Freedom of Movement in Africa: The Common Market for Eastern & Southern Africa

Last Updated on November 7, 2023

The Common Market for Eastern & Southern Africa (COMESA) was formed in 1994 as a replacement for the Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern Africa (PTA). The PTA formed during the post-independence period in Africa. It was in this atmosphere of independence that the idea of a regionally connected African trade co-operation began under PTA and later drove the formation of COMESA.

Today, the COMESA collectively includes around 500 million people from 19 African countries with a joint GDP of around USD 800 billion. The 19 member states of COMESA include Burundi, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R. Congo), Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Fundamentally, COMESA was established as an economic trade union between participating member states, encouraging the free movement of goods, resources and ideas. Throughout its existence, COMESA has evolved to include conditions related to the free movement of people. These conditions are largely established under the COMESA Protocols on free movement and the Protocol on the Gradual Relaxation and Eventual Elimination of Visa Requirements (COMESA visa Protocols).

Defining the COMESA Visa Protocols

Like South America’s free movement of travel terms established under the Mercosur Agreement or the European Union’s Schengen Visa, COMESA’s visa protocol focuses on the liberalization of the freedom of movement throughout the COMESA region. The protocol features one key element: the establishment of a 90-day, visa-free travel regime and access to visas on arrival.

Several countries have made strides in meeting this aspiration. Currently, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Rwanda, Swaziland, Seychelles, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe offer 90-day visas on arrival for COMESA nationals. Mauritius, Rwanda and Seychelles offer visa waiver options for all COMESA nationals. Zambia offers a visa waiver to COMESA nationals traveling on official business. COMESA member states who do not currently offer any travel exemptions or relaxed options include Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, D.R. Congo, Sudan and Eritrea.

Delays in Implementation and the Future of Free Movement

In some cases, these conditions are established based on bilateral agreements between COMESA member states with shared historical trends and relationships that existed in the pre-independence era.

However, these same historical trends have also served as one of the largest hinderances to the complete implementation of COMESA as a whole. Pre-established trade histories with European nations have led to delayed or reduced trade between African states. Coupled with slow infrastructure growth, COMESA adaption has not been equal among member states. Some countries have been hesitant to adopt the visa protocol because it would result in a loss of income through customs and visa processing fees.

Despite these potential hinderances, most member states continue to strive towards the ideals embedded in the foundation of COMESA. COMESA has also helped to reinforce and introduce new diplomatic ties between participating nationals. As Africa continues to grow as a trading hub, COMESA is likely to continue to gain strength, resulting in the further implementation of the visa protocol and other future travel agreements.

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Content in this publication is for informational purposes only and not intended as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. For additional information on the issues discussed, consult an attorney at one of the two U.S. Law Firms working with the Envoy Platform or another qualified professional. On non-U.S. immigration issues, consult an Envoy global immigration service provider or another qualified representative.