Work and establishment mobility in sub-Saharan Africa


With the rise of neo Afro nationalism, a question that is seldom raised but key to this continent’s economic development is the status of work and establishment mobility in sub-Saharan Africa – a region with a drastic skills deficit?

The Ghanaian authorities have recently confirmed the continued closure of foreign owned shops and the expulsion of the owners, the majority of whom are Nigerian. This order follows the passing of the controversial Ghana Investment Promotion Act that excludes foreigners from certain small-scale businesses in Ghana in contravention of the ECOWAS treaty.

In what has been the largest deportation of people from the country since the mass expulsion of Ghanaians in the 1980s; the Nigerian government meanwhile has quietly been deporting tens of thousands of citizens from Cameroon, Niger and Chad for what it argues are security concerns in support of its fight against Boko Haram.

Citing concerns over security and crime, the Kenyan authorities have arrested scores of migrants mainly from the West and Horn of Africa. However, affected foreigners have complained that the Kenyan police are merely using security concerns as a pretext for beatings and deportation which have increased in light of the Westgate shopping mall attack in 2013.

South Africa meanwhile has introduced new immigration measures for Zimbabweans, which could potentially mean many may be forced to leave either at the end of the year or upon the expiry of the new dispensation irrespective of how long they have been in the country.

Although the Southern African Development Community has been handicapped by a lack of interest from its member states, mainly South Africa, other regional blocks have gone some way to attempting to implementing free movement of persons.

Citizens of ECOWAS enjoy visa free travel within the region for up to 3 months, after which a permit is required. The East African Community has gone further and introduced the EAC passport, which proffers similar rights for up to 6 months. Citizens of certain countries in the EAC can even move without a passport and are treated as domestic students when studying in another member state country.

Download the full Employment and Mobility in Africa article or continue reading.

On one level, European imposed straight borders have not prevented traders in Africa (whether in human cargo or cattle) informally crossing borders. This perhaps explains the rapid spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa from its index case in Guinea. However, such informal activity renders such traders susceptible to the formal enforcement of local immigration laws. Consequently, whereas Europeans can generally move to any one of 28 countries in search of new opportunities or an American to 50 economically viable states, an African faces considerable barriers if seeking work elsewhere in Africa.

Many African governments point to security and internal socio economic concerns as justification for continued restrictions. For example unfettered free movement is likely to be a significant security concern in a region dealing with Islamic militancy such as Mali and Nigeria. Similarly in South Africa with a youth unemployment rate of 36%, free movement of persons from other African countries could quite easily exacerbate an already volatile socio economic situation.

Despite relative strong growth in GDP in Africa, economic growth is not keeping pace with rises in population and is resulting in market imbalances and high prices. Much of the outrage in Ghana recently has been due to the relative high price of property; blamed in part by limited housing in a country where the GDP per capita is only US$1,850 the average house price in Accra is US$86,957.

A further factor is the discrepancies in GDP per capita and population within regional blocks. Nigeria’s economy and population is the largest in Africa and dwarfs those of its neighbours in the region as does South Africa’s economy in Southern Africa. This disparity in regional engenders fear and at worse xenophobia within states.

It is clearly sensible for governments to control migration within its borders. Nevertheless, greater mobility within the continent is key to its economic development. As Western countries make it increasingly more difficult to penetrate their borders even legally, sub-Saharan Africans would undoubtedly prefer to look closer to home for new opportunities, than risk death crossing the Mediterranean.

Many countries in Africa have an acute technical skills shortage and increased regional mobility may address the shortages. For example, a math’s graduate in South Africa is likely to elect a more profitable banking career than teaching. Whereas, a teacher in Ghana or Nigeria may prefer to spend time teaching in another country such as South Africa. In addition, no-one can argue that competition does not drive down costs and greater efficiency that foreign traders can therefore be a useful inflationary control mechanisms.

Countries should look at forming smaller unions within larger blocks based on size, stability and ethnicity. This to some extent has been a hall mark of the ECA.

A further option would be the introduction of limited right of establishment reciprocity agreements between select countries. These could be negotiated on a bilateral basis and would permit citizens the right to establish themselves in another country for a prescribed period. For example a country with a weak-banking sector can permit bankers from a country with a strong banking system to search and find work for several years visa free. In return the country with a weak banking sector may have the right for a certain number of its nationals to establish a trading business in the other country. The tax base could be increased by tracking money flows and migrants to ensure adherence to local tax laws. In addition, individuals admitted under this policy should attract greater attention from the authorities to ensure compliance with immigration and employment legislation.

Ebola struck Sierra Leone has 3 physicians for every 100,000 people and even South Africa has a shortage of doctors particularly in the rural areas. A bold policy of encouraging doctors from other African countries to practice within needed areas of other countries for a limited period only; will help to fill gaps in a health system, provide opportunities and experience for young foreign doctors and at the same time deflect accusations of permanently depriving African health systems of their medical professionals.

An example of such a multilateral limited right of movement agreement is the right for professional works to work for up to 3 years within the United States, Canada and Mexico as part of NAFTA and the attempts by Rwanda to strengthen its lack of technical skills.

If governments in sub-Saharan Africa want to encourage the growth of business in the region they should not view the free movement of goods and the qualified free movement of persons as mutually exclusive but complimentary. Business is after all at its fundamental level about people and the need for such people to create wealth whether pecuniary or social.

Boye Gbadebo