NOE, IVORY COAST (AFP) – “Noe looks like a ghost town,” said Eloukou Yapo, a youth leader in the Ivorian town near the border with Ghana. “Nothing moves. Everything has stopped.”
Life here has been in limbo for the past year and a half, since the authorities sealed off the border to help prevent the spread of COVID.
But the measure also killed off thriving trade and exchanges with Noe’s sister town Elubo, which lies across the Tanoe River marking the frontier.
In Noe, 170 kilometres east of the Ivorian commercial capital Abidjan, many shops are shuttered and the streets are deserted, with trucks and buses standing idle.
A grey gate, the point of access to the bridge spanning the Tanoe, is firmly closed.
Nanan Assi Atchan II, a traditional chief and former policeman in his seventies, added: “People are suffering greatly from the closure.
“There are Ivorians who farm land in Ghanaian territory and vice versa… They can’t get to their plantation, which could fall into ruin.”
Several hundred Ghanaian traders demonstrated in Elubo on September 2, lobbying unsuccessfully for Ivory Coast to reopen the border.
But people in the twin towns have also quietly organised themselves to defy the ban.
They have cut many tracks through the bush to the river, which people cross with makeshift canoes to keep business going.
“My three children go to the English-speaking school (in Elubo) and take the risk of crossing the river, at a cost of XAF2,000 (USD3.50) a day,” said Valerie Botche, a shopkeeper in Noe.
West of Noe, similar problems are being voiced in Adiake, a town on the Aby Lagoon, a key transit point for trade with Ghana.
There, local people said the border closure has been massively disruptive to their lives, but a blessing for traffickers of all stripes.
“The biggest drug seizures have been made in this area,” said Adiake resident Anvoh Bie.
The Ivorian authorities imposed drastic measures as the first COVID-19 cases began to appear in March 2020.
In addition to border closures, there was a state of emergency, a curfew, the shuttering of schools and places of worship, and the isolation of Abidjan, the epicentre of the epidemic.
Some of the measures have been gradually lifted, but land and sea borders remain closed.
Ivory Coast shares borders with four other neighbours – Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Liberia – but its economic, social and cultural ties with Ghana are especially strong.
Ghana and Ivory Coast are “twin nations” in terms of geography, population, agriculture and, more recently, oil. They are also the two largest cocoa producers on the planet, accounting for two-thirds of world production.
Ivory Coast, with a population of around 25 million, has been relatively unscathed by COVID-19, but the epidemic has worsened in the past two months with 224 deaths since the beginning of August for a total of 600.
“The closure of the border with Ghana has played a part in the resurgence of a third wave,” said a local official who wished to remain anonymous.
He argued that if authorities “open the border, require the vaccine and a PCR test, there will be fewer cases”.
But Noe’s deputy prefect, Losseny Dosso, insisted: “As long as there is an increase in cases, it would be irresponsible for the state to re-open the borders.”