Regional Economic Communities: A closer look at visa openness

The African Union recognizes eight regional economic communities (RECs) in Africa. These communities pursue regional integration as a means of expanding markets and cross-border trade, freeing the movement of people, and better cooperating on infrastructure development, customs and border management, responses to natural disasters and health emergencies, political matters, and more. By mitigating risks and fostering sociocultural cohesion, regional integration makes regions more stable, more peaceful, and more secure.

"If you look at some of the regions that have some of the highest inter-regional trade, these are the regions that have inter-regional mobility.”

Maureen Achieng, Chief of Mission and International Organization for Migration Representative to the AU, UNECA and the IGAD in Ethiopia

A striking discovery about Africa’s regional economic communities this year is how most rebounded from the pandemic, often fully reversing recent restrictions that impacted their visa openness. However, recent changes in scores cannot always be attributed solely to the pandemic.

  • The EAC, for example, had one of the highest aggregate visa openness scores in 2017, but its score declined sharply over 2019–2021 principally because of changes in the member state configuration, and recent changes to individual members’ scores largely cancelling each other out (RECs’ averages are often significantly impacted by a change in visa policy by just one or two countries, or by a new country joining the REC).
  • IGAD’s score also declined sharply between 2019 and 2021, but rose significantly in 2022 after IGAD member states made progress on adopting regional migration policies (IGAD members are presently finalizing protocols on the free movement of persons).
  • COMESA recovered and has in fact surpassed its pre-pandemic level.
  • Visa openness in the SADC appeared largely unaffected by the pandemic and has retained its slight upward trajectory since 2018.
  • CEN-SAD also improved its visa openness score to slightly above pre-pandemic levels. This progress appears to be driven in part by its members’ overlap with ECOWAS and the latter’s significant progress in liberalizing the cross-border movement of persons.
  • ECOWAS is the REC with the highest average visa openness score on the continent, continuing its upward trajectory. It is also the REC with by far the highest level of intra-regional visa openness, with 97% of travel by the nationals of ECOWAS member states taking place visa-free on a reciprocal basis. This far exceeds any other REC’s level of visa-free travel for the nationals of that community. ECOWAS made early progress in this regard: it adopted its Protocol Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment in 1979.
  • AMU currently ranks second-lowest, slightly ahead of ECCAS. AMU’s visa openness score has remained largely unchanged in recent years.
  • Although ECCAS ranks lowest among the RECs, it has been on a gradual upward trajectory since 2018.

On average, visa openness in Africa’s RECs rose significantly between 2021 and 2022, with six of eight RECs improving their average score.

This reflects the findings of the 2022 AVOI:

  • Ten countries improved their score between 2021 and 2022
  • 40 maintained their score, and only four countries saw their score decline.

Furthermore, in several countries, the pandemic catalyzed long- awaited progress on the freedom of movement: some countries streamlined the visa process, for example, while others moved towards the e-visa.

In summary, the average score of all regions combined is lower in 2022 than in pre-pandemic 2019 or in 2020, the year that COVID-19 reached Africa. But five of the eight regions still scored higher in 2022 than in 2019. Given the headwinds caused by the pandemic, this is a notable achievement.

"Free movement of persons is a key pillar of regional trade and economic integration, as it facilitates trade in goods and services and industrialisation, thereby contributing to socio-economic development and poverty reduction. Traders and service providers can deliver products on site and customers can visit suppliers abroad."

Assessing regional integration in Africa V, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (2012)

Visa openness in Africa’s regional economic communities: How does each community fare?

Visa openness is an important component of regional economic communities’ goals for regional integration. Many of the objectives and benefits of regional integration can only come to fruition when people can move across borders smoothly and inexpensively. The movement of persons links closely not only to social integration but is essential for the provision of cross-border services and for the regional trade in goods, all of which are important components of regional economic integration and for raising the income of Africa’s citizens.

The subpages of this page discuss the AVOI scores of the regional economic communities, calculated on the basis of member states’ individual scores, and analyze visa openness region by region. The findings reveal the extent to which each regional community, seen comparatively, encourages the free movement of people. The results are contextualized in light of countries’ individual rankings on the all-Africa index.

An interesting aspect of visa openness within regional economic communities is regional reciprocity. Reciprocity is a measure of the visa regimes in place between the member states of a given regional economic community. It refers to the visa openness of every member state in relation to every other member state within the same community.

Some regional economic communities reciprocate more visa-openness than others: that is, they extend more favourable terms of travel to each other than to non-member countries—for example allowing each other’s citizens to travel to their territory visa-free, or allowing them to obtain a visa on arrival instead of requiring them to secure a visa before departure. In other regional economic communities, however, there are no or fewer regional reciprocal measures in place. This sometimes causes member states to rank much higher on the AVOI (the continental scale) than their regional reciprocity scores would suggest. This may indicate that countries are more welcoming to citizens of countries outside their regional bloc than to countries within it.