By Owei Lakemfa
WEST Africans were more united in pre-colonial times than under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which turned forty years yesterday, Thursday, May 28, 2015. There was generally, free movement of persons in the region before the colonialists, mainly French and British, imposed artificial boundaries even amongst the same ethnic group and introduced custom duties which have since then restricted movement and prevented integration.
Badagry, in Western Nigeria for instance, was established primarily because of the prevailing freedom of movement in the region, and partly by refugees. It was founded by a combination of Ghanaians mainly of the Ga extraction, Togolese, particularly the Ewes, Beninese primarily from Whydah and Porto Novo and the Awori from Nigeria who trace their origin to Ile – Ife. It was perhaps the first city in the region founded by labour in search of better life.
To ensure integration, they integrated their various languages into what became known as Ogu (Egun) When the French and British imposed artificial boundaries, they cut Badagry off from the ancestral homes of most Ogus, and free movement was curtailed. This was the same way Porto Novo was cut from the Yorubas of Nigeria.
Perhaps the most integrated West African country is Togo which was established by the Burkinabes, Beninese, Malians, Nigerians and Ghanaians. Taking advantage of the free movement of people, these groups who make up part of the thirty national groups in Togo today, settled in the country from the 11th to the 16th Century. The main nationality is the Ewe which had migrated from Nigeria. They first made a stopover in Western Benin Republic where some live until today, before finally settling in Southern Togo.
The Ewes in Togo were one people, one culture, one language, one ancestry living in a contiguous area even after they were colonized by the Germans. But after the latter lost the First World War, Togo, was taken a war booty and shared with Britain taking a third, and France, two thirds. In sharing Togo, no thought was given to the people; the Ewes were sliced into two with Britain taking a part and adding it to its Gold Coast (Ghana) territory and the French keeping the rest.
So a united people were forced into two different countries; one part with English as the new official language using the British Pound (now the Ghanaian Cedi) and the other, French speaking with the Franc as currency. The Ewe people of Togo now needed passports to visit their fellow Ewes in their homestead of Volta Region in Ghana.
After independence, Ghanaian President, Kwame Nkrumah proposed a merger with Togo, to resolve the colonial problem, but his Togolese counterpart, Sylvanus Olympio, himself an Ewe, asked Ghana to hand over the Ewe part of Ghana back to Togo. There was a stalemate, and the Ewes, remain divided. Artificial colonial boundaries also separated the Ga, indigenes of Accra, the capital of Ghana, from their ancestral home in Nigeria.
Moving further upstream, we find the Mossi who had built a pre-colonial kingdom covering areas in Burkina Faso like Wagadugu, the capital, Tenkodogo and Yatenga. The Mossi people had extended through Northern Ghana and co-founded Togo. Again, the French and British imposed artificial boarders sub dividing the Mossi into various countries where the people, like was done to the Ewe, had to carry different passports, speak different foreign languages and use different currencies.
The Burkinabes, in fact suffered more, because after their country was used as an administrative centre by the French, the colonialists in 1932, abolished the country and divided the territory amongst its Niger, Cote d’Voire and Mali colonies. It was after series of protests, that the colonialists in 1947 reconstituted the Burkina Faso colony which was then called Upper Volta. The artificial border problem also led to civil war in Cote d’Voire.
The Lagos of my childhood was a mini West Africa with large populations of Ghanaians, Sierra Leoneans (Saro) Togolese (Agoin) Liberians and Beninese. We were one big family.
Visionary leaders like Kwame Nkrumah were by the early 1960s, pointing out the direction we should take with the initial union of Ghana, Mali and Guinea despite being so-called Anglo and Francophone. Then we had visionless leaders like Kofi Bussia who put a knife on the ties that bind us by expelling Nigerians from Ghana. Eight years after the founding of ECOWAS, Shehu Shagari carried out the same infamy, expelling Ghanaians from Nigeria.
While Europeans who divide us are united with no boundaries, we remain quite divided. A few years ago, I undertook a road travel from Banjul, Gambia through Senegal to Guinea Bissau; it was hell being harassed by the police, paying numerous official and unofficial fees and having two pages of my passport covered with all sorts of stamps.
Driving a private car from Accra to Lagos through Cotonou with ECOWAS insurance papers and international car permit, is a hell better imagined. You will be lucky if your car is not impounded along the way. In Ghana, the home of African unity, citizens from West Africa are foreigners whose children pay over 300 percent more for tertiary education, and require Residence permit as students.
ECOWAS proclaims that “The aims of the Community are to promote co-operation and integration, leading to the establishment of an economic union in West Africa in order to raise the living standards of its peoples, and to maintain and enhance economic stability, foster relations-among Member States and contribute to the progress and development of the African Continent” But its constituent states are the very obstacles to achieving these. The leaders jealously guard their borders, prefer to be kings in their small economies. Essentially, ECOWAS remains a forum of states, not of the peoples.
This month, I was in Rwanda; all an African needs to obtain visa on arrival, is to produce a passport from any part of the continent. Citizens of some of its neigbouring countries, do not even need a passport, just an identity card. That is integration! For ECOWAS to be meaningful, relevant and achieve integration, it must allow West Africans return to their pre-colonial status of free movement; tear down the colonial boundaries!