Hajia Munira runs a restaurant in Accra New Town. It is often packed at noon. A swarm of patrons, mostly hungry workers nearby meander their way through an unplanned community and collect under her eatery each day to be served.
The boom in her business erases the memory of March 2020 when the government announced movement and business restrictions in response to the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic. Life is back to normalcy for Hajia Munira.
But in a distant town from Accra New Town, a booming business is now a distant memory for Regina Atisu, another restaurant operator. Regina is in Aflao a bustling border town that did not sleep at night, but now appears to be sleeping even at noon.
Ghana’s land borders have remained closed since March 2020 and this is sniffing the economic life out of Aflao.
“My business is dying,” Regina told The Fourth Estate.
“I didn’t know that coronavirus would get to Aflao, to the extent of disturbing my restaurant business,” Regina Atisu, a mother of three, said. Her small business of more than 20 years is winding down.
“When the border was open, I could sell as much as GHS 500 per day, but, now, I make less than half of that. I make around GHS 200. We are struggling to make a living,” the 49-year old woman said.
Unlike Regina, Esther Sapey makes less as a sachet water vendor at the border. At 58 years, the woman looks frail, but this does not stop her from traversing the streets to as far as Kodjoviakope in Togo to sell her water.
“I brought two bags of sachet water to sell today, but I’ve been able to sell just three pieces,” distraught Esther told The Fourth Estate.
Kodjoviakope is the first community you’d enter just after crossing the border at Aflao.
Pre-COVID-19 days, Esther said she could sell an average of three bags a day. “Whenever my items got finished, I would run quickly to Togo to stock up,” she said.
But now that the border is closed, business has dried up. She said her supply line has been cut and demand for sachet water has dropped because the border is no longer swarming with people.
On an ordinary day, Regina says the lorry park of Aflao, which is now as quiet as the cemetery would have been buzzing with activities.
Customers would have thronged her restaurant to fill their belly before embarking on their journeys. Now, her place is filled with employees who are hoping for a miracle for their employer’s business.
“It’s frustrating. I just don’t know what to do. The burden is too much,” she said, sadly.
“We are incurring a lot of debts because passengers no longer come around. Now our food goes waste because there’s no one to buy them.”
“We are unable to pay our suppliers,” she lamented. She said other food centers had closed down because not everyone could cut back.
Some 19 months into the border closure, Regina said her job is almost gone. “We struggle to sleep at night due to long hours of thinking,” she added.
Regina said the situation is direr with those who have lost partners.
“Many of my colleague traders have stopped selling due to this situation. Of particular concern to me are the widows among us who have had to take care of several children in the absence of their husbands. It’s troubling”.
Esther’s children and grandchildren are students at the Kodjoviakope basic school in Togo.
She said the idea was to get them to a certain stage in school before being brought to Ghana to continue.
With the borders closed, they have had to pay GH₵ 10 per person to be able to cross border. On days that she can’t afford to pay, the children simply stay at home.
Esther said the kids who would have been her ticket out of poverty are now on the verge of dropping out of school.
“We are dying slowly,” she says quietly, sitting up.
Francis Kuvedzo, a commercial motorbike rider, said he now earned between GH₵50-GH₵60, half of what he used to make in the pre-pandemic era. “There is poverty and pain. The government needs to put in measures to open the border,” he said.
In Aflao, motorbike riders, popularly known as okada, drive the economy but COVID-19 has reduced them to idle hands. Credit: myjoyonline.com
Why the borders remain closed
The government has said its measures against the COVID-19 pandemic are meant to limit and stop the importation of the virus, contain its spread, provide adequate care for the sick, and limit the impact of the virus on social and economic life.
With the closure of the borders, the government achieved its first objective to limit and stop the foreign importation of the virus. While the land borders remain closed, the airport has been opened since September 1, 2020. President Nana Akufo-Addo has explained why.
“There are lots of our people who are doing this coming and going daily [at land borders], how are we going to test people? Until we are sure that we have strong control over it, we need to be careful,” he said.
To contain the spread, the government’s strategy has been to run tests and trace contacts.
The Fourth Estate team visited the Aflao and Leklebi Kame borders in the Volta Region and observed that many of the reasons for the closure of the borders have been ignored.
The team observed that all manner of travelers were given a pass, ignoring even the basic test of people’s temperature.
Aside from this, there were no handwashing basins at vantage points of entry during the visit.
At one point at the border, a port health official, instead of checking our temperature, gave us a pass after taking GH₵ 10 each from the team members.
A businesswoman from Benin, who asked to remain anonymous said prior to COVID-19 and the closure of borders, she paid about GH₵ 150.00 to journey through all the checkpoints to Accra but now, the situation has changed.
She said, on her last visit to Accra, she has had to pay a little over GHS 1000.00 to Ghanaian security officials at the various checkpoints along the Accra-Aflao Road.
“They are simply enriching their pockets, other than following the government’s directive,” she told The Fourth Estate.
At the Leklebi border post, which is about 15 kilometres from Golokwati in the Afadzato South District Assembly, the immigration and customs officials let us in without observing any of the protocols at the border.
The Immigration and Customs Officials at the two borders sat with no sense of urgency, chatting away the day.
And out of the over 10 officials present at the time of our visit, none of them was wearing a nose mask. For those who attempted, it ended up on their chin.
COVID-19 testing in Aflao
When The Fourth Estate spoke to the Ketu South Municipal Health Director, Joseph Kwami Degley, he said the Gene-X press machine used in testing for coronavirus at the Ketu South Municipal Hospital was not working.
It is a “major challenge,” he confessed. Essentially, at the border town of Aflao, no testing could be done.
“If you come to the hospital, we will take your samples and send them to Ho, we should have done it at Aflao,” he said. Ho is 109km and about three hours’ drive from Aflao.
“It’s the cost to me, the wear and tear because I am sending my pick-up truck every day to Ho to send the specimen. The road is very bad and every day, I have to send the specimen there. I think it’s a countrywide something[problem],” he concluded.
What about vaccination?
Ketu South Municipal Hospital where COVID-19 samples are taken and tested.
While the population of the Ketu South Municipal Assembly is estimated to be 203,000, less than 0.1% have taken the first jab of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“We were able to vaccinate 3,000 residents as of August 2021,” the Ketu South Municipal Health Director, Joseph Kwami Degley, said.
Out of that, Mr Degley said just a fraction have had their second jab. In essence, those who are fully vaccinated in a population of 203,000 residents are less than even the 3,000 who took the first jab.
He, however, added that a new consignment of the vaccine would be administered in the coming days.
“Last week, the regional health directorate informed us that the region had taken delivery of some quantity of vaccines and our share has been allocated,” he said.
In essence, in a town where the border is the economy and the economy is the border, very little is being done to implement the government’s second strategy of containing the virus.
Despite the weak enforcement of the COVID-19 protocols, the lack of testing and the slow pace of vaccination, Aflao has a comparatively low number of cases, even at the height of the pandemic.
Experts say Ghana has recorded the third-wave of COVID-19, sending the number of COVID-positive cases recorded in Accra through the roof, but the Ketu South Municipal Assembly of the Volta region, where Aflao is located, has recorded 307 cases and 15 deaths as of August 2021, way below the national average.
While COVID-19 may not be killing the residents, the people say they are dying from a closed economy.
The government’s fourth and final strategy has been to limit the impact of the virus on social and economic life. But at Aflao, residents say despite the biting effect of a closed border, the government does not appear interested in limiting the negative socio-economic impact.
No relief package for border communities
An inscription on a poster during a demonstration at Aflao in September this year.
The government has rolled out some socio-economic measures to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The president, in April 2020, announced free water, reduced electricity tariff, and later gave out soft loans to businesses through the NBSSI.
These measures were implemented nationwide.
Residents of Aflao who spoke to The Fourth Estate explained that in the metropolitan centers of the country, people were allowed to go about their business in addition to the benefits of the government’s mitigation measures.
But in Aflao, their business is the border and the border is their business and so the closure of the border means the closure of the city. “We are not office workers to be receiving a monthly salary and so we are struggling,” a resident said.
The main economic activity in Aflao hinges on the movements in and around the border.
The other activity is fishing. But for two times within the 19 months of border closure, there were bans on fishing activities. When The Fourth Estate team visited Aflao, it was in August and “the sea had been closed” as they put it.
Robert, a motor rider and fisherman, said they attempted a few times to fish, but the security officials at the beach imposed a curfew of fear among residents. “We are suffering, and nobody is listening to us,” he said.
The sub-regional picture on the border closure.
In the West African sub-region, countries such as Senegal, Mali, The Gambia, Sierra Leonne, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria have opened their land borders for free movement of persons and goods.
Responding to the concerns of residents, Elliot Edem Agbenorwu, the then Municipal Chief Executive (MCE) of the Ketu South Municipal Assembly, acknowledged the difficulties residents are faced with. He said he had had cause to write to the government on the border closure and its economic implications.
“I wrote letters, but I am unable to push it to the end because it wasn’t done to Elubo, it wasn’t done to Paga and so the question is why Aflao?”
He said there is nothing special about the Aflao community to be given special treatment. “What is good for the goose must be good for the gander,” he added.
The Fourth Estate found that, unlike the other border towns, Aflao is very close to the capital of Togo, Lome, making economic activities between the two cities and countries more crucial than the Ivorian and Burkinabe borders.
While Aflao is 3.5km from Lome, the capital of Togo, Elubo is more than 400km from Yamoussoukro, the capital of Ivory Coast. Paga, on the other hand, is 167km from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
This reality means that Aflao falls within the strong business influence of Lome. The economy of the Ghanaian town is heavily linked with the economy of the Togolese capital, which is the business hub of the country.
This explains why Regina Atisu, the restaurant owner barely gets customers, while Hajia Munira, in Accra, is swarmed by customers.
The government has eased COVID-19 restrictions in both towns. For Regina Atisu, however, a closing border means a closing business.
The MCE said the municipality is resigned to its fate. “Once the president spoke [referring to the president’s defense for the continued closure of the border], we accept it. He is acting in good faith and the best interest of the state,” the MCE said.
This report is produced under the project: COVID-19 Response in Africa: Together for Reliable Information being implemented with funding support from the European Union.