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Uganda signs IGAD Protocol on Free Movement of Persons

Despite the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is one of the Regional Economic Communities (REC) in Africa that has made the less progress in establishing a Free Trade Area (FTA) as provided for article 6 of the Treaty of Abuja on the establishment of the African Economic Community (to date, such an FTA has not yet established among the IGAD eight member States), a notable achievement of this Community is the conclusion of the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons. According to its Article 38, the Protocol enters into force sixty days after a deposit of the fourth instrument of ratification or accession with the Executive Secretary of IGAD. So far, no country has ratified the Protocol, a process that could take time (the IGAD communique wrongly announces the ratification of the Protocol by Uganda).

On 14 May 2024, Uganda signed the Protocol. Before Uganda, other four IGAD countries had signed it, namely: Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. Among the big IGAD economies that have not yet signed the Protocol, a notable one is Kenya.

Developed within a three-year project funded by the European Union Trust Fund (EUTF) to facilitate Free Movement of Persons and Transhumance in the IGAD Region and adopted after many years of negotiations, after being endorsed on 26 February 2020 by the Committee of Ambassadors, Ministers of Interior and Ministers of Labour of IGAD member states, this Protocol marks a significant step for IGAD. It recognizes the right for the citizens and workers in the region to move freely and to freely transfer their residence from one State to another.

However, these rights are not immediately actionable. They will be achieved gradually, through a path articulated in 4 phases (described at art. 4 of the Protocol), which the IGAD Member States have committed to implement. It will start with the introduction in their internal legislations of legal provisions that recognise the right of entry (with the abolition of visa requirements for citizens of other IGAD countries), followed by the implementation of the right of movement of workers; of the right of residence and, lastly, of the right of establishment. In essence, its practical implementation will depend on the willingness of IGAD member States to domesticate the Protocol by introducing the internal regulations that implement the above freedoms.

The free movement of people and labor mobility are also instrumental to development of trade in the region, since they can contribute to achieve the objectives of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), as announced by the Executive Secretary of IGAD during its speech at the signature of the Protocol by the Ugandan authorities. In fact, intra-regional trade in IGAD is particularly low. The IGAD trade policy 2022-2026 calculates that in 2018 intra-IGAD imports were 15.9 percent, while intra-IGAD exports were 2.6 percent, compared to trade with the rest of the world, although this share has followed a constantly growing trend.

The Protocol on Free Movement of Persons in the IGAD region is particularly important in a territorial context in Africa among the worst affected by conflicts, poverty, drought, flooding and environmental degradation, where big shares of the population are highly nomadic due to the pastoral activities that are largely practiced in most of its member States, like Somalia, South Sudan, Northern Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia. It remains now to see how reactive will be the IGAD member States in the ratifications and domestication processes, as these are the phases in which the integration paths initiated by African states usually delay or block.

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