Travelling unhindered: A zoom-in of issues likely to impede the free movement of Africans in Africa

Something on a more informative note this month! Read all about the FMP protocol on the African continent in this blog.

By Francis Dusabe

Recently, the government of Ethiopia announced that effective from 2019, all nationals from African countries intending to visit Ethiopia, would be acquiring visa upon arrival. This strategic stride complements the yet to come into force protocol on free movement of persons (FMP). This protocol grants African citizens to enter and stay on the territory of any African country, for a period of up to 90 days.

The idea of free movement is rooted at the heart of African countries. Even before the negotiation of the FMP, African countries have been engaging bilaterally or multilaterally to ensure that their citizens are facilitated to move. Bilateral arrangements appear where countries negotiate on the use of an identity card as travel document. Also, more ‘relaxed’ regimes have come into place for border communities to ensure that their normal lifestyle is not hampered by physically established borders.

On a regional level, countries have shown their commitments for opening up their borders through the approximation of immigration practice and the granting of much longer periods of stay to their citizens. In total, at least thirty-six countries in three sub-regional groups have a visa facilitation regime, making it clear that free movement of persons is at the heart of almost all African countries.


Even with the above ‘thumbs up’, an  open border Africa is still a far to reach dream due to the following reasons:

  1. A longstanding (mis)conception that the movement of Africans have more to do with the bad than the good. Admittedly, contemporary movements of Africans have been motivated by tragic events such as wars, famine and disease[1]. Many Africans, especially the youth, consider moving as a gateway to escape from poverty and economic hardship. To receiving countries, they constitute a burden to the already overstretched economy. This is a source of the current “negative” perception and xenophobic attitudes towards fellow Africans. In January 2018, the African Union (AU) in conjunction with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) commissioned a study on the benefits and challenges of free movements of persons in Africa. In their findings, social attitudes top the list of challenges to the free movement of people. This indicates the size of workload required to enhance acceptability of fellow Africans on the African continent [2]. Illustrative of this is the incidents of 2016 in South Africa, where nationals took to the streets to kill and loot shops belonging to African foreigners. In their view, the foreigners had taken away their economic opportunities.
  2. Lack of infrastructures to realize the free movement of persons which must be collectively addressed. Unfortunately, countries are still competing through unilateral actions while the size of the problem necessitates a collective approach. For instance, almost every African country has, or wishes to have its own airline to facilitate the movement of its people. The aspirations of Africa having a single air transport market is luring African states into making risky investments in either creating or reviving their dormant airlines. Thus, the competition over African travelers will leave African countries further indebted. This will result in a rise of travel fees, thus an impediment to the realization of free movement of people in Africa. The AU / IOM joint study estimates that Africa needs at least USD 93 billion in annual investments over the next decade to gradually close its free movement infrastructure gap [2].
  3. Issues on the protocol itself. During negotiations, countries gathered in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) insisted on focusing on preconditions of free movement before jumping to the protocol itself. Issues like a reliable registration and movement control systems, information sharing platforms and multilateral return agreements were highly echoed but ignored because they were not on the agenda [3]. To be specific, the adopted FMP provides two ways of its entry into force: the adoption by the AU General Assembly and the ratification process, which every country undergoes privately, in respect of its constitution. The fact that FMP has provided both manners  without indicating whether they are alternatives or compulsory exhibits a lack of direction. This in itself is sufficient to make the FMP dead on arrival.

To conclude, the FMP protocol, though a step in the right direction, is incomplete to realize free movement of persons on the African continent. When the issues raised above are addressed, FMP might fulfill a long awaited African dream. Alternatively, focus may be put in linking or bridging the existing frameworks on sub regional level, starting with those having approximate treatments or practices. Linking the existing frameworks, rather that developing a brand new protocol would be compatible with the principle of ‘variable geometry’. This enables the ‘ready to advance’ countries, without limiting other countries to move forwards in their own pace.


[1]      A. Shimeles, “Foresight Africa Viewpoint:Understanding the patternsand causes of African migration: Some facts.” Brookings, p. 15, 2018.
[2]      AU; IOM, “Study on the Benefits and Challenges of Free Movement of Persons in Africa,” Addis Abbeba, 2018.
[3]      Department of Home Affairs of the Republic of South Africa, “South African Position on the Implementation of the African Union Agenda 2063 as it relates to Migration Regional Integration and the African Passport,” 2017.

Francis Dusabe is a doctoral researcher at Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, at the Center for European legal studies.

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