Connecting people and markets in Africa in 2021

On 1 January 2021, trading formally began in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The AfCFTA aims to create a continental market for goods and services, with free movement of people and investments intended to help deepen the economic integration of the African continent and promote development.

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      African leaders and the African Union (AU) Commission have highlighted the urgent need to expedite the ratification process of the AU’s Continental Free Movement Protocol, convinced that the full potential of free movement of goods can only be achieved if there is freer movement of people as well. It doesn’t stop at trade. As aptly captured by Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, “the free movement of people, and especially labor mobility, are crucial for promoting investments”.

      Easier movement of persons on the continent would make African labour markets more efficient, enabling companies to bridge skills gaps by recruiting from neighbouring countries, and greater conditions for mobility of workers has the potential to lower unemployment rates. The Africa Visa Openness Report 2020 further notes that African “countries that relaxed visa regimes and adopted visa-free and visa-on-arrival policies have seen economic benefits in recent years, attracting growing numbers of business and leisure travellers

      The case of Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda highlights the positive effect of movement of people on cross-border trade. By revising the administrative procedures for work permits and entry visas, these countries increased cross-border trade with each other by 50%.

      If this is the case, why is the implementation of free movement in Africa lagging behind the continental free trade area? Until now, only Niger, Mali, Rwanda and São Tomé and Príncipe ratified the AU’s free movement protocol (FMP) – eleven more ratifications are needed for it to be legally adopted and to enter into force.

      Here are three pressing issues that African policymakers will have to resolve to connect people and markets in 2021.

      1) Bridging parallel universes: connecting conversations on trade and movement of people


      The AfCFTA and the free movement protocol are important flagship projects of the AU’s Agenda 2063. Currently, negotiations on achieving economic integration and mobility occur within two parallel policy spaces. Ministries of trade are negotiating the rules towards the free movement of goods and services, while ministries of interior or foreign affairs are spearheading discussions on the free movement of people.

      But there is a need to bridge these parallel policy spaces to raise the profile of the FMP. Although the link between free movement of persons and free movement of goods and services has been established, it has gained far less political traction. The focus has been on implementation of the AfCFTA, with little mention of the AU’s FMP. Beyond policy discussions, linking the two areas would help build equivalent momentum towards signing, ratifying and implementing the protocol.

      African countries have varying motivations and contextual realities when it comes to promoting trade and mobility. National dynamics such as political and socio-economic differences, labour market needs, security concerns, demographic trends, ethnic tensions and xenophobia influence countries’ positions on the AU’s FMP. These national dynamics also influence countries’ positions on ratifying the AfCFTA.

      Interviews conducted with several experts highlighted that some countries reluctantly engage in FMPs of their regional economic communities (RECs). For example, they are willing to remove restrictions to the movement of certain categories of workers (such as truck drivers) or business persons. On the continental level, they prefer to engage only in negotiations on free trade, avoiding concessions on free movement.

      As a first step towards ensuring that the benefits of the AfCFTA are fully harnessed, African policymakers need to be more explicit about the socio-economic benefits of free movement of persons. Furthermore, representatives from different fields (immigration agencies, the police, trade ministries, civil society organisations, NGOs, international organisations and business associations) need to be included in these discussions to avoid isolated parallel discussions. Small-scale cross-border traders are not necessarily organised and can therefore not be easily represented in these discussions, but their perspectives should also be considered.

      2) Reassessing how the risks of free movement are perceived and addressed


      The second issue that hinders ratification of the AU’s FMP are the perceived risks by policymakers and government agencies. Most African governments are concerned about their sovereignty and the ability to regulate entry, exit and stay of persons – especially in the context of increasing insecurity and health pandemics.

      Cross-border mobility is perceived by some policymakers as a security threat that may be utilised by transnational rebel and terrorist groups. For African policymakers, the challenge appears to lie in achieving the balance between national sovereignty and the benefits of freer movement of persons towards economic integration. The reality however is more nuanced. To address the concerns, interests and needs of all involved countries, dialogue and negotiation needs to push for an in-depth understanding of what the protocol actually includes in terms of liberties of movement, the potential risks of free movement, and how they could be mitigated.

      Furthermore, governments who were generally open to the idea of free movement, might now – after COVID-19 – adopt a more careful stance, as travel restrictions and border closures highlighted the necessity of border controls and might contribute to even more polarised stances on migration. The gains achieved in the free movement of people on the continent may be lost because of the COVID-19-related travel restrictions, especially when it comes to entry visas, on which the tourism industry is reliant. Tourism, which is one of the principal economic activities for many African countries, fell by over 70%. However, the FMP can boost intra-African tourism, which could be crucial in the efforts to boost economic activity after COVID-19.

      Just as the AfCFTA is not about ‘free’ movement of goods per se, neither does the free movement protocol allow for unfettered crossing of borders. It establishes regulations for facilitated mobility and rights to residency and establishment, but also contains emergency instruments and exemptions contained in the AU’s FMP (see Article 37.1). These need to be highlighted as potential tools to mitigate the potential risks associated with free movement of persons. African policymakers did address the threat posed by conflict and epidemics in the protocol, but it seems like this specific article does not sufficiently reduce the security and sovereignty concerns many African countries have.

      3) Capitalising on the progress made in the RECs


      Negotiations on the AU’s FMP have been delegated to the regional blocs, making these the primary vehicle pushing free movement of people. Overlapping REC memberships, inactive RECs and partial implementation of the regional FMPs may pose obstacles towards harmonising regional integration progress (see infographic below).

      The African Passport, one of the main goals of the FMP, should replace regional passports of the RECs, but this development is currently hampered by two factors. First, inactive RECs (such as the Arab Maghreb Union) lag behind, which causes a situation of different speeds of enabling free movement. Second, within RECs, countries have very divergent objectives and stances towards free movement and may therefore only implement REC agreements on movement of people to very different degrees.

      The AU’s FMP aims to consolidate the gains of the REC’s FMPs towards larger benefits, but this must equally address the current shortfalls in the implementation of these REC protocols, including challenges such as weak capacities of national immigration agencies. In addition, there is a need to support and develop an accountability and monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with the AU FMP. Initiatives like the African Migration Observatory in Morocco or the African Centre for the Study and Research on Migration in Mali may provide useful tools to monitor the implementation of the AU FMP.

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      Infographic: Signatories of the African Union Free Movement Protocol

      Several objectives, including economic considerations and pan-Africanism, currently motivate African countries to engage in regional free movement protocols through RECs. But these objectives need to move beyond the regional movement of people towards seeing the benefit for achieving the greater movement of people at a continental level. The dialogue and engagement with African countries that are members of less active RECs need to be intensified to uphold a unified African progress. These should be extended to avoid ‘dead zones’ of implementation.

      How to move on?


      Given the above challenges, it is important to not lose track of the benefits that free movement of persons has for trade, to keep up the political will in this decisive moment as trading commences under the AfCFTA. Dialogue and policy reforms are needed for that. Addressing these three policy issues will be crucial for Africa to make 2021 a year of connecting people and markets, and realising the full potential of its recently implemented free trade zone.

      This commentary is part of ECDPM’s follow-up project to ‘the Political Economy Dynamics of Regional Organisations in Africa’, which aims to deepen research and dialogue on regional and continental integration initiatives in Africa among decision-makers, researchers and civil society. As part of that work we seek solutions to the three policy obstacles faced in connecting people and markets in Africa.

      Niklas Mayer is a PhD student at FASoS Maastricht University. His research focuses on the EU’s development approach to climate migration in the Horn of Africa. From September to December 2020, he was an intern in ECDPM’s migration team.

      The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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