At a time when the global conversation is focused on restricting the movement of people due to coronavirus, African states are slowly moving towards ratifying the African Union Protocol on Free Movement of persons in Africa. The global pandemic has served as a reminder of the importance of free movement, and the difficulties of doing business in a world where borders are closed.
Ghana is the latest state to take steps to ensure that the Protocol on Free Movement is ratified, and the Compter General of Nigeria’s Immigration Service, Muhammed Babanded, is optimistic that Africa’s future may even include a common passport and no land borders.
For too long connectivity between African states, whether that be the flow of goods and services or the movement of people, has been damagingly low. At less than 15 per cent of total trade, intra-African trade lies well below other regions. In Europe and Asia, intra-regional exports account for roughly 70 and 60 per cent respectively. The continent’s 1.2 billion people make far fewer intra-continental trips than Europeans, Asians and Americans.
Instead, African states have relied on economic relationships with countries beyond the continent, while immigration and visa systems have enabled economic migrants from beyond Africa to take advantage of the status quo. However, as the recent move by the Trump administration to place visa restrictions on Nigerian nationals reminds us, these relationships are fragile.
The United States’ decision to include Nigeria in the extended “travel ban”, even though the country is Africa’s biggest economy and the U.S.’s second biggest trade partner in sub-Saharan Africa, is highly damaging. Tanzania, Sudan and Eritrea have also been targeted with visa restrictions by the U.S. These measures should act as a reminder for African states of the importance of pan-African free movement, and the benefits of a functioning and logical immigration policy.
If fully implemented, the African Union Protocol on Free Movement will act as a catalyst for the continent’s socio-economic development and present an opportunity for African countries to deal with the complexities of migration as a collective. The protocol is related to the broader package associated with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the largest trade agreement since the World Trade Organization was established, due to come into force on 1 July 2020.
The AfCFTA presents a unique opportunity to significantly grow intra-Africa trade and diversify trade exports, but it should also foster structural transformation and drive foreign direct investment, facilitating the development of regional supply chains which are central to sustainable economic transformation. But in order to deliver maximum benefit for African states, governments must also consider how their current immigration systems impact the economy.
In Nigeria, the government is currently undertaking important and much needed reform of the immigration system. The new policy has expanded the classes of visas, while making travel easier for citizens of African Union countries demonstrating a commitment to the AfCFTA. The policy is designed to facilitate economic activities and in turn economic development and national security.
It is vital for African states to be able to both manage and benefit from economic migrants, understanding the number of expatriates that are working within an economy. Fraud committed by companies relying on vast numbers of foreign labourers and registering them as skilled professionals, is known to be a strain on African economies. An effective visa system in countries like Nigeria must prevent such fraudulent activities, allowing foreign labourers to be protected and formally registered, and for the state to efficiently raise revenue through visas.
By addressing these existing problems, the challenges associated with intra-African free movement such as possible job losses and dampening of wages for local workers in destination countries can be partially mitigated.
Last year, Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, said that he needed 38 visas to travel within the continent on his Nigerian passport. In comparison, European nationals can enter most Africans countries visa-free. A common passport for African’s and no land borders may seem a distant goal, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic, however with collective action and commitment from African states, a better connected and more prosperous continent is within reach.