Leadership (Abuja)

West Africa: ECOWAS Is the Only Regional Bloc With Free Visa Entry - Elumelu

interview

Principal Director of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Free Movement of Persons, Mr. Tony Luka Elumelu, in this interview with RALIAT AHMED-YUSUF, AYANDA NGWANE ODEY aND SAMUEL MALIK, speaks on the latest developments and future outlook for the region.

Why is it so difficult to fully implement the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement?

The ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement came into being in 1979 with three core principles: right of entry, right of residence and right of establishment. The right of entry involves the right of ECOWAS citizens to enter any member country without the requirements of visa. The right of residence means you have the right to be domiciled in a member state while the right of establishment means you are entitled to own or establish legitimate businesses in any member state.

It has not been fully realised because there are a lot of challenges. But if you look at other regional economic groupings, they will tell you that they are looking at ECOWAS as a model because it is the only regional economic community where you have visa-free entry among member states. That is a laudable achievement. Nonetheless, there are impediments which have to do with sincerity of member states and selective implementation of the protocol.

How do cross-border crimes affect ECOWAS vision vis-a-vis the free movement protocol?

The protocol is quite clear on the admission of citizens. It shows that you have to travel with your passport or the ECOWAS travel certificate, which makes it very easy for people to be identified when travelling across borders. This is why we are moving away from the manual form of identification to biometric, so that people can be tied to their ID cards. This is also why we are introducing the ECOWAS Passport and, as we speak, 11 member states have already adopted it.

Cross-border crimes can be checked if security operatives at the borders use synergy. The situation right now is that security operatives at the borders are very territorial. You find out that the police think they have the sole responsibility to check crime. The same thing applies to immigration and custom personnel. Considering the fact that most of the crimes committed now seem quite alien to us - some governments even admitted it, there is need to improve the capacity of security operatives to enable them measure up and combat the kinds of crimes we now face. One thing we need is collaboration between the different security operatives in member states. The interconnectivity between member states is very crucial in fighting crime. At the ECOWAS level, we have the heads of immigration meeting where they meet, discuss and find solutions to our common problems. Other fora for the police and custom also exist. We should be able to break it down to state level and also have a joint meeting of all these security agencies.

Considering various crimes and crisis in the region, don't you think by encouraging visa-free movement the protocol induces these crimes?

There is need for a proper understanding of the protocol. The free movement protocol does not encourage crime in any way because it requires people to be tied to their ID cards. There is provision for inadmissible elements by member states in the protocol, because it is not just enough for you to go to any border and be allowed to cross over to the other side. You must be admissible according to the requirements of the protocol.

On the migration concept at the regional level, beyond the issue of free movement, we have the common approach on migration which is targeted towards the development of the region and was adopted in 2008. This well planned document also has its cardinal aspects. Number one is the free movement of persons and number two deals with action plan to address irregular migration. The issue of security is also addressed in the document through training and capacity building of security personnel. The action on regular migration also addresses the Diaspora issue: how do you organise the Diaspora? How do they come in and bring in best practices? How do you maintain them and ensure that they not double-taxed? Regarding gender, there is need to train and build the capacity of women while also protecting them from the illegal activities of operatives, like harassment. There is again the policy of harmonisation of all immigration policies in the region and also there are policies on asylum and refugees.

You see, the job of security operatives at the borders is not only to admit. It goes beyond admission to monitoring; that is, when you create synergy, if you suspect that somebody coming into your country is going to cause trouble, what do you do - because there is free movement and you don't have anything on them? You can allow entry, and when this is done, you can monitor them through other security agencies. So, you can see that the protocol goes beyond allowing somebody entry: you still need to monitor them because there are provisions that allow you to. The protocol itself encourages the mobility of persons and goods. Our local region is one of the richest, but because of the activities of few, there are overhead costs in terms of trade. So, I refuse to agree that the protocol encourages crimes.

There are provisions and conditions for monitoring of movement, and you if don't monitor, how can you secure? The major problem we have in our region, particularly at the borders, is a lack of synergy. The job of immigration officers is to admit, yes, but it goes beyond that - you have immigration facilities in all 774 local government areas in Nigeria, for instance. I was once an attaché in Lagos Island and my job included getting security reports. There are security meetings of the police, army, etc. So, if somebody is slightly going to be a public charge, all you have to do is monitor and place him on a suspect index. You can bust a cartel with this simple technique. To make things easier, just make sure people come in with the right documents. When it comes to security, everybody is responsible. You don't need multiple checkpoints to combat crime: it is people's civic responsibility to blow the whistle on any suspicious activities.

Do you think ECOWAS should rethink its policy on free movement?

It is a violation of the agreement between member states to just pick somebody up from the street when they have not broken any law. This is where Nigeria needs to play a big brother's role. No country will allow criminal acts, so if there are law breakers, all you need do is take them to the appropriate courts and allow the law take care of it. You cannot just repatriate somebody for no reason. There are procedures to be followed, one of which is to notify the ECOWAS Commission. This, of course, does not mean a country should compromise its security. The right thing to do is to carry out a proper investigation.

How serious are member states about the full implementation of the free movement protocol, considering how long it s taking to implement?

This protocol is one of the earliest to be adopted by the region's heads of state because they discovered that free movement was a critical component of regional growth and development. The agreement to the removal of visa requirement also shows commitment and seriousness of members to the success of the protocol, though a major problem is the selective implementation of protocol by members. This could mainly be political, but I tell you one thing: the citizens are serious because they are the ones directly affected - not government officials travelling with diplomatic passports. You cannot kill the will of the people and this protocol is one of the best things to happen to the region, and I believe it will work. The activities of very few people, who, maybe, hide under the guise of national security to misinform their governments, may be slowing the implementation: but I tell you, the protocol is seen as a model for the continent.

Are there sanction mechanisms against erring member states, irrespective of how much influence they wield in the commission?

You see, ECOWAS is made up of sovereign nations. The concept of ECOWAS is the pooling together of these sovereign nations for the benefit of the region. Though member states relinquished some of the powers to the body, ECOWAS is not a sanction-meting regime. It is more about creating an enabling environment for growth. We, however, note that there is selective implementation of protocols by member states which does not bode well with the commission and we condemn such. We expect that members should do the right thing at all times. For individuals whose rights have been violated, there is the ECOWAS Court of Justice for them to seek redress. For now, we only have the court for redress but we are working on sanctions because, without it, the protocols will not be effective. At the heads of states' level, it is discussed that members are expected to comply with protocols. Among sovereign states, dialogue is most times used to get the cooperation of members.

Do you think the 2015 target for a common currency is realistic?

Nothing is impossible. If we work hard, it is not beyond our reach because we still have time. The move by the present administration that emphasises the need for members to implement signed agreements is a step in the right direction. If signed agreements are implemented, there are so many targets that will be achieved within a given timeframe, and there is no limit to what we can achieve as a region.

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