Improving connectivity between West African countries

Air travelers in West and Central Africa are doing so in tears because of bottlenecks created by African governments. For example, a flight from Abuja to Douala in Cameroon, which borders Nigeria, could take around 24 hours. This is because the passenger may need to fly from Nigeria to Addis Ababa and then to Guinea Conakry before arriving in Douala, a journey that should normally only take an hour and a half. Also a trip from Nigeria to the Central African Republic would take the traveler to Kenya in East Africa before arriving in Bangui. Worse, the cost of air travel to the West Coast and Central Africa is the same as the cost of air travel from, say, Nigeria to Europe

A recent study by the Daily Trust found that West African countries – including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo – remained isolated from themselves.

The report revealed that “of the 16 countries on the west coast, very few are linked by direct flights… Aside from Ghana to Nigeria with direct flights, either from Lagos or Abuja, other neighboring countries are not easily accessible. There is also a direct flight to Lome with Togolese airline Asky, which takes about 50 minutes, while Air Peace also connects Banjul in Gambia; Freetown in Sierra Leone on Sundays only; Dakar in Senegal on Fridays and Mondays and Douala in Cameroon on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.”

But the situation is different in North Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa, where there are several flights from one country to another at affordable prices. Apart from the sub-regional blocks, there are flexible and frequent air links between East and Southern Africa, as Johannesburg, Addis Ababa and Nairobi have developed their airports to serve as sub-regional hubs for air travel. Each of these countries has national airlines with many aircraft of different sizes that frequently fly to countries in their region.

The President of the Association of African Start-ups (TAAS), Just Ibe, explained why flight connectivity in Africa is very arduous. She said: “The reason why it is difficult for us to reach all the countries of the continent by air is because there are not enough airlines to these destinations and mainly because they do not consider it profitable.” Apart from the lack of airlines, the exorbitant taxes and duties levied on the few airlines serving some of the routes make investment in West and Central African routes very unaffordable.

The situation is challenging for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as the difficulty of connecting one country to another is reflected in the low volume of trade between ECOWAS countries. There is no rail transport within the sub-region and road transport is hampered by border controls and the corrupt activities of some customs and immigration officials. The vision of free movement between ECOWAS member states has not been adopted as some countries are still erecting various barriers that make access to them very difficult.

The West and Central African countries are so isolated that there is hardly any social and cultural exchange that should connect young people in arts and sports. Also, West Africans rarely travel to neighboring countries for tourism; they prefer to travel to Europe, Asia or America, to very distant continents, for vacations, although there may be more historical sights in nearby countries. Under this situation, the main objective of ECOWAS, which is to “promote economic cooperation among Member States in order to raise living standards and promote economic development”, cannot be realized.

If other ECOWAS countries are reluctant to enable air connectivity in the sub-region, Nigeria must take the lead in doing so. The starting point for Nigeria is to boost the aviation sector, either by creating a national airline serving many West and Central African routes, or by supporting any national airline that yearns to unlock the potential of connecting the sub-region. With a population of over 200 million and Nigerians’ penchant for outbound travel, the government could develop the infrastructure that could turn Lagos, Kano, Abuja and other cities into West and Central African hubs for air travel.

This idea has been on the table for over a decade when the defunct Virgin Nigeria was formed, but subsequent governments have done nothing to make it a reality. More Nigerians travel abroad than Ethiopians, Kenyans or South Africans, but with government support these countries have created air hubs and built economies around their aviation sector. Nigeria can achieve the same feat by easing the difficulties of flying in West and Central Africa. It is important for West Africans that they can reach each other easily.

About Sonia Martinez

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