February 12, 2015 | by Dr. Adebusuyi Isaac Adeniran Print

The need for a free flow of people, goods, and services is central to economic growth in West Africa. Regional trade is critical for supplying reasonably priced essential goods and creating more jobs for the African people, but the continent lags far behind the rest of the world. One of the key components of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Protocol promises the “free movement of persons and goods,” but despite the official support of 16 member countries, this has been procedurally unattainable in practice. Free trade remains illusory in West Africa.

Despite an average 5.5 percent annual GDP growth in 2014, West African countries are among the poorest in the world — primarily because of their paralyzed trade system. More than 80 percent of trade volume in Africa comes from exporting natural resources to developed economies, but trade between ECOWAS members is minuscule compared to regional trade among those developed nations. Intra-regional trade constitutes 63 percent of total exports in Western European nations, 40 percent within the NAFTA region, and 20 percent within South America’s Mercosur block, trade within ECOWAS only accounts for 9.3 percent of total exports.

The major hindrances to regional trade and economic development in West Africa are high travel costs, regulatory barriers, and institutional corruption. Bribes and delays at checkpoints along various trade routes cripple West African trade. On average, it takes travelers up to $54.01 in bribes and 42.1 hours to cross the border of Nigeria through its Hilllacondji Transit. In Benin, where bribery is most endemic, people pay up to $95.03 in bribes per 100 kilometers they travel. As depicted in a trans-regional survey by Adeniran (2010), approximately 85 percent of customs, security, and border officials stationed between Lagos in Nigeria and Abidjan in the Ivory Coast forcefully solicit bribes from transporters and traders — even when all required travel documents are complete.

“The impact of bribery at the borders is quite overbearing for me, my business as well as
my clients/partners,” said Tolu, a Nigerian businesswoman I interviewed in 2014. “Bribe constitutes almost 35 percent annual cost of my business. I was nearly driven out of business in 2009 when the cost dwindled drastically. It remains until today a major challenge to my business and survival.”

Despite international aid and assistance, progress with the integration of regional economies has been slow over the years. Trade facilitation projects have been launched by the World Bank (the Abidjan-Lagos Corridor Organization project), by the United States Agency for International Development (the USAID West Africa Trade Hub project), and by two private operators that sponsored Border Information Centers (BICs) along the Ghana-Togo regional route. These have helped improve awareness among individuals and government officials of the importance of trade liberalization, but practical progress remains scarce.

Notably, ECOWAS member states tend to prioritize their own national interests to the detriment of economic prosperity and individual freedom within the broader region. For instance, although the Ivorian immigration law allows for “free movement” of ECOWAS citizens, a residence permit is considered necessary when a non-Ivorian ECOWAS citizen stays in the country for up to three months. In 1983 alone, about 1.2 million Ghanaians were expelled from Nigeria, and in 1985 about 100,000 more were deported in spite of the subsisting ECOWAS Protocol promising “free movement of persons and goods.”

Institutional reforms are critical to improving the freedom of Africans to travel and trade with each other. Organizations involved with African development need to realize the crucial fact that international trade issues in Africa involve far more than just market liberalization and the reduction of tariffs. Successful regional economic growth necessarily entails a fundamental change in the role of government and the people’s way of doing business.

Without a consistent rule of law, revenue from trade and business will inevitably fuel the growth of corruption and rent-seeking regulations. Only a negligible fraction of government revenues are currently used to fund public goods that truly benefit the general public, so any economic and social benefits that might otherwise result from trade liberalization will be undermined without institutional reforms. If ECOWAS states remove the barriers that currently cripple regional movement, trade can become an engine for growth and prosperity within West Africa.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.