African countries are stuck on the free movement of people. How to break the deadlock
Most African countries signed the protocol on the free movement of people in Addis Ababa in January 2018. Its raison d’être was clearly stated: the free movement of people – as well as capital goods and services – would promote integration and bring a host of other benefits. . These included the improvement of science, technology, education, research and the promotion of tourism.
Furthermore, it would facilitate inter-African trade and investment, increase remittances to the continent, promote labor mobility, create jobs and improve living standards.
The research supports the premises for the development of the protocol.
The protocol was the codification of the commitment to free movement made by African countries when declaring the establishment of the African Economic Community in Abuja in 1991. Free movement is also one of the main objectives of Agenda 2063 of Africa.
And yet, four years after its ratification, only a handful of relatively small African states have fully ratified the Free Persons Protocol. More than 30 countries signed the protocol in January 2018. But only Rwanda, Niger, São Tomé and Principe and Mali have fully ratified it.
In 2018, I noted that moving the protocol forward would not be straightforward. Unfortunately, progress has been slower than most observers expected at the time. It has become a real concern for African decision-makers.
After recent research, including fieldwork in Africa and Europe on the protocol’s slow progress, I have identified some telling trends in policy development and implementation. After reflection, it is possible to make some suggestions on how to move the process forward.
It is striking that many African countries have made significant progress towards free movement on a unilateral basis. This has been the result of adopting a range of innovative visa and travel document opening solutions. But most of the countries at the forefront of this movement are relatively poor states or small island states.
For example, Benin and the Seychelles offer visa-free access to all African visitors with the appropriate travel documents. Both are listed as the most liberal African countries according to the African Development Bank’s 2019 Visa Openness Index.
Senegal and Rwanda have a combination of visa-free and visa-on-arrival policies for all Africans. Comoros, Madagascar and Somalia offer visa on arrival policies for all Africans.
The richer and bigger African countries are the laggards in opening their borders.
Some regional economic communities, such as the East African Community and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have strong multilateral open-border agreements. But these are unevenly implemented.
In other regions, notably the Southern African Development Community (SADC), more reliance has been placed on bilateral agreements within multilateral frameworks.
The reluctance of many African countries, especially the larger and wealthier ones, stems from several concerns.
The first is that they are sensitive to citizens who fear outsiders taking advantage of their economic opportunities. This issue is particularly present in highly unequal countries where populist politicians can stir up emotions.
What needs to be done
In my view, the threat of xenophobic mobilization can be reduced if legitimate concerns are addressed.
For example, many countries in Africa have inadequate civil registration systems. Many also have inadequate identity documentation systems. It is therefore difficult for the countries of origin of migrants to vouch for their citizens to the satisfaction of the host countries.
With regard to data on criminal and security issues, it is important that the information is well managed and shared with partner countries where necessary. There should also be agreement on repatriation processes.
All of these concerns are opportunities for cooperation. Systems can be developed in collaboration between countries and officials trained in poorer countries. This should ideally be part of regional or continental processes.
At present, it seems easier to move forward on a regional basis than on a continental level. Small groups seem to be able to advance more easily. When there is regional leadership and consistent internal or external support, progress can be made even in fragile states.
The slow progress in adopting the continental free movement protocol may be due to misunderstandings or concerns about the implementation process. Some key stakeholders believe that the protocol is not sufficiently understood and that raising awareness and advocacy for it will lead to more ratifications.
My opinion, however, is that the implementation process set out in the implementation roadmap that accompanied the protocol is unclear. Clarification and practical engagement to address some of the underlying concerns is more likely to move the process forward.
Moreover, free movement across the continent could be promoted by encouraging regional groupings – and even ad hoc groupings – to move forward, even if they outpace other countries.
When groups of countries agree to move forward together under the protocol, it is to be expected that they will open their borders to each other when the preconditions are met. Reasonable prerequisites could be specified in a revised roadmap or implementation guide.
Another strategy to move the process forward, as recently suggested, is that the free movement process could be more explicitly and organizationally linked to the free trade process.
Furthermore, the initiative needs a proactive process to enable the continent’s poorest countries to progressively meet the preconditions for higher levels of integration to appropriate standards. This would involve the establishment of technical committees of senior officials from Member States and experts from the region at regional and continental levels to address issues that are holding back the free movement project.
It would also require putting in place a process to help the poorest countries achieve the agreed preconditions for integration.
There are already several initiatives around basic prerequisites – such as civil status and identity documents – that could be leveraged. The World Bank’s “Identification for Development” is an example.
Another is the EU’s work on migration management in Africa. This could be extended beyond his preoccupation with emigration to Europe.
But to be part of a credible continental strategy, initiatives must be led and owned by African countries and regional organizations.