Free movement of persons, goods biggest challenge co W/Africa integration –– Ibn Chambas

Dr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas was elected Executive Secretary of ECOWAS at the 25th session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government in Dakar on 21 December 2001. He assumed office at the ECOWAS Executive Secretariat, Abuja, Nigeria, on 1 February 2002. At its 30th session held in Abuja on 14 June 2006, the Authority of Heads of State and Government decided to transform the ECOWAS Secretariat into the ECOWAS Commission with effect from 1 January 2007. Dr. Chambas was elected the first President of the ECOWAS Commission and assumed that position on 1 January 2007.

As Chief Executive Officer of the 15-member West African regional organisation, Dr. Cham bas has successfully positioned ECOWAS as a model regional organisation in Africa due to its accomplishments in the resolution of the conflicts in Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau and Togo. He has increased the profile of the organisation and forged beneficial relations between it and development partners such as the United Nations, the European Union, The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the African Development Bank and numerous donor countries. Also, the relationship between ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) Commission has never been stronger.

Under his leadership, ECOWAS has achieved synergy between its integration programmes and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) initiatives, again blazing the trail with regard to the regional approach to the implementation of NEPAD.

Prior to his election, Dr. Chambas was a Member of Parliament of Ghana.

In the Parliament he served at various periods as First Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Chairman of the Appointments Committee, Chairman of the Privileges Committee, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Member of the Select Committee on Education and the Committee on subsidiary legislation.

Dr. Chambas first entered Government in 1987 as Deputy Foreign Minister of Ghana. In that capacity, he was a member of the. Head of State’s summit delegations to countries such as the United States of America, China, United Kingdom, France, Malaysia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, etc. He also led Ghana’s delegation to several countries and conferences, including the United Nations General Assembly, ministerial meetings of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) now the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African Sates (ECOWAS), the Movement of the Non-Aligned Countries (NAM), the Commonwealth, etc.

Between 1991 and 1996, he was centrally involved in the ECOWAS mediation efforts in Liberia and participated in the negotiations leading to the agreements which ended the Liberian civil war.

In 1996, Dr. Chambas was a key member of Ghana’s campaign team for the election of Mr. Kofi Annan to his first term as Secretary-General of the United Nations Organisation.

He was also a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which worked to facilitate a transition to constitutional democratic governance in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia.

Between April 1997 and December 2000, Dr. Chambas was the Deputy Minister of Education in charge of Tertiary Education. In that capacity he had direct responsibility for the country’s five universities, ten polytechnics and agencies/institutions charged with the formulation of policies on higher education, accreditation and maintenance of standards.

Dr. Chambas, who was born on 7 December 1950, holds degrees in Political Science from the University of Ghana, Legon (B. A. 1973) and Cornell University, Ithaca New York (M. A. 1977; PhD 1980) and a law degree from Case Western Reserve University Cleveland, Ohio (J. D. 1984). He has been admitted to practise law in Ghana and in the State of Ohio. His working experience in the United States includes teaching at Oberlin College, and practising law with The Greater Cleveland Legal Aid Society and the Cleveland, Ohio, Law Office of Forbes, Forbes and Teamor.

Dr. Chambas served a four-year term (1997-2001) on the Cornell University Council, the first African to serve on the Council of the prestigious Ivy-league American University. He was re-elected for another four year term from 2003-2007. He has had several honours conferred on him.

One of the aims of ECOWAS is free movement of goods and persons within the sub-region. Would you say that this has been achieved?

Far from it! In fact, it remains, in my view, the biggest challenge to the integration process in Africa. Wherever I speak in public, one of the first questions I get is the difficulty that ordinary people face when they try to move around in the region from one country to the other. The cross border obstacle that they face, particularly at the frontier where the processing of documents is extremely cumbersome and fraught with harassments, intimidation and, often times, plain extortion. Then, on the highway, you still find a lot of unauthorised checkpoints and road blocks. All of these stand in the way of free movement of persons, especially with regards to free movement of goods.

There are still so many non-tariff barriers. The ECOWAS protocols have abolished tariff with regards to goods that are substantially produced in any ECOWAS member state being exported to other ECOWAS states. But there are so many non-tariff barriers and arbitrariness on the part of Customs, Immigration and other security agencies and officials who, in spite of what the protocol says, still put a lot of obstacles in the way of free trade within the sub region.

So, free movement of goods and services is one of the outstanding issues that need to be addressed in order to enhance the integration process in West Africa

Most of the inter-country trade is undocumented and informal, leading to loss of revenue for the countries and, by extension, ECOWAS. Are you doing anything to rectify this?

The difficulties that I have enumerated is what pushes the trade underground. That’s why very little of the trade is recorded and formal. I think the task here is to work to remove these impediments to free trade and then what will happen is that we would see a boost in recorded formal trade. I need to emphasise that if we are able to scale up the volume of trade within West Africa, it would be a big boost to the productive sector. In order to trade, you have to first produce goods and services and if we improve on that, it will generate employment.

We have specific budget designed to deal with these problems that I have enumerated. For instance, one of such programmes is building of joint border posts.

The major objective of having this joint border posts is to simplify procedures at the borders so that, together, the officials of the two adjoining countries will have more or less a one-stop shop processing. This will allow for easier and freer flow of trade.

Another aspect of this programme is to continue the sensitisation programmes which we have for the Customs, Immigration and other security agencies. We need to continue the educational programme that we have, such as the workshops, to let them understand that their role is to facilitate free movement and not to be obstacles to the flow of persons.

We have also embarked on some studies. We need to document accurately what these problems are and disseminate same to the public, particularly to the media because the media can help us to expose some of these unauthorised and unlawful activities which stand in the midst of free flow of goods and services in the sub-region.

Smuggling is believed to have bigger volume of trade than even the conventional informal trade leading invariably to revenue loss to the governments and your commission. Has this been controlled to the barest minimum?

Issues like smuggling are symptoms of these problems we are facing. Whenever people are prevented from engaging in lawful activities, whenever huge obstacles are placed in the way of transacting legitimate business, you will find that smuggling and other nefarious activities will be on the rise. So, what we need to do is to ensure that the legitimate processes are put in place so that when people come to the frontier, unnecessary obstacles are not placed in their way. When they know that going through the legal border, unnecessary obstacles are placed on their way, they find footpaths and bye-ways to move their goods. So, they just come and engage in corrupt practices at the borders and move goods which otherwise should not have gone through.

I think the way to deal with this is to, first of all, simplify rules for trading, facilitate and speed up processes and when these are done there will be a big reduction in smuggling.

The other aspect of smuggling has to do with unreasonable tariff rates. In some countries, there are either tariff rates which do not make commercial sense. If a country cannot produce certain goods in sufficient quantity for its population and at the same time bans such items, with human nature, you can tell that such goods are likely to be smuggled in.

If you put a very huge tariff on import, you also will encourage smuggling because people will find a way to get it. I think the evidence out there shows that when you have simplified tariff rate and have a very efficient clearance of goods through customs, the impact is to reduce smuggling considerably. So, we should emphasise on coming up with implementing the ECOWAS simplified tariff rate and we should work on the efficiency of the border posts for clearance of goods. I think if these measures are put in place, they will have a significant impact in reducing smuggling.

ECOWAS has suspended Guinea because of the recent coup in that country. What does the country lose by not being a member? Is it not indirectly punishing the people rather than the ruler?

The first set of action that have taken are only political and diplomatic in the sense that they are suspended from participating in the meetings of Heads of State and Ministers. What a country loses?

The essence of sovereignty of any country is to be able to participate in regional, continental and international forum. So, I think, such measure itself is a significant signal to the country that something is very wrong with the governance system in that country and that is why it is been shunned by its immediate neigbours, by the African continent and the international community. So these diplomatic and political measures taken by the ECOWAS heads of state, in my view, would go a long way to signal the new Guinean authority that they need to return the country very quickly to constitutional rule so that, once again, Guinea can be accepted in the comity of nations. These do not punish the people and it is deliberately so because ECOWAS authority did not want to punish Guineans for the sins of their leaders. Guinean people have committed no offence; it is the military leaders who have engaged in an act which is an aberration. In West Africa, we have zero tolerance for military intervention in the region and we want to see Guinea return very quickly to constitutional democratic rule.

The constitution of any country in the world stipulates a maximum of two terms. Taking Africa as a case study, most of its leaders have this ‘sit-tight syndrome’. What is ECOWAS doing to ensure that no leader stays beyond the stipulated term?

The issue you are touching on is a question of succession in Africa. Different countries have different provision with regards to the tenure of office of heads of state. But, whatever it is, the issue is that any organisation, be it a corporation or charity organisation, the question of succession is important. One must always have in place a mode of peaceful succession.

Secondly, one must always have in place a process for training, exposing others to leadership skills so that, some day, when the current crop of leaders are no longer available because even if people decide to stay in office for life, they will definitely, one day, pass on. What happens after that? So, the question of succession is crucially important. We need to begin to address it in Africa because we have seen time and time again that where it has not been properly addressed, where a successor generation has not been adequately trained or given an opportunity to emerge, whenever the old leaders passed away instability ensue. This is one issue in West Africa that has received our attention.

The ECOWAS protocol on democracy and good governance address this issue and encourages adherence to constitutional principle, ensuring that when the time stipulated by the constitution have expired leaders move on.

Also, discouraging arbitrary amendment of constitution to favour individual. Constitutions should be crafted for generations even yet unborn, not targeted or suited just for individuals. These are all very legitimate concerns and more and more, ECOWAS will lead the discussion in the region among all stakeholders so that this issue of succession, training of a successor generation and acceptance of current generation to prepare for their exit and to groom successor generation. This is something we must make a habit within West Africa and throughout Africa.

According to the UNODC report last year, over 134 tonnes of cannabis was seized from a member state. This is a very disturbing trend. How far has ECOWAS gone or what is it doing to bring this situation under control?

It is not only cannabis. What is even more worrisome was cocaine and other hard drugs which are being brought in from the Andean region of Latin America. These drug cartels from Latin America have now targeted West Africa to smuggle their drugs illicitly to Europe and other parts of the world. That is beginning to pose a serious threat to peace and stability of the region because this is big business. It has huge corrupting influence. They target political leaders, security officials, airports and other border officials corrupt them and try to make them part of their networks for trafficking of drugs. It is a serious problem through out the region. That is why the last summit of ECOWAS dotted a political declaration against drug trafficking. We have also worked out a plan of action against drug trafficking together with the UN agencies and other bilateral partners. This year, we would convene a donor round table, bring a number of partners together because this is a problem that affects us, particularly Europe, because the destination of these drugs is Europe.

The country has to partner with us to fight this scourge in the region. The region is very determined to tackle this problem headlong.

What effort is ECOWAS making to withdraw small arms and light weapons as we have seen in the case of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Niger Delta (Nigeria) where they are used to cause mayhem by rebels and militants against government. Also, they are used for arm robbery.

On the issue of proliferation of small arms and light weapons, we have a convention against illicit import, export and circulation of small arms and light weapons within the region. Based on this, we have a programme headquartered in Bamako. This problem works very closely with national committees which have been set up in each of the 15 member states of ECOWAS. These national committees are the focal points for national programmes designed to deal with specific cases because each country has its peculiar problem.

The key thing here is that, nationally, these committees are comprised of various stakeholders, security agencies, civil society, organisations, women and youths etc. all of whom work to identify the source of the problem in each country and how to tackle these problems so that we can prevent more small arms and light weapons coming in. At the same time, for those that are already in, we design national programmes on how to mop them up and prevent the kind of havoc which small arms and light weapon cause in many of our communities across the region. Also, the source of instability that we often encounter in different parts of our region, I think if all of us work together we would be able to deal with this menace of easy availability of small arms and light weapons.

Credit: Raliat Ahmed

Source: Leadership in Nigeria

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