E.g., 02/28/2021
E.g., 02/28/2021

Africa Moves Towards Intracontinental Free Movement for Its Booming Population

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Africa Moves Towards Intracontinental Free Movement for Its Booming Population

Riders on a bus in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Riders on a bus in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (Photo: Hendri Lombard/World Bank)

The African continent has the fastest growing population in the world and its number of residents is expected to double between 2016 and 2050, to 2.5 billion. As Africa’s population surges, migration within the region is growing even faster. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of international migrants on the continent nearly doubled, from 13.3 million to 25.4 million, the African Union reports. While there is a widespread perception that African migration is largely to Europe and other continents, in reality slightly more than half of all Africans moving abroad remain in Africa, according to 2017 findings.

The African Union, comprised of 55 Member States, has prioritized enhancing regional integration and development, and in 2016 decided to move towards a “borderless” Africa with seamless intracontinental migration. The bloc created a single continental passport and gave it first to national leaders, with a plan to distribute it more widely and enable Africans to move around the continent without a visa. Two years later, the effort was codified in the AU Protocol on Free Movement of Persons.

This integration has been patchwork, however, and has occurred mostly on a subregional level, with gradual steps to broader free movement. The continent’s self-imposed deadlines for rolling out the AU passport and creating free movement have blown by, partly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel barriers have been eliminated between particular countries and within certain subregions at a much faster rate than across the continent as a whole. Rather than a continent-wide free movement zone akin to the Schengen area covering western and central Europe, the Nordic and Baltic countries, on which the AU effort was modeled, Africa is more accurately described as a continent with multiple overlapping subregions that allow varying degrees of free movement.

As of 2020, Africans could engage in visa-free travel or obtain a visa on arrival at 54 percent of their continental neighbors, a 9 percent increase over 2016. It is important to note that countries such as Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda, and the Seychelles all have taken unilateral decisions to relax their visa restrictions for easy entry of Africans. By comparison, it has generally been easier for non-Africans, especially those from the global North, to enter Africa. In contrast, ambitious efforts to create a continental free trade area are moving at a faster rate, with implementation beginning in January 2021.

While not without its faults, the European Union has witnessed great success connecting people and economies. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also is working towards a model that would enhance the free movement of migrant workers in certain job sectors and protect their rights within the region. Against the backdrop of these and other free movement areas, this article examines the moves to ease intra-African mobility. While there exists a foundation for a borderless Africa, its implementation is still a work in progress and governments must make significant changes to realize the African Union’s promises for all Africans.

Figure 1. Map of African Countries with Minimal Mobility Restrictions

Note: Highlighted countries allow citizens of all other African states to enter without a visa or obtain a visa on arrival, with the exception of Mauritius, which requires a visa for travelers from Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan; Kenya, which requires a visa for travelers from Libya and Somalia; and Cabo Verde, Djibouti, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Togo, and Uganda, each of which require visas for travelers from one African country.
Source: African Development Bank, Africa Visa Openness Report 2020 (Abidjan: African Development Bank, 2020), available online.

Subregional Models for African Free Movement

At different points in time, subregions across Africa have advanced proposals, blueprints, and policies to facilitate the free movement of people, goods, and services within their territory. Implementation is furthest along in the western bloc, which has also been pursuing its goal the longest, but efforts in the other regions are also worth reviewing.

Figure 2. Select Regional Economic Communities

West Africa’s Protocol: Closest to Full Implementation

The 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Goods, and Services in 1979, shortly after the bloc was established. The protocol’s formulation was premised on three key provisions of the treaty establishing ECOWAS and aimed to give citizens the right to enter, live, and establish economic activities in any Member State—in other words offering the promise of free movement for all ECOWAS citizens within West Africa.

The protocol called for implementing the rights of entry, residence, and establishment of business, respectively, in three phases over a 15-year period. Implementation commenced in 1980 and visas and entry permits were abolished for all ECOWAS citizens within the region within five years. The second phase, on the right of residence, was delayed until 1986, once all Member States ratified the protocol. The third phase, on the right to establish a business, still awaited implementation as of late 2020.

Full implementation has been impeded by a combination of political, economic, and nationalistic challenges, as well as the protocol’s weak legal framework. Furthermore, at different times ECOWAS-citizen migrants have been blamed for social ills in various neighboring Member States, leading to their expulsion from Liberia in 1983, Nigeria in 1983 and 1985, Senegal in 1990, Benin in 1998, and Côte d’Ivoire in 1999, among other instances.

Southern Africa’s Work in Progress

In Southern Africa, the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Protocol on Facilitation of the Movement of Persons of 2005 seeks to progressively eliminate barriers to movement of persons, goods, capital, and services amongst its 16 Member States. The protocol has not been ratified by a majority of members, however multiple SADC states have signed bilateral agreements for visa exemption on certain grounds. As such, most citizens have the ability to travel freely within the region, at least on paper and for a short period of time. As of 2018, 80 percent of SADC citizens can travel without a visa or obtain one on arrival for a stay of up to 90 days in other SADC Member States, according to calculations by Ottilia Anna Maunganidze and Julian Formica. However, administrative processes are a problem for many, contributing to irregular migration from less-developed Member States into more developed ones such as Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), and South Africa.

There are various reasons for the failure to adopt a single regional migration management system. For one, SADC Member States tend to hold state-centric views that privilege territorial integrity over the economic benefits that could be gained from greater free movement, and generally perceive migrants as a threat to economic and national security. Politicians have tended to use populist rhetoric that blames migrants for socioeconomic challenges, at times diverting attention from government failures, laxity, mismanagement, and corruption.

East Africa’s Recent Progress and Split Loyalties

Heads of state of the East African Community (EAC) in November 2009 signed a protocol to progressively establish a common market and the free movement of persons, which was ratified and went into full force in July 2010. Thus far, a bloc-wide East African passport and temporary passes, which can be used in lieu of a passport in some cases, have been introduced to facilitate movement between the community’s six Member States. Dedicated immigration lanes have also been provided for EAC citizens at regional airports. However, full implementation of this protocol has lagged due to some Member States’ split loyalties to the EAC and some of Africa’s seven other regional economic communities (RECs) to which they belong. For example, Tanzania also belongs to the SADC, and Rwanda and Burundi are also members of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

Furthermore, with the exception of Rwanda, EAC Member States lack clearly defined national policies governing different forms of migration. This failing, which is similar to that seen in the SADC, indicates that the drafted protocol might not have fully considered unique characteristics of Member States. In addition, the EAC secretariat lacks the human and financial resources to coordinate the protocol’s implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.

Economic and political disparities among Member States have also affected implementation. Member States have bristled at Kenya’s dominance in the community. According to scholars John Oucho and George Odipo, the protocol’s major defects are two-fold. First, given the state of insecurity that has influenced migration flows in the region, the protocol fails to consider the issues of refugees and asylum seekers. Second, ratifying the protocol was a case of “putting the cart before the horse,” since leaders did not consider public opinion. While polling suggests citizens generally support freer movement in the region, the top-down nature of the policy did not take into account possible anxieties among migrant-receiving communities.

Initial Efforts in North Africa

The five members of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), which aims to promote economic and political unity, have gradually been working towards achieving free movement of persons, goods, and services. However, Tunisia is the only Member State that allows the free entry of other AMU Member States’ citizens, and the African Development Bank rates the bloc’s policies regarding visa-free entry for all arrivals to be behind those of ECOWAS, the EAC, and SADC.  

Missed Deadlines and Lackluster Support for Continental Free Movement

Removing barriers to Africans’ movement across the borders of AU Member States would be a significant step to realizing the continental blueprint Agenda 2063 and is in line with both the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the 1991 Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community, a nascent regional trade bloc. In 2016 the African Union launched a unified African passport, which it said would be available across the continent by 2020. It also set a target of achieving intracontinental free trade by 2017 and abolishing visas for Africans to move within the continent by 2018. 

The continent missed these deadlines and is particularly lagging on its promises of free movement. Thirty-two of the 55 AU Member States have signed the Protocol on Free Movement, although only four have ratified it (Madagascar, Niger, Rwanda, and Sao Tome and Principe)—well short of the 15 required. This is a major impediment to moving forward.

Meanwhile, Member States have invested more energy in trade-related matters. All but one AU member signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) creating a common market in Africa, and 34 had ratified it as of January—well more than the 22 necessary for it to enter into force. After a short delay due to COVID-19, trading went into effect at the start of 2021.

What explains Member States’ comparatively reduced enthusiasm for the continental free movement protocol? First, as noted above, many African leaders subscribe to state-centric notions that privilege territorial sovereignty, which is reflected in how they perceive and approach migration issues. South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was chair of the AU Commission when it embarked on its push for freedom of movement, yet 15 years later neither her country nor any other in the SADC region have ratified the free movement protocol, nor have they fully implemented their own subregional accord, although bilateral agreements have smoothed movement for most subregional citizens. The fact that implementation and enforcement of agreements and policies made at the continental level are left in the hands of individual states is a problem, since many leaders either cannot or do not marshal the political will to meet their obligations.

Second, the African Union lacks administrative, personnel, and, crucially, financial resources to promote the free movement protocol and its implementation with strategic partners such as the media, governments, and civil society. It also largely relies on the regional economic communities to promote and facilitate implementation of the protocol at the subregional levels. Yet many of these RECs, which also lack needed resources, are still working to achieve their own promises on free movement, which in some cases are decades older.

Clearly, then, the problem is not simply the African Union; RECs have demonstrated difficulty harmonizing Member States’ existing migration frameworks and achieving unified migration policies in a way that would pave the way for continent-wide free movement. Such challenges make it difficult for the African Union, as the umbrella body, to coordinate REC activities and implement its protocol. Additionally, the fact that many states owe allegiance to more than one REC means they may have conflicts of interest that prevent them from prioritizing one policy or another. Regional collaboration can also often be overtaken by more pressing demands such as recovery from the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic or regional security threats.

Third, and perhaps an underlying reason for the challenges at national and subregional levels, many African states regard free movement as a potential security threat. Religious extremists, separatist groups, and other militants have committed acts of violence and destroyed public and private property across the continent, in many cases using porous borders to spread ideologies, arms, and fighters from one country to another. Examples include Boko Haram, which was born in Nigeria but later became a regional problem across the Lake Chad basin, and al-Shabab, which grew from Somalia to become a security issue in East Africa and the Horn. The SADC region’s ineffectual response to the recent emergence of Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jammah (ASWJ) in Mozambique has given the extremist group the opportunity to network with other jihadist organizations and risk becoming a full-fledged regional security problem. States commonly respond to these threats by closing themselves off from their neighbors, yet this strategy is often counterproductive. Due to the porosity of African borders, it is difficult for many states to singlehandedly police their perimeters effectively; hence the need for a coordinated regional effort.

A fourth major issue which could be hampering implementation is whether citizens of Member States are willing to welcome their fellow Africans. A 2016 Afrobarometer survey found that 56 percent of Africans supported the notion that people should be able to freely cross borders to work and trade, but there was still significant skepticism, especially in North Africa. Support was strongest in West and East Africa, which are notably the places with the most advanced subregional movement frameworks, with the largest public support in Burkina Faso, where 81 percent of respondents supported the idea. In Egypt, meanwhile, just 31 percent of respondents were in favor. The same was true for 76 percent of Kenyans, 62 percent of Nigerians, 49 percent of South Africans, 46 percent of Tanzanians, and 41 percent of Algerians. These statistics reveal that Africans’ perceived benefits of regional integration vary in different subregions. It is thus not surprising that xenophobia has reared its head in South Africa and in the Maghreb region, where skepticism of free movement is significant. Such issues merit careful consideration by proponents of freer movement.

Most recently, the spread of COVID-19 contributed to the protocol’s obstacles in 2020. In order to stem the outbreak, countries across the planet closed their borders, and it is difficult to predict what international movement will look like in the pandemic’s wake. At the same time, some countries have experienced cases of xenophobia in which migrants have been seen as carriers of the virus, fairly or not. The impact of the public-health crisis has also been economic, and many states will likely focus on domestic economic recovery and stability rather than throwing their financial and political weight behind regional bodies to implement free movement.

Prospects for the AU Open Border System

AU initiatives to promote free movement, a unified AU passport, and a common African market are all geared toward achieving the dividends of an open border system, which proponents argue could benefit trade, host countries, migrants, and origin countries to which they send remittances and transfer skills. However, these initiatives have been hampered by the stalled approval and scattershot commitment to continental free movement.

Instead of a borderless Africa, the continent seems to have an interlocking set of border restrictions that allow for free movement of some individuals between certain countries. The clearest case of this is the ECOWAS subregion, whose citizens can easily enter and reside in other Member States without a visa. In addition to these subregional agreements, individual countries have also slowly liberalized their border requirements on their own; Benin, the Gambia, and the Seychelles are the continent’s most open countries and the only ones to allow visa-free access for all Africans. Countries including Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe have shared experiences with each other on border management and immigration issues. Combined with the comparative wellspring of enthusiasm for the AfCFTA, these developments suggest that the trend continues in the direction towards frictionless intracontinental integration, although slowly and not necessarily under the auspices of the AU protocol.

Going forward, the African Union and RECs will be critical in rallying continental support for the protocol on free movement. And free-movement proponents will have to persuade national leaders that their state-centric positions will only deprive them of the benefits they stand to gain from free movement. As the Afrobarometer survey shows, leaders must also take seriously public anxieties about free movement. Without the support of Member States and their populations, continental ambitions about freedom of movement are unlikely to be realized.

In conclusion, it is high time that AU Member States put their differences aside to build a prosperous continent for their citizens. This is imperative at a time when the continent is preparing to undergo a massive population boom. Yet many young Africans see no future at home and have undertaken perilous journeys to Europe in search of a better life. In support of intra-African mobility, the European Union has backed efforts such as the Intra-Africa Academic Mobility Scheme to facilitate cooperation in higher education between African states. This initiative is meant to promote sustainable development and reduce poverty in Africa. European leaders have also shown support for partnering with Africa in the implementation of the AfCFTA.

Implementation of the free trade agreement represents one step towards a tighter-knit African continent, but analysts widely agree that its impact will be limited without greater freedom of movement for workers, families, and other Africans.


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