Civil movement

Free movement in West Africa still important despite challenges

Over the past 40 years, West African countries have tried to live up to their commitment to allow people to move more freely between them. This was spearheaded by the regional body – The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Launched in 1975, it has 15 Member States and its founding treaty provides for the long-term establishment of an area of ​​free movement of goods, capital and people.

ECOWAS is widely regarded as the most integrated of the continent’s eight regional economic communities.
But it has failed when it comes to allowing the free movement of people because its free movement protocols have never been fully implemented.

At the same time, the initial objective of improving mobility seems to be transformed into an objective of controlling mobility. We also found that, paradoxically, people continued to move relatively freely in the region.

Obstacles discovered

In a recent article, the mobility of people, goods and services in the region was examined. Drawing on field data as well as a process of discovering what free movement means in conversations with a group of West African scholars and activists, a better way to understand free movement in the region has been defined.
This showed how formal free movement is undermined by several regional and national obstacles. These include the weakness of ECOWAS institutions, divergent national interests between individual member states, and infrastructural challenges such as access to identity cards as well as the external influence of the European Union.

These implementation issues, however, operate in convergence with a practice of daily mobility across borders. Understanding the complexities of movement is key to better understanding and supporting mobility that reflects regional realities.


A protocol agreed in 1979 defines the free movement of persons, residence and establishment and further specifies how the free movement area is to be implemented.

The protocol recommended three phases: entry without a visa for 90 days, followed by stay and finally the right of establishment.
Yet the region continues to face barriers to free movement.

Specifically, the following barriers have been identified.
Firstly, Member States are struggling to implement the protocols, in particular long-term residence and the possibility of setting up a business.

Second, people trying to cross the border are harassed.
Third, the lack of identification documents makes crossing borders more complex.
This is linked to capacity issues, including the under-registration of newborn babies, essentially preventing them from (formally) traveling across ECOWAS borders in the future.

Different Member States use different types of identification documents. Biometric ID cards are only available in Ghana and Senegal. In Ghana, it can only be used to cross land borders rather than for air travel.

A fourth major challenge is restrictive immigration policies. This often happens in times of economic hardship. This has happened a lot over the last century.
Specific examples include 1954 and 1969 when non-Ghanaians were deported and in 1958 when the Ivory Coast took similar action.

Expulsions between ECOWAS member states also take place. This year alone, the deportations of around 200 Nigeriens from Senegal and Ghana have made headlines.

The most recent deportees have been referred to as “beggars” in the press. They were deported for a supposedly irregular status while invoking protocols reserving the right to define “inadmissible migrants”.
And it is still the case that some ECOWAS citizens are restricted to certain economic activities while xenophobia is still a problem in the region, especially in the southern part of Africa.

European interests
External interests also play an important role in negotiating free movement in the region.

As migration is a priority of the European Union’s engagement in West Africa, it plays an increasingly important role in the development of the governance of regional mobility.

This is evident in the prioritization of irregular migration to Europe in the ECOWAS “common approach to migration” of 2008.

A major element of EU engagement includes capacity building projects, such as the anti-smuggling programme. But initiatives like this can run counter to the free movement goals safeguarded by ECOWAS.

Other EU-funded initiatives have led to the increase of border crossings across national territory, similarly affecting people’s ability to move freely.

It also underlines the EU’s preference for bilateral cooperation (rather than at the ECOWAS level) which can weaken the institution.

Future of free movement?
The political significance of free movement depends on national member states, as ECOWAS has little leeway to sanction countries that violate its protocols.

This indicates two routes ahead. First, strengthen the legal safeguards of the regional body so that it can hold states accountable. Second, it must recognize the importance of informal mobility.

With regard to legal safeguards, the first step to be taken is that Member States must create relevant legal frameworks to domesticate regional rules. This obligation is set out in the revised ECOWAS treaty.

There are currently no penalties for Member States that do not do so; although on paper, sanctions or rulings may be administered by the ECOWAS Court of Justice, the community’s central judicial body. Its decisions are binding on the Member States.
The court issued several decisions concerning the violation of the right to free movement. But the implementation of the judgments has been thwarted by national governments.

This could change in the future if, for example, civil society actors at regional level push for national implementation of judgments through the regional civil society framework.

On the issue of informal mobility, ECOWAS must recognize that despite colonial efforts to carve up national borders, regional mobility continues to constitute the bulk of migratory movements in the region.

Free movement therefore requires a pragmatic and contextualized implementation of protocols allowing daily mobility.

Such pragmatism was already evident during the temporary closure of borders during the Covid-19 pandemic, but humanitarian corridors have been created between certain countries.

Concretely, one track would be to explore the expansion of border crossings without legal documentation. Or implement what is theoretically in place, especially for the border communities that depend on it and do it every day anyway.
Regardless, given the multi-tiered constraints facing the ECOWAS free movement zone, mobility should remain vital. The region would continue to face barriers to free movement.