A visa-free Africa still faces hurdles

Would an Africa in which Africans require no visas to travel boost prospects for intracontinental trade?

The African Union (AU) and many of the continent’s economic organisations think so and want it to be a reality by 2020.

It is not an entirely original concept (the European Union already has a visa-free policy for its citizens), and many experts laud the AU’s position, at least in principle.

The idea of an African passport dates back a quarter of a century but has failed to catch on with countries that fear an increase in smuggling, illegal immigration, terrorism, and the spread of disease 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 a logistical nightmare given that some citizens do not have travel documents and others lead nomadic lives.

Individual countries may need to enact legislation to adopt the African passport. Few African nations use the biometric data that an African passport requires.

Last year 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. Daniel Silke, director of the South Africa–based Political Futures Consultancy said: “The large and fast-growing economies aren’t following suit because the visa regime itself has created a bureaucratic habit.”

“Old habits are hard to break, although there is justification for hesitation in terms of the legitimate layer of security that visas provide.”

Mr Silke adds that growing and large economies worry about the impact that increased population movements might have on labour markets and cities.

Some of Africa’s fast-growing economies are Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Senegal and Tanzania. Out of desperation, thousands of immigrants travel to South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, to find work.

Mr Silke notes: “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.”

He suggests a focus on efficient and affordable visa procurement processes, advising regional communities to enact and implement policies that make it easier for their citizens to move from one member state to another.

In November 2017, after 15 years of negotiations, the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), comprising of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, ratified the visa-free movement of its citizens.

Under the policy, member states will adopt biometric technology, ensure police and security services’ coordination, and respect for different labour regulations.

The next best thing to a visa-free system is visa on arrival, which may include authorisation to stay for up to 90 days. Rwanda adopted this protocol in 2013 and has witnessed an increase in African visitors and investors, noted Mr Anaclet Kalibata, the country’s director general of immigration and emigration.

Mr Kalibata told Africa Renewal that between 2013 and 2016, the number of Africans receiving visas on arrival at Rwandan entry points increased by more than 100{ce26f346cd59949e2c0f2d00ffd4e33d79c93a92036a118111a0d166462d4b89}.

He said: “We have also hosted many more conferences as a result of the removal of travel restrictions.”

He maintained that crime rates in the country did not increase because of visa on arrival, contrary to fears initially expressed by skeptics.

Africa Renewal/ Kerry Dimmer

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