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Why Africans can’t move freely within their own continent




On the 21 March 2018, African leaders took the first step in the long walk to fulfilling the historic mission of uniting the continent by signing two legal documents on continental free trade and the free movement of persons across African boundaries. The signing of both documents on the same day signified the indivisibility of free trade and free movement, and the expectation was that member states would treat both documents as one rather than two separate, disjointed documents. However, member states have decided to take the path of inaction and consign the free movement document to the back seat. Instead, more attention and focus has been placed on creating a continental free trade area, which has since come into force and expected to be operational from 1 July 2020.

A not so free movement

As things currently stand, only four member states (Mali, Niger, Rwanda and Sao Tome & Principe) have ratified the free movement protocol, which is still a long way from the expected 15 ratifications needed for it to become operational. In spite of the reports on the social and economic benefits of free movement of persons, Africa remains the continent with the highest use of intra-continental visas. According to the African Development Bank’s “Africa Visa Openness Report (2018)”, 51% of African states still demand visas from other African citizens (it was at some point as high as 60%), only 24% of African countries offer visa on arrival to other Africans, and just 25% of African countries have no visa requirements for other Africans.

The refusal to move ahead with implementing free movement is one that is rooted in a number of dynamics. Migration expert Mehari Taddele Maru identifies six major barriers to the slow pace of implementing continental free movement: the lack of political will to surrender state control on migration; prohibitive migration policies; the protection of local jobs and culture; the lack of physical infrastructure to facilitate easy migration; corruption and cumbersome requirements; and the low allocation of resources to deal with these challenges.

Underlying these factors is a problematic mental approach and unwillingness to see free movement as a central continental objective. Such cognitive dissonance has to be genuinely confronted and addressed if we are to make any success with the implementation of continental free movement.

The four “mental shifts”

In this regard, I have identified four such issues that require significant mental shifts on the part of policymakers, civil society and scholars. The first is the “poverty mentality complex”, which speaks to the need to stop debating free movement from a deficit/negative perspective. This complex views free movement as a hydra-headed monster that is responsible for loss of jobs, spikes in diseases and crimes, and a burden on the local economy. It unfortunately apes the increasing racist, xenophobic and toxic nationalism sentiment sweeping across Europe about African and Asian migrants.

This position is defeatist and reinforces the pessimistic conception of Africa as a wretched land, its place in the world defined by poverty and want. Similarly, this strengthens the warped logic that the reason behind the no visa regime for Euro-Americans travelling the continent is that they are in a better financial position to contribute to rather than diminish the local economy. The inability to see behind the “we have so little that we cannot share with and accommodate other Africans” syndrome continue to block any rational discussion on the wealth of diversity and the centrality of mobility to human existence.

The second is to move away from a narrow, neo-liberal instrumentalist conception of free movement. This links the discussion on free movement to a micro and macro-economic analysis of how it should benefit the receiving country and the value of remittances to the countries of origin. This obsession strips free mobility of its ideal as a value in and of itself, and the broader understanding of the idea. Free movement should be primarily seen as one of the key conditions of humanity, and it does not matter if this movement comes as a response to threats, a search for advancement, or for leisure’s sake. In addition, a broader instrumentalist conception is one that understands free movement as both a psychological and physical rejection of the colonial legacy of arbitrary and illogical boundary formations.

The third is the need to rescue the debate around free movement of persons from its current “dialogue of the deaf” state of affairs, where governments and civil society have been speaking around and past each other. Neither the design nor plan of implementation of the protocol has passed through any meaningful dialogue between governmental and non-governmental actors. A meaningful dialogue in this regard has to be constant and robust, touching on all kinds of sensitive topics around free movement. It is only through this that issues such as the gender dimension of free movement, human trafficking concerns, Afrophobia, people-to-people interaction, and the basis of African unity can be truly engaged.

Lastly, it is important to adopt a pan-African-centred approach towards free movement. Such an approach places African cultural and situational contexts at the heart of the design and implementation of national and continental migration policies. It recognises African traditions and values of hospitality, indigenous knowledge systems on migration and development, and the benefits of diversity.

As Achille Mbembe rightly noted: “Any Africa-centered international migration policy for the 21st century will…be a policy that makes it possible for Africans and people of African descent across the globe to move unhindered across our colonial borders and to settle wherever they desire in this colossal continent turned, almost by design, into a mass penitentiary.Such a policy will protect every single African or person of African descent from the humiliation of being made to feel or be treated as a stranger in Africa.It will subscribe to a project of openness and circulation rather than of closure and immobilisation.Anything that, in the name of ‘national interest’, ‘national security’ or any other pretext goes against this goal is by definition anti-African and anti-black.”

In essence, we cannot afford to replicate the massive humiliation Africans already suffer in the hands of authorities as they try to enter and live within the “European fortress” on the continent. This only signifies the continuation of Eurocentric modes and thoughts on sovereignty and border management.

These four points are at the heart of ensuring shifts in attitude around the debate on free movement across African boundaries. As the AU continue to engage in negotiations around getting the required number of member states to ratify the protocol, it is important that it does this within the context of the understanding that the obstacles to this ideal are beyond rigid legal, political and economic concerns. They require a new kind of mentality, one that is at the heart of a pan-African consciousness and way of being.

Babatunde Fagbayibo is an associate professor of law at the University of South Africa

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