One of the factors negating Ghana’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID 19 is citizens of ECOWAS countries trying to enter the country illegally, despite closure of the borders. Since March 22 when President Akufo-Addo announced closure of the borders through a legislative instrument, scores of ECOWAS citizens have been trying to jump or have jumped the borders into the country from Togo, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. A significant number of the illegal immigrants from EOCWAS countries tested positive for the virus, thus threatening Ghana’s fight against the pandemic. As of mid-March, it had become clear that the majority of cases in Ghana had come from Europe and neighbouring countries.
An analysis of the nature and impact of COVID-19 has revealed that it has gone beyond a mere health issue to a security, economic and even political one. But these unilateral responses are in some way a contravention of the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Good and People. Almost every ECOWAS country, including Ghana, has so taken sovereign decisions in the national interest. Perhaps, in the period of COVID-19, the ECOWAS protocol may have to be put on hold for some time as national sovereignty and security dictate national strategies and responses.
In 2015, ECOWAS marked 40 years of existence during which it recorded chequered progress in fulfilling one of its principal objectives — to promote cooperation and integration. This was to lead to the establishment of an economic union in West Africa: to raise the living standards of its peoples, maintain and enhance economic stability, foster relations among member-states and contribute to the African continent’s progress and development.
Promulgated four years after the ECOWAS treaty, the Protocol was signed in Dakar to provide a legal framework for citizens’ right to enter, reside and engage in economic activities in the territory of other member-states. Its purpose was to abolish visa and entry permit requirements, and to extend the right of residency and the right of establishment among others.
The question is: is this global pandemic about to redefine the ECOWAS Protocol on free movement of goods and people? What options did the protocol provide for national restrictions on movements of people in situations like the COVID-19? Ghana remains a test case for EOCWAS, and by extension African integration since independence. Ghana has often given away too much and received little in return. I have heard many West African citizens suggesting Ghana is a haven, and that they would prefer to be quarantined in Ghana if they contracted the virus. Perhaps this notion accounts for the many ECOWAS citizens scrambling to enter Ghana despite the closure of our borders.
As stated earlier, COVID-19 is an African political crisis as much as it is a health and economic emergency, and the potential for more political confrontations is high. In some West African countries, the opposition have been quick to score points on their government’s response to the pandemic. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) this April attacked Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari for failing to launch a timely and strategic response, calling it an “absolute leadership failure”. Ironically, President Buhari was appointed by his fellow ECOWAS presidents as the Champion for Coordination of COVID-19. He is to lead the campaign to create awareness about the virus in the sub-region. Ghana’s National Democratic Congress (NDC) had the most biting quip, advising Ghanaians to “wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water, as if you unexpectedly just touched [a ruling] NPP t-shirt”.
In West Africa and other parts of Africa, some governments will find it tempting to use COVID-19 to tilt the playing field in their favour. The outbreak presents an opportunity for incumbents to entrench themselves, delay elections, and outlaw street protests on public safety grounds. In Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, elections are due later this year; and the opposition in both countries are giving their governments close marking to ensure adherence to election timelines. The uncertainty over having a new register in Ghana is raising the stakes even higher, with the opposition hoping that the virus’s spread can justify calls for the Electoral Commission to abort plans for a new register. Government has urged all interest groups to allow the EC to discharge its constitutional duty of overseeing the elections and related issues.
Ghana is leading the West Africa case count with 3,091 – about the combined figures of Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. The high number of cases does not indicate that Ghana is losing control; it is simply the case that Ghana is tracing and testing more cases than its West African neighbours, whose cases are low because of low testing. Using Ghana’s case border control hurdles, ECOWAS governments need to take individual and collective efforts to educate their citizens on respecting the COVID-19 protocols, despite the existence of an ECOWAS protocol on free movement of people. This points to the need for proper coordination and collaboration among governments and inter-governmental agencies to combat the pandemic.
One area ECOWAS members have creditably coordinated activities is the inter-health response. On 14 February 2020 – a few days after WHO declared Covid-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the West African Health Organisation, WAHO, convened an emergency meeting of ECOWAS Ministers of Health on preparedness and response to the outbreak of COVID-19. The meeting agreed on a unified regional approach to COVID-19. Other key actions WAHO is taking to fight this COVID-19 pandemic is developing Operational Guides for the fight against COVID-19, and an online training for healthcare workers on the use of these guides.
At a joint press briefing on the regional preparedness for COVID-19 on the 17th of February 2020 in Abuja, the Director-General of WAHO, Professor Stanley Okolo, and Nigeria’s Minister of State for Health, Senator Olurunnimbe Mamora, called for collective action by all stakeholders and West African citizens in the prevention, containment and sustainable response to the epidemic.
At a similar meeting in Monrovia in March 2020, ECOWAS leaders agreed on exchange and share ideas on the need for collective and effective responses to COVID-19. The leaders also stressed the need for coordination and charged ECOWAS to do a stocktaking of all member-states’ responses to the impact of COVID-19. Addressing the conference, Liberia’s President George Weah called for more collaborative efforts among member-states of ECOWAS as they grapple with the coronavirus disease in their individual countries. The Liberian leader said these consultations should be done “in real time” on matters concerning the disease and its impact on countries of the region.
As I indicated in earlier articles, coordination, cooperation and collaboration are key to managing complex emergencies. According to a statement by EOCWAS, WAHO has been very active in engaging states to adopt a regional approach to the pandemic and support them as necessary. The WAHO Director-General stressed the need for accurate and timely information sharing on the nature, manner of spread, incubation period and appropriate or safe behaviour for citizens.
The statement did not categorically condemn community citizens’ disregard for border closures, as in the case of Ghana. There is an equal need for communicating the strategies for containing COVID-19, even as the regional health organisation is monitoring the situation in case the virus mutates.
Professor Okolo highlighted some of the strategies to include strengthening coordination, communication and collaboration among member-states in preparedness for the COVID-19 epidemic. This should include cross-border collaboration as well as enhancement of surveillance and management measures at the air, land and sea entry points of the region. In this regard, Ghana’s government is probably right in tightening its borders against the protocol for free moment of people and goods.
When the Protocol on Free Movement and Migration was signed, the implementation period of 15 years elapsed in 1994. Some analysts however argue that it is difficult to measure the success of free movement of goods and persons within the region. Nonetheless, the present visa-free travel system in 15 West African states is the largest free-movement corridor in Africa, according to statistics.
It was expected that the attainment of regional citizenship would become ECOWAS’ greatest achievement. ECOWAS has a ‘Vision 2020’, which envisioned transforming the community into an ‘ECOWAS of People’. If the ECOWAS Commission and the leadership are determined, it is possible to have an ECOWAS with fully operational free movement of people, goods and services by 2020. There is, however, no meaningful ‘ECOWAS of the people’ unless the said people have unfettered rights to move, reside and establish themselves across the region’s frontiers. The sub-region has close to five years to reassess its strategies and ensure the vision is achieved. Perhaps COVID-19 has come at the wrong time, when EOCWAS is seeking to consolidate the free movement of people in 2020.
All said, there is a need for all community citizens to be recognised as stakeholders, instead of governments managing the response as purely government business. This necessitates sustained communication for citizens to recognise their duties and responsibilities, as well as to guarantee the safety of citizens in the region.
- Centre for Strategic and International Studies (2020) ‘COVID-19 Is an African Political Crisis as Much as a Health and Economic Emergency’.
- ECOWAS (2020) ECOWAS Leaders Share Ideas on Collective Response to COVID-19.
- Gondy, N.D. The ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement and Regional Migration in West Africa
(***The writer is a Communications and Development Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate. All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation. (Email: [email protected] Mobile: 0202642504 0243327586/0264327586)