African Schengen: an African Countries Succeed in Lifting Movement Restrictions Between Them?

If we traveled to the future using a time machine, we could envision the “Afrotopia” world heralded by the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Before our eyes, the open borders of the continent would allow the free and easy flow of people, capital, goods, and services from Cairo to Cape Town and from Dakar to Nairobi. Meanwhile, Europe (the old continent) grapples with the rise of right-wing anti-immigration policies, turning the borderless Schengen area into a region burdened by illegal immigration and terrorism pressures. Another borderless region, comprising over 1.2 billion people, is on the path to inaugurating an African Schengen. This is no longer a fleeting thought for those who believe in the dream of African unity; it has become a more realistic possibility when the African Union boldly introduced a unified African passport. The first beneficiaries of this privilege were two African leaders: Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the late Chadian President Idriss Déby.

However, amidst civil wars and security challenges that surround African countries, crossing borders remains a painful experience for most Africans. World Bank estimates indicate that intra-African trade is more costly, considering all factors, than trade in any other region. While 48 African countries allow citizens of at least one non-African country to travel without a visa, only five African countries, led by Rwanda, out of 52, can boast of granting visa-free entry to Africans. For example, an American citizen can travel throughout most of Africa without a visa, compared to an African who needs a visa to enter about 60% of African countries.

African Policies

It is known that the African Union has developed numerous policy frameworks to manage voluntary and forced movement across the continent to promote economic integration and development. Central to these policies is the vision outlined in the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community (Abuja Treaty) of 1994. This treaty obliges member states to gradually achieve the free movement of persons and ensure the rights of residence and establishment within the African Economic Community. So far, at least 48 member states of the African Union have ratified the treaty.

In 2006, the African Union adopted the Migration Policy Framework for Africa, revised in 2018 to address contemporary migration challenges. The Migration Policy Framework emphasizes the potential of well-managed migration to enhance socio-economic development and covers key migration issues, including border management, labor migration, data management, migrants’ human rights, forced displacement, irregular migration, inter-state cooperation, and internal migration. Additionally, the framework addresses social dimensions such as gender, health, conflict, and the environment. Despite its ambitious goals, the Migration Policy faces political, institutional, and conceptual challenges. Politically, member states might resist fully implementing the framework due to concerns about preserving employment sectors for their citizens. Institutionally, the Migration Policy Framework lacks a mechanism to monitor compliance, making it non-binding and difficult to enforce.

To further strengthen labor migration management, the African Union introduced the Joint Labour Migration Programme in 2015. Supported by international organizations such as the International Organization for Migration, the International Labour Organization, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the program aims to recognize migration as a transformative tool for socio-economic development in Africa. It supports fair employment practices, social security portability, and skills portability in line with the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Additionally, the African Union adopted the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons in 2018 to promote the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people within the continent. The Free Trade Area Plan, part of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, seeks to transform Africa into a borderless community, increase trade and investment, and enhance Africa’s negotiating position in international trade.

Regional Economic Communities also play a crucial role in managing migration. For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) developed the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Residence, and Establishment in 1979. Implemented in phases, this protocol allows visa-free entry for citizens of member states for up to 90 days. However, challenges such as border harassment and lack of travel documents impede its full implementation. Despite progress, significant obstacles remain to achieving the African Union’s migration policy goals. The African Union must strengthen institutional mechanisms to ensure member states’ compliance and address issues such as xenophobia and human rights abuses against migrants. With a well-implemented comprehensive migration policy, Africa can leverage migration’s benefits for greater socio-economic development and regional integration.

Freedom of Movement

The colonial borders drawn at the Berlin Conference of 1884 still limit where Africans can move, but for the African Free Trade Area to flourish, these historical barriers must be reimagined. The African Continental Free Trade Area, an ambitious project to boost intra-African trade, risks failure without fully embracing freedom of movement. Therefore, the Freedom of Movement Plan is not just an addition but a cornerstone of the African Continental Free Trade Area. The inability to move freely within Africa significantly contributes to brain drain, with Africa funding the education of professionals like doctors, engineers, and computer programmers who then migrate to Europe or North America. For example, one in ten doctors working in the United Kingdom comes from African countries that have invested heavily in their training. Since 2010, nine African countries have spent over two billion dollars training doctors who later migrated.

Borderless Africa

Six years after introducing the African passport, its circulation remains extremely limited, and passport holders, including prominent Nigerian industrialist Aliko Dangote with business interests across the continent, still face visa requirements in some countries. For “Borderless Africa” to become a reality, countries must adopt regional integration policies and address security challenges. Encouraging entrepreneurship, fostering unity, and promoting cooperation are essential steps in this process. By reimagining borders as bridges rather than barriers, African countries can pave the way for a future marked by shared progress and mutual benefit.

According to the 2018 Open Visa Report, countries that open their borders enjoy numerous benefits in areas ranging from tourism and investment to GDP growth. Indeed, 18 out of 20 African countries open to visas improved their rankings on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, and all 20 countries saw growth in travel, tourism, GDP, and investments. Specifically, Rwanda’s decision to lift travel restrictions doubled the number of visitors and significantly increased conference tourism. It is almost universally agreed that integration and “Borderless Africa” are essential for the continent to achieve its social, economic, and developmental goals.

In conclusion, the vision of “Borderless Africa” is not just a dream but a viable path to sustainable economic development. As migrant entrepreneurs continue to drive growth across the continent, the possibility of creating a unified and prosperous Africa is increasingly within reach. It is time for Africa to overcome its divisions and work together for a brighter and more prosperous future for all. To achieve this, African leaders must demonstrate political will by expediting the ratification of necessary laws and earnestly advancing the integration agenda. It is time for Africa to reverse the brain drain and ultimately win by embracing its returning sons and daughters and realizing the dream of a truly integrated continent.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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