Deadly borders of West Africa
Breeding Corruption, extortions, bribery, & smuggling
Restricting inter-regional trade & freedom of movement of people
Special investigations by Kwabena Adu Koranteng (Ghana) & Ouamar Abdulai (Burkina Faso)
Have you ever crossed a border in West Africa with or without a passport, ECOWAS green card or a national identity card? If yes, then what did you experience? Did any border security agent demand money from you before you could cross? How many times did they demand money from you on both sides of the border?
Besides, are you thinking of crossing any of the borders with large sums of illegal money or transporting counterfeit products like pharmaceuticals, electrical wire or electronic products from one port of entry to a West African country and wondering what to do? It's easy: have some thousands of cedis, naira or CFA with you and bribe your way from one country to the next and the next and the next.
Increasingly, West African borders have become notorious for all sorts of crime from almost every corner of the sub-regional borders; extortion racketeering and corruption are the order of the day at all the borders in the ECOWAS region. The borders of West Africa have been turned into illegal money-making ventures which rake in thousands of Ghana cedis, Nigerian naira and CFA francs for the security agents positioned there.
There is no way you can cross any of the West African borders today without paying money to the security agents. Between the Aflao (Ghana) and Lome (Togo) border posts, a traveller must have at least CFA 5,000 (GH₵25) to be able to cross to either side. Between Elubo and Noe, border posts between Ghana and Ivory Coast, a traveller with a single piece of luggage needs about CFA 4,500 to cross to either side. The same thing applies to the Ghana - Burkina Faso border between Paga and Dakola, our investigations reveal.
When crossing from Aflao in Ghana to Lome in Togo the traveller with a Ghanaian passport pays CFA 1,000 at each of five different points in the Togo section of the border. A traveller with a Francophone passport pays the same amount at about three different points at the Ghanaian section of the border just to be able to cross over. Only heads of state, Presidents, diplomats and other high ranking state officials are exempted from such extortion when crossing the borders of West Africa. Apart from these, everybody is forced to obey the extornionst orders of border security agents. The Immigration service, Customs Excise and Preventive service (CEPS), Police and National Security Agents have been positioned on each side at the borders of West African countries - and all of them are engaged in one form or another of extortion, our investigations have revealed.
As part of our investigations Kwabena Adu Koranteng , a renowned and acclaimed investigative journalist, visited the Ghana - Burkina Faso border, Ghana - Togo border, and Ghana - Cote d' Ivoire border; meanwhile Oamah Abdulai, a renowned investigative journalist in Burkina Faso and a partner in the investigations, visited the Nigeria - Benin border, Burkina Faso - Benin border, and the Burkina Faso - Niger, Mali and Cote d Ivoire borders to verify some of these illicit acts and identify the actors and causes.
On June 20th Kwabena Adu Koranteng arrived at the Aflao border post with all valid documents ; and in an attempt to cross from the Ghanaian section of the border, he paid CFA 1,000 at each of four different tables on the Togo side of the border. The police table took 1,000, Immigration 1,000, national security 1,000 and the CID also took 1,000. You dare not refuse to pay this money when crossing, or else you will be confined in a very small cell at the border and left overnight as a punishment. You must also not ask for a reduction since that is not allowed. I was also expecting them to issue me a receipt to prove that I had crossed the border into Togo, but that was refused. There is no receipt given to indicate the amount of money paid to security agents at the borders.
In the end I spent CFA 5,000 (GH₵250) before I could cross the border into Togo. On my return the next day, I was compelled to pay another CFA 2,000 in order to cross from Togo to Ghana; 1,000 to the customs officer for stamping my passport, and another 1,000 to the police officer stationed there for no work done. At the border it is daylight extortion.
It is done during the day and not at night, and they don't care who you are: a traveller is made to pay this money before he or she is allowed entry or exit. Eventually, I paid CFA 7,000 just to cross into Togo and back to Ghana.
The investigators realised that more than one thousand people cross the Ghana - Togo border on a daily basis, so you can imagine the huge money that the security agents are raking in through this racket. Passenger buses travelling from Ghana to Nigeria with Chisco buses, a cross border transport company and other cross-country transport firms encourage their passengers to contribute a thousand CFA each, to be paid at every point of exit/entry in order to avoid unnecessary delays.
The same thing happens to people crossing from Francophone countries to Anglophone ones. Moving goods from Togo to Ghana is the most difficult process that a person or a trader encounters in this part of the sub-region. Aside from the usual duties paid by traders and vehicles to move their goods, drivers are also made to pay more than CFA 5,000 at each point of entry just to pass.
This adds cost to doing business in West Africa. At the Ghana - Cote d' Ivoire border, which this investigator visited on the 26th of June and 30th of July 2012, it was realized that people paid CFA 4,500 to cross from Ghana to Cote d' Ivoire and the same when crossing from Cote d' Ivoire to Ghana. Besides, they paid GH₵3 at the inland barrier at Esiama. A Ghanaian travelling into Abidjan also pays CFA 1,000 at about five different barriers inside Ivory Coast. CFA 2,000, part of the amount paid, is meant for entry stamp and CFA 2,500 for a Yellow-Fever card. Crossing this border without a passport is very difficult as you have to pay as much as CFA 8,500 in order to cross.
Between the Ghana and Burkina Faso border points, cross-border truck drivers complained bitterly about the indiscriminate ways in which the Police, Customs and Immigration Services extort money from them: all the way from the Tema Harbor near Accra to Paga on the border. Between the Tema Port and Paga there are about six police and four Customs barriers, and each of them demand GH₵5 from each of the cross-border vehicles transporting goods to Burkina Faso.
Therefore, as a truck driver goes through all these checks, he ends up paying as much as GH₵50. Those crossing the border to Burkina Faso without a passport are made to pay CFA 3,000 for a 24-hour entry paper to Ouagadougou. This is a breach of the ECOWAS Protocol that allows freedom of movement for people and goods within the sub-region.
Ouamar Abdulsalam Abubakre reports that the harassment at ECOWAS borders is contributing substantially to the low growth of sub-regional economies. From Lagos to Dakar and Abidjan to Niamey through Bamako and Ouagadougou, the arbitrary checking and unlawful collections damage traffic fluency on the different corridors.
Giving an account of his brutal experience on the Niamey Ouagadougou corridor, François TIENDREBEOGO, a cargo truck driver said: “They kneeled me down in Pandéré in Niger. They nearly laid hands on me for having dared to ask for explanations why they were demanding money from me.
“The security service at the post then ordered me to pay the money before I could get the documents covering my vehicle, or I could get into my car.”
Madi ZOUNDI and Moumouni BELEM, users of the Burkina - Ghana and Burkina - Benin - Nigeria borders, expressed their disappointment with governments of member-states for allowing such harassment and extortion to go on at the borders.
“Harassment is a common occurrence on the borders of West Africa,” added Moumouni who was on his way to Lagos at the time. Moumouni had a huge task driving through Benin from Niger to Nigeria, and was contemplating the amount of money left in his pocket to be consumed by border security. Inhis view: “The actual problem is the main Cotonou-Lagos road. Once at the border, checkings are so numerous that you lose time and money enormously. Documents mean nothing before the policemen. They are interested in nothing but money. The CFA or the Naira is their only concern.” For these road users, the free movement of people and goods is nothing more than a mirage in the ECOWAS space…. a typical piece of political speech.
Travelling between Ouagadougou and Cinkansé, several checkpoints slowed down our journey on 12 June, 2012. We managed to count six Customs checkpoints, two gendarmerie checkpoints and two national and city police checkpoints among other security barriers which contribute hugely to the mess at West Africa corridors.
The Ouagadougou - Lome corridor is strewn with barriers that are not in accordance with the ECOWAS protocols on free movement of goods and services. At some Customs checkpoints, drivers are obliged to pay between 500 and 1,000 CFA according to the size of their vehicle.
In other cases, it is a matter of paying in kind. Usually, some of the products being transported must be given to the security agents to allow passage. “We do not know the destination of these expenses and deductions,” stated Koffi, a Togolese cargo truck driver we met on the way.
At some customs checkpoints, sugar-boxes, loincloths and various products provide evidence of this practice. “Enough is enough!” the Togo truck driver narrated. “Things must change. The extortion and bribery must stop; enough is enough! At each stopping place, you have to do something, and that's to give money,” he ended.
Road users on the ECOWAS corridors regularly experience harassment on this stretch of ECOWAS space, that is, on the Burkinabe side. However, they try to console themselves with the fact that the phenomenon in Burkina Faso is by far less pronounced than in Niger, Benin and Nigeria where the harassment is done openly. “In Benin, Niger and Nigeria, the policemen are referred to as bounty-hunters,” bemoaned another driver.
In a make-shift convoy travelling to Porga, the Benin border control centre that we used for the occasion, the realities are easily noticed. Accounts and verifications at the scene highlight cases where the ECOWAS and UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) protocol is flouted. Here, identity-cards and ECOWAS passports are collected by an officer who is in charge of passengers as soon as they get out of the cars.
In a line, the day's passengers are led to the control centre for police procedures. Nevertheless, processing one's document is not enough to get past this control centre. Each passenger has to pay an amount of CFA 1,000 to the assistant-head of the centre at the unit in Porga. They allegedly collect the money to enable them buy diesel to power their generators at night, and also other amenities like pencils, notebooks, water, and other petty items to help them function effectively.
The security head at the border stated “most drivers on reaching the border might have breached the law in one way or another and therefore 'decide to give something' to avoid being delayed or arrested. As regards the small small money we collect from them, they are deliberately paid by the road users as part of their contribution toward the effective functioning of the service,” ashe tried to justify himself. “False,” retorts Miss Salimata TRAORE, trader and passenger of a car travelling to Cotonou, contesting the words of the Benin police officer.
“Here, each passenger is obliged to pay 1,000 CFA as a bribe to free him/herself from detention. I frequently use this route, and from here on these expenses are included in our provisions,” she stated.
From the sixty passengers travelling in a bus with Salimata, the border agents succeeded in realizing a sum of sixty thousand CFA through the police officers stationed at the Porga border-post. This was excluding the money collected by health services for what they termed as Yellow-Fever Vaccination. It is between 1,000 and three thousand (3,000) CFA per person, and this goes straight into the pockets of Beninois immigration agents.
The long cargo vehicles pay between 1,000 and 2,000 CFA at Porga gendarmerie and police border centre. In Burkina Faso, the border police of Nadiagou and Pama gendarmerie unit have another approach: only drivers have to pay between 1,000 and 2,000 CFA. Here, the passenger is not penalized but the driver bears “registration expenses” which amount to charges and are negotiable. These registration expenses are also applied to road users in the other gendarmerie and border police centers. At the Pô border point at Burkina Faso, the illegal practices of the national road security agency can be hardly outdone. Even the Forestry Commission agents are often listed in these unlawful collections.
Road harassment on these corridors damages the flow of traffic. According to a report by Unfair Practices Watch a non governmental research institute based in Burkina Faso, they cause a tremendous waste of time and loss of money to drivers. From Lomé to Ouagadougou one can spend an average of four days instead of two, due to the unnecessary delays that culminate in extortion.
This same thing applies to the Cotonou - Ouagadougou and Tema - Ouagadougou roads. Yet, in the opinion of the road users, only three days are necessary for a distance of 1,000 to 1,500 km by road. At Nadiagou road users spend little time with Customs, unlike Bittou.
Besides the extortion, heavy-duty cars are also made to pay “overtime “tax in the francophone part of the sub-region. According to officials, it is a tax instituted by the State to feed Customs officers who work beyond normal hours or are on overtime. Not surprisingly, whenever drivers are taxed the issue generates argument between them and Customs officers at Bittou and Cinkansé.
The drivers and other road users claim it is another form of extortion - modified or legalized but in the end they are forced to pay before they can cross.
In the report on the fluency of traffic, Bittou and Cinkansé were specifically mentioned by Unfair Practice Watch in 2011 - which stated that “the border posts of Cinkansé and Bittourepresents the main problem of the Lomé-Ouagadougou corridor since it gather 1/3 of these unlawful collections and more than 60% of lateness”.]The road users' ignorance of rules regarding the overtime encourages these irregularities.
Speaking in an interview with these investigators, Hilaire KY, Head of the Customs office at Cinkansé between Burkina and Togo, said the overtime tax charged by Burkina Faso is governed by a ministerial decree. According to Mr. KY, the overtime issue is as a result of lack of communication between the collectors and the drivers.
“Many road haulers are unaware of the regulation and prefer confiding in intermediaries. If there is a problem, it is therefore at the intermediaries' level. Our services in no way can make a punctual file late,” he underlined. Yet according to the haulers' accounts, at Cinkansé, and Bittou the overtime is applied even if you arrive early. “The overtime has become a real deal; they don't issue any receipt. The customs officers make the files late so that the overtime will be applied,” stated Ismaël OUEDRAOGO, a road hauler.
For government to resolve this delicate issue of the overtime, tax, Mr. KY suggested that there ought to be a sensitization exercise and also clean up the transit sector to bring this laws into general use and sensitize the actors.
Reacting to the high incidence of illegal activity at ECOWAS borders during an interview with this writer (Kwabena Adu Koranteng), Mrs. Florence Dennis, Executive Secretary of the Ghana Anti- Corruption Coalition - a civil society organization working against corruption in Ghana - called for the establishment of measures which can help eliminate the corrupt activities at ECOWAS borders.
She called for the installation of closed-circuit cameras (CCTV) at the various points of entry to capture security officers who extort money from travellers. Such persons, she said, should be instantly expelled from the security services when found or captured extorting money.
“The governments of ECOWAS states must enhance public education against illegal payments at their borders. Travellers and traders must be empowered to report officials who engage in extortion, racketeering, bribery and corruption at the borders.” She said though the ECOWAS Commission is aware of the extortion, bribery and corruption happening at the borders, it has limited power over the sovereign states.
INVESTIGATIONS FURTHER reveal that the high level of extortion happens at Anglophone - Francophone border points more than francophone - francophone ones, which ought to be addressed.
Also, speaking to the New Crusading Guide, a Ghanaian newspaper, Jonathan Adabre of the Integrated Social Development Centre (ISODEC), another civil society organization in Ghana, said the ECOWAS Commission is aware of the abuse of its laws by member-states, but can do little about the situation due to its limited powers. He informed that on the 20th of June this year the Commission, in collaboration with its stakeholders, which included civil society, held a strategic emergency meeting in Accra to deliberate on the security situation at the borders of the sub-region's countries. At the said meeting - at which he was present - stakeholders concluded with a communiqué recommending member-states to take urgent measures to reduce and eliminate harassment, corruption and extortion by border agents.
The meeting called for the installation of security cameras at border posts to check extortion of money, and creation of information and complaints desks at all entry points to address issues of violation and abuse of community-citizen's rights.
The communiqué also urged member-states to organize trans-border traders and educate them on ECOWAS protocols.
But who will see to the implementation of these regulations? “That is the question,” he said, adding that in spite of the recommendations, member-countries see the ECOWAS Commission as a toothless bulldog that has limited powers to pragmatically pressure member-states into adhering to its protocols. “All it does is to plead and urge member-countries to abide by its laws which are difficult to comply with”, he noted
He said the only way through which the ECOWAS Commission can solidify its name among member-statesis to streamline its operations; engage in comprehensive training of the security units of member-states; promote the application of technology, policy dynamism and development to reduce the obstacles that hinder movement of goods and humans at the borders; facilitate trade in the sub-region; and boost the movement of people.