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WEST AFRICA: Check Point &#39&#39Friendships&#39&#39 Hobble Regional Trade

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Mar 20 2008 (IPS) - &#39&#39Give It To God&#39&#39. These are the words inscribed on the front of the huge truck that goods transporter David Agbalanyo drives between the Ghanaian capital Accra and its northern neighbour, Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou.

Agbalanyo has indeed been giving – to officials who abuse their God-like power over who may pass, and whom not, on the roads that link the two countries. Police, immigration and customs officials have demanded money from him for as long as he has been using the route, which is 17 years.

Under the guise of performing their duties, they frustrate drivers’ passage. But Agbalanyo has rationalised it as ‘‘we are friends on the road and understand that ‘hand go, hand come’,’’ he says, using a local expression that boils down to ‘‘I pay them and they let me pass’’.

‘‘I consider this as lending a helping hand to my brothers who are doing their jobs,’’ explains Agbalanyo.

Asked if he does not consider it as blackmail, Agbalanyo said, ‘‘they don’t ask me for anything. Don’t forget that they have become my friends over the years. If they don’t see me for days, some of them make the effort to find out what has happened to me. This is friendship.’’

The heads of various state institutions constantly state their condemnation of such activities but they continue. Agbalanyo has his own theory about it: ‘‘There is no way that it would ever stop because it has become the culture’’.

Criminal elements among the drivers also ensure that the practice continues: ‘‘There are some bad drivers who do all sorts of things. They pay money to be cleared at check points, so these things will go on,’’ he says.

Without hard evidence, it is not an easy problem to tackle. This has led to an initiative of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Monetary and Economic Union of West Africa to gather the evidence and see what can be done to ensure the free movement of vehicles between countries in the region.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAid) is supporting the initiative through the West Africa Trade Hub (WATH).

Dubbed ‘‘Improved Road Transport Governance on Interstate Roads’’, the initiative has already produced two reports. They point to the fact that ‘‘multiple barriers, long delays and illicit payment to uniformed officials increase transport costs and hinder trade in West Africa’’.

Moreover, the research found that ‘‘apart from sporadic demonstrations of anger by transporters, there has been little concrete pressure for drastic change’’.

The ports also seem to be a problem area. Andy Cook, WATH transport advisor, says that ‘‘not all corruption happens on the road as we have just started a second project that shows that much of the corruption starts at the ports’’.

The owner of Agbalanyo’s truck, Alhaji Seidu Alhassan, guardedly denies that blackmail or bribery is taking place. ‘‘The police officers that you find on the road are there for security purposes. The customs officials check that no smuggling takes place at the borders.

‘‘The immigration people are also just doing their jobs, so it is not like there is something wrong taking place.’’

The WATH’s research on the roads for the period May 27, 2007 to October 26, 2007 showed that between Tema in Ghana and Ouagadougou, a distance of 992 kilometres, there were 19 check points – almost five for every 100 kilometres.

Total bribes paid along the route during the research amounted to about 43 dollars. The regular stopping leads to delays.

All this is happening at a time when governments in the region are constructing roads to link their various countries in order to encourage the free movement of goods. Cook describes this as an ‘‘inefficient use of capital’’.

After all, the main purpose of a better road network – improving trade – is being defeated by the way the uniformed officials are behaving.

Cook regards this as ‘‘banditry": ‘‘The police are hiding behind the performance of security duties to take money from drivers.’’

WATH has embarked upon an information campaign to alert drivers about the issue. Kossi Dahoui, a WATH transport specialist, told IPS that ‘‘some of the drivers we used for our data collection have come to appreciate that once the numerous checkpoints are removed, there would be free-flow of trade in the region’’.

In addition, the initiative has led to the signing of the Ouagadougou Declaration by countries in the region in November 2007. It contains a commitment to fight corruption on the roads.

WATH has also published a booklet indicating the documents that drivers are required to carry on each journey. This is to enable them to challenge any uniformed personnel that may demand money from them. Dahoui says, ‘‘we have sold a lot of these booklets all over the region’’.

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