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CommentaryGoing beyond symbolism: the missing item in the African Union Summit

Going beyond symbolism: the missing item in the African Union Summit

Investment tends to follow infrastructural facilities. People follow transportation routes, job opportunities and money. Money attracts more money and also attracts talent. But above all, an infrastructure-supported mobility regime is sustainable and irreversible, even in the face of serious security and other challenges, writes Mehari Taddele Maru.

Typically, new or lapsing conflicts dwarf the themes of African Union (AU) summits. Similarly, the 28th AU Summit in Addis Ababa, having adopted the theme of ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in the Youth’, could easily be overshadowed by other developments, such as those in The Gambia, where concerted regional, continental and global efforts were made to ensure democratic transition of power, despite not being smooth.

While the Summit has several extremely important agenda items to consider, there was one highly awaited item that is missing from the agenda: the protocol for African free movement of persons.

It is to be recalled that in July 2016, in Kigali, in a symbolic move, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (PhD), handed African passports to heads of state and governments and ministers attending the various meetings. Naturally, given Madam Zuma’s South African nationality, we were forced to ask: indeed, will immigration officials of South Africa, or for that matter Rwanda or any African country, recognize the passport as a travel document having integrity and legal recognition? In addition, will the Kigali airport immigration authorities, recognize the passport, even though it was launched in Kigali?

Revealing the deep-rooted aspirations of the ordinary African person, the launch of an African passport has garnered popular support and exuded passion throughout the continent. Moving from aspirations to realization, such overwhelming popular support should be galvanized and sustained by effective action. Emotional public support tends to wane over time, and the sustainability of such an initiative requires inbuilt foundational, institutional and financial arrangements that can entrench the passport legally for widespread usage on the continent.

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In summits like those of the AU, symbolism plays an important role in highlighting the agenda and establishing a state of mind in support of such an agenda. But, to introduce a state of reality, actions are more vital than words to enable the free movement regime to work. The issuance of African passports that are not readily recognized as travel documents by immigration officials of countries hosting the headquarters of the AU and its organs, the host of AU summits, or the country of nationality of the Chairperson, will certainly not solve the real challenges in promoting and facilitating free mobility in Africa. Standing on a platform of sand, such posturing and mere symbolism might advance the agenda as far as emotional support continues.

But, fifty years on, Africa is still far from achieving the highly yearned for free movement regime. Why did this long-standing quest by Africans for a free movement regime not materialize?

Focusing solely on the African passport in this article, I shall briefly discuss the key barriers to free mobility and the abolishment of visas in Africa. I also intend to highlight what is required for the African passport to become trusted and reciprocally recognized by Member States as a travel document with valid legal standing and integrity. From the outset, let me state the fact that visa issuance on arrival is not synonymous with free movement, as the latter refers to the total abolishment of visa requirements.  

Outstanding Perceived and Real Barriers

Some of the reasons for slow progress in free movement in Africa relate to a lack of foresight and an absence of visionary leadership. Other causes relate mainly to fundamental characteristics of the African political economy, which are not easily surmountable.

Among many obstacles, four major constraints stand out as constraints: national sovereignty; immature integrative political economies, particularly the lack of economic complementarity and poor connective infrastructure (surface, air and maritime); socio-cultural and local job protection; and, above all, deep mistrust and conflicts between states, what one may call ‘mutually assured distrust’.  The last one is high related to the lack of political will and determination. The following is an excellent African example of the vital role of political determination plays in establishing free movement. For the past fifty years, Ethiopia and Kenya have implemented a free movement arrangement, despite the region being embroiled with all kinds of conflicts, and migratory trends. A critical ingredient in initiating and maintaining free movement of persons in Africa, without the political will and the determination of two leaders, Jomo Kenyatta and Emperor Haile Selassie,  agreement on free mobility of persons between the two countries would not have withstood the storm and the test of decades.

The natural urge of states to control borders, entries and exits

Free movement of persons naturally relate to the all-familiar obstacle and critical challenge in integrative projects, namely the sovereignty of the state. With regard to mobility of persons, sovereignty focuses on the state’s predisposition to control entries and exits of persons. Needless to say, free movement and the abolishment of visas is one of those supra-national initiatives that entice national sovereignty-based protectionism. Even if the AU might rightly be the ‘alpha’ origin of African initiatives, including the African passport, Member States remain the ‘omega’ of implementation. Without relinquishing aspects of their sovereignty, a free movement regime will extend as far the Member States allow.

Security and local job market protection

When it comes to free movement, the two common concerns of Member States are security and local job market protection. The first concern is more political than scientific: security threats exist, not due to free movement, but mainly as a result of a lack of, or limited, capabilities of states to effectively differentiate between good mobility and bad mobility. They also emanate from nearly impracticable and unproductive attempts to control borders. Regardless of the presence or absence of a free movement regime, albeit in varying degrees, all Member States are prone and vulnerable to threats from within, as from outside. Security threats are increasingly home grown, and not limited only to migrants.

Limited capabilities in differentiating bad from good 

Ostensibly presented as national sovereignty and security concerns, the low level of political determination and limited capabilities of Member States in being able to exercise effective governance over their borders, are among the collective reasons for dragging their feet in the implementation of a free movement regime. While the expressed political will has been there since the OAU’s establishment in 1963, this was not translated into political determination to act, to allocate the required finance as well as time and energy in respect of African leadership. A free mobility regime requires better-resourced airports and border posts capable of distinguishing bad mobility from good mobility. In the absence of this capability, states face vulnerabilities to various threats and risks ranging from terrorism to epidemics.

So, what is new now, and what can be expected in the near future that could help ensure the implementation of the free movement agenda?

Mega trends related to mobility and surge in connective infrastructures

Africa has invested quite heavily in building domestic transportation corridors. These transport corridors are instrumental in promoting economic efficiency and regional integration as they link several economic centres through various modes of transport. With more regional stability, the economic contributions of the Blue Economy associated with the maritime sector will increase and enhance integration with land-linked countries. Maritime transportation and its importance in Africa has increased, but is now progressively emerging on the Agenda of the AU under the 2050 Africa Integrated Maritime Strategy. Unlike soft infrastructures in the form of policies or passports, hard ones do not bend to the whims of politics and political leaders. Hence, infrastructural development forms a fundamental integrative opportunity for a far-reaching free movement regime that creates interdependent ties that will be difficult to cut.

People follow investment, and investment follows infrastructure

With the current preoccupation of Africa with large infrastructural projects such as airways, railways, roads and corridors, connectivity creates surges in mobility of not only goods and services, but also people. These hard infrastructures attract vehicles, trains, planes and other forms of transportation. Investment tends to follow infrastructural facilities. People follow transportation routes, job opportunities and money. Money attracts more money and also attracts talent. But above all, an infrastructure-supported mobility regime is sustainable and irreversible, even in the face of serious security and other challenges.

The highly mobile generation and the middle class

By 2050, the population of Africa is expected to reach 2.4 billion; a substantial increase from today’s population. More than 55 per cent of this population will then be at a relatively young age (below 20 years). Annually, two percent of the youth will be connected via mobile telephones and the Internet, adding millions of the region’s inhabitants to the more technologically conversant, connected, vocal and mobile generations. Progress in Africa is visible in all sectors and current trends show growth continuity. Africa includes countries that are among the top economic performers in the world, albeit from a low base. With the current promising economic development and overall improvement in governance, there will be an increase of income within an emerging middle class. This segment of African society will be highly mobile. Mobility will be accelerated by these various developments.

Filling the gap between hard and soft infrastructures of mobility

From West African countries, it is easier to fly to Europe than to a neighbouring country only a few hundred kilometres away. This famous and most cited rhetorical example of difficulties flying within the ECOWAS region is as old as Pan Africanism and substantiates arguments about the gap between soft and hard infrastructure. In some RECs, such as ECOWAS, while the soft infrastructure in the form of a free movement protocol has been progressively established since the 1970s, low-level hard infrastructure still presents serious impediments to the realization of real, local and high impact integration. Requiring resources, political will and determined leadership, with the foresight and capability to fight corruption and deliver services, building hard infrastructure is likely to prove more difficult than the creation of soft infrastructure in the form of declaring and implementing agreements on free movement. In contrast, RECs, such as IGAD, that focus on hard infrastructure development will make greater strides in developing real, local integrative and high impact free movement regimes than those focused on soft policy progress. Nevertheless, unlike the case of ECOWAS, the main challenge for RECs like IGAD is the mutually assured distrust that prevails between the member states and retards agreement on a protocol of free movement.

When supported by soft infrastructures such border governance strategies, free movement protocols, and supportive agencies, hard infrastructure is the most sustainable means to facilitate strategic integration. The current challenge in this regard is to address the gap between hard and soft infrastructure.

A continental treaty

However, a treaty providing for the legal standing of such an initiative, together with a roadmap that addresses the concerns of Member States and progressively responds to the demands of the younger generation, should be the bedrock upon which a free movement regime in Africa is established.

Getting the fundamentals correct

From economics to education, the free movement regime will have a multiplier impact on the livelihoods of millions of Africans. That said, it has to be developed in a progressive, but gradual, manner, without endorsing stagnant status-quo ideas and differentiating between real and perceived threats.

Going beyond symbolism, the African free movement regime necessitates more than cosmetic measures. The basics and fundamentals of free movement, particularly the political economic, security, and socio-cultural impacts of migration, need to be given serious consideration for Member States to show willingness to cede some of their sovereignty for this noble Pan African aspiration, by hundreds of millions of Africans, to travel freely throughout the African continent.

Ed.’s Note: Former AU Commission Programme Coordinator of Migration, Dr Mehari Taddele Maru is adjunct assistant professor at Addis Ababa University, and a specialist in peace and security, international law and migration, public administration and management. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].


Contributed by Mehari Taddele Maru


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