Barriers to free movement in Africa: How to remove them?

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While the African Union (AU) has developed ambitious plans for continental free trade it is becoming clear that free movement of people lags behind. This blog identifies six obstacles that impede progress on free movement for people in Africa and considers the prospects for future development.

The AU Summit held in Niger on July 7 2019 witnessed the rapid ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). One of the most rapidly ratified and fastest treaties to enter into effect (it took little more than a year from inception), AfCFTA has now been ratified by 27 African countries, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Ghana, although Nigeria, Algeria, Tanzania and some others have not yet ratified the agreement.

Remarkably, at that Summit the Protocol for a Free Movement of Persons was once again missing from the agenda. Intertwined as they must be if they are to operate effectively, the free trade treaty should have been ratified and implemented hand in hand with arrangements for the free movement of people under the Protocol on Free Movement for Africa, adopted by the AU in January 2018. Unfortunately, only four countries (Madagascar, Niger, Rwanda and Sao Tome & Principe) have signed up to the latter arrangement; none of the bigger countries, such as Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia, have ratified it.

According to the African Development Bank’s Africa Visa Openness Report 2018, African citizens need a visa to travel to 51% of other African countries, 24% demand a visa on arrival and only 25% operate visa-free travel for fellow-Africans. Thus, 50 years after the establishment of the AU’s predecessor body, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), and 30 years after the Abuja Treaty that established the African Economic Community, the continent is still far from achieving the eagerly awaited free movement regime. Why? What barriers prevent free movement in Africa and how can they be removed?

Barriers to free movement

Some of the reasons for slow progress on the free movement question stem from a lack of foresight and an absence of visionary leadership. Others relate mainly to fundamental issues of the African political economy and are less easily surmountable. Six major constraints, however, with some overlapping elements, can be clearly identified.

The first of them may be defined as political barriers. These include historical factors, ideas of sovereignty, security threats, a trust deficit and the negative mindset of government officials. Broadly speaking, they arise from a lack of political will and determination. The logic of states is usually to control their borders; hence, free movement of people impinges on sovereignty insofar as it rests on the predisposition of the state to control traffic through its borders.

Needless to say, free movement and the abolition of visas is one of those supranational sirens that entice national sovereignty-based protectionism. Free movement protocols in Africa are frequently regarded as instruments which in practice could result in an existing (albeit artificial) colonial border becoming a ‘people’s integrative border’. This overlooks the point that free movement is a reality on the ground, particularly between kin communities divided by artificial borders, and needs to be formalized through legal instruments. Redrawing borders may be difficult, but simply abolishing visa requirements and ‘softening’ borders is both possible and necessary. The Protocol on Free Movement is one instrument to this end. The more mobility there is, the less important borders will become. Without relinquishing aspects of their sovereignty, a free movement regime would extend as far as AU member states allow, and will offer an additional integrative opportunity.

Two commonly posed concerns of officials from African states are security and local job market protection. The first is more political than scientific in nature: security threats are not the necessary result of free movement, but mainly arise from limited or non-existent capabilities of the state to effectively differentiate ‘good’ mobility with the necessary authorizations to travel from countries of origin, destination and transit, from ‘bad’ mobility, such as trafficking, smuggling and irregular migration. Moreover, free movement of people does not constitute free movement of criminals, which in practice can come about through exploitation of gaps in the system arising from near-impracticable and unproductive attempts to control borders. Furthermore, regardless of the existence of a free movement regime, all AU member states are vulnerable to insecurity from within as much from without – albeit to varying degrees. Security threats are increasingly home-grown and not limited to migrants. Politicians and officials strongly prefer to prioritize the employment rights of their nationals before allowing non-nationals to access their job market. Specifically, they would like to apply selective openness by allowing highly skilled professionals and investors, while excluding non-nationals from low-skilled jobs.

The second obstacle concerns policy barriers, which inhibit free movement through current policies, laws, regulations and working procedures. The current preoccupation of African states with developing large infrastructural connectivity projects such as airlines, railways, roads and commercial and transportation corridors brings with it surges in mobility not only of tradable goods and services but also of people. Nonetheless, the policies and laws related to immigration, labour, business and residence are extremely prohibitive.

The third problem, which may be defined as socio-economic and cultural barriers, manifests itself by way of risks associated with the dilution of culture and religion, demographic shifts, pressure on economic benefits and competition for jobs. Youth unemployment is the most pressing social and political issue for many African countries and one that threatens their peace and security. Protection of local jobs and employment opportunities in particular is a key barrier (and a legitimate concern) in African countries.

The fourth obstacle, physical barriers, arises from poor service infrastructure, including immigration, transportation and hospitality facilities. The absence or poor quality of infrastructure inhibits free movement of persons.

Fifth are the administrative and bureaucratic barriers that constitute operational and non-policy hurdles. They usually take the form of cumbersome procedural requirements, corruption and improperly exercised discretionary powers of officials, sometimes at a junior level.

Finally, there are capability barriers, which mainly reflect a low allocation of the necessary finance, human resources and skills sets necessary for managing the flow of people under a free movement regime. AU member states show only a limited capacity for differentiating ‘bad’ mobility from ‘good’. Ostensibly presented as national sovereignty and security concerns, the low level of political determination and the limited capabilities of member states in exercising effective governance over their borders are the collective reasons for dragging their national feet in implementing a free movement regime. Without a capacity to differentiate bad from good mobility, states are vulnerable to threats and risks, ranging from terrorism to outbreaks of disease. While an expressed political will for free movement has existed since the OAU was founded in 1963, it has not been translated into a political determination that allocates the necessary leadership energies, time and finance to soften borders and allow Africans to move freely within the continent. A free mobility regime requires better-resourced airports and border posts and significant work and investment in border governance will be required if it is to be successfully implemented.

Without free movement of people, AfCFTA will face a serious implementation bottleneck. By 2050 the population of Africa is expected to double from today’s 1.2 billion. More than 55% of this population will then be relatively young (i.e.: below 20 years). Every year an additional 2% of youngsters will be connected through mobile telephones and the Internet, adding millions of the continent’s inhabitants to the existing nucleus of more technologically conversant, connected, vocal and mobile generations.

The overarching principle that must be borne in mind Is that free movement facilitates intra-regional trade and investment, sustains growth and has a positive impact on employment, income and poverty alleviation. Investment tends to follow infrastructural facilities and the hard infrastructures now being put in place in Africa will attract vehicular and other forms of transportation. People follow transportation routes, investment areas, job opportunities and money. Money attracts more money and above all it also attracts talent. Most importantly, an infrastructure-supported mobility regime is sustainable and irreversible, even in the face of serious security and other challenges. But for all this to happen, policy has to catch up with infrastructural development.

The challenge to this progress remains the political barriers. Political barriers are the most formidable hurdles to a free movement regime in Africa as a new trade bloc and most of them are related to an official mind set of suspicion, and to instability and violent conflict.

An excellent example of the vital role political determination can play in establishing free movement is the arrangement between Kenya and Ethiopia. For the past 50 years, the two countries have implemented a free movement regime in the face of changing migratory trends and the region’s being embroiled in all kinds of conflict. Without the will of two political leaders (in this case, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya) the two countries’ agreement on free mobility would not have withstood the storms and trials of five decades.

Similarly, the reason AfCFTA was ratified so quickly was the political will of the AU leaders. Political will is both an enabler and multiplier for, and the solution to, many barriers to free movement. Problems arising from immature integrative political economies (particularly the absence of economic complementarity and poor surface, air and maritime connective infrastructure); socio-cultural and domestic employment protection; and above all deep mistrust and conflicts between states (what one may call ‘mutually assured distrust’) could be significantly ameliorated through a leadership determined to make free movement a reality.

Now that the AU has adopted the Protocol, its most urgent task is to make a concerted effort to generate sufficient political will to remove political barriers and create an enabling environment to address all the other obstacles. This will not be easy but a well thought out strategy of lobbying, advocacy, popularisation and deliberation would lead to greater understanding and trust and produce the political incentive to carry the ratification process forward. The AU needs to develop a process of deliberation and popularisation, supported by traditional and new media and focusing on building up an African constituency for promoting free movement. Clearly, local and national drivers of integration including chambers of commerce, informal cross border traders, universities and the like would be the main targets of such a programme, which might become a major driver of Africa’s free movement regime.

Mehari Taddele Maru, Robert Schuman Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) from April to July 2019