Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari visited Ghana on Monday, and the two West African countries took the opportunity to cut red tape ahead of schedule. Ghana’s President John Mahama said that Nigerian traders interested in operating in Ghana will no longer be required to raise at least $300,000 in capital beforehand. All efforts to automatically eject those non-compliant Nigerian traders in Ghana have therefore been suspended.
The reason behind the sudden change lies with the deepening integration of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This bloc of countries, comprising Cape Verde, Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, the Gambia, Liberia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Togo, Niger, Sierra Leone, Cote d’ Ivoire, Senegal, and Mali, is progressing towards an E.U.-style organization. The countries already have extensive links in most fields, and their next big step will be the issuance of ECOWAS biometric ID cards in early 2016. These will entitle ECOWAS citizens to live and work in any member country without any restrictions. Referring to the Nigerian traders, Mahama said “I think that our continued pursuit of greater regional integration is resolving the issue by itself.”
Easing the flow of ECOWAS nationals across the region without the need for passports would facilitate trade and tourism, but there is a downside. Due to weak bureaucracies and electoral institutions in many member states, it is usually not too difficult or costly for foreign nationals to acquire enough documentation to fraudulently vote in another country’s elections. Voter registration requirements vary from country to country, but in some cases an easily-acquired national health insurance card suffices.
One of the more notorious examples was in Ghana, where the National Health Insurance Authority (NHIA) was “an active player in that shameful illegal scheme to register non-nationals to vote in 2012. This was because, around the same time in 2010/2011, the NHIA had deliberately and oddly introduced a policy that even an international tourist on a day trip to Ghana can register for a NHIS [National Health Insurance Scheme] card to access Ghana’s health service and went to the border towns to actively register people,” wrote Ghanaian daily the New Statesman. Subsequently Ghana’s New Patriotic Party presented evidence to the Electoral Commission showing that close to 70,000 alleged nationals from Togo were on Ghana’s registry of voters for the 2012 election.
Ghana’s next general elections are coming up in 2016, when ECOWAS biometric ID cards will be in use. So although regional integration is welcome, it’s still no substitute for domestic institution-building.