How the free movement of people could benefit Africa.

Free movement of people across Africa represents a powerful boost to economic growth and skills development when people can travel with ease for business, tourism or education. Everyone benefits from a country that opens up their borders as well as the country whose nation is on the move, as seen in the growth in remittances in recent years.

The African Union (AU) has adopted a Free Movement Protocol and a draft plan of action to go with it. The idea was first set out in the Abuja Treaty, which was endorsed in 1991 at the establishment of the African Economic Community. The AU’s protocol defines free movement as the right to enter and exit member states and move freely within them, subject to the states’ laws and procedures. It regards the freedom to travel or move goods across the continent as likely to boost the economic integration of Africa.

Reasons why the protocol is an important development.

  • First, it will directly affect ordinary people. Up until now the effects of most of the AU’s treaties and protocols have filtered down to people’s lives from a distance, if at all. This protocol applies directly to citizens’ movement.
  • Second, it moves the AU closer to the progress that sub-regional groupings have made on migration. For example, the East African Community (EAC) launched its passport in 1999 and has recently started a process to issue an EAC e-passport. This is a passport with digital identification features.
  • Lastly, free movement of people in other regions has been beneficial. For example, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that the average unemployment rate has been lowered by 6% in Europe due to free movement within the European Union (EU). And according to the International Monetary Fund, free movement has resulted in better institutions and better economic management in Eastern Europe.

 The world is facing security issues and xenophobia

Free movement does not have to become a security threat for individual member states. The protocol does not encourage undetected movement. Rather, it requires stricter security controls at ports of entry. This means that blacklisted individuals who could be a threat to national security can be kept out.
The AU’s Special Technical Committee on Defence and Security can also be given the job of improving intelligence sharing as well as cross-border police co-operation.
Xenophobia is also a legitimate concern when it comes to free movement. The AU could use structures and instruments like the Continental Early Warning Systems, and the Economic, Social and Cultural Council ECOSOC to help it manage issues of security and xenophobia.

Gains to be made

The protocol is poised to deliver significant gains for Africa. It embodies the spirit of African integration and marks progress in regional partnerships. It promises great investment and trade opportunities, as well as the possibility to boost physical infrastructure such as roads, as has been the case in America and Asia.
However, various state and non-state actors must sensitise domestic populations on the benefits of free movement in order to avoid a surge of nationalism, anti-immigrant hysteria and the kind of right wing politics that has swept across Europe and America over the past four years.