Pan-African responses to Europe’s restrictive immigration regime
As Europe pushes governments to restrict mobility, a new generation of thinkers are advancing new ideas of migration based on Pan-African ideals.
Eight years on from the so-called “migrant crisis” that made border controls a priority for European policymakers, the plight of African migrants continues to make the news. The corpse of a Somali woman photographed on the floor of a crowded Libyan migration detention centre; drownings off the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax; Ethiopians shot dead by German-trained Saudi border guards.
While some Western commentators protest the injustice of these grim events, European policymakers largely see the issue through a single dimension. Their only proposed solution is to add further pressure on African states to increase migration controls. Several African governments have acquiesced in exchange for the financial and political rewards of stopping migrants leaving their shores and of accepting Europe’s deportations.
African perspectives on migration, however, go well beyond uncritical acceptance of the European border regime. These alternative views cannot be fully captured in an essay or even our entire new podcast series Curated Conversations: Exploring the Politics of Migration through Ideas. But a glimpse at some of the more imaginative discussions taking place offers a way out of the Eurocentric focus on curbing human movement toward its reframing as an opportunity.
One set of these ideas is inspired by Pan-Africanism. As Achieng Akena explains in episode 2 of the podcast series, the basic premise of this movement for African unity and self-reliance – the notion “I am my sibling’s keeper” – fostered a sense of interdependency and solidarity between African leaders in the early post-colonial era. These ideals have shaped the continent’s responses to large-scale migrations in the past.
In 1960s-1980s, for instance, many African countries sheltered populations displaced by anti-colonial wars. In 1969, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) not only adopted but refined the 1951 Refugee Convention to reflect the continent’s realities. African leaders agreed to extend the scope of the convention, whose limited definition of refugees was based on Europe’s experience of WW2, to incorporate environmental disasters such as famines and foreign occupations.
Today, a new generation of progressive policymakers and civil society thought leaders are once more advancing alternative ideas of migration based on Pan-African ideals. Among these is an ambitious drive to boost trade and promote free movement of people within the continent. At the Kigali Summit of 2018, the African Union (successor to the OAU) passed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and the Free Movement Protocol (FMP), to go alongside plans to create an African passport. This bold trio of visionary measures lays out a distinctly pro-migration future. As Akena and Ibrahima Kane point out, the architects of this vision are building on the achievements of regional blocs like West Africa’s ECOWAS, which has offered visa-free entry to member states’ citizens since the late-1970s.
Obstacles to intra-African migration
In some respects, the current bid to integrate Africa resembles other historic attempts at regional integration such as the European Union. However, the conditions under which African leaders are attempting to unify are markedly different to the those of 1950s Europe.
Africa, for instance, severely lacks the infrastructure needed to facilitate the movement of goods and people within itself. As a result of its colonial exploitation, the continent’s railways, ports, and roads were all built to enable goods to leave Africa, not to facilitate the movement of goods (and people) within it. The continent also faces many external political challenges that the founders of the European Economic Community did not. As Africa integrationists argue for borders to be softened, European countries are pushing for them to be reinforced. A good example is Niger, which has been encouraged by the EU to enforce increasingly restrictive border policies to stop migrants moving northwards.
In the context of Europe’s attempts to deter migration, Africa’s attempts to integrate can be seen as a means of resisting border imperialism. In fact, according to Akena, Europe’s anxiety over migration during the last decade has given impetus to AU processes of integration. “When, in 2017, the news was filled with young Africans drowning in the Mediterranean, the response of African heads of state was to push for the fulfilment of the Abuja treaty by not just creating the AfCFTA but also the adoption of the FMP to allow Africans to move freely within the continent so that we have the self-reliance that would allow us to emerge within the international arena,” she says.
More than following in Europe’s footsteps, then, efforts to develop free movement are akin to Achille Mbembe’s call to counter Europe’s bid to “turn Africa into a huge Bantustan”. For the Cameroonian intellectual, enabling intra-African migration must form part of Africa’s response to the externalisation of Europe’s borders to the continent. “We cannot turn this portion of the Earth into a double prison, where people cannot move outside and they cannot move from within,” he says. “We have to turn Africa into a vast space of circulation for her own people.”
Mbeme’s political vision aligns with the mood of many young people, according to the Open Society’s Ibrahima Kane, who are starting to believe their best hopes for prosperity lie within their own continent. He suggests that growing youth mobility within Africa is a “sign that more and more people want to stay in the continent and want to do better in the continent”. It reflects, to him, a shift in sentiment towards Europeans and a growing feeling that “they are not only exploiting us; they are also walking on our dignity and freedom”.
This is not to suggest that policymakers are united in their vision. There is a clear disconnect, for instance, between enthusiasm for free trade and for free movement of people. 44 countries have ratified the AfCFTA versus a mere four for the Free Movement Protocol. There is a misconception, says IOM senior policy officer Tsion Abebe, that migration will adversely affect local labour markets and could be a security concern.
As in Europe, the overall direction of migration policy is decided by interior ministries. These tend to be far more cautious than progressive thinkers in the AU, civil society, and international migration agencies. Across the continent, those advocating for freer movement have their work cut out. In the East, countries such as Tanzania that once prioritised support for refugees in the cause of African liberation today view them with suspicion. In the West, ECOWAS’ efforts at integration are undermined by national labour markets in which vocational qualifications earned in one country may not be recognised across the border. In the South, xenophobic pogroms are a periodic feature of South African politics. And in the North, governments are increasingly racist towards Black African migrants, both in their discourse and policies.
Inclusive free movement
In this context, experts such as Amanda Bisong suggest that individual states should implement free movement in a phased approach. This could begin by waiving visas for certain categories of people such as businesspersons, investors, labour migrants, and students. Bilateral visa waivers are another means of inching forwards – South Africa’s tourism and business visa waivers for Kenyan nationals are a case in point.
These kinds of pragmatic and progressive approaches to realising free movement are gaining traction in various discussions inspired by the AU’s current focus on accelerating implementation of the AfCFTA. But there are significant differences in emphasis. Some fear that, with this kind of approach, Pan-Africanist ideas of mobility might simply end up advancing the cause of business interests and capitalist classes without fundamentally changing pathways of mobility from below.
For Akena, for instance, inclusivity is integral to Pan-Africanism. In her opening remarks at a convening in Addis Ababa last June, she foregrounded the importance of enabling the mobility of refugees, young people, and women, not least those from low-income groups that cross borders for precarious work in the informal service sector.
A role for Europe?
What of Europe’s role in all this? Could it change course and make a positive contribution to a united Africa?
Here we might again consult Mbembe, who talks of a plethora of ways European actors could support Africa in forging its own equivalent of the EU. “If Europe is really keen to contribute positively to resolving the great issue of our century, which is the question of human mobility, the key is not for Europe to spend money building camps and prisons in Libya and in its own midst,” he says. “Europe should put money into, for instance, the harmonisation of identity registers in the continent, the gradual dismantling of thousands of internal borders in the continent, the rational intensification of movements within the continent, massive investments in upgrading roads, building transcontinental railways and highways, consolidating water and river navigation.” His case is supported by research from West Africa, which illustrates that capacity problems around civil registration and the harmonisation of identity documents are holding ECOWAS back from realising regional integration and free movement.
Various European countries and their institutions are already involved in initiatives to promote mobility between African nations through capacity-building. But the trouble with these efforts is that they are undermined by the larger drive to contain mobility between Africa and Europe. As already noted, the EU’s focus on irregular migration, smuggling and trafficking has sometimes reduced free movement within Africa, increasing border posts and disrupting the kinds of cross-border movement relied upon by informal traders. Moreover, Europe’s emphasis on bilateral diplomacy isolates individual African countries and pressures them to break ranks from the collective of African nations.
Having observed European policymakers in discussions with their African “partners” in policy forums myself, their apparent enthusiasm for intra-African migration sometimes strikes me as somewhat embarrassing for its obvious yet unsayable underlying function: “We support you to move around in your own continent, so long as you keep out of ours”. Quite apart from its flawed understanding of how migration works, this kind of thinking is fundamentally incompatible with the spirit of Pan-Africanism, a movement born of resistance to European racism. (And born – it should be remembered – outside the continent of Africa, in the diaspora).
Herein lies the difference between a Pan-African agenda for free movement and some of the more pallid, technical initiatives led by organs of the EU. Where the latter props up a racial order that seeks to keep Africans in Africa, the former sees intra-African mobility as part of a larger, global struggle for mobility justice that seeks to challenge Europe’s bid to turn Africa into a closed container for its people.
Far from creating an incentive to keep people where they are, prosperity resulting from inclusive intra-African migration should be used as a bargaining tool to improve the conditions for Africans traveling beyond the continent. As Kane explains: “If Africa becomes united, we can put pressure on external actors to facilitate the movement of people outside of Africa. For example, if we were strong enough to tell the EU the way that they treat our people in terms of visas is not what we want, the EU will have to ease restrictions, [as] they did that with [other] regions.”
Put simply: Intra-African migration is not merely an economic project to boost prosperity; nor should it be viewed as a vehicle to reduce the mobility of Africans outside their own continent. At its Pan-African core, says Kane, it is about sovereignty and emancipation from anti-Black racism, in Africa and beyond: “Europe cannot determine where Africans should travel and not travel. Africa is not a Bantustan. It is a continent where people can decide where to go.”
Thanks to Franzisca Zanker for comments on an earlier draft. Errors of fact or opinion are my own. Listen to the podcast series Curated Conversations: Exploring the Politics of Migration through Ideas here.