Since its adoption 41 years ago, the free movement protocol of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has, arguably, never been put to test as currently being experienced among the Member States due to the rampaging coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
Except when some member states were hit by the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, which necessitated restrictions on the movement of nationals of affected states beyond their borders, there has been no record of a widespread condition that warranted a total lockdown as now being witnessed within the sub-region, and globally.
A three-day trip by road from Cote d’Ivoire to Nigeria recently took some Nigerians a harrowing three weeks.
The 67 Nigerians, who had fled Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial capital, because of the disease, encountered difficulties across the three ECOWAS countries they passed through.
A similar fate had befallen the first batch of 127 who left the country in similar circumstances with appropriate officials of Nigerian government, both home and abroad, having to intervene before they could make it to their home country.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that these returnees were stranded in Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic en route Nigeria. But for the continuous intervention of Nigerian government, whose leader currently chairs the body’s supreme organ- the authority of heads of states and government, the returnees might not have made it home.
The 67 returnees
Following the arrival of the first batch of 127 returnees from Cote d’Ivoire penultimate week, another batch of 67 persons, mostly businessmen and artisans from Osun State, also embarked on a trip to their hometown, Ejigbo, headquarters of Ejigbo Local Government Area of the state.
However, at the border post between Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, a relation of one of the returnees said, they were quarantined and vigorously checked, which according to the source, was strange to majority of the travellers, who are frequent travellers along the routes.
The source, who does not want to be named, said the returnees had to call their people at home, who in turn reached out to appropriate authorities in both Ghana and Nigeria to plead on their behalf for access.
The chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said she was aware of the development, noting that they had been stranded between Ghana and Togo Republic for more than two weeks.
She, however, said her office was not involved in their movement from Cote d’Ivoire, but that the government of Nigeria was.
In her response to our reporter’s message to her mobile line, Mrs. Dabiri-Erewa said; “I think those ones must have been those stranded for over two weeks between Togo and Ghana. My office is not involved in that.
“From information I gathered, they had been on transit and stranded between Togo and Ghana for two and a half weeks.”
What the protocol says
Adopted precisely on May 29, 1979, by the authority of heads of states and government, the free movement protocol, was aimed at economic integration of member states.
The protocol, which focuses on the right of residence and establishment, fosters interstate economic and political cooperation, and grants nationals of member-states with relevant documents access to move freely within any of the countries that are a member of the sub-regional organisation.
According to ECOWAS, the protocol, since its adoption, has encouraged intra-regional mobility, and has significantly boosted economic activities in the region.
“The Free Movement Protocol has yielded multi-sectoral benefits and has also been a major contributory factor to key developments in the ECOWAS community,” ECOWAS wrote on its website.
According to the organisation, millions of West African migrants now live in ECOWAS countries other than their own.
“The cross-border migration of women as traders and business persons places them as potential champions for promoting integration,” says ECOWAS.
Is protocol now jettisoned?
The head of the public affairs department of Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry, Ferdinand Nwoye, does not believe that member states have disrespected the protocol by their conduct, saying the circumstance inflicted on the world by the virus requires protectionist strategies.
Speaking on the phone with our reporter, Mr Nwoye said, at a time like this, every country including Nigeria needs to be careful to avoid careless spread of the disease.
“We are aware of the development, I mean the difficulties our returnees are passing through on the road. But that cannot be interpreted to mean the free movement protocol of the ECOWAS has been abandoned. No!
“This is a strange development and it is delicate for anyone to take chances. If we complain of the international borders, what do we say of state boundaries in the country here? You can’t move from one state to another without facing difficulty. You witnessed the Rivers State’s situation recently. Does that mean Nigeria’s constitution is no longer in force?”
Also speaking on the development, a lawyer, who has relations among the returnees, Rasak Alabi, said every Convention, Protocols and Acts may be suspended in an emergency.
“What we are witnessing globally at the moment is an emergency and on moral ground, it is enough for suspension of certain protocols and laws to avert monumental crises,” Mr Alabi said.
Who quarantines returnees?
Meanwhile, PREMIUM TIMES is aware of issues raised among states over which particular states should be responsible for the quarantine and possible isolation and treatment of returnees between states of destination and points of entry.
This became an issue recently after the first batch of 127 returnees from Cote d’Ivoire were escorted to Osun State – their state of destination, by Ogun State, which was their first point of contact with Nigeria.
Reacting to the development, the chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and secretary to the government of the federation, Boss Mustapha, said the point of entry into Nigeria should be responsible for the isolation of returnees. He said this is based on the newly formulated COVID-19 management protocol.
Mr Mustapha, who spoke through his office’s spokesperson, Willie Bassey, said the new protocol is aimed at avoiding what he described as reckless spread of the disease.
Mr Bassey, who spoke with our reporter on the phone, added that this is irrespective of the indigeneship of the returnees, saying allowing anyone that enters the country to move freely from one state to another without verifying their coronavirus status could put the country at risk.
He was reacting to the case of the 67 Osun State-bound returnees who arrived Lagos on Wednesday through the Nigeria-Benin Republic border in Badagry, Lagos State.
PREMIUM TIMES had earlier on Wednesday reported that another batch of 67 Nigerians were on their way to Nigeria from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
Speaking on their welfare, testing and isolation, Mr Bassey advised against politicisation of the fight against the dangerous disease.
Asked if the protocol was in place when the first batch of 127 were moved from Ogun to Osun State upon their arrival penultimate week, Mr Bassey said since the virus was novel, the government was just coming up with policies and protocols to guide its management.
He said; “I must confirm to you that there is no issue of ethnicity, indigenisation in this matter. Remember Nigeria’s index case was an Italian, why didn’t we deport the case to Italy? The reason he was taken to Lagos was basically for experience having handled a similar outbreak in the past.
“I am neither from Abuja nor from North-central, does it mean if I am positive, I would be taken to my state of origin? No! It is dangerous to move returnees from the state of entry to another state to avoid reckless spread.”
This position was corroborated by the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, which noted that the first point of contact with the country is expected to be responsible.
Mrs Dabiri-Erewa also added that on the instruction of foreign affairs minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, stranded Nigerians willing to return home must possess medical certificates indicating their coronavirus negative status.
“The two key requirements for the stranded Nigerians abroad who wish to return are their medical certificates stating their negative status for coronavirus, and should be 14 days of compulsory isolation on arrival to the country,” Mrs Dabiri-Erewa said, adding that, “Our various missions are still in the process of compiling names of those who can produce their certificates before we decide on next steps.”
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