It is like we are shooting ourselves in the leg because we are the major beneficiary. What is in Benin Republic, Togo or Ivory Coast? They still rely on Nigeria.
Whatever happens in Nigeria affects the countries within the sub-zone.
It will be very unwise for a government to think of restricting the borders because it will affect its economy. Against who do you want to close your borders in West Africa? They shut the borders against smugglers. Have they succeeded?
If ever the vice president muted such an idea, he should just keep it and not go beyond that. It means he does not understand the meaning of integration and its benefits.
Integration is not just about the movement of people. People move for business. Government needs to know that it is a very wrong idea.
What is the benefit of the ECOWAS protocol?
It is a regional agreement. We are trying to integrate. We are trying to open the border for more people to move without visa. That is the aim. You cannot say you are talking about ECOWAS and then you need a visa to go to Ghana. It does not make sense.
Free movement of persons does not mean you just wake up and say you are going to Ghana. There must be evidence that you are moving from one country within the sub-region.
You must have your international passport, to show you are coming from Nigeria and you want to go to Ghana.
Now, the question is: what are you going to do in Ghana? When you get to the airport or you are going through the road, the immigration will want to find out what are you going there to do. If you say you are going for business, they will stamp your passport for a 90-day stay.
That is what the protocol provides. In the course of the 90 days, you should justify why you are in that country. If you came there for business and you require more days, all you need to do is go to their immigration and say, ‘This is what I have come for and I could not conclude it within the 90 days. I still want to stay some more days.’ They will permit you. That is the idea, principally.
But if there are criminals capitalising on this, it is not right to restrict movement at the borders. Rather, movements should be scrutinised. If the vice president is making a suggestion, that is his own view.
When you look at the criminals such as smugglers, they naturally don’t take the normal route. That calls for intensification of border patrol and control.
What is your view on security officials who collect bribes and then overlook the activities of transnational criminals?
The porosity of the borders is in most cases natural because those are entry points from one community to another, irrespective of the countries. In pre-colonial times, these were natural borders. Colonialism imposed artificial borders. So, you need to understand those contradictions.
All those security men we accuse of collecting money at the borders to allow unrestricted movements is a reflection of what is going on in society. The non-commitment on the part of the security men to their duties is because government on its part is not fulfilling its responsibilities.
The borders are channels for trade. Almost 80 per cent of the trade in West Africa is informal. It is not recorded. There is also cultural movement.
What I think government should do is more detailed works on the nature of our border towns. Because if you go to the extremes in Nigeria, you will see communities where people just walk across and enter Niger.
You come down to the southern part and you have Cross River State and the crisis of our people living in Cameroon.
We must realise that free movement is not so much about criminal activities. When you have resources and big companies that can produce goods and there is a large market, the free movement protocol becomes very advantageous.
Anybody who wants to set up a big factory in Africa is likely to come to Nigeria because of the market.
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