According to the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) ‘Visa Openness Index’ report, Africans must possess visas to travel to 55% of countries on the continent, with just 20% of nations not requiring a visa. People who hold a United States passport or a passport from many European countries can travel around Africa with more ease than Africans themselves. Although a number of token gestures have been made by AU leaders, most recently the announcement that heads of state, diplomats and other high-ranking officials will soon receive the first African e-passports, the widespread usage of a single African passport may be some time away.
Introducing an AU passport would be a key boost to aspirations of a borderless Africa, based on the European Union’s Schengen Area, which covers most of its member states.
“The idea of a single passport for Africa is certainly appealing and will go a long way to further the dream and hopes of African citizens to witness an integrated continent,” says David Zounmenou, senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies. “It could also further the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.”
The need for visas has a heavy impact on frequent intra-African travellers such as businesspeople and entrepreneurs. Having to make countless visits to embassies, submit paperwork and wait for approval can waste days and help lose sensitive deals. Highly talented African workers will also gain from the proposed passport.
“The African passport could represent a good opportunity mostly for African professionals in order for them to find more satisfying and remunerative jobs in other countries of the continent,” says Dr Cristiano d’Orsi, research fellow at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.
Although the economic benefits to Africa cannot be understated, many do not believe the implementation of an African passport is realistic. “Though there has not been any substantial study on the cost, the economic benefits are undeniable. But more importantly, a single passport will help to break artificial barriers that continue to hamper social integration and development in Africa,” says Zounmenou. “However, it will not happen. At least not before 2063. Africa is not institutionally and politically ready for that.”
The concept of one African passport may be highly appealing in theory, but the challenge of getting 54 unique African states to agree on the implementation of this plan is tremendous. “There are countries that will exhibit their fake sovereignty to oppose or ignore the idea of a single passport,” says Zounmenou. “If we cannot implement a visa-free continent, how can we implement a single passport policy? Who are the sponsors and drivers of this policy?”
The late President Michael Sata of Zambia was vocal in his opposition to an Africa-wide passport, saying it would allow criminals to move more easily around the continent and escape prosecution. National security issues are a key sticking point in this discussion too, as a short time ago the East African Community (EAC) refused Somalia membership due to threats from al-Shabaab.
Other issues, such as the recent Nigerian tomato crisis and Ebola, make the prospect of visa-free, borderless travel far more difficult. Many countries also see economic incentives in retaining visas for fellow Africans as the foreign currency generated by them is a welcome addition to government coffers.
The introduction of a common African passport will undoubtedly be a drawn-out and complex journey, with migration and refugee policies needing to be reassessed before any implementation happens. “A country like South Africa, where there is a wide perception that foreigners are occupying job positions reserved to locals, may be reluctant to adopt such a passport,” according to Dr d’Orsi.
A spike in xenophobic attacks against immigrants in South Africa in April and October of 2015 were a bleak reminder of the disconnect between the pan-African vision and realities on the ground. The governments of Somalia and Malawi evacuated citizens from the country to escape the violence. The launch of a single African passport, and the corresponding influx of immigrants to countries across the continent, may have profound consequences on community cohesion in already troubled nations. Many countries are hesitant to allow free movement between African states.
“In spite of the existence of sub-regional agreements in terms of freedom of movement of persons, several African countries are still adopting derogatory measures to what was agreed, to make this freedom of movement ‘less free’,” says Dr d’Orsi. Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda may have agreed to the adoption of an East African tourist visa, but Burundi and Tanzania have not been included due to security issues, he adds. As some economic blocs in Africa move to introduce regional visa-free policies, more nationals will be able to see first-hand the benefits free movement brings and concerns may be alleviated to some extent.
In June 2016 the AU announced that heads of state and other high officials would be issued with AU e-passports for its July summit in Rwanda. The organisation hoped that this would pave the way for countries to adopt the African passport.
But while institutions such as the AU continue to promote the benefits of an African passport, unless economic asymmetries between countries are remedied and African governments support the idea, no concrete action can be taken.
“In a nutshell, an African passport can be fully functional and productive if it is underlined by high levels of inclusive economic development among member states,” says Azwimpheleli Langalanga, visiting research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “A borderless Africa, whether through a single passport or a United States of Africa, will remain a pipe dream if not informed by economic imperatives.”