Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Accra, Dakar, Bamako – or Steps to Make Travelling in ECOWAS Less Stressful

Real life regularly happens to us, taking us from our beloved blogging. Since my last entry, a LOT of real life has happened. The following is an article that's to appear in the Wednesday 19 October 2011's edition of Business and Financial Times newspaper under my column "Accidental Ecowas and AU citizen".


“The Accidental Ecowas & AU Citizen”:

Accra, Dakar, Bamako – or Steps to Make Travelling in ECOWAS Less Stressful

By E.K.Bensah Jr

Last two weeks, I had the priviledge of going to the Senegalese capital of Dakar for a work-related conference, and I came back home  to Accra even more frustrated than ever as to why travelling throughout the sub-region should be as chaotic and frustrating as it is. 

As you may well know by now, the cornerstone of any serious sense of regional integration ought to be the power to freely move from one country to another. Given that ECOWAS has been around for more than three decades, one would have expected that there be a certain and acceptable level of standard at the airports. Sadly, as some of you may well know, there is not.

Where’s the wireless?
First, while there is wireless in Accra, I don’t believe there are so many hotspots at Kotoka International Airport the way there are at Senghor International Airport. As soon as one touches down in Dakar, if you have a smartphone, you are likely to see some five or six hotspots show up on your mobile phone. Bamako Senou had three, but none of them were accessible without a password, and when one enquired to obtain access, no-one seemed to know. If you are likely to be stuck at the airport for whatever inexplicable reason, at least, one needs a degree of sanity through access to the internet on one’s phone or laptop. Senou just did not seem to measure up.

Where’s the network?
While it was possible to use my MTN number to contact friends and family during a stopover at Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, same could not be said at Bamako or Dakar. This is simply because the French-backed ORANGE – instead of the South-African MTN – is widely used in most francophone West African countries. Forget AIRTEL. That network is not used in any of the aforementioned countries. TIGO and EXPRESSO, found in Ghana, are used in Dakar. I don’t know for EXPRESSO, but when I enquired about using my TIGO number in Dakar, I was told I had to deposit minimum of 150GHC as security before I am able to use the network in that country. When I asked one of the hotel workers, however, he said that in Dakar, you merely pay 2000CFA, or equivalent of 6GHC before being able to “roam” with your number!!

Where are the English magazines?
So we know how attached the French are to their language and the propagation of their literature, but this takes the biscuit. In Ghana, you will find both English and French magazines on sale; conversely in Dakar and Bamako, there were only francophone newspapers and magazine. Bamako had the exception of selling “Africa Report”, but both at Dakar airport and at a supermarket in Senegal’s capital city, one could not find a single English-speaking magazine. How is that supposed to engender regional cooperation and understanding among the francophone and Anglophone member states?

Where’s the West African carrier?
In the ECOWAS sub-region, there is regrettably no “Air ECOWAS”; instead, there is the Togo-based “ASKY”, managed by Ethiopian Airlines and which has backing from ECOBANK; ECOWAS; UEMOA; among many other stakeholders, lending itself the image of being ECOWAS’ “de facto” carrier. Never mind that the name is deceptive or the fact that the cost of air tickets at ASKY are high, it does not even yet cover all of West Africa! There is AIR SENEGAL and AIR MALI, but the conspicuous absence of Ghana Airways leaves a bitter taste in the Ghanaian mouth.

In the light of all these major complaints, here are some ways in which ECOWAS, as a sub-regional organisation, can deal with these challenges:

First, ECOWAS ought to establish a standard for its airports, which include hotspots, accessible wireless, and fully-working air-conditioners in all parts of an ECOWAS member state airport

Secondly, the Nigeria-based West African Telecommunications Regulatory Assembly, which is an association of telecommunications regulators in West Africa, ought to sign an Memorandum of Understanding(MoU) between itself and ECOWAS so that it can create a standardized telecom operator throughout the sub-region, so that the traveler does not waste resources on SIM Cards. While it is very encouraging to read that in 2010, WATRA  sought to lower call tariffs across West Africa and called for a common ICT operating platform in West Africa, much remains to be done with ECOWAS to ensure that travelling and calling in West Africa are as seamless as elsewhere in the West.

Finally, ECOWAS should join the Association of African Airlines(AFRAA) to ensure that the plan for joint fuel purchase is effectuated so that the cost of travelling in the sub-region is brought down considerably. These may be pie-in-the-sky ruminations, but in West Africa – as in the whole of Africa, hope springs eternal!

In 2009, in his capacity as a “Do More Talk Less Ambassador” of the 42nd Generation—an NGO that promotes and discusses Pan-Africanism--Emmanuel gave a series of lectures on the role of ECOWAS and the AU in facilitating a Pan-African identity. Emmanuel owns "Critiquing Regionalism" (http://www.critiquing-regionalism.org). Established in 2004 as an initiative to respond to the dearth of knowledge on global regional integration initiatives worldwide, this non-profit blog features regional integration initiatives on MERCOSUR/EU/Africa/Asia and many others. You can reach him on ekbensah@ekbensah.net / Mobile: 0268.687.653.
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