Why 2018 was a watershed year for Africa economic integration

By Gitura Mwaura

Reaching for greater heights…economic integration holds great potential for Africa’s development.

Among the major acknowledgements this year was that “contrary to some perceptions, most migration in Africa today is taking place within the continent.”

With the spectre of thousands of African youth drowning in the Mediterranean and the populist anti-migrant backlash in the West that also kept the often tragic movement in the news, it appeared most of African migration was outbound.

We now know this is not the case. The clarification was contained in the “Economic Development in Africa Report 2018: Migration for Structural Transformation” by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The report makes two significant points. First, it confirms that the broad patterns of extra-continental migration out of Africa are not all bad; they have often resulted in positive contribution of migrants to the structural transformation of origin countries.

Notably also, along with acknowledgement that most migration is within the continent, it reinforces the case for intra-African migration as an essential ingredient for deeper regional and continental integration.

With this, the claim may therefore be made that 2018 was a watershed year towards continental integration, most notably with the recent agreements on the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons and the launch of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM).

We are, however, not quite there yet. To make the point, the report traces the fortunes — or, rather, misfortunes — of one Mamadou, who many in Africa may recognise as somebody they know from their village.

If his tribulations weren’t so real, revealing a situation in the 21st century that should long have been history, Mamadou’s case might merely be hypothetical — perhaps as a cautionary tale.

Instead, his story is one of continental dysfunction, presenting a case of how Africa must structurally redeem itself to prosperity.

Mamadou is a 35-year-old welder, husband and father of four children living in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Both he and his wife are migrants from Senegal.

Mamadou is the personification unemployment. He is out looking for work where pastures appear greener across the borders to fend for his family.

This, however, does not turn out to be so. His situation remains desperate, leading him to consider migration from Ouagadougou as the only realistic livelihood option left available to him.

He makes his way to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, but, finding no way to eke a living from his trade, has since moved on from West to Southern Africa.

Finding no respite there either, he “now must consider his moves all over again to find his way to Europe through Libya with the hope of a better life.”

Mamadou’s story is familiar but instructive that in his wonderings looking for work, he encounters regional level constraints that include facilitators of migration such as, visa requirements, access to financial resources, information on the migration recruitment industry and limited infrastructure.

As the UNCTAD report explains, Mamadou discovers that as a foreigner, and not being a high-skilled, affluent candidate for a business visa, there is little chance of gaining employment even in the trade he is qualified for.

Unfortunately, the report continues, despite ongoing efforts at the African Union level to pursue mutual recognition of academic qualifications and skills — and right of establishment rules for African migrants across the continent — progress has been patchy and slow.

Mamadou is in precisely the same situation he was back in Ouagadougou and is considerably poorer for the experience.

The point of his story, however, is also that something is being done about it as the AfCFTA, SAATM and the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons attest.

One might argue, therefore, it is only a matter of time before he finds his economic salvation on the continent, if he doesn’t “undertake the riskiest journey of all, across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea.”

Yet, as far this goes, 2018 was also the year world leaders recently gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, and seized the opportunity to realize the first-ever Global Compact for safe, orderly and regular migration.

The compact was formally endorsed by the UN General Assembly on 19 December.

It represents the first ever global framework aimed at fostering greater international cooperation to better address the complex situation facing the world’s 258 million migrants — 3.4 per cent of its population.

It acknowledges that migration affects countries, communities, migrants and their families in different and sometimes unpredictable ways.

While the Compact is not legally binding, it takes into consideration that migration experiences and challenges vary across the world and presents a flexible instrument that can meet the needs of every country and stimulate joint cooperation at all levels.

Agreements such as AfCFTA are part of the joint cooperation, of which it remains to ensure the continental free trade area agreement comes into force in the New Year.

Of the 22 ratifications required, only 7 remain to enable the AfCFTA come into force. So far the agreement has been signed by 49 countries since launch in March in Kigali.

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