Will CEMAC's visa-free zone improve security or hinder it?

2017-12-01

States in the Central African Economic and Monetary Union (CEMAC) have at last secured free movement of persons and goods. Equatorial Guinea and Gabon were the last of the CEMAC states to finally open their borders, following increasing pressure from the regional bloc.

This decision, which was formally endorsed during the CEMAC extraordinary summit held on 31 October 2017, demonstrated the regional body’s influence on unruly members. But as a regional economic community, CEMAC will also likely struggle to address the additional security and crime challenges that will come with open borders.

Central Africa is a region with great opportunities for development. Its natural resources include petroleum, minerals, fisheries, forests and abundant water reserves. Its ideal location in the heart of the Congo Basin makes it a possible hub for a diverse regional economy, agriculture and agro-industries, eco-tourism and hydro-power production.  

Reduced border controls will increase the movement of persons and goods, which heightens the risk of illicit activities

However, these riches also make the region vulnerable to transnational organised crime (TOC), and the current context is making it difficult for the region to fully take advantage of its potential. It is facing an unprecedented economic crisis triggered by the fall in commodity prices worldwide, and the decision to eliminate visa requirements between CEMAC countries might just add to the region’s problems rather than solve them.

A reduction in border controls will increase the movement of persons and goods, which heightens the risk of illicit activities such as financial crimes, trafficking of persons and weapons, and other forms of TOC.

In addition, the region’s northern territory has been under threat from terrorist groups, notably Boko Haram, since 2012. Four of CEMAC’s six members – Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad and the Republic of Congo – are experiencing destabilising armed conflict, while Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are particularly feeling the effects of the global drop in oil prices. On the political front, all of the region’s long-serving rulers (or their political heirs) have had their power heavily contested.

As an institution with the mandate to solve these problems, CEMAC is a fragile organisation weakened by internal difficulties and financial limitations. Members states are in debt to the regional body to an excess of CFA200 billion (US$354.7 million). This funding problem was a major point of discussion at the extraordinary summit.

Central Africa’s riches also make the region vulnerable to transnational organised crime

The CEMAC zone is a potential economic market of six border countries and over 44 million inhabitants, using a single currency (the CFA franc). Opening the region’s borders allows for several development-related opportunities, including a more diversified economy, tourism and greater economic exchanges between member states. But stability remains a challenge, and CEMAC as an organisation needs to pay sufficient attention to security in the region.

This could be achieved through an effective institutional reform process. But proposals for reform have been met with resistance, and this has hindered the kind of strategic thinking and bold action needed to make both the institution and Central Africa a regional integration success story.

Agnes Ebo'o, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator - Central Africa

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