Monday, June 29, 2009

East Africa: Make Comesa Borderless Region

Chikwe Brenda Mofya, The Herald [Published by the government of Zimbabwe], 29 June 2009

DESPITE assurance by the Comesa secretariat that the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, Labour, Services, Right of Establishment and Right of Residence adopted at the 6th Summit in Egypt (2001) would be opened for signing and ratification at the recent 13th Summit in Zimbabwe, there was little evidence of it on the agenda.

While Comesa's launching of the Customs Union at the summit is highly commendable, the failure to place relevant emphasis on the protocol that facilitates the movement of natural persons is indeed a missed opportunity in ensuring meaningful integration of the region.

Emphasis on people-less trade, is a false start in what the architects of regional integration conceived for the benefit of ordinary citizens.

Free movement of persons refers to the removal of barriers such as visa requirements, which operate to restrict the movement of human beings across national borders.

In comparison to other regional economic communities such as the Economic Community for West African States, Comesa has done very little in facilitating the freedom of movement of its citizens.

The Custom's Union -- as it stands -- embodies a limited ambition. To make it work, member states have within their grasp the ability to create a framework in which both goods and factors of production -- human beings -- can flow freely.

It is not enough that pronouncements are made; the said commitment should include prioritising the implementation of agreed protocols and formulating programmes that encourage people's interactions.

While it is possible for an American student to have an exchange programme at the University of Kampala and transfer credits to her university back home; it is impossible for a University of Zimbabwe student to enjoy a similar privilege.

Often when issues such as the free movement of persons are spoken about in policy spaces, they are discussed in a very abstract manner.

I had a rare opportunity to experience this incident.

It was African Integration Week (22 to 29th May 2009) and there was much talk about the pending launch of the Comesa Customs Union when a Harare-bound bus from Lusaka was intercepted by Zambian custom officials in Kafue -- seemingly many miles away from the established border of Chirundu. Regular travellers are aware that passports have to be produced for verification and everything went well, except for three Kenyans who were requested to not only produce passports and identity cards, but also disembark from the bus because they were believed to be Somalis.

The trio remained behind for interrogations.

They disembarked amidst protests from other passengers.

At the border post in Chirundu, the bus spent another four hours for passengers to go through migration and customs procedures. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority had assigned one female officer to check all 75 passengers' luggage to ensure that imported goods were declared and relevant tariffs paid.

While on the bus, I talked to a Zimbabwean lady who had lived many years in Tanzania during the country's liberation struggle.

The old lady later moved to Lusaka's Mandevu Township and she recently moved back to Zimbabwe.

However, she still goes to Lusaka every month to collect rentals from the Mandevu house, providing their only income.

Gogo -- as I called her -- spoke fluent Kiswahili, like she did Nyanja and Bemba.

By any account, she is a citizen of the region; just like the other people on the bus including the three Kenyans who had to remain behind in Kafue, but travelling within Comesa can be a nightmare.

It is only when we bring the issues of migration to life that one realises that policy is lagging behind ordinary experience. Migration within Africa -- be it voluntary and temporal, with all its challenges has been an inherent habit of people.

Over the generations, people have migrated in response to demographic, economic, political and curiosities of globalisation. The feminisation of poverty has also continuously dragged more women migrants to the wage labour market (both formal and informal), as a survival strategy to augment meagre family incomes across Southern, Eastern, Central and other parts of Africa.

Women cross-border traders are a recognised group contributing to national Gross Domestic Product.

Let us begin to debate and imagine a borderless region within Comesa where not only goods but people can move without barriers.

Despite various assertions on Comesa's commitment to facilitate the movement of persons, it organises less dialogue and conferences on migration and as such the framework in this regard is blurred.

The progress in removing the barrier to travel has largely been limited to individual and bilateral initiatives, which are permitted under Article 164 of the Comesa Treaty.

This article defines the scope of co-operation and provides that Member States agree to adopt individually, at bilateral or regional levels the necessary measures in order to achieve progressively free movement of persons, labour and services.

It also seeks to ensure the enjoyment of the right of establishment and residence by their citizens within a common market.

In this regard, member states further commit to conclude a protocol on the free movement of persons, labour, services, right of establishment and right of residence.

And while this is being concluded, the protocol on the gradual relaxation and eventual elimination of visa requirements within the region remains in force.

Strangely, while the protocol was adopted in 2001, it has taken nine years before it could come up for signing and adoption.

In its Strategic Plan 2007-2010, Comesa makes it clear that the free movement of people is a "long-term" objective of the Common Market.

In regard to achieving the goal on free movement of persons, the strategic plan only commits to enhance programmes on movement of people.

As of 2009, Comesa has a total membership of 19 countries.

While as bilateral arrangements make it possible for nationals of select countries to move freer within the borders of the grouping, travelling to some countries in Comesa still requires that one obtains a visa before embarking on the journey.

Practically, no mechanism exists for the settlement of complaints for the harassment and abuse of human rights at border posts. Similarly, there is no awareness whatsoever on institutions and procedures for individuals to claim damages to life and property, let alone extortion of money by officials at the frontiers such as customs, immigration and police.

Certainly, Comesa has much to take leaf from other regional economic communities in Africa.

Many lessons could be drawn from Ecowas, whose efforts at creating sub-regional homogeneous societies through progressive efforts of removing obstacles to the free movement of people are commendable.

The Ecowas Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and the Right of Residence and Establishment of May 1979 made it possible for a gradual removal of barriers that has since led to the abolishment of visas and entry permit for community citizens within the region.

Community citizens in possession of valid travel documents and international health certificates can enter member states without visas for up to ninety days.

The region is now debating the modalities of implementing phase two of the protocol, which provides for the Right of Residence.

An Ecowas passport was introduced in December 2000 and has been proposed as replacement for national passports.

We need to move beyond rhetoric to integrating our people. Negative effects of migration will always be there.

The onus remains on Comesa member states to collectively engage in minimising the negative effects of migration and harness its positive results.

In the words of incoming Comesa Chairperson, President President Mugabe: "Our people are our most important asset in the region. They carry with them many attributes, ideas, skills, interests and experience and when they interact and work together, their combined output is higher than the sum of their separate individual outputs . . .

"I can assure you that when we facilitate our people to move freely within our region, we would not suffer from brain drain but would instead benefit greatly from enhanced capacities."

With these words from President Mugabe, it can only be hoped that Zimbabwe takes advantage of its Comesa leadership to, as the first step, not only make sure that the protocol on free movement of persons is ratified, but also implemented by all member states.

Beyond the protocol and this formal framework the true degree of integration depends on the identity that is promoted among the youth and young.

Perhaps it is about time we genuinely engage in defining Comesa citizenship.

Chikwe Brenda Mofya is the executive director of the Harare-based Institute for African Integration and she can be contacted on The iAi is a non-profit, independent policy think-tank established in October 2008 that focuses on Africa's economic, social and political integration and that of the continent in an international setting.