Most African countries signed onto the Free Movement of Persons protocol in Addis Ababa in January 2018. Its rationale was set out clearly: the free movement of people – as well as capital goods and services – would promote integration and herald in a host of other benefits. These included improving science, technology, education, research and fostering tourism.
In addition, it would facilitate inter-African trade and investment, increase remittances within the continent, promote the mobility of labour, create employment and improve the standards of living.
The protocol was the codification of the commitment to free movement made by African countries in declaring the establishment of the African Economic Community in Abuja in 1991. Free movement is also one of the key goals for Africa’s Agenda 2063.
And yet, four years after its ratification, only a handful of relatively small African states have fully ratified the Free Persons protocol. Over 30 countries signed the protocol in January 2018. But only Rwanda, Niger, São Tomé and Principe, and Mali have fully ratified it, according to an article published in The Conversation.
It is striking that there have been significant advances towards free movement by many African countries on a unilateral basis. This has been as a result of a range of innovative visa-openness and travel document solutions being adopted. But most of the countries at the vanguard of this movement are relatively poor, or small island states.
For example, Benin and Seychelles offer visa-free access to all African visitors with appropriate travel documents. The two are listed as the most liberal African countries according to the 2019 Visa Openness Index of the African Development Bank.
Senegal and Rwanda have a combination of visa-free access and visa on arrival policies for all Africans. Comoros, Madagascar and Somalia offer visa on arrival policies for all Africans.
Richer and larger African countries are the laggards in opening their borders.
Some regional economic communities, such as the East African Community and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have strong multilateral border opening agreements. But these are unevenly implemented.
In other regions, notably the Southern African Development Community (SADC), there’s been a heavier reliance on bilateral agreements within multilateral frameworks.
The reluctance of many African countries, especially the larger, richer countries, derives from several concerns.
The first is that they are sensitive to citizens who fear that foreigners might take their economic opportunities. This issue is especially present in highly unequal countries where populist politicians can stir up emotions.
Many countries in Africa have inadequate systems of civil registration. Many also have inadequate identity documentation systems. This makes it difficult for home countries of migrants to vouch for their citizens to the satisfaction of host countries.
When it comes to data on criminal and security issues, it’s important that information is well-managed and shared with partner countries when necessary. There should also be agreement on repatriation processes.
All these concerns are opportunities for cooperation. Systems can be developed in collaboration between countries, and officials trained in poorer countries. This should ideally be as part of regional or continental processes.
At present it seems easier to move forward on a regional basis than at a continental level. Smaller groupings seem to be able to move forward more easily. Where there is regional leadership and consistent internal or external support, progress can be made even in fragile states.
Slow progress in the adoption of 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 publicising and championing it will lead to more ratifications.
In addition, the initiative needs a proactive process to enable poorer countries on the continent to progressively meet the preconditions for higher levels of integration at appropriate standards. This would entail the establishment of technical committees of senior officials of the member states and experts from the region at both the regional and continental levels to address issues holding the free movement project back.