African Views: Crossing the Benin-Nigeria Border

Yesterday we´ve had an unpleasant experience at Seme, the bordertown between Benin and Nigeria. We, a friend from England and myself (German) arrived from Cotonou by car, both holding valid visas issued by the Nigerian Embassy in Berlin and London.
I for myself spoke with the officer in Berlin, showed them my roundtrip ticket (Frankfurt-ACCRA-Nairobi-Zanizibar-Frankfurt) and told him that I was coming in by road from Cotonou. No problem at all he said, accepted the ticket and the invitation from a Nigerian friend, the fee was paid, the visa was issued 12 days ago. Same thing in London.

So we went to the border yesterday. The Benin officers let us depart, stamped our passports and surprise, surprise – the Nigerian immigration officers didn´t let us enter. We asked for the commander in chief and he also said: “No!” Why? we´ve asked. “You are not allowed to enter Nigeria by road!” He told us to go to the Nigerian Embassy at Cotonou and ask them for permission. So we went there – the Embassy looks like a prison from outside, highly protected – asked the officer in chief and we heard, that they do change rules once in a while;-)

We both had the feeling, he was waiting for bribe money.

Having heard about all the security issues in Nigeria we didn´t know if we should be happy or not to remain in Benin. We went back to the hotel where we checked out in the morning, informed our friends in Nigeria that we weren´t allowed to enter and then the twitter and SKYPE channels start glowing. Nigerians couldn´t believe that this is happening and kept telling us that this wasn´t a justifiable action.

So we called our Embassies here in Cotonou and told them the story. Corruption, this is more or less all they´ve had to say … in a diplomatic way of course. They acknowledged that this was against any regulations and gave us some papers.

Meanwhile we also received inivitation letters from our friends in Nigeria. Our plan is to start the trip again tomorrow morning in order to catch our flights to Accra in the late afternoon. Let´s see what will happen.

Besides this experience what I see in Africa is that corruption has a deep impact on people´s everyday life. Three quick examples for that:

On my way from Tema, Ghana to Aflaou, border Ghana – Togo we´ve passed 12 “check points”. At 7 the driver had to pay. Distance: ca. 145 km. On our way from Cotonou to the Nigerian border (32 km), 2 “check points”. 2 times payment. (remark: I have heard that the salaries of policemen in Ghana have been tripled by the State. A right step in the right direction. Hopefully this will help to reduce their “check points” in the streets).

ONG Adria, Aledjo, Benin: “We will never take any money from the government. As soon as they are in, we will loose our independence and have to accept “their way” of doing business.”

An experience I was just informed about via twitter by my friend Egghead Odewale: The travelers’ cruel experience at Porga border of Benin Republic

As long as these situations are part of everyday´s African life it will be hard for the people to succeed.

The second day we had no problems at all getting into Nigeria. The remaining question is still WHY?

We’ve had papers from our embassies, we’ve had an invitation from a Nigerian (which at least I showed at my interview at the Nigerian Embassy in Berlin, Germany).
An official from the English Embassy was with us, and a car of a friend was waiting at the other side of border.

But why should all this make THE difference?

We are still deeply convinced that the officers were waiting for pribe money.

So when we were sent back the first time the question arised if “open borders” like we have now in Europe or in the US could decrease corruption and increase properity?

In fact the ECOWAS (The Economic Community Of West African States is a regional group of sixteen countries, founded in 1975) has been discussing and practicing “free movement” – mainly for migration reasons.

Migration is historically a way of life in West Africa. Over the generations, people have migrated in response to demographic, economic, political and related factors: population pressure, environmental disasters, poor economic conditions, conflicts and the effects of macro-economic adjustment programmes. To understand the dynamics of these diverse migrations ECOWAS focused on causes, and changing configurations of emerging migratory flows; autonomous female migration, trafficking in women and children; intra-regional migration as alternatives to “illegal” migration to the North; progress and constraints in creating a borderless sub- region and fostering intra-regional migration. So when the ECOWAS members signed the Abuja Treaty one of their goals was open movement within the entire ECOWAS borders.

But the borders are closed again and sometimes one hear really very, very strange stories like the one mentioned above. Why did they close the borders again? Here are some explanations given by the different countries.

The major constraints include the multiplicity of economic groupings whose objectives, population, market size and structures are as diverse as the membership of the groupings. The wavering political support, political instability and inter-state border disputes and wars have retarded progress in ratification and implementation of protocols. The persistent economic downturn has crippled the ability of States to pursue consistent macro-economic policies and resulted in part in poor funding of cooperation unions. The non-convertibility of currencies hinders financial settlements and the harmonization of macro-economic policies and procedures. A high proportion of cross border movement in the sub-region is unrecorded due to the ubiquitous roadblocks across frontiers, the lengthy and costly formalities at border posts, and the corruption of officials.

The major enhancements include the free movement of persons without visa within the West African sub-region associated with this development is the progress made in the area of monetary policy, communication, trade and related matters. Regional infrastructure has been rehabilitated and expanded to foster economic integration – even though I have to admit that the road conditions at least in somes parts of Ghana and Benin along the coastal line are simply miserable. And also first steps are made regarding harmonizing the entire ECOWAS region: common currency and passports as well as common policies and shipping laws.

Non of these have been achieved yet, but at least the steps are pointing in the right direction.

So the short answer to the above mentioned questions is: Yes, maybe increase prosperity but I am not sure about decreasing corruption if institutional frameworks for transparency and accountability are still weak.

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