The movement of people across national borders is a vital component of any region’s economy. Whether for cross border trade, seasonal work, to establish a business, or any other economic activity, the flow of people greatly contributes to African economies. The importance of such movement has been recognised at regional and national level. As such, there have been many different approaches taken to encourage this activity and improve the ability of people to cross borders on the continent. However, many barriers still remain, and as a result border crossing can still be difficult for many. This stymies the potential economic impact that the movement of people can have. It has also often been noted that under the current status quo, many African citizens experience more difficulty crossing borders on their own continent than many holders of foreign passports.

Movement of people in Africa: the current status quo

The importance of facilitating the free movement of people in Africa has been recognised by national leaders and incorporated in key regional treaties for several decades. For example, COMESA created a protocol on the free movement of persons, labour, services, and right of establishment and residence. This treaty emphasised that one of COMESA’s ultimate aims was to ensure that all citizens of member states can move freely within the common market. The protocol offers a three-step process for the liberalization of travel. In the first step, visa requirements are relaxed immediately after the protocol enters force under Article 3, allowing for visa on arrival. In the second step, visa free travel is introduced two years after entry into force under Article 4. Finally, the third step aims to eliminate visa requirements (and all restrictions on the movement of people) are within 6 years of entry into force under Article 6.

COMESA is not the only region that has set out its ambitions for facilitating the movement of people. Article 5 of the SADC treaty sets out the goal of member states to progressively eliminate the obstacles to the free movement of people, and the region drafted its own protocol on the facilitation of movement of persons. ECOWAS has a similar protocol for the West African region. At continental level, the Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment was drafted with the objective of providing for the “progressive implementation of free movement of persons, right of residence and right establishment in Africa.” The treaty recognises the importance of the Regional Economic Communities (REC’s) in achieving the free movement of peoples and encourages them to continue their progress in this area.

The goal of facilitating the free movement of people in Africa has led to a variety of innovative policies implemented by different countries on a unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral/regional level. Mauritius, Rwanda, and Zambia have unilaterally waived visa requirements for all COMESA citizens, ensuring smother travel for those who hold standard travel documents such as a passport. Bilateral negotiations between countries led to the implementation of mobility schemes such as border or visitors passes. These allow people who live within a certain distance of the border in question into the neighbouring country without a visa or passport. This pass allows for greater mobility of groups that are otherwise left out of mobility scheme facilitation, such as small scale informal cross border traders, who often cannot afford passports or visas. Multilateral negotiations mostly conducted within REC’s, have produced several innovative solutions for facilitating better travel across borders. Both the EAC and ECOWAs are implementing systems that allow citizens to travel within their respective regions using only their biometric ID cards, removing the need for both passports and visas in the process.

Slow implementation of regional treaties

Despite the clearly set out agenda for the RECs to facilitate the free movement of people, and the impressive steps taken in many countries and regions to implement this there are still some pending issues to be addressed. The abovementioned COMESA protocol is undoubtedly an important undertaking, however only Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Zambia have signed it (with Burundi being the only country to ratify it). Similarly, the SADC protocol is not yet in force. This indicates that many states feel that they still need to take further steps before they are in a position to implement the protocol, and are still reticent to fully implement measures that would dramatically improve the ease of movement for people across the continent.

The most recent continent-wide protocol, which includes the planned African Passport, still requires an additional 11 ratifications to enter into force, and to date only four countries have ratified. This protocol is an ambitious one, and implementing it alongside the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will amplify the economic impact of the agreement and enhance regional integration across the continent.


If Africa is serious about achieving its stated goals on the free movement of people, it is well past time that countries start implementing the treaties that they sign up for. Implementation of REC treaties on free movement could provide greater integration within the regions, and would also be an important step towards continent wide easing of border restrictions. The RECs are recognised as the building blocks for pan-Africa agreements, and if the aspiration of free movement of people throughout the continent – as set out in the African Union’s Agenda 2063 – is going to be achieved, it will have to flow from the ratification and implementation of the regional agreements that are currently being neglected by most member states.


About Jay

Jay Grunder is a Junior Development Consultant at Imani Development. He holds a LLM in International Trade Law, a LLB, and a Bachelor of Business Science (Economics and Law) from the University of Cape Town. His areas of specialisation include international trade and development, regional integration, and the political economy of Sub-Saharan Africa. Jay’s master’s looked at the effects of Brexit on the UK, the EU, and further afield with regards to international trade, and he has continued to conduct research in this area with subsequent work examining how Brexit could affect South African and African trade in the coming years.