By Mustapha K Darboe
It is forty years since the foundation stone for what would become a regional economic bloc that would not just trade amongst itself but also allow and facilitate free movement of people across borders of all state parties. But that was just a part of the jigsaw— one might also dream that ECOWAS, as well as other regional blocs, would be a mother that delivers the child of United States of Africa dream.
If Ghana’s Nkurumah were alive at the founding of ECOWAS, given the strong belief he has in integration of Africa, he would have believed his dream of African integration is still alive.
Him and his contemporaries have always dreamt that Africa can be one country so it might usurp the power, military and economic, necessary to protect itself from the blood sucking vampires of the capitalists West and socialists East, whoever they are, and use its resources to better the lives of African people.
But because of the neocolonial project that came immediately after colonialism gasped its last breath, and thus the alleged recruitment of certain African leaders like Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast to hijack the Africa one-country project, leaders like Nkurumah would have thought present day leaders who formed ECOWAS can do it unnoticed through regional blocs.
They would have been woefully wrong! Four decades, ECOWAS leader have fallen far short of not just the glory of the Gods of Development but of the expectations of their own people. Steadily, painfully and in style, they collectively strangulated the dream of these pacesetters to death and are now busy destroying all traces that could tie them to the economic slaughter that their actions have cost their people.
Intra trade amongst ECOWAS countries is at 10% and between West African Monetary Zone countries is at 1% and in the whole of Africa it is 12%. It is as if these institutions take pride in enriching other countries they do trade with at their own expense.
Thus the single currency and free trade and free movement of people across borders dream have all died upon arrival. It would appear that ECOWAS, in its cargo cult mentality, enjoys crafting ambitious policies and gathering leaders in Abuja, of course, with the belief that such action and in my opinion, inaction, would deliver the goods.
And even more nauseating, perhaps, is the challenges one faces travelling from one ECOWAS country to another. There are shortages of them. Eavesdrop the conversation of ECOWAS travelers and few things won’t escape your ears: unnecessary and anti-trade paper works at land borders, border securities with insatiable taste for money, boring flights, airport pick-pockets, yellow book immigration entrepreneurs and worse of all, complete disregards for the so-called ECOWAS citizenship.
The evidences of the failures of ECOWAS are as common as Atayaa in The Gambia. Just recently, some Ghanaians coming to attend a trade fare organised by the Gambia Chamber of Commerce missed the trade fare because of some cumbersome paper work in Senegal. Some common bureaucratic tyrant who, I have later learnt, issues that much need paper once in two weeks, have cost hardworking businesses men and women of an amount of money they might struggle for another few months to recover.
And after two weeks of waiting, the paper man, in his wisdom and in my opinion, his lack of wisdom, issued a paper to only one of the trucks that had been forced to wait. The hardworking Ghanaians, knowing how much ECOWAS have failed them but won’t give in to that failure, decided to come but with just a day to the closing of the trade fare. Who won? ECOWAS. Because — let’s face it— somebody is winning here. It is just that certain victories are as good as three times an accumulation of successful failures.
And maybe I am too little too harsh on the person who committed what would suitably be an economic crime in serious places, say the European Union, because the truth is that this was as a result of a regional institutional failure. This might explain why there couldn’t and will never exist anything in ECOWAS that resembles a single currency if the regional ark is not properly put together.
One wonders how a region that waits on the start of a third world war to allow its people to move beyond colonial borders expects to have one currency. It is an illusion to think that any attempt to put the cart of single currency before the horses of intra trade, free movement of people and integration will work.
But the challenges are in a way too much than I can capture in the space I have been given on this paper— because another supposed good thing gone wrong is the yellow book. That yellow book is a euphemism for vaccination card, a requirement for “sick African people” to show at the airport of any state where they travel.
But there is more to it than just that. It can also be regarded as censor of the fat-belly and the starving. Rich drops 5 dollars and pass but the poor or the less adequate, for want of a better expression, negotiates and pays with his or her valuable time what the rich pay with dollar. That is if you don’t have because accidents do happen. Censor because, apparently, it distinguishes the rich and the poor, doesn’t it?
Don’t get it wrong because this is not about having the yellow or the lack of it, it is about the chances of bribery it offers. In a more charitable yet unforgivable term, it is also a stamp of approval of the claims of the 60s unapologetic racists of the West that an African man is “sick”, comes from a continent where disease is a characteristic rather than an accident of nature.
This is my own region, isn’t it? Oh sorry! It is supposed to be my region or perhaps appear to be my region. Perhaps that is not all important. So let’s continue the story, if we may.
On Saturday, 14 November, I unconsciously found myself struggling in Arik Air from Dakar to Banjul and then to Accra and then Lagos. The final destination was supposed to be Calaba, the bustling city of the Cross River State, Nigeria.
I had my raster flag scarf worn around my neck to assert my conviction as a pan-black, pan-African idiot. I use idiot because I was not going to meet the brothers I thought they were. I was going to meet bunches of white souls wearing black skin at best- at worst- traders of “yellow book” who, behind the veil of protecting an African from infecting his own brother, would rather prefer a white with dollar do that job.
But make no mistake; it is not a Nigerian problem. It is an African problem- yellow book is an African book. It has become the embarrassing sister of the African passport. I was unconscious- not because I am not alive. No! It is only that it was my first time to travel via an airport.
Our flight touched down on the Mutala Muhammed Airport on Monday morning. I open my eye to the beautiful skylines of Lagos, the ECOWAS capital- my supposed capital. Majestically, there I was- walking to meet my ECOWAS brother. Profession? An immigration to check out and go to a local airport to board another flight to Calaba.
It is not The Gambia- the Nigerian flag was everywhere because I board the same flight with the left-overs of Nigerian footballers from Dakar flying back to Lagos after winning the African Youth Championship Tournament. I walked alongside them to the immigration but no I was not supposed to take the same route with them and basked in the occasional laughter, smiles and pats that welcomed them. There, it is not “ECOWAS this way” and “others that way” as I have seen in The Gambia. It is rather “Nigeria this way” and “others that way”.
Apparently, my embarrassing few hours marriage— from Dakar to Lagos— with my Nigerian brothers would be hacked short by Yellow Book and “this way” and “that way”. “Nigeria? This way,” pronounced an ECOWAS brother in a Nigerian immigration uniform. “Gambia,” he said, as he looked at my ECOWAS passport in symbolism and Gambian passport in fact, “that way”.
In a split second, my direction suddenly sprouted with yellow book that the airport could literally benefit from a new name- yellow airport.
Stood by me, was a white South African. She does not have a yellow book. She had some dollars and from their conversation, it could be understood that she was not a first time offender- a serial offender. The immigration guy even knows her. She placed a Chrismas dollar in the palm of the yellow book immigration and walked away.
Be it as it may, I was frustrated but journalists can consciously allow their sanity stolen by such beautiful drama- the ECOWAS yellow book trade. “Me”? I began talking. Out of annoyance, I was going to say “this f.ck..g yellow book thing should be discarded”. But what is the point?
We all do it to save our own people, though it exposes another side of us, bribery. “You are from Gambia?” he asked. “Yah,” I responded.
That was it. If anything were to follow, it was begging. But begging is not a replacement for yellow book- not the ECOWAS yellow book- it is dollar. I had only 40 dollars and expected to use that on buying something. “Look! I am a citizen of ECOWAS,” I protested.
I was not the only yellow book victim- many were. Unconsciously, my “brother” placed my passport in my palms expecting a Chrismas dollar. But coincidentally, the begging was intense, and I stole my way. But certainly not without a shout from behind but would I even look behind?
And now I had to face immigration guys to have my passport stamped and guess what: it was stamped but I was given 20 days to stay in Nigeria. Huh lala. I was going to shout “this is tragedy more ways than three” but I was not supposed to bring more attention. I was an innocent Gambian but a fugitive, run-away yellow book criminal who took to his feet from some yellow book masters.
I am not certainly saying having a yellow book is wrong. No! I am just saying that the good intention that it might have on its surface is hijacked by the devil of bribery that hides behind it. If the yellow book were to offer a tool for one ECOWAS guy to technically steal from another, then a thought about it must emerge.
In the word of the Ghanaian vice president, KwesiAmissah-Arthur, said barely three weeks ago “We continue to expend time and effort in holding meetings; 35 so far for the Convergence Council. Have meetings become an end in themselves?” And I add, is ECOWAS an achievement in itself that we want or did we establish it to achieve something?
Paolo Frère said “every generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission: fulfill it or betray it”. So ECOWAS has a choice.
This opinion piece first appeared on the 31 January edition of The Standard newspaper. The writer, Mustapha K Darboe, is a senior reporter at The Standard and the administrator of torchongambia.