African Passport…Coming Soon
One would assume that the travel experience, within Africa, for Africans who already have a passport would be seamless. But this is not the case. It can be very difficult for Africans, African businesspeople and investors to travel between the continent’s markets. In fact it is easier for US citizens to travel within Africa than it is for Africans. Sad right?
The recently released Africa Visa Openness Report 2016, commissioned by the African Development Bank (AfDB), reveals that in Africa only 13 of 55 countries offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to all Africans. Also, Africans need visas to travel to 55% of other countries compared with North Americans who need a visa to travel to 45% of African countries. (So obviously, we treat others better than we treat our own). Therefore, the AfDB is looking to create a visa policy reform programme that makes traveling within Africa a lot simpler.
Trade between African countries has expanded significantly to $50 Billion per year with trade between African countries expected to reach $250 Billion by 2021. However, visa restrictions, poor transport infrastructure (though this is being significantly improved upon given China’s big infrastructure spending in Africa) and harsh business environments make it difficult for these gains in trade to be realized. So, it makes sense that proposals that promote the ease of talent mobility and resources across borders would be in the works.
Visa openness is about facilitating the free movement of people within Africa. It’s about promoting the ease with which African travellers are able to visit another country on the continent. It’s about allowing people – students, entrepreneurs, tourists, the casual traveler or a cross-border trader – to move quickly, easily and relatively cheaply across borders. The ease of mobility within Africa is so important that one of the aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 is “a continent with seamless borders” where “the free movement of people, capital, goods and services will result in significant increases in trade and investments amongst African countries rising to unprecedented levels, and strengthen Africa’s place in global trade“. This visa openness is expected to set the foundation for a tighter knit and deeply integrated Africa, which is considered one of the bedrocks of Africa’s growth. So you see why visa openness is important.
To achieve this goal of “seamless borders”, one of the proposals involves allowing visas on arrival for Africans, such as those offered in Mauritius and Rwanda. According to the AfDB’s report, Rwanda’s open visa policy has seen African travellers to Rwanda increase by 22%. In addition, the country has abolished work permits for East African Community citizens.
Another proposal is establishing visa-free regional blocs, as well as regional-bloc visas such as Europe’s Schengen visa. For example, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda allow their citizens to travel between countries with national identity cards and the report estimates that this has increased cross-border trade by 50%. The three countries also launched a single tourist visa.
Of course there is also the suggestion of simplifying the visa procedure (such as through online applications) and allowing multi-year visas like in the US.
Finally, there is the e-Passport, an electronic document that permits any A.U. passport holder to enter any of the 54 A.U. member states, without requiring a visa. It will be unveiled this month during the next A.U. Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. Initially, the e-Passport will only be available to A.U. heads of state, foreign ministers and permanent representatives based in the A.U.’s headquarters in Addis Ababa. However, the larger plan is to roll it out to all A.U. citizens by 2018. I cannot wait!!!
“We want to make sure there is reciprocal visa issuance across countries and we want to promote talent mobility all across Africa.” says Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank. “Africa spends a lot of its time on issuing single-entry visas which is very expensive for travellers and also investors. We should have multiple-year visas, 10-year visas – there is no reason why a business person has to go back and get the same visa 10 times,” he continues. “And finally we must eventually move to the Africa passport that allows Africans to move freely all across Africa.… It would make African investments much easier.” I wholeheartedly agree!
There are huge gains to be had for countries having more visa-open policies for fellow Africans: it promotes entrepreneurship, facilitates the exchange of skills and ideas, diversifies the economy, boosts competitiveness and fosters friendship.The free movement by people will facilitate trade and economic growth across the continent because immigrants increase economic efficiency by reducing labour shortages and filling gaps in the labour market.
Of course, there are concerns about a borderless (albeit internally) Africa — it could be a lot easier for terrorists to move within and between countries, disease and other public health crises could spread more rapidly, an e-Passport could intensify competition for jobs and public services in certain markets while depleting human capital in others, it could lead to increased xenophobic attacks and loss of human lives and adding to the regulatory burden that African countries already experience.
These are all legitimate concerns and given the UK’s exit from the EU, Africa could use the E.U. as a model to fully understand the progress and pitfalls of regional integration: balancing economies of vastly different sizes and structures, and building solidarity within and across culturally diverse nations. An African passport is an exciting development; it just needs to be underscored with thoughtful regulations based on careful strategic planning.
I look forward to the day when the only thing an African needs to travel to another African country is a packed suitcase, reserved accommodation, a booked flight and a passport. The day when visas are practically forgotten and an African, in queue to board an intra-continental flight, will only hold the African passport in hand.