A LONG TIME FRIEND and currently a New York University Abu Dhabi scholar, Eng. Victor Okoth and his brother, Owor rode 10,000 kilometers on a motorbike across African countries to raise awareness for a single African passport/ visa-free travel in Africa.
Visa-free travel forms part of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 which envisions an ‘integrated continent, politically united and based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism and the vision of Africa’s Renaissance’
The African passport is the flagship project of this agenda and aims to remove restrictions on Africans ability to travel, work and live within their own continent.
The initiative could transform Africa’s laws, which remain generally restrictive on the movement of people despite political commitments to bring down borders.
In a situation in which Africans required no visa to travel would prospects for intracontinental trade be accelerated? In principle, yes! This is not entirely an original concept. The European Union at least already has a successful analogous policy for its citizens.
As a precursor to Africa’s continental Free Trade Area [AfCTA], this visa/passport travel can facilitate labour mobility, intra-Africa knowledge and skills transfer; promote pan-African identity, social integration and tourism; improve trans-border infrastructure and shared development; foster a comprehensive approach to border management; promote rule of law, human rights, and public health and thus boost trade, tourism and exploration.
So, what is in Africa’s way?
For over a quarter of a century the idea has failed to catch on with countries that fear an increase in smuggling, illegal immigration, terrorism, and the spread of disease (popularly Covid-19 and Ebola pandemics) as well as a negative impact on local job markets. With migration, legal and illegal, blamed for recent outbreaks of xenophobia in South Africa, some of these fears seem credible.
Visa-free travel for Africans in Africa could be having some logistical nightmares given that some citizens do not have travel documents and others lead nomadic lives; Individual countries have not seen need to enact legislation to adopt the African passport; Few African nations use the biometric data that an African passport requires to be operational.
The AU launched an African passport, a signature project of former chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. However, the passport is currently available only to senior diplomats and top officials of AU’s 55 member states. Of those member states, only Seychelles offers visa-free access to all African countries.
Old habits: I think that the large and fast-growing economies aren’t following suit because the visa regime itself has created a bureaucratic habit. You see, although there is justification for hesitation in terms of the legitimate layer of security that visas provide, there’s a reluctance to old habits of travel that are hard to break.
Fearful and paranoid nature: Also, in my opinion, growing and large economies worry about the impact that increased population movements might have on labour markets and cities. Out of desperation, thousands of immigrants travel to South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, to find work
With urban cities expanding rapidly across Africa, government institutions are strained, and cities that offer opportunities for trade, health care, a booming labour market, infrastructure, among others, will be under increased pressure.
What do we do?
I suggest a focus on efficient and affordable visa procurement processes. Regional communities need to enact and implement policies that make it easier for their citizens to move from one member state to another.
Going forward, I think a policy where member states will adopt biometric technology, ensure police and security services’ coordination, and respect for different labour regulations will be necessary.
The next best thing to a visa-free system is “Visa on Arrival”, which may include authorization to stay for up to 90 days. Rwanda adopted this protocol in 2013 and has witnessed an increase in African visitors.
Rwanda has hosted many more conferences as a result of the removal of travel restrictions. Contrary to the fearful and paranoid nature of African skeptics, the crime rate has not really been enhanced. I think Visa on arrival has been key to this.
An alternative to adopting visa-free access or visas on arrival is for countries to enter into reciprocal arrangements with other nations. An example can be Namibia: that citizens of countries allowing Namibians visas on arrival will receive reciprocal service at Namibian ports of entry. Rwanda is also receptive to reciprocal arrangements with other countries and benchmarked just how effective unrestricted regional travel can be through the issue of a unified national identity card and border pass for citizens of Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.
Rwanda’s experience, however, is not enough to change the perception of the negative impacts of liberalizing entry visas. Our fearful and paranoid nature. The reasons African countries remain closed to each other, advanced by policy makers generally relate to fears of job losses and security concerns. But there could also be issues of culture and trust. The answer probably lies somewhere in the nexus between politics, culture, history and economics.
Then, me thinks other reforms and massive investments in connectivity to complement intergovernmental action are necessary. Rwanda as an example is a country benefiting from coordinated investments and policy reforms, including in business and air transport infrastructure.
Africa has been making improvements on political integration within the continent in recent years. Visa openness may be one piece of the interconnected African states puzzle that is significantly a very important one.
Derick B. Wesonga, is a Kenyan Medical student who is passionate about policy.
The views expressed in this article are of the author