Delays in ratifying free movement protocol threaten AfCFTA
January 2023, marked five years since the African Union Free Movement of Persons protocol was signed by the African Union (AU).
A parallel initiative to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), it was designed to reduce barriers to Africans crossing African borders.
The benefits of freer movement include trade, investment, cultural understanding and scientific cooperation.
So far, only four countries have ratified and deposited the protocol.
The countries; Rwanda, Niger, Mali and Sao Tome and Principe, were from the 33 signatures to the protocol in 2018.
Signatures included Ghana, Angola, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Comoros, Congo, Djibouti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Gambia.
Others are Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sao Tome & Principe, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The protocol requires 15 ratifications to enter into force.
Factors for delays
Factors accounting for the delay in ratification of the protocol follows fear among some member states that the protocol would suddenly come into force as soon as parliaments of 15 out of 55 member states had ratified it.
However, only the first of the three phases of the protocol will come into force and for the countries that had ratified it. In addition, the protocol’s safeguards allow countries to suspend it if their concerns cannot be dealt with through normal immigration procedures.
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.
Some also feel that adequate systems of population registration, passporting, exchange of criminal records, extradition arrangements and similar forms of cooperation in or between many countries are not yet in place.
Even though the protocol specifically refrains from referring to movement independent of the laws of the host state, some countries seem to fear that unregulated movement on their territory will be the outcome.
The roadmap that accompanied the free movement of persons protocol was too ambitious and subsequently added to the unnecessary panic delaying the ratification of the initiative.
Call on defaulting countries
The Senior Strategy Advisor of the United Nations Development Porgramme (UNDP) Africa, Joy Kategekwa, at a forum in Adukrom in the Eastern Region, called on defaulting countries to speed up the processes and ratify the protocol for the forward movement of the continent.
She explained that the protocol needed to be ratified to enable not only goods, but people to move across borders to facilitate trade and the implementation of AfCFTA — the largest free trade area in the world measured by the number of countries participating.
She said the movement of people across borders within the continent would create the needed avenue which would ultimately put money in the pocket of many Africans.
She observed that in 2017, more than 19 million Africans left their respective countries to other African countries.
“We are talking about accelerating the implementation of AfCFTA and we cannot do that when people are not moving. So, free movement is definitely part of the architect of AfCFTA, especially for those who are engaged in trade-in-services.
“So far, we have four ratifications and it has become important to increase the scale of ratifications, so that we can widen it to investors, traders and business persons in general,” she added.
Some regional blocs have already advanced quite far in lifting restrictions in cross-border movements.
The two most advanced regions are the East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS).
In some cases, they allow passport-free cross-border travel within the region. They have even been moving towards adopting regional passports.
What is interesting and important is that there is nothing in the AU Free Movement of Persons protocol that prevents unconventional paths forward.
In each region, it is possible for some member countries to move ahead without the participation of all the members of the regional group.
A Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, Herbert Krapa, underscored the need to accelerate the ratification process on the free movement of persons for the success of AfCFTA and Africa's prosperity.
He said there was the need for the AfCFTA Secretariat to design an initiative that would prevail on governments and their ministries of national security as well as foreign affairs, to closely work together with various regional bodies to increase efforts to ratify the protocol.
“Paying political attention to the ratification of the protocol is very important. However, the continent needs a leader who will champion the facilitation of this protocol to unleash the potential of the free trade agreement,” he said.
To address concerns hindering the ratification of the protocol, the AfCFTA secretariat must take steps to ensure effective trade facilitation and offer successful movement of persons.
There should also be deliberate measures to enhance passport provision within the continent for some specific groups of business people to be able to cross the borders without delays.
It will be easier to work with countries in the neighbourhood that already have close relationships and generally enjoy more mutual understanding.
Engaging with more distant countries could be facilitated by using common standards for documentation, exchanging information and agreeing on procedures for dealing with undesirable immigrants such as criminals.
Other mechanisms for promoting understanding should also be strongly supported: for example, cultural exchange programmes.
Further delays in ratifying the protocol on free movement of persons could threaten the successful implementation of AfCFTA.
Implementation of the free movement protocol would help achieve regional connectedness, integration, broader trade, labour migration and development goals as part of AU’s Agenda 2063, which is consistent with the 2030 Global Sustainable Goals of the United Nations.