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Free movement in West Africa: the culture of mobility still matters despite challenges

Men in military unifrom holding rifles in front of a building.
ECOWAS struggles with ensuring mobility within its region. Photo by Nipah Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

For the last 40 years countries in West Africa have tried to meet their commitment to letting people move more freely between them. This has been driven by the regional body, The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Launched in 1975 it has 15 member states and its founding treaty foresees the long-term establishment of a free movement zone for goods, capital and people.

ECOWAS is widely considered the most integrated of the eight regional economic communities on the continent.

But it has failed when it comes to enabling the free movement of people. Its free movement protocols have never been fully implemented.

At the same time, the original aim to improve mobility appears to be changing to one of control over mobility. We also found that, paradoxically, people continue to move relatively freely in the region.

In a recent paper we examined mobility in the region. Drawing on fieldwork data as well as a process of uncovering what free movement means in conversations with a group of West African scholars and activists, we set out to better understand free movement in the region.

We show how formal free movement is undermined by several regional and national hindrances. These include weak ECOWAS institutions, divergent national interests among individual member states and infrastructural challenges like accessing ID cards, as well as external influence from the European Union.

These implementation problems however work in convergence with a practice of everyday mobility across borders. Understanding the complexities of movement is key to better understanding and supporting mobility that speaks to the regional realities.

The impediments

A protocol agreed in 1979 sets out free movement of persons, residence and establishment and further spelled out how the free movement zone should be implemented.

The protocol recommended three phases: visa-free entry for 90 days, followed by residence and finally right to establishment.

Yet, the region continues to see stumbling blocks when it comes to free movement.

We identified the main impediments.

Firstly members states are having trouble implementing the protocols – especially long-term residence and being able to establish a business.

Secondly, individuals trying to cross the border face harassment.

Thirdly, a lack of identification documents makes border crossing more complex.

This is related to capacity problems – including the under-registration of newly born children, essentially impeding them from future (formal) travel across ECOWAS borders.

Different member states use different types of identification documents. Biometric ID cards are only available in Ghana and Senegal. In Ghana, it can only be used to cross land borders rather than air travel.

A fourth major challenge is restrictive immigration policies. This happens often at times of economic hardship. This has happened a lot in the last century .

Specific examples include 1954 and 1969 when non-Ghanaians were expelled and in 1958 when the Ivory Coast took similar steps.

Deportations between ECOWAS member states also take place. This year alone, the expulsions of an estimated 200 Nigeriens from Senegal and Ghana have made the headlines.

The most recent deportees were framed as “beggars” in the press. They were deported for a supposed irregular status while citing protocols reserving the right to define ‘inadmissible migrants.’

And it is still the case that some ECOWAS citizens are restricted from certain economic activities while xenophobia is still a problem in the region.

European interests

External interests also play an important role in negotiating free movement in the region.

With migration being a priority of the European Union’s engagement with West Africa, it has taken an increasingly important role in shaping regional mobility governance.

This is evident in the prioritisation of irregular migration towards Europe in the 2008 ECOWAS “common approach to migration.

A major element of the EU engagement includes capacity building projects, such as the programme to fight smuggling. But initiatives like this can work against the free movement objectives safeguarded by ECOWAS.

Other EU-funded initiatives have led to increased border posts within a national territory similarly affecting the ability of people to move freely.

It also highlights the EU preference for bilateral cooperation (rather than at a ECOWAS level), which can undermine the institution.

The future of free movement?

The political importance of free movement depends on national member states, as ECOWAS holds little leeway to sanction countries that are contravening its protocols.

This points to two routes ahead.

Firstly, to strengthen the regional body’s legal safeguards so that it can hold states accountable. Secondly, it needs to recognise the importance of informal mobility.

When it comes to legal safeguards the first step that needs to be taken is that member states must create relevant legal frameworks to domesticate regional rules. This obligation is set out in the ECOWAS revised treaty.

There is currently no sanction for members states failing to do this, although on paper sanctions or rulings can be administered by the ECOWAS Court of Justice, the community’s central legal body. Its rulings are binding for member states.

The Court has given several rulings in relation to the infringement of the right to free movement. But implementation of the judgements has been frustrated by national governments.

This could change in the future if, for example, civil society actors at the regional level push for national implementation of judgements through the regional civil society framework.

On the issue of informal mobility, ECOWAS needs to recognise that, despite colonial efforts to carve up national borders, regional mobility continues to make up the most of the migratory movements in the region.

Free movement, therefore, needs a pragmatic contextualised implementation of the protocols that allows for everyday mobility.

Such pragmatism was already evident when borders were temporarily closed during the Covid-19 pandemic but humanitarian corridors were created between certain countries.

Practically speaking one avenue would be to explore the widening of border crossing without legal documentation. Or implementing what is theoretically in place, especially for border communities who rely on this and do so every day anyway.

Either way, considering the multi-layered constraints the ECOWAS free movement zone is facing, mobility is set to remain vital.

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