A new proposal by heads of the various national units within the sub-region, including civil society and Immigration officials, could see the restructuring of key provisions of the regional Protocol on free movement of nationals of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Rising from their two-day 2nd meeting which ended at the ECOWAS Commission’s Abuja headquarters, Friday, the members proposed the abolishing of both the 90-day limit for community citizens visiting other Member States as well as the provision imposing residency card requirements on nationals of member states.
Under the 1979 regional flagship Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment, ECOWAS citizens are required to stay a maximum of 90 days on a visit to another Member State and obtain residence permit for stays beyond this period, a restriction that also applied to their personal cars.
The officials also recommended that the existing regional Travel Certificate be replaced in 2015 by an ECOWAS biometric National Identity Card.
The free movement Protocol has made the Community the only visa-free region in Africa. However, impediments to its implementation include alleged discrimination, extortions and harassment of citizens, which constitute serious barriers to free movement.
The Abuja meeting, which reviewed the status of implementation of the protocol, identified the grey areas and recommended amendments and revision.
Participants argued that the abolition of the 90-day limit is consistent with the decision of the Mini-Summit of Heads of State and Government held in Abuja in March 2000 and the 7th Forum of Ministers in charge of Security held in November 2009.
They also recommended that the clause “in accordance with national legislation” should be expunged from the Protocol,” and called for the establishment of “a Working Group to develop modalities for a secure and effective identification mechanism for community citizens residing within Member States as well as in border communities.”
In recommending that the Travel Certificate be replaced by the regional biometric national ID card, the meeting called on Member States to harmonize their divergent immigration laws and policies to ensure the successful deployment of the National ID cards.
Also, Member States yet to deploy the ECOWAS Passport were urged to expedite actions in this regard and “identify possible areas of intervention by the ECOWAS Commission.”
On the Right of Establishment, the meeting urged Member States to ensure equal treatment of their nationals and citizens of other Member States in the creation and management of enterprises or private companies.
Member States should also harmonize their investment codes with the provisions of the Supplementary Protocol which forbids any form of discrimination. Regarding ECOWAS Citizenship, the meeting recommended the harmonization of national laws concerning citizenship and naturalization.
“Citizens of ECOWAS with dual nationality can, without exception, enjoy Community citizenship,” the meeting said, adding that “Dual nationality should no longer be considered to be a limiting factor.”
The meeting recommended the establishment of Information and Observation Centres to “ensure that citizens are aware of their rights, ensure compliance with the protocol and thereby reduce cases of harassment.” This will serve as a monitoring mechanism for the effective implementation of the protocol.
It further recommended the establishment of a Committee of Eminent Persons in this regard, and charged the ECOWAS Commission to provide the Terms of Reference for the Committee.
On asylum seekers and refugees, the meeting recommended the development of a document of “refugee” within the Community, which shall define the concept and serve as guideline for treatment of Community citizens who fall under this category.
Pending the development of a Supplementary Act on refugees, the meeting recommended that provision should be made for reintegration of migrants of ECOWAS extraction who fall under the “refugee” category, and provide them with relevant documents and safeguard them against discrimination. The recommendations are to be forwarded to the regional Ministers of security.
While opening the meeting, the ECOWAS Commissioner for Customs, Trade, Mines, Industry, Free Movement and Tourism, Mr. Ahmed Hamid, reaffirmed the Commission’s commitment to eliminating impediments to the successful implementation of the Free Movement Protocol.
He highlighted the urgent need to review some provisions of the text to ensure a seamless implementation, including redefinition of the ECOWAS Citizenship to take into account Community citizens in the Diaspora.