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Pelumi Nubi’s London-to-Lagos journey and West Africa’s border realities

When travel content creator Pelumi Nubi embarked on her 68-day solo journey from London to Lagos a few months ago, little did anyone anticipate the beauty, excitement, and challenges that would unfold.

She embarked on a journey from London through France, Spain, and Morocco before venturing into the West Sahara Desert.

From there, she continued her expedition through Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Ghana, Togo, Benin, and arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, on April 7.

Pelumi made history as the first black woman to complete a solo drive from the United Kingdom to Nigeria, garnering accolades and recognition worldwide for her remarkable achievement.

Fans greeted her arrival with cheers, having closely followed her journey online.

In recognition of her extraordinary feat, the Lagos State Government bestowed upon her a new car, a house, and an ambassadorship for state tourism.

While the journey progressed, the solo trip revealed the beauty, culture, and traditions of all the countries she passed through. However, a major highlight was the difficulty and delay in crossing the West African borders as a British-Nigerian citizen, even with the required travel documents.

a major highlight of Pelumi’s journey was the difficulty and delay in crossing the West African borders as a British-Nigerian citizen, even with the requisite papers

Pelumi Nubi at the beginning of her cross-country journey

Different passport checks, attitudes of border security officers, and seemingly deliberate delays, were shown on her Instagram page, with millions of viewers. Pelumi says she hopes to use her platform to create an awareness campaign for improving freedom of movement for people in the African region.

Pelumi is not alone in the narrative about the frustrating and agonising road travel experiences on the borders of member states by ECOWAS citizens.

Doris Brown, Deputy Secretary-General, Lions Club District 40382, comprising Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Togo, who experienced the same, urged Customs and Immigration officers to treat ECOWAS citizens, who cross the sub-regional borders by road, with dignity and respect.

Like Pelumi, Brown said that 29 of the club’s members, while traveling to Togo by road from Liberia through Ivory Coast and Ghana for their district convention, were subjected to agonizing hours of delays due to relentless searches at checkpoints.

According to her, ECOWAS protocols allow free travel without visa between member states, as ECOWAS Heads of State had signed the protocols, so people should not be treated “inhumanly as if we came from space.”

ECOWAS must take a second look at the relationship between its member states, especially with the ordinary citizen who embark on a journey by road

“ECOWAS must take a second look at the relationship between its member states, especially with the ordinary citizen who embark on a journey by road. Each member state needs to ensure security, but as ECOWAS citizens, they should be accorded some respect and dignity.

“These were not part of the dreams of the founding fathers of ECOWAS for the ECOWAS citizens and Africa as a whole. If we cannot be respected at our borders and ensure free movement, what is the reason for having ECOWAS?” Brown queried.

Critics say that in spite of the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the ECOWAS protocol on the free movement of persons and goods, challenges persist regarding the free movement of people and goods in the West African sub-region.

The free trade agreement, brokered by the African Union (AU) and signed in Rwanda on March 21, 2018, aims to establish a single market for goods and services in Africa, promote the free movement of people, and drive economic growth and development across the continent.

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With 54 signatories, the AfCFTA is the largest free trade area by member states after the World Trade Organisation, encompassing over 1.3 billion people and vast geographic regions.

If we cannot be respected at our borders and ensure free movement, what is the reason for having ECOWAS?

It envisions provisions for visa-free travel, residency rights, and the absence of movement barriers, enhancing economic integration and regional cooperation. But while policymakers see labour movement as crucial to the success of the continental free trade agreement, not all African countries fully support the idea.

Additionally, alongside the AfCFTA agreement and the Kigali Declaration, 30 African nations signed the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, aiming to establish a visa-free zone within AfCFTA countries.

The ECOWAS protocol on the free movement of goods and people promotes regional integration and economic progress among its member states. The Protocol on Free Movement, Right to Residency, and Establishment, mandates member-states to allow ECOWAS citizens with valid documents the right of entry into their territories under the provisions of the protocols.

ECOWAS member states are also required to adopt measures to ensure that ECOWAS citizens enjoy to the full the rights granted in the Protocol.

Dr. Matthew Ogali, a researcher from the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Port Harcourt, highlighted one of the objectives of ECOWAS as promoting trade and commerce among member countries.

He identified various institutional and non-institutional barriers hindering the free movement of people and goods, such as excessive customs checks and entry restrictions.

ECOWAS has struggled to translate many of the documents produced by its intellectual community, often seen as scholarly discourse, into practical policy implementations

According to him, after 49 years of existence, ECOWAS has primarily thrived in the informal trade sector, characterised by small-scale entrepreneurs conducting business across borders with minimal adherence to established trade policies.

Ogali noted that this informal trade environment has also fostered criminal activities like smuggling and cross-border armed banditry, resulting in significant losses of goods and, at times, lives.

“Despite its resilience over the past 49 years, ECOWAS has struggled to translate many of the documents produced by its intellectual community, often seen as scholarly discourse, into practical policy implementations.

“This gap between academic insights and policymaking poses challenges for addressing the region’s problems effectively,” Ogali said.

Prof. Charles Ukeje of the Department of International Relations, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, while commenting on Pelumi’s experience at the borders of ECOWAS countries, said her challenges may have been unrelated to any deficiencies in the ECOWAS protocol on the free movement of its citizens.

He said: “One would not know whether she was carrying a British passport or a Nigerian/ECOWAS passport during the trip, which would have guaranteed her free movement, or otherwise, within the subregion in line with the ECOWAS protocol.

the delay experienced by Pelumi at the points of entry or exit could not be attributed to any weaknesses in the implementation of the protocol -ECOWAS Director

“Also, we need to know whether the passport she carried had expired or was invalid at the time she was traveling, which may have necessitated scrutiny by security officials at the borders.”

Corroborating Prof. Ukeje’s view, ECOWAS Director, Free Movement of Persons and Immigration, Albert Siaw-Boateng, said that the delay experienced by Pelumi at the points of entry or exit could not be attributed to any weaknesses in the implementation of the protocol.

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He said that due to the prevailing security challenges in the region, triggered by terrorism and violent extremism, ECOWAS’ security architecture necessitated thorough checks on travelers by security officials without impeding the free movement of community citizens within the region.

According to him, the protocol also gives room for National Laws to take precedence, hence, there are inconsistencies in the implementation of the protocol by individual member states.

“It is also to be noted that even though all member states have signed up to the Free Movement Protocol, it gives room for National Laws to take precedence.

“In this regard, there are inconsistencies in the implementation of the protocol by Member States. So, any delay at the point of entry or exit cannot be attributed to weaknesses in the implementation of the protocol,” he said.

due to the prevailing security challenges in the region, triggered by terrorism and violent extremism, ECOWAS’ security architecture necessitated thorough checks on travelers –ecowas chief

Dr Omar Touray, President of the ECOWAS Commission, speaking on the Free Movement Protocol recently, noted that: “Free Trade moves with Free Movement of persons and goods.”

Touray said that ECOWAS had been implementing joint border posts, which brought together border officials of two neighboring countries to carry out joint operations, to ease cross-border crossing, which sometimes took cognizance of respective member states’ laws.

“We have built a joint border between Nigeria and Benin at the Seme-Krake border, and between Togo and Ghana at the Noepe-Akanu border. These border posts are now operational.

“There is another border post that has been made operational between Nigeria and Cameroon at the Ekok-Mfun area. This was financed by the African Development Bank,” he said.

The creation of the ECOWAS protocol on the free movement of persons and goods on May 29, 1979, to facilitate a borderless ECOWAS, is a cardinal scheme of the bloc’s integration programme, aimed at moving from an ECOWAS of states to ECOWAS of people.

The Protocol adopts the removal of roadblocks and security checkpoints on intra-ECOWAS international highways, the introduction of a single ECOWAS passport, and a Schengen-type visa for the community’s citizens, among others.

Experts say this has fostered regional integration and development by boosting citizens’ mobility, which has yielded multi-sectoral benefits and contributed to key developments in the ECOWAS subregion.

They emphasise that effective policy implementation and addressing institutional barriers will fully realise the benefits of regional integration in West Africa. (NAN Features)

Tosin Kolade
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