The contribution by Sierra Leonean Immigration officer Abubakarr Kabba that an identity card is not a traveling document sparked off heated debate bringing to the forefront the divisions between French and English speaking West Africans.
Kabba made this contribution during discussions on the “free movement of persons” at the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FEWACCI) at the Kaibara Hotel in Banjul, The Gambia.
The Sierra Leonean Immigration officer noted that though there are rights which should be observed by border agents for travelers, yet travelers too have obligations which they must fulfill and one of such is that they must possess proper traveling documents. He stated that people want to cross the border into another country with their national Identity (ID) card when infact an “ID Card is not a traveling document.”
Kabba was immediately taken to task by the Beninois Chairlady who said that she opposed the statement outrightly because most of the people who cross the borders belong to the informal sector and these people have a lot of problems obtaining their national passports. She queried “most of these people do not even have birth certificates so how do you expect them to get passports?”
The Chairlady was supported by the Guinean delegate who explained that though he had a passport it was a policy in his country that ID cards can be used to travel throughout West Africa. He said that even though he had a passport he had used his ID card to travel through Senegal and into The Gambia without any problem. He pointed out that it was only the English speaking countries who had such restrictions.
The Nigerian delegate who was himself an Immigration Officer proceeded to support his Sierra Leonean counterpart. He went on to read the Protocol A/P 1/5/79 relating to free movement of persons, residence and establishment which define a traveling document in Article 1 as “A valid travel document means a passport or any other valid travel document establishing the identity of the holder with his photograph issued by or on behalf of the member state of which he is a citizen and on which endorsement by immigration and emigration authorities may be made.
A valid travel document shall also include a laissez-passer issued by the country to its officials establishing the identity of the holder”. He proceeded to argue further that an ID card does not have any space for endorsement or stamp and therefore he asked “how do you keep records or keep track of the traveler?”
This called for the intervention of the Ghanaian lawyer who presented the conference paper on “the perspectives on free movement of persons, right of residence and establishment” which was being discussed. She noted that there what was called the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and appealed that the issue be resolved by the spirit of the law because at the end of the day what was needed was a system of free movement of people.
The desk officer of ECOWAS dealing with free movement also explained that she was aware of the two systems and acknowledged that both worked as argued with the ID card system among the French and passports among the English speaking countries. She disclosed that her office was working on how to amicably resolve the issue although they did not yet have a solution.
In another vein the Nigerian Immigration officer maintained that nearly all the immigration offices in the sub-region took over from the police who had been doing immigration work since the colonial days. He argued that as a result the immigrations services now were not in any position to implement the ECOWAS protocols because they inherited the operation of security policies from the police which entails containing people whereas immigration policies now-a-days are development oriented and make for free movement of peoples.
Executive Secretary of the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce Daisy Scott-Boyle questioned why travelers were given 14 days on entry when the ECOWAS protocol makes for 90 days.
She was answered by the Deputy Immigration Commissioner of Liberia who said that immigration officers determine the length of stay at the point of entry and that for transit passengers it was a standard 48 hours because people could not be transiting for 5 months or 90 days
By Kelvin Lewis