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West African Leaders Call for Accelerated Regional Integration

West African leaders concluded a one-day summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja with a commitment to speed up turning their region into a border-free zone by 2020. For VOA, Gilbert da Costa has this report.

West African leaders on Friday vowed to accelerate full regional integration after years of lagging behind schedule.

The purpose of a border-free zone, first thought of by ECOWAS in the 1980s, is to allow the free movement of goods and people throughout the zone. Leaders hope the plan will harness Africa's resources and accelerate the continent's development.

But problems are still plaguing the plan. For instance, under a current provision, residents of ECOWAS member states can live in another member state for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa, but there is no provision for long-term residence.

In his remarks at the summit, ECOWAS President Mohammed Ibn Chambas urged the states to concentrate on making cross-border movement easier.

"We wish to kindly request your excellencies to direct that all the outstanding non-tariff barriers and bottlenecks to free movement of persons and goods within your respective national jurisdictions be reduced to the barest minimum. We have a shared vision; by 2020 ECOWAS shall have moved from ECOWAS of states to ECOWAS of peoples," he said.

President John Kufuor of Ghana, who is also current chair of the African Union, says the time has come for ECOWAS to shift attention back to promoting economic development.

"For the past several years, ECOWAS has been preoccupied with the resolution of conflicts, to the detriment of its primary objective of economic development and integration," he noted. "Our nations of the sub-region should therefore seize the opportunity of the spreading peace to develop and improve the welfare of the citizenry."

Nigeria's new president, Umaru Yar'Adua, who was attending his first ECOWAS summit paid tribute to all those who worked for peace, declaring, West Africa is on the threshold of achieving peace, security and political stability.