Free Movement of People, a Catalyst for Trade in Africa
Africa Opportunities

Free Movement of People, a Catalyst for Trade in Africa

Nairobi, Kenya, 29 March 2023 (ECA)African countries should promote the free movement of people across their borders to boost intra-African trade, says the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Director of Regional Integration and Trade Division, Stephen Karingi, calling for the speedy ratification of the Protocol on free movement of people.

The African Union, recognizing the importance of human resource skills to the continent’s development, adopted the Free  Movement of Persons Protocol in 2018, which has been signed by 33 Member States. However, only four countries have ratified the Protocol to date.

“The state of ratification is disheartening, to say the least, given that the Protocol is aimed at facilitating regional integration in general, and the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), in particular,” Mr. Karingi said in Nairobi, Kenya during the Experts’ Group Meeting to Review the Policy Report on the theme; “The Free Movement of Persons for Trade: Towards an Accelerated Ratification of the AU Free Movement of Persons Protocol in Support of the implementation of the AfCFTA”

The two-day Experts’ Group Meeting reviews the policy report, an outcome of a joint study by the African Union Commission (AUC) and ECA. The study showed the benefits of the free movement of persons for the implementation of the AfCFTA and identified factors behind the slow ratification of the Protocol. 

The slow ratification of the Protocol has been attributed to a lack of knowledge and appreciation of the benefits of free movement of persons, lack of awareness of the Protocol, lack of political will, security and health concerns. Furthermore, the study recommended spirited advocacy and sensitization campaigns targeting member states and civil society to initiate domestic processes for ratifying the Protocol. 

Mr. Karingi noted that while some of the concerns around ratifying the Protocol were valid, policymakers and African citizens should be made aware of the support available to address some of the technical concerns raised.  

The Free Movement of Persons Protocol is part of the treaty establishing the African Economic Community. It has been recognized as a tool to facilitate labour and skills mobility in accelerating trade in Africa.

Bemoaning that intra-African trade remained as low as 15 percent, Mr. Karingi said it was important that African governments embraced the free movement of persons as this would enable Africans to enjoy the full benefits of the AfCFTA.

“Free movement of persons can be a catalyst for entrepreneurship and trade, providing employment opportunities and addressing poverty and inequality,” said Mr. Karingi.

The Policy Report provides evidence that countries scoring high on the Visa Openness Index have also made gains in trade, tourism, and employment. For example, the Seychelles recorded an annual increase of 7 percent in international tourism between 2009 and 2014 as a result of its visa-free access to all Africans. 

Mr. Oliver Konje, Director of International Trade, State Department of Trade and Enterprise of Kenya, said the free movement of persons has been shown to boost tourism and ease demographic pressure in sending countries while increasing cultural exchange at the sub-regional level. 

Concurring, the Director of Trade in Services, Investment, Intellectual Property Rights and Digital Trade at the AfCFTA Secretariat, Emily Mburu-Ndoria, emphasized that the free movement of persons was a key vehicle in driving the successful implementation of the AfCFTA because business people can move across the continent, thereby boosting economic growth.

“Trade and mobility on the African continent are intertwined and the greater conditions for the mobility of workers have the potential to lower unemployment rates, promote integration and Pan-Africanism,” said Ms. Mburu-Ndoria, in remarks made on her behalf by Desire Loumou, a senior trade expert at the AfCFTA Secretariat. 

While the unrestricted movement of persons raised concerns about local workers and services providers in destination countries losing jobs, Ms. Mburu-Ndoria, said the gains and benefits from the AfCFTA trade outweigh these worries. She recommended a balanced approach dealing with sensitivity of mobility relating to security, health, and the environment.