During the Twenty Seventh (27th) Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government, which took place in July 2016, in Rwanda, the Chadian President, H.E. Idriss Deby, remarked on receiving the African Union passport, “I feel deeply and proudly a true son of Africa after receiving this passport.” Two months later, African billionaire businessman, Mr. Aliko Dangote, in a CNBC Africa interview given in September 2016, lamented, “Somebody like me, despite the size of our group, I need 38 visas to move around Africa. You go to a country that is looking for investments; that particular country will give you a run around just to get a visa. They are giving you visas as if it is a favor.”
The views presented by the above-mentioned prominent African political and business leaders tell differing stories. President Deby was speaking about his feelings on the acquisition of the African passport, as well as how the adoption of the passport by all African counties would fast track integration on the continent to achieve socio-economic growth for the well-being of its citizenry. Then, there is the other experience, as narrated by Mr. Dangote, which tends to frustrate African citizens. Some African countries are getting stricter in terms of their visa requirements. Apart from a letter of invitation and an itinerary, one is required to also show proof of company registration, bank-account statements, and tax-clearance certificates. In some cases, the required documents have to be translated into the official language of the country issuing the visa, if the documents are in other languages. Even when the visa requirements are met, visas are not issued on time. More so, transit visas are required when transiting to countries that do not have direct connecting flights.
It is well documented that strict visa regulation brings about differentiated negative socio-economic spin-offs. The share of intra-Africa total trade is very unfavorable when compared with other trading blocs. Intra-Africa trade is about 12%, slightly higher than Western Asia which stands at 9%. The rest of the intra-regional trade at the global level enjoys high volumes, with North America and the European Union trading within their blocs at 61% and 62%, respectively. However, it could be argued that Africa’s low intraregional trade stems from the fact that economies of African counties are premised on primary produce, making it less attractive for the countries to trade amongst each other. However, the argument is denigrated by the other indicators, in which cost of doing business is higher in Africa than in other regional groupings.
In another related development, the lack of free movement of people, goods and services on the continent impacts negatively on economic growth and job creation. For example, highly skilled Africans who needed to ply their trade outside their home countries, usually migrate to other continents searching for pastures new, instead of sharing and transferring their skills with fellow Africans in other African counties. Many unfortunate ones have been found dead in the Mediterranean Sea, while trying to emigrate to Europe and other parts of the world. Wealthy and highly skilled Africans are normally encouraged and attracted to invest and work in the global north. Ironically, African countries tend to attract foreign expatriates from the global north to work in the local service sectors at a significant cost. Bringing in foreign expatriates at higher cost is a major impediment to Foreign Direct Investments.
Africa boasts a rich and diverse cultural heritage as well as natural assets, in terms of dramatic landscapes and unique flora and fauna, which should render the continent the preferred tourism destination. Moreover, there are a number of factors that can drive the continent’s intra trade and travel, including improved air access, mega infrastructure projects, and a skilled workforce. However, these factors require heavy investments and resources to come to fruition. In contrast, more relaxed visa policies do not require lengthy processes and huge resources to be introduced. Evidently, countries with relaxed visa regulations reap significant economic gains. One major example in Africa is Seychelles, whose main source of revenue is tourism. Seychelles’ ascendancy in the Sub-Saharan Africa travel and tourism index for almost a decade is reflected in the secure level of employment that its citizens enjoy. The tourism industry in Seychelles contributes about 30% to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
If we look specifically at the aviation sector in Africa, it supports about 7 million jobs and contributes US$80 billion to the continent’s GDP. Therefore, relaxing visa policies, especially the adoption of the AU passport, would expand air travel and guarantee more employment and economic opportunities across the continent.
Africa’s regional integration agenda for the economic transformation of the continent has been on the cards for over four decades. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) Charter and the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) place emphasis on the ideals of African unity; continentalism; pan-Africanism, and regionalism. The Lagos Plan of Action and the Abuja Treaty proposed the economic, political and institutional mechanism to attain regional integration. Many African leaders have come to the realization that regionalism is urgently needed to deal with political, economic, and social crises facing the continent. This has been reflected in the various development agendas that African countries have adopted thus far: the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the overarching development framework for the region in 2001; the NEPAD Tourism Action Plan of 2004 –a framework to foster sustainable tourism on the continent; the 2012 adoption of a Framework, Roadmap and Architecture for fast-tracking the establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA); Action Plan for Boosting intra-African trade (BIAT), and Agenda 2063.
Nonetheless, scepticism by some persists and challenges the adoption of the common African passport. A number of rebuttals have been advanced to cast aspersions on the concept of a more open continent: the notion that countries will lose their sovereignty; an increased risk to national security; exposure to regional conflicts; health-related concerns due to the spread of diseases, and migration problems in which jobless people and refugees tend to concentrate in countries which, although possibly more affluent, may not have the accommodation and funding to house, feed and employ a large influx of such people. Other challenges include a lack of technological facility and capacity to issue biometric passports in most Africa countries. Only about 14 countries in Africa currently issue biometric passports.
However, there already exists free movement of Africans on the continent within some Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in Africa, such as the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), as well as most of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries. Furthermore, a few countries such as Rwanda and Ghana offer visas on arrival. Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda have introduced the UNI-VISA, whereby the acquisition of a common visa can be used to travel to all three countries. The citizens of the three countries can travel to the other counties with the UNI-VISA arrangement, without visas. The existence and implementation of the aforementioned policies in the sub-regional blocs and countries is a demonstration that security concerns and economic migration can be addressed, through the investment of technologies, integrated border control, and identification management systems.
In conclusion, given that the economic benefits of the free movement of goods and services outweigh the minor shortcomings, it would not be too much to ask of the continent to focus and give more priority to a sector that contributes 10% to the continent’s GDP. The policies to attain the economic Holy Grail, which intra-Africa travel and trade could bring, are already in place. What is required now is the collective e orts, as well as the political will, of African leaders to implement the policies, including the adoption of the African passport by 2018. The full roll-out of the common passport would ensure that the likes of President Deby and Mr. Dangote really feel African, as well as free to contribute to the economic prosperity of the continent. In the interim, other similar policies such as: visa reciprocity; visa-free regional blocs; visas on arrival; multi-year visas; standardized and simpler visa processes; and showcasing of African success stories, exemplified by Seychelles’ achievements, should be encouraged.