How ECOWAS treats its citizens – Afrikanus Kofi Akosah


"There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly".


Throughout my 36 years on earth I have never experienced such humiliation, extortion, intimidation and impertinence for human dignity and rights. I left the city of Kumasi in Ghana, West Africa with 25 Ghanaian students from various tertiary institutions on Thursday, 25 July, at 11pm to take part in the first ever  Students For Liberty West African Regional Conference in Ibadan, Nigeria, a distance of 834.6 KM.

Code Named ‘Liberty By Bus’, the journey begun with so much enthusiasm, with students singing and drumming, oblivious to what lay ahead of us on the various borders en-route to our final destination.  Most of the students were traveling out of their home country for the first time of their lives.

In all my life, I personally never have traveled by road to any country, despite having traveled widely in Africa. Though I had heard from traders about the dreadfulness on the Eastern corridor, I was confident that there would be no problems for us, since it was a student delegation and since the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had been strengthened lately.

Alas, I was naively wrong! Our nightmares begun the moment we approached the Togolese border at Aflao on Friday Morning.  For four hours we had to go back and forth between offices manned by unfriendly bureaucrats, who can be best described as extortion mongers, we got clearance, but only after parting with CFA 60,000. The only document that testified payment was the L’es Passe that cost CFA 5000.

When we finally entered Togo, the drive along the pristine Atlantic Ocean was very refreshing and spectacular, and we resumed singing and drumming until we arrived at the infamous Lakpogi border. The Togolese Border officials demanded CFA 60,000 before we could exit and face their Benin counterparts.

After almost an hour of tough bargaining and pleading, with border officials shouting abuses and threats at us, we settled on CFA 40,000. One officer told us to park the bus in one place, then another said we could not park there, and to move it to another place.  It is curious to note that at the Francophone borders you have to go through three agencies of Immigration, Customs & Excise. I was later outraged to learn that Nigeria has one more – Narcotics!

Benin was the apex of this extortion, humiliation & intimidation. In this country any bully who lives in a border town and can get a rope long enough to cross a road can mount a barrier and seek rent. We came across many of them.

Approaching the Benin side of the frontier at Lakpogi, the first barrier you come across is operated by about five shabbily dressed young men. We were ordered to stop, and one of them who claimed that his father is a Ghanaian, spoke to us first in Twi, the most popularly spoken Ghanaian language.

He told us we needed to pay CFA 10,000 before we would be allowed to proceed. I was bewildered, seeing the way they were dressed, but the fact that the other border agencies were about 20 Metres ahead seemed to affirm their authenticity. I asked them their designation and they said they belonged to the local authority.

Of course money changed hands, but, once again, my demand for receipt was met with contempt and threats, and we moved on calmly. The first thing I did when we approached immigration was to complain to the officers about the payment I made to the young men at the barrier nearby without receipt being issued.

I wished I could swallow that back, as the officers only addressed it by insulting me and my interpreter, telling us that we think it is our native Ghana. Interestingly, my interpreter was a Togolese student studying in Ghana.

Jostling through dilapidated wood structures that pass as offices, Immigration, Customs and Excise agencies here looted CFA 18,000 each from us plus CFA 5000 for the famous French countries’ L’es Passe, but that was not the end. Those with passports that have never passed through the Lakpogi border, what they call a "Virgin Passport," had to pay CFA 1500. The others with various National ID cards had to pay CFA 1000. Again no official receipts were issued.

When we thought it was over, Excise asked us for Yellow Fever vaccination cards. When we explained we thought that’s no longer relevant in West Africa, the officer in charge insisted that we each get one or we would be refused passage. I coughed CFA 3000 for each student.

When I asked for the shots to be administered, the officer suddenly became angry and sternly warned me to leave with my students or risk arrest and detention. All my pleads with him to at least issue the yellow fever cards to us so that we wouldn't have to pay for them again at other frontiers fell on deaf ears and seemed to enrage him more.

Benin, whose president is the current African Union Chairman, is the most corrupt state on this crooked route.  Driving through Benin to the Seme border, gun toting police officers also squeezed money from us before we could pass. It is understandable that the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom which ranks Benin 101st notes that “Despite several high profile prosecutions, government corruption continues to impede development and deter investment”.

It was almost 5 pm when we arrived at the chaotic Seme border. A Ghanaian Truck Driver Assistant approached us in our language and began explaining to us the process to cross the border. Suddenly, four hefty border officials pounced on him and started beating him with clubs and truncheons. When we enquired about his crime, we were told that they suspected he was a criminal who might be trying to rob us. So insane!

Officials here demanded 17,000 Naira for bus registration, and I asked for clarification between that and L’es Passe, but nothing came out of it.

The officer here was the most sympathetic government official I met on this journey. After explaining our predicament, with so much extortion on our way here and that we are running down on funds, he took only CFA 10,000 from us and asked us to proceed to the Nigeria side of the border. He was to become helpful once again later on.

We were now elated since we were getting closer to our destination and thought we will have no hurdles with our Anglophone brothers. Once again I was wrong.

As earlier indicated, Nigeria has four government agencies at the borders and all of them were asking for 5000 Naira per delegate and 13,000 Naira for the Bus. We started bargaining with them, and one immigration officer appeared on the scene and asked of our Nationality.

When I told him we were Ghanaians, he asked for our traveling documents and I handed them to him.  When he realized that not all of us had a passport, he called his superior by phone. After the call, he told me that when Nigerians get to the Ghana border and don’t have a passport, Ghanaian officials seize their money, cell phones and sometimes detain them. Therefore he would only allow those with passports to enter Nigeria.

This officer asked me who ECOWAS was, but he disagreed with me that it is the citizens of the West African States. To him ECOWAS is Nigeria, given the fact that it generates 80% of ECOWAS revenue.

The majority of the students were in possession of National ID cards and not a traveling passport. We continued to plead, as other people cross the border with only ID cards. It was getting late, and they asked us to move back to the Buffer Zone.

I started making calls to my Nigerian counter-parts to see if they could pull strings to get us clearance. They got in touch with immigration officers in Nigeria who called me back and asked me to give my phone to the border officials so that they could talk. Many calls came through, but our situation remained same.

There was no way the Nigerian Officials would allow us to sleep on the border, and the Buffer Zone was dangerous, as there is no security. A while ago one of my students has been robbed of his mobile phone. We approached the Benin Border and beseeched them to allow us to bring our bus over to sleep. We were turned down and told to go to our Anglophone brothers.

There was no other option but to switch on the bus air condition and sleep in the bus at the buffer zone, with no protection from the miscreants surrounding us. It was at this moment that my good ‘brother’ Kwaku Adusei, known as Ghana’s Ron Paul, a Libertarian Politician who was part of the delegation, jovially remarked, “We’ve got what we’ve been asking for –a stateless State”. We all burst out laughing in unison. I couldn’t shut my eyes, as I kept pondering the whole scenario and hoping that nothing horrible will happen to any of my students.

At 6 am on Saturday, I decided to go over to the Benin side of the border to buy a cup of coffee. When I got to the border crossing, threadbare men with sticks were wrangling with Nigerians crossing to go to work at Seme town. My mind reverberated with thoughts of the tremendous human impairment created by these arbitrary lines drawn by colonial powers.

One of the men came over to me and asked where I was heading. I pointed to the bus parked about 100 Metres away and told him my intention. He asked for a bribe but I told him I’ve only ten Ghana Cedis on me for the coffee. The dragoon immediately grabbed the money from my hand. When I asked him what he expected me to use to buy the coffee, he shouted in Pidgin English “Na your own problem”, literally meaning that’s your own problem, and walked away.

Dejected and impotent I came back to the bus, got more money, and took a lady student with me who was also interested in having a cup of coffee. After walking almost half a Kilometre into the Seme Township, we were disappointed that we couldn’t find any joint serving coffee at that time of the day, and decided to return to the bus.

Trying to cross the border once again back to the bus, an officer insisted we pay him once again, and when we refused, he seized our Identity Cards and we left in anger. I then saw the friendly officer who assisted us to cross the border the previous day and narrated to him my predicament. He was kind once again and got me the Identity Cards back.

At dawn a sympathetic Nigerian Immigration Officer came over to the bus and told me he was going off duty, but that we should approach his colleagues at daylight and they would let us cross. It was refreshing news, so the moment it was 7 am, we went to the shack of an immigration office and presented our documents again.

Nothing came out of it. More calls came in from Nigeria, and I transferred it to the immigration officers. It was getting close to 10 am, and time was running out. Our friends in Ibadan then called and advised us to leave and use the nearby Idiroko border via Porto Novo. The Benin officials did not have sympathy on us and robbed us again at the entry point. We drove for an hour till we got to the Benin side of the Idiroko Border.

 Here, after a grueling bargaining session in which I had to kneel in front of an elderly officer, we had to pay CFA 67,000, though we already had made payments at the exit point at Seme.

In total the four border agencies at the Idiroko Border wanted 120,000 Naira. A Nigerian Representative for a bus company that runs between Ghana and Nigeria had earlier given us his cell phone to make calls to our Libertarian friends in Ibadan. He told us that it was five hours further to Ibadan.

We could have bargained with the officials to pay them whatever money that was left on us, but there was no way we could make it to the conference on time. It would be almost over before we got there. We decided that the best option was to return home and call the ‘Liberty By Bus’ tour a fiasco.

The next hurdle was how to get home, since we have been warned by sympathizers that they would rob us again on our way back, and we didn't have enough money among us. Nobody on the bus had eaten anything solid since morning, as we could not heat our food the previous night and it went bad. We were left with only 2 dozen bottles of water and 1 crate of soda.

I got permission from the border officials to enter Nigeria to make phone calls and access the Internet. I posted about our predicament on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ before I got on the phone with Students For Liberty Executives in Ibadan. They agreed to send us money through an emissary.

The money didn't reach us until after 9 pm, and immediately we set off for home. On our way back, the extortion spree continued unabated. At the Lakpogi border, the officials were insisting on CFA 5000 for L’es Passe, which we already had since it is valid  for traveling  in and out of the country.

We all got out of the bus and made it clear to them that we wouldn't pay since it was merely a swindle. A border official got out of a car and pointed a gun at us, but we had had enough and stood our ground. It worked and they ended up giving us tips on how to cross the border without paying much.

When we finally got to the Ghana border at Aflao on Sunday at 7 am, we grabbed a bath for thefirst time since we left home on Thursday night and continued home to Kumasi.

Reflecting on the whole ordeal, I could imagine what traders with valuable goods go through on this route, considering that we had such problems and were not even carrying any goods. It became clear why there is so much decline in human freedom and standard of living in Africa. All these harassment are not in accordance with the ECOWAS protocols on free movement of goods and services

I am still sick and depressed, and cannot fathom how governments make it needlessly difficult for people to have the benefit of freedom of movement. It was a classic robbery with a badge.

We need to rethink the whole ECOWAS idea. It is a sham at best! I hope my students’ understandings of the dangers of governments have deepened. ECOWAS leaders should bow their heads in shame. All those meetings are mere talk shops and absolutely a waste of resources.

It was so obvious how government is perilous and disruptive.

[photo: Students for Liberty Regional Confrerence, West Africa, credit SLF West Africa]

Citizenship rights in the West African subregion