Saturday, 16th October 2021
To guardian.ng
Search
Breaking News:

How laxity at border posts across West Africa undermines enforcement of COVID-19 protocols

By Gbenga Salau
05 September 2021   |   2:39 am
The prediction about the likely negative impact of COVID-19 on the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa was worrisome. It, however, did not come to pass as countries on the continent, which are now experiencing the third wave COVID-19....

Travellers alighting from the boat at Pashi

• Travellers Move Without COVID-19 PCR Test, International Passport, Identity Cards
• Officials Unperturbed About Enforcing Protocols
• Govt Keeps Mute

Like most countries across the world, Nigeria is already experiencing the third wave of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Both the government of Lagos State (the disease epicentre in the country), and the Federal Government often claim that the needful has been done (including close monitoring of those visiting/departing the country through various borders) to control the spread of the disease, as well as its negative impact. But with the rising number of deaths in the third wave (50 within eight weeks), the Lagos State governor, Mr Babajide Olushola Sanwo-Olu, had no choice but to talk tough in his last COVID-19 press briefing/update, where he stressed the need for everything to be done to ensure that the state does not experience another wave after the ongoing third wave. Sanwo-Olu’s admonition notwithstanding, many still travel in and out of the country through land borders, including through Seme border post without observing the much-talked-about COVID-19 protocols. While both the federal and the Lagos State governments want an end to the pandemic as soon as possible, their officials appear less bothered. This is reflected in their poor enforcement of compliance to protocols at the border posts. In this report, GBENGA SALAU, who plied eight vehicles, three motorbikes, and a boat, without a COVID-Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, international passport, or any form of identity card, observed the enforcement of COVID-19 protocols on a round trip from Lagos to Accra, in Ghana, narrates his experience and that of others.

The prediction about the likely negative impact of COVID-19 on the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa was worrisome. It, however, did not come to pass as countries on the continent, which are now experiencing the third wave COVID-19 never harvested dead bodies on the streets as was predicted.

As of yesterday, a total of 220,772,217
COVID-19 cases were recorded, with 4,570,227 deaths. Of this number, Africa, accounted for 7,945,380 cases, with 198,814 deaths. In West Africa, Nigeria recorded 194,088 cases and 2,495 deaths; Benin Republic 15,932 cases with 131 deaths; Togo 22,234 cases with 193 deaths, while Ghana carded 120,452 with 1,052 deaths within the period under review.

Shockingly, despite the third wave of the pandemic being the most fierce in these four countries, officials charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the virus is not transmitted across land borders are not living up to expectation, as observed during the return trip.

Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the standard rule for every traveler entering a country is to provide detailed information, including their health status in a form. It is also expected that passengers, including those entering the ECOWAS region, must not have any symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, including body temperature lower than 38°C. They are expected to carry a negative COVID-19 PCR test result in English, or French from an accredited laboratory in their country of origin.

Also, the test should have been done not more than 72 hours before the scheduled departure from the country of origin. At border posts, passengers are to be subjected to a mandatory COVID-19 PCR test with the cost borne by the passenger. All passengers that test negative are required to continuously adhere to the safety protocols, even as they would be availed regular information on COVID-19 within five days of arrival at their destination, while those who test positive would be isolated for seven days.

Passengers are mandated to wear a facemask during the trip. But many that are travelling through the country’s land borders are in breach of these protocols. Indeed, citizens and non-citizens go in and out of Nigeria and ditto for Benin, Togo and Ghana without appropriate government functionaries enforcing compliance. Where any such checks are carried out, the concerns of affected officials, unfortunately, were on goods/consignments conveyed to determine the amount of bribe to be paid, especially along routes considered illegal.

The journey to Ghana started with a visit to the Mile 2 International Park, where three transporters gave different rates, with each of them being slightly different from the other. That notwithstanding, the transporters cautioned that the fares could change within 24 hours hence the need to pay up and be insulated from any sudden increase.

Asked what was responsible for such a sudden hike, one of the transporters, who identified himself simply as Stephen, said rising demand, state of the road, especially the border posts, among others often affect fares, daily.

“I have my men across the borders, who give me update about the situation of things at the borders,” he said. True to Stephen’s admonition, on the day of the trip, an unexplained fare increase of N10, 000 was in place. The trip technically began after the passengers were conveyed to a wooden jetty at the bottom of the Mazamaza Flyover, which serves as the takeoff point.

At the rowdy jetty located at Mazamaza, different fixers and transporters were on the ground to ensure that their clients were ushered into the next available boat since they do not own, or manage the boats. The transporters/fixers pay the jetty manager for the trip while he in turn pays the boat operators.

After moving back and forth for about 10 minutes, Stephen called his three passengers, including this reporter to board the boat, which set sail about 15 minutes later. It was a smooth ride till the boat got to a Nigerian Navy checkpoint within the Badagry corridor.

As the boat approached the wooden jetty, which Nigerian Navy officials stood guard, the deckhand, who was the only person in the boat without a lifejacket announced that all passengers with facemasks should take them off. He also asked that all mobile phones should be put away warning that any phone sighted by the naval personnel would be cast into the lagoon right away.

Between Mazamaza and Pashi (a Lagos community on the border between Nigeria and Benin Republic), there were seven checkpoints on the water bodies. At the first one, the naval officers manning it demanded to know the destination of everyone in the boat. All but two of the 21 persons were headed to Benin, Togo and Ghana.

Thereafter, another of the officers demanded the international passport of everyone that was travelling outside the country. Only four onboard could provide theirs, and none had a valid visa. Peeved by the development, he ordered all the men on the boat to disembark, threatening to send them back to where they came from.

All that turned out to be empty threats as a transporter cum fixer, who was shepherding nine people to Ghana, alongside the deckhand, engaged the naval officer in a tete-a-tete.

As they held court in the inner chamber of the wooden jetty, the deckhand instructed other passengers to call their fixers/transporters to talk to the naval officer, else they would be abandoned at the jetty.

Minutes after the fixer, and the naval officer disappeared into a small chamber, they emerged and the former instructed all the passengers that had disembarked to, again board the boat. The earlier threats were just aimed at getting the passengers to play ball, as the affected travellers negotiated their passage with the naval officer via the deckhand. In the end, they each parted with N5, 000 each.

Just five minutes away from that spot, another naval checkpoint sprung up. Again, the passengers greased the palms of the naval officers and the trip continued.

This scenario played out in the five other checkpoints, two of which were manned by the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), one by Rapid Respond Squad (RRS) of the NPF, and two by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).

However, it was only at the last checkpoint manned by the NCS that there was a form of a thorough check, even though that was just to ferret out the consignment on board, to determine the amount of bribe to be paid. Minutes after the boat left the NCS checkpoint, it berthed at Pashi where the passengers alighted.

Interestingly, two of these checkpoints manned by RSS and Police had no jetties – only floating boats, with the inscription, “no phone calls” on the RRS boat.

However, ahead of departure from the jetty at Mazamaza, the transporter had instructed that a certain man called OB would be on the ground at Pashi, as the linkman to navigate his clients to their destinations. Even when he was not physically present at Pashi, his boys were on the ground at the jetty to convey OB’s passengers to a makeshift tent, just metres away. However, it wasn’t long before OB showed up with motorcyclists and carted away his passengers to a restaurant cum beer joint at Odeh, a small community in the outskirts of Porto Novo, where the passengers waited for about 10 minutes before they were chauffeured in a car to Lachorji Park on the Benin-Togo Border Post.

Little To Cheer At Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana Posts
UNLIKE large border posts with screaming inscriptions that alert travellers that they are on the threshold of another country, nothing of such exists around Pashi, the Lagos community, which borders Benin Republic

What constitutes a gateway as a traveller ventures into Benin Republic from Nigeria, is an improvised border post made up of two coaches of blocks, a makeshift tent, and a wooden signpost welcoming one to the former French colony.

Further confirmation of arrival in a foreign country, is the text messages from major telecommunication companies, which welcomes the visitor to Benin Republic.

Earlier plans that OB would organise a vehicle to convey his passengers to Ghana, from Odeh, failed to materialise as he faded away from the scene after checking his clients into a vehicle that was heading to Lachorji Park on the border post between Togo and Benin Republic. He (OB), however, instructed the driver of the vehicle on the next step to take, which was to hand over his clients to a crosser at Lachorji Park.

At Lachorji, the driver, as instructed, handed OB’s clients to a crosser named Usman Abubakar, who assisted them to navigate through the border area without stress for a fee, and how they would part with 5,000 CFAs at each of the three checkpoints to forestall hitches.

Abubakar thereafter negotiated with a driver to ferry the passengers to a place called Beat 4, at Aflao along with the Togo-Ghana Border Post.

Here, without travel documents or observance of COVID-19 protocols, another guide was on hand to pick up the travellers and facilitate a smooth walk through the border. Again, at three different points (along a path not longer than 30 metres), three sets of uniformed men were “settled” to facilitate ease of access into Ghana.

Once inside Ghana, Abubakar the crosser organised motorbikes that ferried the travellers to Accra Park where after handing over the passengers to a driver that was heading to Accra, he also vanished into thin air.

It is instructive to point out that movement of people across some countries in West Africa is carried out by a sophisticated syndicate, as the travellers did not pay a dime for transportation (whether for boat, bikes or vehicles) since setting out on the trip from Mazamaza in Lagos, to Aflao, at the Togo-Ghana border.

Unexpectedly, while the driver of the bus from Aflao to Accra demanded GH₵40 (Ghana Cedis) from the Ghanaian passengers, non-Ghanaians, especially Nigerians were made to pay GH₵160 for the trip. The GH₵120 difference was distributed as bribes to different sets of uniformed men, including police, customs and immigration at several checkpoints on the way to Accra. The bribes were to stop the state officials from carrying out proper checks on persons and goods on board, as well as ensuring adherence to COVID-19 protocols.

Midway into the trip to connect Accra, the driver complained that the bribe being demanded by uniformed men was neck-breaking and capable of making him overshoot his budget for that purpose. In at least five of the numerous checkpoints, the driver would pull over several metres to the barriers, approach the officers for “negotiations and settlement.”

The Return Trip To Nigeria
AS a result of safety concerns, as well as a way of getting a precise picture of what goes on around Seme (Benin-Nigeria Border Post) regarding the enforcement of COVID-19 protocols, a return trip to Nigeria by land, as against by sea became expedient. And contacted to execute the return trip (for a fee far higher than the first leg) was a fixer named Babayo Musa, a Ghanaian, who is fluent in English, Hausa and French, while the takeoff point was Aflao.

On arrival at Afloa, the border town between Ghana and Togo, two days later, the fixer was on the ground alongside another client that he was ferrying across to Nigeria.

After a few deft moves through rows of residential buildings around Beat 1 corridor of the border post, it did not take long before we made it to Beat 4, the exact point of illegal entry into Ghana earlier on. But before we ended up there, a few stoppages for Musa to “negotiate” our safe passage with uniformed men were observed. He afterwards claimed that it was his influence that facilitated the waiver that we enjoyed as travellers without well-connected fixers end up passing through the bush path, which is farther and a more dangerous route to take.

Upon crossing into Togo, Musa negotiated with a cab operator, who transported his clients to the Togo-Benin Republic Border Post. As he made efforts to reach an acquaintance, a crosser that he often works with, a band of youngsters pestered him to give them the task of crossing his clients/passengers. One of the boys eventually bagged the contract (to cross Musa’s clients) after convincing Musa that his preferred crosser was not around, even as he recalled working for him (Musa) sometime in the past.

Once the short crossover to Benin Republic (walking behind the Togo-Benin Border Post, just by the edge of the border post) was completed, cab operators were on hand to pick up the passengers. Pronto, negotiation with one of them was completed and the vehicle zoomed off to the Benin-Nigeria border.

At the Benin Republic end of the Seme Border Post, Musa, arranged with a motorcyclist to cross his clients into Nigeria. But unlike what happened around other borders, where travellers crossed walking behind the border post fence, the passengers this time rode on a bike into the Nigeria-Benin Border Post. But midway into the short trip, just immediately after the clearance point within the border post, the cyclist stopped and asked the passengers to disembark and complete the journey into Nigeria on foot, with the aid of another of his colleague, who was in mufti and nicknamed Mosquito. Many suspect that Mosquito is an immigration officer, or a go-to person that the security personnel at the border post use for unofficial assignments.

He advised the commercial cyclist to stay back so that the immigration officers at the border post that are recording the number of persons he (Mosquito) crossed would include him as one of his clients.

The journey to Mile 2 from the Seme Border Post was similar to the one from Aflao to Accra, Ghana in terms of the proliferation of checkpoints mounted by police, customs and immigration officers. This was, however, not the case in Benin Republic and Togo.

Between Seme and Agbara Bridge, there were 36 checkpoints, with 25 of them on the Seme-Badagry Roundabout flank. Between Aflao and Accra, there were not fewer than 15 checkpoints. The same scenario played out in bribe giving/taking on both the Accra and Seme ends.
ALSO testifying to the absence of COVID-19 protocol enforcement across the region, a Nigerian, Jeremiah David, who travelled to Accra, Ghana by road, taking off from Mile 2, Lagos, alleged that the driver bribed his way through the trip.

According to him, at border posts and checkpoints along the way, the driver would pull over metres away, approach the uniformed men that are standing guard only to return, kick-start the vehicle and the journey continues without any checks or mention of COVID-19 protocol enforcement.

David said: “We were not even told to put on our face masks at any of these border posts or checkpoints. Nothing about the pandemic was an issue all through the trip.”

Interestingly, many passengers plying several West African routes do not fully come to terms, or understand the safety protocols that persons carrying cross borders trips must comply with.

Kehinde Adebisi, another traveller added: “People cross West African borders in large numbers daily; all they have to do is just to have the right amount of money; the right middleman and they are good. Even goods are still being moved across borders in smaller quantities compared to what was obtained in the past. However, those that are moving the goods must be ready to part with some money.
This report was supported by International Centre for Investigative Reporting

“The lax or non-enforcement of the COVID-19 safety protocols is a “good” one for those of us that travel frequently because I learnt it would have cost us a lot to process the documents.”

A Ghanaian, Kojo Addae, is deeply worried at the expensive business that movement across West African borders has now become, even as he lamented that, “governments have just succeeded in providing opportunities for some persons in uniform to enrich themselves.

That is why I do not see any sense in the so-called enforcement of COVID-19 protocols at border posts. So, if these governments love us, they should not add to our burden by deploying more men to the border post to enforce the protocols because nothing is being enforced,” Addae said.

Corruption Beyond Border Posts
IT is not only around entry/exit points that Ghanaian officials engage in sharp practices, or carry out activities that are aimed at defeating the essence of the COVID-19 protocols. Within the country, civil society organisations (CSOs) and opinion leaders have been calling on President Nana Akufo-Addo, to sack his Minister of Health, Kwaku Agyeman-Manu, for entering into a contractual agreement on behalf of Ghana, to buy COVID-19 vaccine at $19 per dose, through middlemen, while the same vaccine goes for $10 as advertised on the company’s website.

Already, a committee has been set up by the country’s parliament to investigate the procurement contract between the country, a United Arab Emirate (UAE) royal, Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, and a private company, S.L. Global, for the supply of Sputnik-V COVID-19 vaccines.

The findings of the committee have all the ingredients of impropriety. They include failing to obtain parliamentary approval for an international agreement, signing of agreements without cabinet endorsement, failing to seek Public Procurement Authority (PPA’s) approval for the two agreements, payment of more than GH₵ 16 million to Sheikh Al Maktoum for 300,000 vaccines that never arrived, and claiming to not know about the payment.

SINCE the outbreak of the pandemic in Nigeria, many shades of corrupt practices have reared their ugly heads. For instance, at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in the country, the Federal Ministry of Water Resources awarded contracts worth N1.02b to 90 inactive and 12 unregistered companies, according to an investigation conducted by Dataphyte.

While COVID-19 emergency procurement required expediency, transparency remained a factor. This explains why eyebrows were raised when the Federal Ministry of Water Resources altered contract figures removing ₦326m, following an FoI request by Dataphyte.

The ministry tampered with the contract amount on the Nigeria Open Contracting Portal (NOCOPO), slashing the contract sum by ₦326m from ₦1.3b to ₦1.02b.

Before this, the data platform had observed that the then ₦1.3b COVID-19 deal had no contractors. The intervention deal was premised on the Partnership for Expanded Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene(PEWASH) project. A project that debuted in 2016, long before the pandemic, and was premised on achieving Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dataphyte through the Interactive Initiative For Social Impact (IISI) issued an FoI request asking for details of the contractors for the PEWASH project.

But in a surprise turn of events, the ministry changed details of the COVID-19 contract on the portal leaving ₦1.02b as the new figure. This happened within a week of IISI issuing the letter.

The spending by the Federal Medical Centre, Abeokuta was also suspicious, as the facility bought nine cartons of facemasks for ₦4.2m. Splitting the contracts between Arch Shapes Limited (5 cartons) and Ayolola Toronto (4 cartons), FMC quoted a carton of facemasks at ₦470,000.

But markets’ survey by Dataphyte around Lagos, showed that a carton of facemasks went for ₦30,000. During the COVID-19 peak period, a carton was sold for ₦60,000, according to sellers in Lagos markets.

A similar situation cropped up at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) Yola, where a contract for the procurement of molecular laboratory equipment, was awarded to Ahmadu Umaru, secretary to the medical director and CEO of the facility, instead of adhering to open bidding.

Founder, Dataphyte, Joshua Olufemi, in his remarks on COVID-19 spending in the country, however, commended the Federal Government for mobilising funds for quick interventions, as well as relaxing the procurement process protocols, even though public officials misused the opportunity by misappropriating some funds.

Olufemi regretted that funds meant for critical items were spent on laptops, textbooks, printers that were not directly related to COVID-19 quick response.

“Also, there was cost inflation with a unit of facemask bought for N20, 000. We saw a lot of that happen, which was not so good. The third part, which was regulatory, was that many of the purchases by MDAs were not made public for scrutiny and accountability. This is in addition to the use of portfolio companies for the execution of some contracts,” he said.

Nigerian Govt Mum On Lax Enforcement At Land Border
WHEN contacted for comments regarding the lax enforcement of COVID-19 protocols at the country’s land borders, the Chairman, Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, did not pick up several calls placed to mobile phone.

On his part, the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, did not pick his calls too. He, however, requested through a text message, that the caller should send a text message stating his/her name and designation, which was complied with including stating the reason for the call, in the text message sent to the minister. He was yet to reply as at press time.

With nearly 3, 000 Coronavirus deaths recorded in the country thus far, and over 500 of them in Lagos State, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, has taken more than a passing interest in the management of pandemic, which he is also the incident commander. He, alongside the Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, give regular updates on the pandemic.

In August, Sanwo-Olu, in the two public press briefings he gave, warned against non-observance of COVID-19 protocols.

“Managing a pandemic of this nature and scale is not, and will never be an easy endeavour. It is costly and requires hard work and commitment from a wide range of stakeholders and partners, sacrificing their time and energy and resources on multiple fronts to slow down the virus, and eventually to tame it. It also involves efforts in the direction of maintaining livelihoods and ensuring that the disruption to socio-economic activities is minimised,” the governor said in his last briefing.

He added: “We have been on the journey now for about 18 months, and we are all witnesses to the immense disruptions we have seen on every front, not to talk of the many lives that have been lost. We are all united in our desire to put this virus and the pandemic behind us as quickly as we can, but this will not happen if we continue to disregard health protocols. We also cannot afford to allow a sense of fatigue to set in. The consequences of this will be enormous.”

While providing statistics about arrivals through the Lagos international airport. He said between May 8, 2021, and August 21, 2021, a total of 88, 847 Persons of Interest (POIs) arrived in Lagos via the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, with 1,073 passengers testing positive.

“As dictated by the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 (PSC), passengers from red-listed countries including India, South Africa, Brazil and Turkey, are required to observe mandatory isolation. As of August 21, 2021, Lagos State has identified 5,998 of these persons and successfully isolated 4, 500 of them arriving from the red-listed countries, while 1,094 have absconded.”

Sanwo-Olu further said the mandatory isolation were put in place by the Presidential Steering Committee to protect the country from an imminent third wave of the pandemic, noting that Nigerians, who disregard the protocols and abscond from isolation are directly putting the rest of the country at risk of unending waves of the pandemic.

With over 135 deaths recorded within two months of the advent of the third wave of COVID-19 in Lagos, the state government, no doubt, should take special interest in other points of entry beyond the international airport.

This report was supported by International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR).