Briefing Paper

Towards a borderless Africa? Regional organisations and free movement of persons in West and North-East Africa

Dick, Eva / Benjamin Schraven
Briefing Paper (1/2019)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)


The vision of a united Africa and the rejection of the arbitrary borders created by European colonial powers have for decades been at the heart of pan-African endeavours. Achieving the free movement of persons on the continent was a key aim of the 1991 Abuja Treaty, which established the African Economic Community (AEC). And in the ensuing decades, this goal was under¬scored in agreements on African economic integration and in the African Union (AU)’s Agenda 2063. In January 2018, the member states of the AU finally agreed on the Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment.
The continental agendas state that the process of implementing free movement must begin with Africa’s sub-regions. This is not least due to historical reasons. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was a pioneer in this regard, with its Free Movement Protocol dating back to 1979. The years that followed saw the free movement of persons integrated into other African regionalisation processes as well. The East African Community (EAC), for instance, has agreed, at least in part, on far-reaching steps; other sub-regions (such as the North African Intergovernmental Authority on Develop¬ment (IGAD)) are currently working towards relevant accords.
The present analysis of ECOWAS (West Africa) and IGAD (North-East Africa) shows that both regional organisa¬tions face difficulties with their free movement policies, though the respective challenges emerge in different phases of the political process. In the IGAD region, member states have so far been unable to agree on any free movement treaty, while the ECOWAS region is experiencing delays in the national and subnational implementation of established legislation. These differences can primarily be explained by historic path dependencies, divergent degrees of legalisa¬tion, and differing interests on the part of subregional powers. Finally, regional free movement is being hampered in both regions by internal capacity issues and growing external influences on intra-African migration management and border control.
From the perspective of development policy, it is expedient to support free movement at subregional level in Africa. The following recommendations arose from the analysis:

  • Promote regional capacities: Personnel and financial support should be provided to regional organisations to assist them with formulating free movement standards and implementing them at national and subnational level.
  • Harmonise security and free-movement policies: European initiatives on border control and migration management must provide greater support for free movement rather than inhibit intraregional migration and free movement policies.
  • Offer cross-sectoral incentives: The German Government and the European Union should encourage progress with the regionalisation of free movement regimes in related areas of cooperation.

In order to effectively implement the recommendations, it is also important to recognise and flesh out the role of regional organisations at global level as well.

Further experts

Baumann, Max-Otto

Political Science 

Breuer, Anita

Political Scientist 

Christ, Simone

Social Anthropology 

Ekoh, Susan S.

Environmental Research 

Fasold, Maximilian

Political Economy 

Flaig, Merlin

Social Science 

Haldenwang, Christian von

Political Science 

Houdret, Annabelle

Political Scientist 

Jaji, Rose


Kuhnt, Jana

Development Economist 

Leininger, Julia

Political Scientist 

Martin-Shields, Charles

Political Science 

Morare, Ditebogo Modiegi

Political Science 

Nowack, Daniel

Political Science 

Roll, Michael



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