[A version of this article was published in Daily Maverick on October 2, 2015.]

Africa’s regions continue to make gradual progress towards free movement of Africans across the continent, a key component of regional integration. Proponents of free movement must identify the factors holding back liberalization of movement, and develop creative strategies to address these if Africans are to enjoy visa-free movement on their continent by 2018, as called for by the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

Free movement is typically thought of as being made up of three main freedoms: visa-free entry for short visits; right of residence, including the ability to work; and the right of establishment, the ability to establish a business.

Imagine that a resident of Chicago, Illinois in the USA needed to apply for a visa to visit Los Angeles, California. Imagine that as part of the application our Illinois resident has to attach bank statements showing financial means to support herself while vacationing in California. Imagine that a resident of Pennsylvania had to apply to the State of New York for a work permit to work on Wall Street. Imagine that as part of her application she has to submit a statement from the Pennsylvania State Police that she has no criminal record, and that her prospective employer has to show proof that they advertised publicly for the position, but couldn’t find a suitable candidate within New York State.

It’s hard to imagine America as anything other than one nation, indivisible of 319 million people able to live, travel, work, invest and trade freely with one another. While America, and now the EU through its economic union, enjoys the social and economic benefits of integration, Africa’s 1 billion citizens remain fragmented in 55 countries with their own borders, customs and immigration rules and requirements. As a result, many Africans find it more difficult to travel their continent than visiting Westerners, many of whom enjoy visa-free travel and streamlined residence permit processes.

Africa’s attempt to address this has seen free movement show up in continental development strategy documents since the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action, the 1991 Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community (AEC), commonly known as the Abuja Treaty, and subsequently. Abuja committed African states to “adopt, individually, at bilateral or regional levels, the necessary measures, in order to achieve progressively the free movement of persons, and to ensure the enjoyment of the right of residence and the right of establishment by their nationals within the Community.”

Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have come to be accepted as the building blocks and laboratories of an eventual single, integrated AEC, and so RECs have taken on the task of formulating and implementing policies on movement of persons within regions (intra-regional movement).

In September I participated, on behalf of South Africa and the Department of Home Affairs, in an intra-regional migration conference in Ghana co-convened by the AU Commission, IOM and UNECA. Most if not all of Africa’s RECs were represented, including all of the primary ones. [More on the proliferation of RECs later] I will focus here on three leading RECs where free movement is concerned: the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

ECOWAS is arguably the leading African REC where free movement is concerned. It got started earlier, adopting a Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment as far back as 1979, 16 years before SADC’s draft protocol on same. ECOWAS citizens can travel to member states visa-free, including using an ECOWAS passport, a key component of regional mobility and identity. According to a presentation at the conference by an ECOWAS official, as of December 2014 ECOWAS has taken the major step of implementing the rights of residence and establishment, allowing ECOWAS citizens to freely move to, work and start businesses in member states without applying for permits.

EAC, while not having implemented free residence and establishment, has made similar progress. Protocols on movement and labour have been adopted. Residence requirements are being harmonized, including reduction of fees for EAC applicants. An EAC passport was created in 1999, though it is only valid for use in the bloc. EAC citizens can travel visa-free for up to 6 months at a time (they can stay longer as long as they notify immigrant authorities in their destination country), and can do so with only their national ID.

SADC lags behind these RECs, having drafted a protocol on movement in 1995, and taken 10 years to produce a version which member states were willing to sign. The 2005 Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons is not as far-reaching as the ECOWAS and EAC versions, mandating only visa-free entry for up to 90 days in a year, and leaving rules on residence and establishment to member states. Still, while 9 countries have signed, only 4 have ratified domestically, far below the required 9 ratifications to come into effect. SA, one of the ratifying states, has at least implemented visa waivers in line with the spirit of the agreement, with nationals of almost all 15 SADC countries able to visit SA visa-free.

Some of the main challenges- and corresponding solutions- to freer movement in Africa are as follows.

Lack of rigorous cost-benefit analyses on free movement. More developed nations worry about being inundated with job seekers from less developed nations. Less developed nations worry about losing their precious talent to leading regional economic in a brain drain effect. As a result, all countries pay lip service to free movement while dragging their feet and taking comfort in a frustrated process. What may break the deadlock is independent, rigorous research and modelling to discern the likely costs and benefits of free movement to all countries. This can point the way to policy strategies and tools to ensure net benefits accrue to all countries.

Proliferation of RECs and overlapping memberships (and ensuing complexity). As the UNECA/AU 2nd Assessing Regional Integration in Africa report argued, “though the African Union only recognizes eight RECs, the continent currently has fourteen inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), working on regional integration issues, with numerous treaties and protocols governing relations among them, and between them and the Member States. This proliferation of institutions and protocols means that out of the 53 Member States of the African Union (AU), 26 belong to two of the fourteen IGOs, 20 belong to three of them, and one country belongs to four… Overlapping memberships, mandates, objectives, protocols and functions create unhealthy multiplication and duplication of efforts and misuse of the continents’ scarce resources – making these regional groupings very inefficient.” [My italics for emphasis.] The duplication of efforts and complexity created by the multiple, overlapping RECs- not to mention the upcoming TFTA negotiations attempting to tie three of them together- is not conducive to rapidly implemented free movement protocols in my view. At the current rate, visa-free movement of all Africans by 2018 is unlikely to be realized. The report makes a strong case for rationalizing the RECs into a manageable number, with recommendations and scenarios on how to go about it. African leaders should implement these suggestions.

Insufficient political will to implement common markets. Finally, free movement of people is easiest when there is consensus among countries to form common markets. The free movement of factors of production- people, alongside capital and labour- is one of the core principles of common market arrangements. While free movement is also desirable for social and historical reasons, if leaders don’t agree on the economic case for free movement, they are unlikely to take the tough and uncomfortable political and legal steps to implement it. Perhaps advocates of free movement should push African leaders to forge consensus and momentum on common markets first, to unlock progress on free movement.