West Africa: The Curse Of Borders

At the start of VS Naipaul’s acerbic novel A Bend in the River, set in a disrupted post-colonial Central African state, the narrator, an Indian trader on the move, comments waspishly about “all that business at the frontier posts, all that haggling in the forest outside wooden huts that flew strange flags.” Salim is clearly voicing the feelings of the deeply cynical and Afro-pessimist Naipaul himself, and the comment can be read as a yearning for the supposedly bucolic and ordered European-ruled Africa which so suited the fantasies of the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene—a world so accessible and safe for non-Africans. But it nonetheless carry a particularly important truth. African borders are for the most part less places for customs or immigration regulation than for extortion and harassment of travellers and businesspeople by petty officials acting with impunity. And the cost, in terms of the disruption of regular and legitimate trade, travellers’ time and vehicles’ fares, the accumulated frustrations and small terrors, is enormous.


To travel by road through West Africa, as I did recently, is inevitably to arrive at this conclusion: For the sake of meaningful integration, Ecowas must devise a more rational, integrated and coherent frontier policy, one that would probably do away with more than 50 per cent of the officials and resources devoted by individual countries apparently to patrol their borders.


It was in November last year that I was starkly confronted with the problem when I made a road trip from Accra, Ghana, to Lagos, Nigeria, passing through Togo and Benin, all on the so-called Gulf of Guinea coast, and all proud members of the regional integration body Ecowas. The trip, which should take about seven hours, actually had me spend a sleepless, almost high-octane (what rush of adrenaline! what anxieties, nerves!) night in Cotonou, at the craggy bedlam which passes for the border post supposedly separating Benin from Nigeria. And what an experience!


In the fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta, travelling “alone, having neither fellow-traveller in whose companionship I might cheer,” observed after a long journey in West Africa that a traveller in the region would have no need “to travel with companions because of the safety of [the] road” there. That was during the pre-colonial period, and Ibn Battuta’s sojourn took him through the fabled empire of Mali, which was a model of functionality and coherence at the time. Not long after, however, the empire collapsed, partly the result of external predation, and the whole region was soon after ravaged by slave traders, and then, still later, partitioned into small colonies by European imperialists. The current Africa, the Africa of small states and shabby borders and strange flags, is the result. And in this Africa, the road is certainly not as safe as during Battuta’s time, to put it no stronger.


I started the journey in Accra, in a vehicle provided by the British Council there (I was going to Abuja to speak at a conference on ‘Strengthening African Democracies,’ organised by the British Council and Chatham House in London). The driver, a mild-mannered man with an anodyne face and clean hair-cut, claimed to have made the journey to Lagos before, which turned out to be a lie—and a huge problem. It turned out also that the vehicle itself had never made the journey—a worse problem.


Accra is seeing something of a boom, with new buildings and new roads being constructed daily, a healthy economy. So it comes as a slight shock to be confronted, a few miles outside of it, evidence of the antique squalor still pervading rural Africa: the unpaved road, villages built of thatched huts that perish after a few seasons, the topless, sweating men working on their dug-outs, stunted little peasant farms. It took us about three hours to get to the border with Togo. It is the Aflao border station, and on the other side is the charming little beachside city of Lome, Togo’s capital. This border area has been described colourfully, but not inaccurately, by the American journalist Robert Kaplan as “chaotic…: a rustic and clanging gate, charred and corrugated barrack houses, dirt, sand, flies amid piles of mangoes hawked by a small crowd of women, and lots of teenage boys armed with wads of cedis, the Ghanaian currency, which they were selling in exchange for CFA francs,” the currency used in Togo.


There are numerous customs and immigration officials, and one is required to pay an exit fee (for which, at least, a receipt is provided on the Ghanaian side); and immediately after crossing the imposing gate, one is again made to pay money to enter Togo. I did not need to get out of the car in either cases, just handing my passport—an Ecowas passport—and some money to the driver to handle the eager—and one might add, incurious—officials. But the transaction took time, and of course money. I noticed that the dozens of young people on either side of the border would walk from one side to the other with no one bothering them: the border controls, in other words, were not really for immigration or customs purposes but were instruments designed to make money out of travellers and businesspeople.         


It was at this border post, on the Togolese side, that the decent and down-to-earth President Sylvanus Olympio, Togo’s first president, was gunned down by his own soldiers in 1963. The man who led that utterly self-serving coup, a thuggish young officer named Nnassingbe Eyadema, took over after the assassination, and has since not ceased to be president. Today, the area is a bustling market town, with thousands of people in both countries doing cross-border trade which is made a little more expensive and needlessly formal by border restrictions. Both Togo and Ghana are peopled largely by the Akan-speaking group, drawing upon the same tradition and cosmology. The European colonisers, Britain (which ruled Ghana until 1957) and France (which ruled Togo until 1960) separated these peoples into different political units, gave them English and French as official languages respectively, and the result is that tiny Togo, which should really be a province of Ghana, is an impoverished backwater subsisting largely on underground trade (the result of the foolish border restrictions) with its neighbours.


Lome is a small city that seems to clutter about its beautiful Atlantic ocean beachside with its excellent auto road, seemingly well-groomed coconut trees lining its side. This road leads straight to Cotonou, capital of Benin, about four hours away. The coastline, which you see almost throughout the journey, and which goes on to Lagos, constitutes the area known as the Gulf of Guinea. Long ago it was called the Slave Coast, the most important entrepot for the Atlantic slave trade which saw millions of Africans shipped to the Americas, a continent ravaged and neutered. Just before one gets to Cotonou there is Quidah, a small town in Benin which was one of the most important slave ports in West Africa. The port was the point of departure for 1.5 million slaves; the area is now a UNESCO cultural site. Quidah’s notorious history, partly popularised by Bruce Chatwin in The Last Viceroy of Quidah, is the source of its celebrity status: the town is home of voodoo, from which Toussaint L’Overture got inspiration to lead the world’s most successful slave rebellion, in Haiti in the eighteenth century; and it may have been the departure point for more enslaved African who peopled the Americas than any other.


An hour or so after Quidah, we got to Cotonou, a dishevelled and bustling little city (population: 200,000) sporting more motor bikes—the speed and energy of these toys, men and women packed tight on top of them—than cars. But this was not my first or most striking impression of the place. As our car made its way through the packed but well-maintained asphalt road to the end of town where the border post (with Nigeria) is situated (there is an imposing toll gate just before it), one was struck by the hundreds of little street-side tables with jerry-cans full petrol which are peddled to passing vehicles and motor bikes. These are smuggled petrol from Nigeria, sold openly on the streets, making redundant the few petrol stations that this little city sports. They also make nonsense of the frantic and overcrowded border post at the edge of the city. It was now almost 7:00 pm—we started the journey at about 1:00 pm—and the rush of energy in Cotonou, the speeding cars and motor bikes, thousands of people crowding the streets from work or just simply idling about, market women packing their wares, was simply overwhelming.


The desperate-looking Togolese border official in flowing, drab gown, his dusty feet in matching slippers, asked to see our papers, which we produced. He pretended to inspect them, and handed them quickly back. Then he asked to see papers for the car. The driver produced them. The official looked at the papers for about five minutes inside his shed, came back, and asked for papers showing that the car had made the journey to Nigeria before. He spoke in perfect Nigerian broken English (or patois) rather than French, the official language of Togo. It was then that I knew that neither the car nor the driver had travelled to Nigeria before. The official said that the car would have to be registered, which would take a whole day to arrange. After over 20 minutes of haggling, he decided that we would have to pay the equivalent of $20 in lieu of that, and warned us that we will face greater difficulties with the Nigerian border officials anxiously waiting a few meters away. “People take cars across the border into Nigeria to sell them, and there have been a lot of car thefts lately,” he said. Since our car had never made the journey, it would be assumed that we are taking it to Nigeria to sell. The driver paid the $20—the two of us had by now paid more than $50 to an assortment of officials since we started the journey.


Benin and the huge area of Nigeria bordering it are peopled mainly by the Yoruba, a famously talented and enterprising people whose culture dominates the African diaspora, from Brazil to Cuba to the US and Haiti. But by colonial fiat, Benin was carved out of the disintegrating Yoruba empire of Oyo—attacked and looted of its marvellous bronze art by the British in the nineteenth century—by an encroaching French army. On maps, both Benin and Togo look almost like manic anomalies, cadaverous pieces of real estate sandwiched between Ghana and Nigeria. The impression of anomaly is only enhanced by the very circumstance of a place like Cotonou—depressed and almost chaotic, subsisting mainly on foreign aid and goods smuggled from its vastly bigger and richer neighbour, Nigeria, of which it should be a province. In fact, in spite of the lugubrious name and even more lugubrious politics, Cotonou seems like one sprawling suburb of Lagos, only an hour or so drive away.


The bored Nigerian border officials seated on hard wooden chairs in the corridors of an imposing structure built by Ecowas years back, apparently forgotten government civil servants who make bearable their often dreary vacancies by petty graft, are the first to make this suggestion to you. “They are prickly lot, these Benin people,” one of them volunteered, apropos of nothing, as I handed over my passport. “They have nothing. The day we closed this border to them, the whole country screamed.” He was referring to an incident in 2004 when the Nigerian authorities, concerned about car thefts and smuggling from Nigeria into Benin, temporarily closed down the border. But the irony of the situation, since the whole point is that it borders (no pun intended) on his livelihood, appears lost on him. He was Yoruba, and he said he felt “an ancestral connection” to the people of Benin, but “I have a job to do.” It is one of the pathos of the situation: muddled ideas of sovereignty, the starveling patriotism, petty graft as policy.


This border post, on the Nigerian side, must count as one of the world’s most bizarre, irrational and corrupt. The official eyed my passport as you do some exotic object, clumsily turned the pages, and, ignoring it, asked whether I had my yellow fever vaccination papers. I said I didn’t, and didn’t need it anyway. He said that that was for him to decide. And his decision was that I must pay the equivalent of $15 for not having it. At the far end of the border post, in a dusty and cluttered room that passed for the Customs Section, the driver was being quizzed about the car. It was now past 8:00 pm, and the place was dark.


The official wanted to know who owed the car. When that was confirmed, he asked whether the car had previously made the journey to Nigeria. There was no record of that. The official smiled covetously and announced that in that case the driver must put a bond of $1000 for him to allow the car to cross the border. Meanwhile, I had negotiated down what I was to pay for the lack of yellow fever immunization papers, and given the official $10. I asked for a receipt. He smiled at me sardonically, as to a clueless foreigner and a fool, and waved me off, telling his colleagues—who were seated in a row after him—to inspect my papers further. It was now clear that we were going to spend a long time at this border post.


In fact, refusing to pay the $1000 bond, we spent the night there. I wanted to go across and have a drink in Badagry only a few miles away, on the Nigerian side. Badagry, like Quidah, was a famous slave entrepot, and hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were shipped through there to the Americas. Badagry—the poetic name was alluring. It was now about 10:00 pm. A kindly woman at the post advised me against going. There were, she said, dozens of little roadblocks along the way, and in spite of these—she perhaps meant because of these—the road wasn’t safe at night.


I bought beer by the roadside, and sat down with the border people, who had now become suddenly friendly. By about mid-night, dozens of young men arrived at the vast, open space before the post and were spreading mats to sleep on. On inquiry, I was told by a Nigerian border guard that they were “touts” from all over West Africa, and that an enterprising woman rents out mats to them at night. Touts! And that famed Nigerian enterprise! The Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski has related a similar story, of Nigerian women starting a booming little business in food they sold to passengers who were perpetually delayed as a result of a huge hole that suddenly appeared in the middle of a major road that slowed passing vehicles somewhere in the country. But touts? I walked to a group of the men, young people from different parts of West Africa: there were Ghanaians, Sierra Leoneans, Nigerians, Togolese, others. They all spoke broken English and appeared at home in their harsh world. There are millions of such young people all over the region, the vast, overwhelming world of lumpen West Africa. In This House has Fallen, the journalist Karl Maier quotes a figure of between 60-70 million young people in Nigeria alone, many of them unemployed—-in effect touts. These young men, denizens of the streets and the border areas and the city slums, make a mockery of almost every conception of identity based on nationality or borders: they move across borders with little awareness that they are moving into a different country: it is simply a vast lumpen world for them.


Robert Kaplan, travelling through West Africa mainly by road in the early 1990s, his imagination overwhelmed by these unemployed young people, thought that he was at “the frontiers of anarchy.” I didn’t see anarchy. Yes, I saw wasted energy, a great dereliction. But I also saw in it all a new, creative signal, of pointless West African borders finally withering away, of the region integrating more fully in spite of its pedestrian political class. This process, so inevitable, needs a little guidance, a form of political oversight. Ecowas, founded in the 1970s as an instrument for regional economic integration but now overwhelmed by internal conflicts, should provide such an oversight. In the absence of such an effort, the energy of these young people, as we now know, gets sucked into endeavours entirely destructive, like mercenary warfare. We think of these wars as rebel wars. But they are rebellion only in so far as nihilism is rebellion. These young people are not the ones rebelling—they are simply co-opted into enterprising warfare by utterly predatory elements: whether these despairing and poor young people know it, they are essentially mercenaries. This is the new bane of the continent, and borders are contributing immensely to it. They should go.




POSTSCRIPT I spent the night at the border post, smoking through it and counting the hours. Early the next morning, I hired a car, and went through the border to Badagry. The car from the British Council went back to Accra. Badagry: I was now in Nigeria, in this old Yoruba port city, a Dickensian creation. I was happy I did not make it to the place the previous night. For here, ‘You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways and court-yards and passages; and you never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and round about and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall…and felt that the means of escape might possibly present themselves in their own good time, but to anticipate them was hopeless…Gables, housetops, garret-windows, wilderness upon wilderness. Smoke and noise enough for all the world at once.’ The passage is from Charles Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit, and it describes Todger’s section of London. But captures best the jumbled nature of Badagry, giving a good notice of what parts of Lagos, a much bigger and richer city, would be like….


I got to Lagos by road and then flew to Abuja, Nigeria’s ultra-modern capital (what a contrast from Badagry, Lagos, and the wretched border post!)…A week later, I flew to Geneva, Switzerland. From there, I went by road through France to Mont Blanc in Italy. The journey took about one hour and thirty minutes. A journey through three countries, and there wasn’t a single border post. And these are countries with a history of bloody wars and tribal rivalries….


I started by saying that the innumerable West African borders are bad for business, bad for travel, and a mockery of Ecowas’ avowed aim to integrate West African economies. I have even suggested that they may be complicit in the region’s perennial instability. I am restating these points for emphasis: the borders must go.





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