The Central African Economic and Monetary Community reached a key milestone this week. Heads of state meeting in Chad lifted visa requirements for their citizens traveling within the six-member regional bloc. But challenges remain to ensuring free movement and deepening economic integration.
The announcement marked the culmination of 23 years of negotiation.
Citizens of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and Chad no longer need visas to travel within the six-member economic bloc.
Chadian President Idris Deby made the announcement at the CEMAC heads of state summit in Ndjamena.
Deby said the people have rightfully been waiting for strong actions that concretely demonstrate that the integration of central Africa is a reality, which is the main reason the Central African Economic and Monetary Community was created. He said everyone who visited Chad this week can testify that they were exempted from visa charges.
CEMAC was founded in 1994, but has trailed behind other regional blocs on the continent in lifting visa restrictions.
Economist Youssouf Saleh, Chad's former prime minister, said for CEMAC, it is better late than never. But he added that the effectiveness of the free movement of goods and people will depend on whether there is also an integrated and competitive economy and whether political divides that have hampered economic activity are broken.
Last year, the economies of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea took a hit amid the global drop in oil prices. The two countries sealed their borders to stop job-seeking youths flooding into their countries and even began expelling some migrants from other CEMAC countries.
Only Chad, Cameroon and Gabon have started issuing the CEMAC biometric passports, despite a January 2014 deadline.
Security concerns are also hindering free movement. At Garoua-Boulai on Cameroon's eastern border with the C.A.R., border controls remain with travelers prevented from crossing on both sides.
Cameroonian Colonel Etienne Detou said they have arrested rebel combatants from the Central African Republic trying to cross disguised as business persons and refugees.
He said although there is relative peace on the Cameroon side. But he added it should be noted there are regular incursions by armed groups and highway robbers from Central African Republic. He said the military and the police should be very vigilant and self-defense groups should participate in safeguarding their territory.
Cameroon and Chad are also limiting free movement of people at their common border.Both countries have suffered Boko Haram atrocities as well and want to make it harder for the terrorists to penetrate.
CEMAC Commission President Pierre Moussa said the states are taking measures to address security concerns.
He said for the new visa-free policy to be fully effective, the heads of state have authorized the Development Bank of Central African States to pay $2 million as part of the debt they owe the International Police Organization so that they can help secure the borders of CEMAC.
Other ambitious plans for CEMAC regional integration are yet to be executed, including plans to create a regional airline and to build roads linking the regional capitals.