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In theory, people can easily cross borders in West Africa, but in practice, not without paying bribes

Extorting travellers

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According to the law, citizens of one country belonging to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have the right to travel and reside in any country within ECOWAS for up to 90 days, without being subjected to any form of harassment or payment of residential permit. Travellers just need valid travel documents and international health certificate to be on the move. However, the practice on the ground is quite different.

Hilacondji, the last village before entering Togo is located at 100 km west of Cotonou, the capital of Benin. There, the officers of the first police station for passport holders do their work in full transparency. At the second and last Beninese police station, nationals of member countries of the ECOWAS holding valid ID have free access. Irregular travellers – those without or an invalid ID or without a vaccination card – should pay a ransom. The policemen demand that they pay between 300 F and 1000 F CFA.

“The cops collect more than 1000F CFA (US$ 1,81) per day! But I cannot get an identity card, because I don’t have a birth certificate,” complains Adjoua Mouzoun, an illiterate Beninese merchant who crosses the border to sell smoked fish at the market in Lomé, the capital of Togo.

At the border, Beninese public health workers ask the irregular passengers to pay 300F CFA. “Only our money interests these health workers. They do not even check if the vaccination cards are up-to-date,” complains Wabi Ouro, a Beninese entrepreneur. Asked about the destination of this bribe collected and the non-delivery of a receipt, a health worker replies: “Keep going, if you don’t want to get in trouble.

In Togo, passengers are also ransomed by the police; the sums range from 300F to 1000F CFA. “It’s an organised mafia because they report to their bosses,” says Uchena Okechukwu, a Nigerian trader. The Togolese border superintendent was unreachable for further comment despite repeated attempts.

It’s the same at the Togo-Ghana border. “These policemen even require sometimes that regular travellers pay before they continue,” claims a luggage carrier, who prefers to stay anonymous.

On the Ghana side, it’s the worst, according to concordant testimonies. “Whether you have valid papers or not, you have to pay 1000F CFA mandatory,” laments Codjovi Ekoué, a Togolese student living in Ghana. However, the ECOWAS claims that “no one should be harassed at the borders” but the commission has no border police to play a watchdog role.

“This illegal cash flow escapes the public treasures of the concerned states,” reveals Bassir Talaki, a public tax consultant in Togo. “Imagine the amount when thousands of travellers cross these two borders each day,” he says and asks, “where does this colossal amount of money collected from passengers go?”

By Ibrahim Oredola Falola

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