Addis Abeba, 11th August 2016
The image of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Chadian President Idriss Déby proudly holding the first two copies of the newly launched pan-African passport at the African Union (AU) summit in the Rwandan capital Kigali this month marked the type of historic moment rarely seen at such gatherings, where outcomes are often measured in declarations or resolutions.
With the launch of the new pan-African document, the continent moved up a notch towards the free cross-border movement of goods and people—in direct opposite to Brexit, the decision by British voters to exit the European Union.
The AU will issue the new biometric or electronic passport only to African heads of state, foreign ministers and diplomats accredited by the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It will bear the AU’s name and that of the issuing country. The plan is for African governments to roll it out to their citizens by 2018.
Many thought the move was well overdue, since one of the AU’s regional trading blocs, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has been offering 90-day visa-free entry to member states’ citizens since the late 1970s.
Visas in Ghana
One sign that the region is making progress in dismantling intra-African trade barriers is that while the AU was launching its new passport, Ghana, a member of ECOWAS, was starting to issue visas upon arrival to citizens of all 54 African countries. Prior to the move, Ghana offered visa-free entry only to ECOWAS citizens.
According to the African Development Bank’s Africa Visa Openness Report 2016, acquiring a visa is a huge challenge for travellers, with Africans still needing visas to travel to 55% of other African countries. Only 13 out of 54 countries offer liberal access (visa-free or visa on arrival) to Africans.
Integrationists say restrictions on movement across borders go against the continent’s goal of becoming “One Africa” and further negate the spirit of the AU’s Agenda 2063, the continent’s long-term economic blueprint. They maintain that visa-free regimes promote intra-African trade and investment, facilitate business and create employment opportunities.
So far Seychelles is the only country in Africa that has abolished visa requirements for all African countries, with Ghana, Mauritius and Rwanda having made great strides. Namibia and Zimbabwe have also made notable progress.
In March, Zimbabwe scrapped its requirement for visas for citizens of members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), another AU regional trading bloc. The country is already one of only nine African countries offering e-Visas, which allow visitors to apply online and pay for a visa on arrival, facilitating easy and hassle-free travelling.
Likewise, Namibia scrapped visa requirements in May for all holders of diplomatic or official passports from AU member states. Although the visa exemptions do not apply to all Africans, they are widely seen as a precursor to a continent-wide visa-free regime.
Southern Africa ranks as the third most open sub-region in Africa. It allows the highest number of the world’s population into its countries without visa restrictions, while East Africa is the continent’s most visa-open sub-region.
Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda share the East Africa Tourist Visa, an open visa initiative for citizens from the three countries. In the coming months, Rwanda could very well follow Seychelles’s footsteps, as it is carrying out a study expected to recommend abolishing visa requirements for all African nationals. In the meantime, Burundi and Tanzania have opted to stay out of the common tourist visa initiative for security reasons.
Yves Butera, spokesperson for the Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration, said removing visa restrictions would promote African unity and help the continent reduce its dependence on donor aid.
“The idea of an Africa with seamless borders is the way to go. Africa is endowed with vast natural resources, including minerals and rich soil. If we can combine our strength, then we could live without financial help from Western and European countries,” he told Africa Renewal.
Mr. Butera said his country’s non-restrictive visa regime has allowed more visitors to visit Rwanda, which has boosted trade and development and created jobs.
“We support the idea of visas on arrival; if necessary we should remove visas to Rwanda so that people can freely visit our country and other African countries,” he said. “As well, the idea of open visas and/or visas on arrival is beneficial to us because it facilitates the ease of doing business between our country and other countries, and that helps investors to come here easily, and to spend, which creates revenue and jobs.”
iiiiiHe urged other African countries to adopt visa-free policies, which is one of the many elements that have lifted Rwanda to its ranking among the top three easiest places to do business in Africa. A high ranking on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index means the regulatory environment is conducive to starting and operating a company.
The World Tourism Organization (WTO), a UN body that promotes tourism, notes that Africa has made significant progress in simplifying the issuance of visas since the organisation started monitoring tourism visa policies in 2008.
“In 2008, Africans comprised on average 88% of the world’s population to apply for a traditional visa prior to departure. This has decreased to 57% in 2015, because many African countries have introduced travel facilitation measures such as visa on arrival and e-Visa,” Rut Gomez Sobrino, a WTO media officer, told Africa Renewal.
WTO research has shown that tourist visa facilitation can deliver important benefits by increasing tourist numbers and generating more income, said Ms. Sobrino, adding that “[visa facilitation] is also a key element in fostering regional integration, and we are thus very pleased to see the progress that is being made in Africa.”
This is corroborated by the Africa Visa Openness Report, which observes that Rwanda, a country that abolished work permits for East African Community citizens to support its open-visa policy, has increased its trade with Kenya and Uganda by at least 50%, while the visa-on-arrival policy has increased African arrivals in Rwanda by an average of about 22% per year. Foreign nationals, however, may be charged up to $100 for a 90-day East African Tourist Visa or $30 for a 30-day Rwandan visa purchased at the airport.
For a seamless Africa to be a success, the WTO says it is imperative to continue to push for the elimination of visa requirements, the continuous liberalization of international air transport to the benefit of all stakeholders, the promotion of initiatives (such as one-stop border posts) that reduce delays, and the creation of interregional and international transport and road transit. A one-stop border post merges two stops in a national border control process into one to reduce transit costs and facilitate the easy movement of passengers and goods.
What are the threats?
The greatest threats to a borderless Africa lie in the prospect of increased risks to national security and heightened exposure to regional conflicts, contagion from public health crises and the movement of the jobless from many parts of the continent. African countries with strong economies tend to attract a large number of migrants from poor countries.
The lack of technological infrastructure and capacity to issue biometric passports is likely to create problems for many African countries. Only 13 of the 54 African countries currently offer biometric passports.
However, the experiences of Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles and the ECOWAS bloc show the positive effects of open-visa policies on economies, and that governments can address security concerns and economic migration by investing in new technologies, effective traveller identification management systems and integrated border controls.
For full integration, open visas should also be accompanied by free movement of goods and the removal of high, protective tariff barriers.
According to the World Bank, intra-African trade costs are around 50% higher than in East Asia, and are the highest of intraregional costs in any developing region. In its December 2015 brief, “Deepening African Integration: Intra-Africa Trade for Development and Poverty Reduction”, Anabel Gonzalez, the bank’s director of trade competitiveness, notes that because of high costs, Africa has integrated with the rest of the world faster than with itself.
Effective regional integration, she suggested, must involve more than removing tariffs; it must also involve addressing on-the-ground constraints that paralyze the daily operations of ordinary producers and traders. This is done through regulatory reforms and building the capacity of institutions tasked with enforcing the regulations.
Africa seems to be going where the EU is coming from, given the Brexit experience and the anti-immigration sentiment sweeping Europe; the majority of its citizens are keen on moving towards a more integrated continent, although outbreaks of xenophobia have been reported. Integration starts with making it easier for people and services to move freely across national borders.
The new AU passport is an important new addition to the steps Africa is already taking to achieve the goals embodied in the Agenda 2063 vision.
writes for United Nations
Africa Renewal magazine