Thursday, September 8, 2011

32 Years On, West Africa’s Free Movement Protocol Drags

ECOWAS Comission, Abuja, Nigeria (Pix: EC)
More than three decades ago, leaders of the sub-regional economic bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) signed the “ECOWAS Free Movement Protocol”.
The protocol is meant to promote unfettered movement of Community citizens within the region as part of the process of creating a single regional economic space where citizens can avail themselves of the opportunities that abound in Member States and contribute to the region’s development.
It also seeks to enhance intra-Community trade, which presently hovers between 11 and 13 percent, and contribute to the stimulation of the regional economy.
However, since the signing of the document on May 29, 1979, little progress has been made in realising one of ECOWAS’s most important initiatives. As present leaders hide under the cloak of “maintaining peace and security” in their respective countries, it has become apparent that it has been ever difficult for ECOWAS citizens to enjoy their rights of “free movement of persons, goods and services”.
This is characterized by the numerous but unnecessary security checks established within countries and at the boarders of the various ECOWAS States.    
During the opening of an August 22 train-the-trainers workshop in Koroduma, Nasarawa State for Nigerian immigration officials on the “ECOWAS Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, Goods and Right of Residence and Establishment” the President of the ECOWAS Commission exhorts for a borderless ECOWAS region.
President James Victor Gbeho called on immigration operatives in Member States to work towards the achievement of a borderless Community through effective implementation of the regional protocol on free movement.
Gbeho, who was represented by Mr. Tony Elumelu, Principal Programme Officer at the Commission’s Directorate of Free Movement and Tourism, was quoted to have said: “In seeking to accelerate the attainment of a borderless Community, the ECOWAS Commission is disposed to activate public participation in the protocol implementation with the use of enormous human resources”.
According to ECOWAS, the sustenance of the regional integration drive was contingent on free movement of Community citizen. This, it said, would complement the Commission’s on-going initiative to introduce in West Africa, a Shengen-type visa regime operational in some European Union Member States.
And President Gbeho added that on-going sensitization of the operatives and citizens was part of sustained efforts to reduce, if not eliminate, the hardship and cases of harassment and intimidation of Community citizens in the hands of security operatives in the common borders.
In April 2011, the ECOWAS Commissioner for Trade Alhagie Mohammed B. Daramy blamed “security” for slow progress in Trade and Regional Integration, saying security reasons remain the main factor impeding the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Goods and Services and regional integration through trade in the sub-region.
“The instability we have in the sub-region have also make countries not willing to open their borders for people to move freely,” he told The Voice at the end of a five-day sub-regional workshop on the ECOWAS Common External Tariff (CET) held in Banjul. “Members of ECOWAS lack commitment to the Protocol they have signed, thereby holding back the trade regional integration process within the sub-region.”
During a March 23, 2011 workshop on “Human Rights Approach in the Process of Regional Integration in West Africa” in Banjul, The Gambia, organised by the Senegal-based National Organisation for Human Rights (ONDH), its President Djibril Aziz BADIANE stressed that human rights cannot be detached from Governments, democracy, good governance, and solidarity.
“Presented as one of the safest levers of socio-economic development of Africa, the regional integration process, in fact, raises a series of problems relatively distant from populations concerned,” said BADIANE, whose organisation (ONDH) is currently steering a six-month project to promote the participation of the Non-State Actors (civil society) in the process of regional integration within ECOWAS.
This, he said is in respond the concerns of economic operators and civil society representatives, who, since the 1980s organised themselves to express their positions in participating in everything that committed and defend their interests as actors and citizens.
For him, the realisation of free movement of persons, good and services rest largely on respect for human rights. “When a government obliged itself to uphold certain duties, but refuse to do so, then that tantamount to bad governance. When we talk about human rights, we do not mean to attack or criticize Governments, but to bring to the fore the fundamental rights of the people,” he said. 
However, ECOWAS said the August 22-26, 2011 training for the immigration operatives which was held at Koroduma, Nasarawa State of Nigeria is one of the activities being pursued by the ECOWAS Commission to address the challenges identified with the implementation of the Free Movement Protocol, including harassment, corruption, indiscriminate road blocks and erection of non tariff barriers.
Immigration officials within the sub-region are being challenged to assume the responsibility as the new drivers of emerging migration trends in the ECOWAS region. They should give meaning to the concept of Borderless Border by opening up their operations in line with international best practices, according to the Comptroller General, Nigeria Immigration Service, Mrs. Rose Uzoma.
She called on the Commission to address the challenge of dearth of information by sponsoring joint sensitization seminars with emphasis on the new approach to passenger clearance.
Air-Vice Marshal Terry Okorodudu (retied), Chair of the ECOWAS Free Movement Monitoring Team, said the essence of the Community protocol on free movement “rests squarely on immigration, (and) without immigration there will be no ECOWAS”.
He stressed the need for the creation of a reliable database that will be accessible to all stakeholders on immigration issues. 

Author: Modou S. Joof for The Voice Newspaper

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