African Countries Are Stuck On the Free Movement of People

African Countries Are Stuck On the Free Movement of People
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. Research supports the developmental premises of the protocol.

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.

In 2018 I noted, that driving 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 policymakers.

After recent research, including fieldwork in Africa and Europe on the slow progress of the protocol, I identified some revealing patterns in policymaking and implementation. After reflection it is possible to make some suggestions about how to move the process forward.

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. Read...

James Koroma