Travelling in West Africa has always been a nightmarish experience.
And in this case, one is not talking about the days of antiquity when our forbearers trekked miles on foot through forests, footpaths and in very primitive canoes.
One is looking at post-independence West Africa where there is potential for an effective network of rail, air and sea transport systems as is the norm in other parts of the world.
Travel in the sub-region, as bad as it was when Ghana Airways and Air Afrique dominated the skies in the 70s, 80s and 90s, is no better today.
Two recent experiences brought home to me how serious the situation remains for business in the region.
I made the mistake of travelling by air instead of by road to Cotonou, Benin last year. My flight left Accra at midnight with a stopover in Lome that lasted three hours. We eventually arrived in Cotonou at 5 am. A direct flight would have lasted just about an hour. On yet another journey by air to Cotonou, the itinerary was Accra-Lagos-Cotonou with the return journey, Cotonou-Lagos-Accra. As you may guess rightly, each leg of the journey lasted hours, with delays and the anguish of waiting for hours at the transit points.
As if I had not learnt any bitter lessons, I literally inflicted more torture on myself when, on February 15, 2011,I had to travel to Ouagadougou with a new airline that had promised to do better than the defunct Air Afrique and Ghana Airways.
First, we had to travel via Lome and as usual, the flight from Accra set off an hour late. We missed the connecting flight and had to spend several hours at the airport before the airline put us in a guest house where, with no internet access and telephone connection, we were cut off from the world.
Travel time between Ouagadougou and Accra, if there was an effective direct link, should not be more than 90 minutes, but in this case, we arrived almost 24 hours after we set off having flown via Lome and Niamey.
My experience is one that is routinely shared by many travelers in the sub-region, from the days of Ghana Airways and Air Afrique up until now. One frustrated passenger could not help but exclaim that he would never again travel with the new airline and in response to the oft-repeated line from the pilot “THANK YOU FOR CHOOSING OUR AIRLINE” said “WE HAD NO CHOICE IN THIS MATTER.”
There is virtually no competition in the airline industry in West Africa; thus the few existing airlines have little or no incentive to ease the pain of travelling in the sub-region.
Travel by road, with checkpoints and barriers dotted everywhere and greedy security agencies ignoring ECOWAS protocols and extorting monies from passengers and drivers, is no better.
Try shipping goods from one country to another in the sub-region and you could be waiting till eternity for the transporting ship to dock on schedule. I recall the year 2002 when goods for a trade fair organized in Freetown by the Ghana Embassy arrived when everything was almost over because the transporting ship had to go to Europe before making its way back to Africa.
Any talk about integration and business in Africa will come to nought unless the very basics for effective movement of people and goods are put in place.
It is the rail, air and sea connectivity that makes the European Union a true economic union and allows free movement of people and goods. It is again the same kind of network that keeps continental United States united and geared for business and economic expansion. You can say the same about vast China and other developed economies.
So reliable and efficient is air and rail travel in some of these countries that a businessman in London can schedule a meeting in Paris for the morning and return by the close of the working day to his home.
Try that in West Africa and you would be a loser.
An effective transport system is one of the essential bedrocks of productivity in any economy.
All talk for a Trans-Saharan road network remains a mirage. Air travel is not showing any improvement. It appears that West Africans are doomed to do business the same way it was done in the past, which is bad for improving productivity across the region and in the various countries.
It is time for ECOWAS to look seriously into this problem. It is time for our national governments to tackle this bottleneck.