A look at the ECOWAS charter on Free Movement and impediments to it since inception
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recognizes that migration involves the exercise of a right of free movement that is essential for development; thus, international agreements adopted by West African leaders in the late 1970s sought to create an enlarged zone of factor mobility, including the mobility of human capital such as labor, skill and management. Reductions in transaction costs, competition, higher productivity, and efficiency in economic performance are the main anticipated long term benefits of economic cooperation. The regional integration protocols also acknowledge that migration satisfies a basic human instinct essential to building and sustaining livelihoods, and that free movement is one of those very few rights tied to citizenship and nationality; for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) acknowledges the right of everyone to “leave any country, including one’s own country, and to return without inhibition.” Integration implicates the norms of human rights as it applies to the protection of the rights of internally displaced persons and refugees.
That said, the central goals of integration seem currently unattainable given the existential conditions of underdevelopment and poverty: Member states are producers of similar agricultural goods, raw materials, for which there is limited demand in the region; border officials demand illicit financial compensation to perform their duties and this impedes, rather than facilitate, the flow of consumer goods available for export to regional markets; poorer Member States argue that benefits from integration will percolate unfairly and unequally largely to advantage the economically stronger states and so they have been reluctant to assume the obligations involving varying levels of liberalization of factor mobility including the elimination of tariff barriers on goods and services of community origin; and most ordinary citizens are not well informed about the range of rights accorded them in the free movement protocols.
Even worse is the record of failures on the part of many unwilling governments in the region to adequately protect the rights of ECOWAS citizens who have been compelled to leave their places of original domicile or habitual abode frequently following civil wars, and religious, ethnic, or racial persecution. In many cases such persons have been denied asylum because of their nationality, and the fundamental rules of non-refoulement including prohibition on rejection of displaced persons at the borders is disregarded. Quite apart from raising genuine concerns for the protection of the rights and welfare of victims of forcible displacement, the entitlements attaching to categories of migrants living lawfully in their host countries remain gravely diminished to the extents that official discriminatory practices and administrative obstacles are delaying or eroding their rights of residence and opportunities of equal access to income generating employment, right of residence and establishment. These realities are at once antipathetic to the rules of non-discrimination spelled out in the 1979 protocol on free movement, supported and amplified in the supplementary protocols subsequently adopted between 1985 and 1990—effectively, thereto, the spirit of regional cohesion that forms the very heart of the ECOWAS initiative is compromised and threatened.
The perverse effects of complicated hurdles in the path of free movement notwithstanding, our researchers retain a great sense of optimism about the future of integration. We reason that although only the first of three phases foreseen by drafters of the protocols—visa-free entry for up to 90 days has been completely implemented by ECOWAS Member States, there are additional achievements that are guaranteed to work as potential integration drivers: the protocols have been firmly implanted as the fundamental law of collective regional development; essential legal instruments of free movement in West Africa are undoubtedly the most advanced on the continent; gradual upturns in the region’s economic performance; and new diplomatic measures of coaxing reluctant members to comply with the requirements of integration are certain to rejuvenate commitment to actualizing the rights of Residence (phase II) and of Establishment (phase III). Implementation of established joint pilot development programs, increasing legal and voluntary migration, and ultimately eliminating the structural causes of forced migration are out-come oriented priorities that must be pursued vigorously by West African Governments. They must also deal with citizenship crisis thrown up by environmentally induced migration and the socio-economic implications of new gender-specific migratory trends.
- Okon, Akiba