This February, a group of mostly young people will attempt to break one of the most difficult barriers to have stood in the way of human progress: the barrier against free movement across countries in West Africa.
Armed with only their bicycles, water bottles and brilliant yellow jerseys, about 75 youngmen and women will brave daunting odds to prove that the ideals of the founding fathers of Ecowas are achievable.
For 35 years, few issues have so challenged the vision of the Community as the desire to annihilate the obstacles that hinder free movement across this massive region. Now, with the help of the Youth and Sports Development Centre, an opportunity has been created for the region’s vibrant young people to demonstrate, in practical terms, what countless protocols have failed to achieve: a borderless West Africa.
The odds are great. The West African subregion is not one of the easiest of routes even for the more sophisticated transport systems. Indeed, the fact that flights within some parts of the region are still routed through Europe or Dubai is proof of how forbidding the task is. This attempt to journey across five countries, on bicycles, in ruinous temperature - braving heat and boiling sands, massive waters and wild jungles - is an event worthy of gladiators.
It is almost romantic. And the fact that the race begins on February 15, as dawn breaks through the fog of Valentine, cannot be lost on all the participants.
The second Ecowas International Bicycle Tour therefore already has all the ingredients of a great sporting event: riders from 15 countries and cultures; obstacles so forbidding that one needs the spirit of a champion to even contemplate; nations cheering their sportsmen on as the train passes through their countries; prizes and festival galore. It has all the hallmarks of any great sporting festival and will no doubt bring African nations together in a celebratory atmosphere.
Last time on the maiden Tour, national cycling teams from the following member states attended: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. The race took them across four countries: Nigeria - Benin - Togo - Ghana .
Over 12 delegations with 72 cyclists participated, with the first heat from Lagos to Accra covering a distance of 325 km in actual races and 355kms in motorised transfers. The crowd of local residents cheering the atheletes on, pouring them cool water, dancing and singing and playing the drums, have tended to make the race a bazaar in many countries.
The second edition of the tour which begins in Surulere, Lagos (Nigeria)promises to be even more spectacular. The organisers, especially the Ecowas Youth and Sports development Centre, has made arrangements to ensure that some of the problems which affected the maiden edition have been duly taken care of.
This year, the road race kicks off from Lagos and terminates on the first day 120kms later at Cotonou-Ouidah border where a motorised transfer would be made. As usual, the race shall be conducted in four stages with three motorised transfers at designated spots. Once it flags off, the competitors are in for a gruelling four days of racing against time and overall winners would only emerge on the 19th of February 2012 when the race terminates in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire.
Since cycling teams from all 15 Ecowas member states are expected to participate, the event promises to be quite colourful. Jerseys and bicycles in sparkling colours and delegates from over 15 nations will be showcasing not just their athletic skills but also their diverse cultures, their belief in the ideals of brotherhood and love among Africans.
It is also going to be a great challenge logistically. The city of Lagos is where all delegates would assemble, with a maximum of 11 persons per delegation of four cyclists, one mechanic, a coach or technical director, a doctor, a representative of the cycling federation, and head of delegation.
Organisers would also have to contend with a massive number of vehicles, buses, 28 light vehicles, trucks and ambulances.
One lesson learnt from the 2009 edition of this race is the need for great publicity. In order to ensure that awareness is created among member states, the organisers have taken some crucial steps which would no doubt give this international competition the wide publicity it deserves.
This international bicycle race is no doubt going to bring youth across the region together in healthy competition. It would help bridge the gap between nations and engender a camaradrie among participants that may translate into business or other mutually beneficial enterprise later.
Also, the spectacle of all these bicycles racing across the sub region and the loud cheering of crowds would provide a more sanguine picture of West Africa different from the usual media staple of poverty,crime, war and bad government.
In no time, this might become one of the famous race courses in the world, turning the Ecowas International Cycling Tour from a sports event to a mamoth business enterprise with member states as lucky shareholders.