Thirty African countries last week signed the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Right to Residence and Right to Establishment.The protocol was part of the three instruments that were endorsed at the extraordinary summit of the African Union held in Kigali, which focused on making Africa a free trade area.
The protocol, experts say, is poised to deliver significant gains for Africa through strengthening economic integration of the continent.
According to Prudence Sebahizi, the Head of the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) unit at the AU Secretariat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the movement of people and that of services and goods go hand in hand.
“People will move to harness opportunities across the continent, others will move to invest, others will move to transact and do business. I see movement of persons very key to ensuring movement of goods and services,” Sebahizi told The New Times on Sunday.
According to the International Monetary Fund, free movement resulted in better institutions and better economic management in Europe.
And, experts point to a case where Africa also stands to gain, including the protocol being an important tool since it will directly affect ordinary people; and move the continental body closer to the progress that sub-regional groupings have made on migration.
Francis Mangeni, the Director for Trade, Customs and Monetary Affairs at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Secretariat, said the protocol “is a breakthrough.”
Mangeni explained that a report produced by the African Development Bank (AfDB), dubbed the Africa Visa Openness Report 2017, showed what “a nightmare” it was for Africans to travel in Africa in contrast to other nationalities.
He said travel restrictions should be looked at as politically incorrect in the first place, “because free movement of people is the face of regional integration, especially given the artificiality of our borders from the point of view of border communities and pan-Africanists.”
This protocol, he said, directly addresses this situation.
Evidence that free movement of labour and capital boosts economic activity is abundant.
According to the AfDB report, tourism in Seychelles increased by seven per cent annually between 2009 and 2014 when the country abolished visas for African nationals.
By 2015, Seychelles had become a high-income country with thriving real estate, aviation and service industries, as a result of increased revenues.
African travel to Rwanda increased by 22 per cent since the country eased its visa requirements in 2013, the AfDB report said.
Beginning this year, Rwanda lifted visa restrictions on all foreign nationals, allowing for them to acquire visas on arrival.
Another arrangement, through the regional Northern Corridor Integration Projects, scrapped the use of travel documents between citizens of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, allowing for the use of National IDs at points of entry.
As a result, Rwanda’s cross-border trade with Kenya and Uganda has increased by 50 per cent.
Mangeni added: “Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Seychelles, among others, have shown that this is very much feasible and of great benefit to a country, in terms of assisting critical levels of skills and trade for social economic transformation.
“It is not sentimentality or even Pan-Africanism, but enlightened self-interest, in allowing business and skills that create jobs and wealth.”
Citing the 2013 report titled, “Knowledge and Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future,” Mangeni said, a team of 60 researchers strongly argued that Africa needs to be networked into regional and global knowledge systems, in order not to miss the fourth industrial revolution and cutting edge technologies and skills that drive socio-economic transformation.
“This protocol will assist Africa to mobilise, harness and network critical levels of talent in Africa and this should be of utmost priority for the continent,” said Mangeni.
Herman Musahara, a Rwandan economist, said that the biggest advantage of free movement of people is in leveraging trade, integration and the overall desire to have, in future, the United States of Africa or a United Africa.
“People will move with economic purpose. They can lead to covering labour deficits of one area and provide the required human capital resources. People freely facilitate trade and investment.
“Lack of free movement of people has kept people behind the pseudo national identities most created after the Berlin Conference in early 1880s,” Musahara said.
According to Musahara, Africans will move closer to having a shared common identity and the nearer Africa comes closer the easier it becomes to realise its potential.
“If Africa was one and putting together economies of 54 countries then it would qualify as a middle income country. The protocol makes Agenda 2063 rational and feasible.”
Agenda 2063 is a strategic framework for the socio-economic transformation of Africa over the next 50 years. It builds on, and seeks to accelerate implementation of past and current continental initiatives for growth and sustainable development.
African leaders also signed the CFTA paving way for a months-long process of consultations and ratification intent on turning the continent into a modern, fully-fledged single market.
But Musahara is also conscious of challenges such as possible retaliatory policies by wealthier countries that, he says, could see the free trade area as a threat to their interests.