Africans have been debating the pros and cons of free movement of people across the continent for decades. From politicians arguing for the creation of one African state to many advocating for the unrestricted movement of people, the issue has been brought up multiple times, but nothing substantive has been accomplished.
Concerned about the poor progress being made toward ratifying the Protocol on the movement of persons, trade experts, business leaders, and champions of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) from throughout the continent have once again gathered, this time in Nairobi, Kenya.
In the opinion of the experts who attended the two-day event, the sluggish ratification of the protocol is a major reason impeding the realization of the AfCFTA, whose implementation is aimed at increasing intra-African trade from 15 percent to 40 percent.
“It is important that African governments embrace the free movement of persons, as this would enable Africans to enjoy the full benefits of the AfCFTA,” Stephen Karingi, director of the Regional Integration and Trade Division of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), said during the event held in Nairobi.
Practically every African nation recognizes that free movement of people throughout the continent is crucial to attracting foreign investment and expanding trade. Even more, in 2018, over 30 African countries signed the Free Movement of People Protocol in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This was a move that was said to boost integration and speed up the implementation of the AfCFTA.
The protocol is an extension of the Abuja Treaty, which was signed in 1991 and was the legal document that established the African Economic Community. Many people had high hopes that following the launch of the new protocol, which happened four years ago, full ratification by member countries would not take very long.
Nonetheless, four years have elapsed since the protocol’s approval by the majority of members, despite the fact that only a small minority of countries have fully ratified it. Rwanda, Niger, So Tomé and Principe, and Mali are the only nations out of the thirty that signed the treaty in January 2018 that have fully ratified it.
The state of ratification is disheartening, according to Karingi.
An investigation into the factors that contribute to the slow ratification of the agreement has been carried out jointly by the African Union and the ECA. Member nations have downplayed the significance of free movement of persons, and the study also found that there is a lack of political will to ratify the protocol, according to its findings. Security and health concerns raised by free movement of people are another factor discouraging African countries from ratifying the agreement, per the report.
“While some of the concerns around ratifying the Protocol were valid, policymakers and African citizens should be made aware of the support available to address some of the technical concerns raised,” said Karingi.
24 African countries, or 44 percent of the continent, offered e-visas for Africans in 2022, up from nine African countries, or 17 percent of the continent, in 2016, according to the AU’s Visa Openness Report. A study showed that countries with complicated visa processes are losing the money that travelers bring.
Where countries have removed visa requirements, tourism and travel economies have thrived, it added. “Several of Africa’s richer countries appear to be concerned that once the protocol comes into force, they will experience a sudden influx of low-skilled economic migrants from poorer countries,” the AU report stated.
“Free movement of persons can be a catalyst for entrepreneurship and trade, providing employment opportunities and addressing poverty and inequality,” Karingi said. Seyceheless is the best example to prove what the Director said.
The Seychelles recorded an annual increase of seven percent in international tourism between 2009 and 2014 as a result of its visa-free access to all Africans.
The Director of Trade in Services, Investment, Intellectual Property Rights, and Digital Trade at the AfCFTA Secretariat, Emily Mburu-Ndoria, agrees.
“Trade and mobility on the African continent are intertwined, and the greater conditions for the mobility of workers have the potential to lower unemployment rates and promote integration and Pan-Africanism,” Mburu-Ndoria said.
For the Director, the gains and benefits from the AfCFTA trade outweigh these worries. “A balanced approach is required while dealing with the sensitivity of mobility relating to security, health, and the environment,” Mburu-Ndoria concluded.