Spotlight on COMESA

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) comprises 21 member states that together cover almost two-thirds of the African continent. Founded in 1994, COMESA has its roots in a preferential trade area established in 1981. Although cooperation on peace and security is one of COMESA’s objectives, member states’ overriding focus is economic and trade integration among COMESA members. 

Two legal instruments are designed to enhance the free movement of people in COMESA. Neither has been fully implemented. The first instrument is the Protocol on the Gradual Relaxation and Eventual Elimination of Visa Requirements. COMESA adopted it in 1984, inter alia to give the citizens of member states visa-free access to each other’s territory for 90 days and/or a visa on arrival. Only certain member states are implementing some portion of this protocol. The protocol recognizes member states’ right to implement bilateral arrangements that are more favourable to free movement than the protocol. 

Adopted in 2001, the second instrument is the COMESA Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, Labour, Services, the Right of Establishment and Residence. This protocol removes restrictions on the movement of persons, workers, and services and gives people the right to establish residence in COMESA member states. This protocol was designed to be implemented in stages, but as with the protocol adopted in 1984, COMESA members have not ratified it widely. 

On visa openness, COMESA scores behind ECOWAS, SADC, and IGAD on the 2023 AVOI. COMESA scores second-lowest on visa-free reciprocity, an indication that there is currently less harmonization of visa-free travel within the region.

Recently, new energy and commitment to COMESA’s protocols on free movement have emerged. The Report on the State of Integration, prepared for COMESA’s 22nd Summit of Heads of State in June 2023, noted that “restrictions on movement of persons across the region hinders intra-regional trade in goods and services.” In the report, COMESA promises to remedy hindrances to human mobility and escalate efforts to free the movement of persons, labour, and services. 

In August 2023, COMESA ministers responsible for immigration and labour met and agreed on a revised strategy for implementing the region’s protocols and building capacity in this regard. This encouraging development was preceded by several other initiatives over the previous year, such as the establishment of task forces on implementing COMESA’s protocols on visa openness and free movement. These developments, amplified by countries’ initiatives to ease access to their territory, suggest that COMESA’s score on the AVOI may improve in future.