Authors : Abdoulaye Hamadou
Type of publication : Academic article
Date of publication : 2020
Immediately after the first signs of COVID-19 in West Africa in March-April 2020, twelve countries officially closed their borders. Other countries, such as Benin, Ivory Coast and Senegal, adopted a more pragmatic approach by merely limiting to essential crossings any arrivals or departures over land, and by adopting humanitarian corridors.
Free movement of persons is understood here as the right of persons to move to, settle in, and leave and return from another national territory at will. It constitutes a kind of security which the state provides to the individual and has the character of an unalienable right. More specifically, it has three components: the right to enter, the right to reside, and the right of establishment on the territory of ECOWAS member states. In West Africa, this right has historical, economic, and social justifications.
This freedom is so natural and eminently beneficial to the region that it is hard to imagine that it may be limited. But it is precisely the seemingly irreversible character of the mobility of persons in West Africa that has been profoundly impacted by the legal measures adopted to contain the spread of COVID-19.
A Disintegrating Legal Regime
In the ECOWAS context, restrictions on the right to enter have led to a progressive disintegration of the legal regime of free movement of persons.
Two regional conditions further exacerbate these obstacles. One is the absence of supervision of member state implementation of ECOWAS laws by ECOWAS institutions. Despite the existential importance of free movement for regional integration, its application at the state level is not subject to any formal oversight on behalf of community citizens (think of the ECOWAS Parliament) or by community institutions (such as the ECOWAS Commission, Council of Ministers, or Court).
This supervision deficit empowers individual member states and undermines the legal framework of free movement of persons envisioned by ECOWAS law. As pointed out above, there is considerable variation in the limitation of movement under the COVID-19 measures between, for example, Benin on the one hand and Niger, Burkina Faso, or Mali on the other.
The resulting restrictions on free movement have been particularly harmful to displaced persons, asylum seekers, and refugees, whose needs and vulnerabilities are generally disregarded
This illustrates that member states remain sovereign entities with an exclusive competence over their territory when it comes to regulating the movement of persons and goods. The COVID19 crisis brings to light the tension between this exercise of state sovereignty that undermines regional integration, and the envisioned “partial and gradual pooling of national sovereignties to the Community within the context of a collective political will,” as the Preamble of the ECOWAS Treaty puts it.
The second regional condition, related to the civic and legal climate in West African nations, lies in the absence of civil society engagement and limited public awareness of litigation as a strategy for rights enforcement. In the context of COVID-19, one might imagine that domestic courts could have prevented the generalized and systematic infringements on public freedoms that we have witnessed. Indeed, given the inability of citizens to bring claims before the ECOWAS Court, domestic courts might seem uniquely capable, at least in theory, of protecting the inalienable character of the freedom of movement.
The resulting restrictions on free movement have been particularly harmful to displaced persons, asylum seekers, and refugees, whose needs and vulnerabilities are generally disregarded.
The Instrumentalization of COVID-19
The justification given by governments for these measures is that they will curb the spread of the virus. But when one looks at their actual effects, the measures pose two problems: they have not brought about their intended benefit, and they have impacted free movement of persons in unexpected ways. My purpose here is to show that these excessively restrictive measures are scarcely compatible with West African realities and constitute an instrumentalization of the pandemic so as to limit freedom of movement.
Furthermore, states have instrumentalized COVID-19 to justify restrictions on the freedom of movement of community citizens and other African nationals. While the justification of the restrictions refers to COVID-19, they are part of a wider development that undermines the legal free movement regime in West Africa
In West Africa, neither border closures, nor the declaration of a state of sanitary emergency, nor curfews have helped to prevent a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths in adopting states. By way of illustration, Benin, which has opted for flexible measures such as face masks and social distancing, has registered fewer deaths than Niger, Mali, or Burkina Faso, which had recourse to border closures and limitation of individual freedoms. This disconnect between the measures adopted and the aim pursued suggests that, in the largest part of West Africa, the responses to COVID-19 have not been well considered, balanced, contextualized, or coordinated.
Furthermore, states have instrumentalized COVID-19 to justify restrictions on the freedom of movement of community citizens and other African nationals. While the justification of the restrictions refers to COVID-19, they are part of a wider development that undermines the legal free movement regime in West Africa. This development is fed by both ill-conceived notions of economic protectionism, and by European policies which nudge or even pressure African states to undermine free movement among ECOWAS member states, and hence to stem migration both within West Africa as well as towards Europe.
While the above analysis points to the disintegration of the legal framework of freedom of movement through COVID-related policy, this disintegration is at odds with the social reality of mobility in the region and goes directly against regional socio-economic interests. From a social point of view, the mobility of populations in West Africa is so natural that it cannot be reconciled with border closure or strict lockdown measures. Also, African states do not control all of their borders enough to be able to enforce border closures effectively.
Finally, the limitations are problematic from an economic point of view. Human mobility in West Africa contributes to the circulation of knowledge, commerce, investment, and culture. More concretely, and because of the low level of technological development in the region, the free movement of persons intimately conditions the circulation of goods. If one also takes into consideration the financial benefits for these populations (e.g., remittances sent back to family members), it is clear that West African states have little legitimate interest in disrupting human mobility. Unfortunately, the practice of states is not in conformity with this perception.
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