YAOUNDE— It has been more than 20 years since heads of state created the six-nation Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa, CEMAC, to foster regional integration among members with a common currency. Legally, tariffs have been eliminated, but in practice there has been no progress on realizing a free trade bloc. The movement of goods and people on the border where Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon all converge is as controlled as ever.
The town of Kiossi in Cameroon is on the main access road to Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Residents along the border say they are frustrated by not being able to travel and trade freely - despite a two-decades-old political agreement to implement a Central African free trade zone.
"The so-called regional integration in Central Africa to me is just existing on paper because I can't drive freely to Gabon, Central Africa or Equatorial Guinea," complains business man Ngah Christian, 33. "We can not be talking about regional integration when we have Cameroonians who are being expelled from Equatorial Guinea or are attacked."
Kiossi journalist Freedy Becke, 29, agrees the region has been let down.
"It is actually a failure .... there are frequent police harassment for example of Cameroonians who live in Equatorial Guinea, in Gabon, frequent expulsions, expatriation. And then the passport, we think we should have a unique passport for the whole of the region. I do not think that exists though I have been hearing that it exists, " Becke says.
Lack of enforcement
Heads of state from CEMAC did in fact approve a common passport to facilitate easier travel and trade. But It has not been uniformly enforced at the local level and many immigration officials still demand visas before allowing cross-border access.
Close to 50 million people live in six countries that make up CEMAC: Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea.
A history of conflict and a lack of development are major reasons why there has been little to no progress in implementing a free trade area.
Carlos Bongfirm, the director of macro-economic policies and trade at CEMAC, says there is an absence of roads linking the states which reduces exchanges between
people. Further, he notes, politcal nationalism, a history of coups and multple conflicts since the 1990s have preoccupied politicians more than economic integration.
Another reason for lack of progress on integration is bureaucratic duplication between CEMAC and another nearly identical body called the Economic Community of Central African States, ECCAS.
Joseph Barrichacho of the United Nations Economic Commission for Central Africa, says this needs to change given greater integration is a goal on the African continent.
"The region is not advancing too well as the other sub-regions of the continent," Barrichacho explains. "They have to put in practice what the heads of state have decided. The objective of the African Union is to move to one economic union for the continent around 2028."
The director of cooperation and integration at CEMAC, Chantale Elombat, says there is political will to integrate, and she is hopeful that the countries will now follow through.
She says four countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad and Congo Brazzaville - no longer require visas for travel between their countries. That is a good step, she says, and a sign that other integration measures will follow.