ECOWAS, EAC, and the comparative efficacies of free movement protocols across the African continent

By Moses Onyango and Jean-Marc Trouille

Source: Wikimedia

Africa, traditionally the poorest continent, has been undergoing profound changes, illustrated by higher growth rates for over a decade. This has brought a sense among African policymakers that trade facilitation measures and tighter cooperation around joint regional markets are crucial to make this burgeoning prosperity sustainable. Whilst a vast free trade zone potentially at the scale of the entire continent, organised around the recently agreed Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA)[i], will take some time to materialize, can results be achieved more rapidly at regional level?

There are currently eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in Africa whose aim it is to promote intra-regional trade and investment. And yet, intra-African trade only amounts to 11.7%[ii] of overall African trade with the world, compared with 70% for intra-EU and 55% for intra-Asian trades respectively. This paper takes stock of the respective protocols on free movement of goods, services, capital and people of two of these preferential trade regimes: the long-established Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the more recent East African Community (EAC).

Both areas face comparable challenges and opportunities. Both have drawn ambitious free movement protocols that potentially offer excellent opportunities for their citizens and businesses. However it appears that, at the implementation stage, a lot remains to be done. Both the ECOWAS and EAC protocols offer a wealth of proposals that seem to lack a clear evaluation process and a proper implementation strategy. In both cases, new ideas are generated too promptly, initiatives are launched without waiting for previous ones to have been properly implemented and tested. This emerging rather than prescriptive strategy often leads to confusion and generates unnecessarily additional hurdles in an already rather complex process.

ECOWAS: Ambitious projects but difficult implementation

ECOWAS, the oldest of today’s eight African RECs, was launched in May 1975 in Lagos, Nigeria. The Treaty Preamble and Article 27 outlined the key objective of removing obstacles to the ‘Four Freedoms’[iii] among its members. The first phase of the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment, of May 1979, guaranteeing the free entry of citizens of the member states without visa for 90 days, was ratified by member states in 1980 and became effective with immediate effect.  Visa and entry permit requirements within ECOWAS were abolished in the implementation of this first phase.

As a result, citizens of member states possessing travel documents and a health certificate were, in principle, able to travel freely within ECOWAS. However, any member state could still refuse entry into its territory to persons it deemed inadmissible under its national laws. In 1983 and in mid 1985, Nigeria used this clause to revoke articles 4 and 27 to expel immigrants mainly of Ghanaian origin from its territory.[iv] At that time, Nigeria was overwhelmed by a large number of immigrants from Ghana, and was also undergoing an economic crisis due to the implementation of structural adjustment programmes.

ECOWAS subsequently revised its treaty to reaffirm in 1992 the right of citizens of its participating states to entry, residence and settlement. Later, in January 2008, ECOWAS redefined its common approach to migration, which is linked to the principle of free movement within the region. In its effort to strengthen free movement, ECOWAS developed ‘Vision 2020’ which shifts emphasis from an ECOWAS of states to become by 2020 an ECOWAS of people living within a single borderless economic space.

The ECOWAS Vision project envisages the introduction of a Schengen-type visa, the abolition of permit requirements, the removal of road blocks and security checks, the exchange of information by security operatives at the border, and an introduction of a single ECOWAS passport. There is however, still lack of general information on these initiatives at the national level as various member states have either enacted or retained a series of national laws that still restrict free movement of persons, capital and services. Furthermore, implementing free circulation in West Africa has frequently been thwarted by random shocks such as local military conflicts, political repression, not to forget the Ebola outbreak and its tragic consequences.

A similar situation within EAC

With a level of intra-regional trade at 12% of overall trade, EAC is at first glance more integrated than ECOWAS, whose internal trade between members only reaches 9.4%. [v] However, this difference is due to the impact in ECOWAS of the Nigerian oil sales outside the zone.

Although EAC is, in comparison to ECOWAS, considerably smaller in terms of economic size[vi], population[vii], and infrastructure development, it displays a number of similarities. For instance, the two sub-regions seem equally quick to formulate and launch new protocols without awaiting successful implementation of previous ones. Furthermore, both sub-regions are facing huge discrepancies in the levels of development among their member states, and poor infrastructure development. Whereas Nigeria, Ghana and also Ivory Coast act as immigration magnets among the fifteen ECOWAS member states, this imbalance between rich and poor is less pronounced within the five EAC member states, where citizens of troubled Burundi, and previously from Rwanda, have taken refuge in neighbouring countries. Kenya has also had to cater for an influx of refugees from neighbouring Somalia.

Despite being a more recent experiment than ECOWAS, EAC members have been keen to speed up the process of increasing regional economic cooperation through ambitious proposals, regardless of substantial challenges in developing the region’s infrastructures. In November 2009, thirty years after ECOWAS took this step, the EAC partner countries established a Common Market which became official on 1 July 2010. Arguably, this was not a first attempt to set up a joint enlarged market in East Africa, since an initial experiment, initiated as early as 1967 by three of the EAC founding states[viii], collapsed ten years later. But it was the first successful one, even though numerous hurdles remained for it to be effective.

The 2009 Common Market Protocol comprises key provisions including free movement of persons, workers, goods, services and capital, the right of establishment and of residence, a schedule of commitments on the progressive liberalisation of services, and on reducing restrictions to the free movement of capital. But this document, as ambitious as the ECOWAS Protocol on free movement, faces similar challenges that slow down its implementation. Indeed, the 2014 scorecard released by the World Bank at the request of the EAC Secretariat identified no less than 63 non-conforming measures in the trade of services and 51 non-tariff barriers affecting trade in goods. The assessment further found out that only 2 of the 20 operations covered by the Common Market Protocol were free of restrictions.[ix]

West and East Africa have both formulated ambitious protocols which constitute in each case a reliable framework for establishing an integrated economic region. The problem lies not so much in the ambitions displayed, but rather in a lack of political will to implement them, as reflected for instance by national clauses. Member states within both RECs still retain national laws that impede successful implementation of their own, mutually agreed protocols. Considerable efforts will continue to be needed in the implementation phase which, in any project, tends to be the most demanding one. The two RECs still face considerable challenges in terms of infrastructure development, economic inequalities among member states, alongside local political conflicts and health and security issues, and more generally a persisting lack of information on the advantages of regional economic integration. All these factors combined continue to hinder the successful implementation of free movement.

The example of the more advanced Single European Market illustrates that achieving free circulation within a sub-region takes time and effort. Recent developments in the Schengen area are a reminder that such achievements can easily be questioned.[x] In comparison, ECOWAS and EAC are still in the early stages of the process. Both sub-regions are distinct from each other in many respects. But in their endeavour to create a subnational framework favourable to local economic expansion, they face similar challenges. As is often the case in matters of regional economic integration, the gap between good intentions and proper action is substantial. Implementing measures to integrate neighbouring economies within a regional sub-set requires changing scale by sharing national prerogatives, which itself requires strong political will and leadership. This is a learning process which may take more time than the current speed of development in both East and West Africa would require in order for it to match the needs of their populations in the near future. A pan-African initiative on the model of the newly launched TFTA to coordinate trade policies between all eight African RECs could be the way forward towards economic integration on a continental scale.


Moses Onyango is a Fellow of the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London, and Director of the Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

Jean-Marc Trouille is Jean Monnet Professor of European Economic Integration and European Business Management at the University of Bradford School of Management, UK.




[i] The Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) was officially launched on 10 June 2015 in Cairo. It brings together three of Africa’s major economic communities.

[ii] Africa Report 2013, UNCTAD.

[iii] Free circulation of goods, services, capital and labour.

[iv] Adepoju, A. 2009. Migration management in West Africa within the context of ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and the Common Approach on Migration: Challenges and Prospects. In M. Tremolieres (ed.) Regional Challenges of West African Migration: African and European Perspectives. Paris: EOCD

[v] Africa Report 2013, UNCTAD.

[vi] The EAC’s combined GDP is two and a half times lower than ECOWAS. EAC counts five participating states and ECOWAS fifteen.

[vii] 156 million compared to 336 million in ECOWAS.

[viii] Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

[ix] Accessed on 10/10/15

[x] Accessed on 10/10/15

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