United Africa: Is a visa-free African future beneficial?

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While Brexit recently shook the stability of the European Union, the African Union is planning to break boundaries and welcoming integration through the introduction of a common passport for all African citizens by 2020.

As of last month, the African continent has moved a step closer to having visa-free travel available to all African nationals, with the roll-out of the African passport, part of the ambitious Vision 2063 plan, which could profoundly impact the continent in terms of intra-regional trade, economic development, and regional integration.

In a move that some are calling ‘the makings of the United States of Africa,’ the official African passport was unveiled in July this year at the African Union (AU) summit in Kigali, Rwanda. The AU’s vision is to distribute a single, common visa-free (or visa-on-arrival) electronic African passport to all African citizens, giving visa-free access to all 54 AU member states. Within the framework of Africa’s Agenda 2063, the project aims for mandatory granting of a minimum 30-day visa for African citizens visiting any African country by 2018, and an inspiring goal of a single, continental passport by 2020.

Even more ambitious is the vision for the African GDP being projected to reach the size of the US and EU combined by the year 2050.

Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, outgoing Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), described the initiative as symbolic and significant, calling it a “steady step toward the objective of creating a strong, prosperous and integrated Africa, driven by its own citizens and capable of taking its rightful place on the world stage.”

Dlamini-Zuma urged Heads of State to create conditions for member states to issue the passport to their citizens, “within their national policies, as and when they are ready.”

President Idriss Deby of Chad, Chairperson of the AU said, “These are great steps we are taking. Our Union has great ambitions in order to ensure economic and political integration.

“The passport seeks to create advantageous visa-regimes across the continent and later on create a pathway for a visa-free Africa, under the AU agenda of the “Africa We Want.” (Source: All Africa News)

There are challenges for implementing the plan. There is the risk of widespread economic migration to wealthier economies, such has been the case in the EU. In South Africa, there are already many illegal immigrants who entered the country looking for a better life, and a large number of individuals are not registered and don’t own identification documents.

Historically, borders have been porous and individuals have taken extreme, dangerous measures to enter another country. African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, Dr Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, is suggesting that visa-free travel within Africa could potentially reduce emigration to other continents. It could also hypothetically form a hierarchy of citizens who can afford to travel, and the rich get richer, while the divide between rich and the poor grows even wider. If visa-free travel can truly benefit all African citizens because of growing economies, more work opportunities and better food security, then it is a step in the right direction.

However, advanced electronic border management systems and security need to be in place to mitigate risks of trafficking and crime. There is the risk that open borders allow for easier movement of illegal goods, cross-border infiltration of terrorism, as well as the spreading of disease. The issue of Xenophobia has been a huge factor in integration and trade in South Africa and Zambia. Many African airlines went bankrupt, hindering travel, and there are high import tariffs halting trade. There are also 33 fluctuating currencies in 54 countries, therefore the way united Africans trade will need to be negotiated.

The AU’s visa-free travel vision is challenging, but it also presents an opportunity for the African economy. African countries that have pioneered visa-free travel have reaped the rewards and suggest there is more to be gained than lost. The free movement of people, capital, goods and services serves to assist in job creation and world-class, integrative infrastructure across the continent being provided. This fosters tourism, facilitates trade and investments amongst African countries and strengthens Africa’s place in global trade. Students will have more opportunities to study in other African countries and new skills will enter the market.

Ghana recently took the lead by introducing a visa-on-arrival policy, which allows any citizens of AU member states to visit the country with the option to stay in Ghana for up to 30 days.

It is also worth considering that the passport is a visible symbol of breaking down barriers and creating unity across Africa. Of course, the symbol is only relevant to African people if and when it is available to all as initially, it will only be issued to Heads of State and Government, Foreign Affairs Ministers and the permanent representatives of the AU member states.

Ghana recently took the lead by introducing a visa-on-arrival policy, which allows any citizens of AU member states to visit the country with the option to stay in Ghana for up to 30 days. The Ghanaian Government believes the move will stimulate trade, investment and tourism.

Hannah Tetteh, Foreign Affairs Minister of Ghana said, “Goods and services move because people make them move.

“It’s important to consider how we manage the process of people moving across our continent, with a view to creating greater economic opportunities for all of us.”

Other African countries such as the Seychelles, Mauritius and Rwanda have also enabled visa-on-arrival and have seen an upward trajectory of travel figures, as well as employment, exports and investments. Since changing regulations, tourism in the Seychelles has increased by an average of 7% between 2009 and 2014. Rwanda’s 2013 visa-free policy has also reaped the benefits with an estimated 24% increase in tourism arrivals from African countries and a 50% increase in intra-African trade. According to the AfDB, trade between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo increased by 73% since the implementation of the policy.

Speaking about Rwanda, Hon. Claver Gatete, Minister for Finance & Economic Planning said, “It should become easier to do business in Africa. A seamless migration policy will boost the local economy and reduce poverty. It well help tourism numbers, and anybody has the right to come here (to Ghana).”

AMB. Sammie Eddicio, Chairperson at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), believes African countries that follow in the Seychelles and Ghana’s footsteps stand to reap the benefits. At the IOM conference in September 2015, he stated, “The term migrants is often seen from a negative perspective, even though there is more to gain from migration than there is to lose.”

“The aim is to enhance the capacities of Africa’s regional frameworks on migration to facilitate intra-regional migration, labour mobility, free movement of persons and integrated border management.”

Africa has one of the highest visa requirements per country in the world. According to the Africa Visa Openness Report 2016, currently Africans need visas to travel to 55% of countries on the African continent. In comparison, North-American citizens need visas to travel to 45% of African countries.

The majority of African nationals have to go through difficult immigration processes, which is often a cost that many simply cannot afford. With the reality of visa fees, visa requirements and immigration processes hindering tourism and business opportunities, the benefits of a unified, open and visa-free continent could open doors to unlimited opportunities.

The driving force behind the passport is to increase trade relations between African nations, where the vast available resources are currently extremely limited to trade. According to the AU, intra-Africa trade stands at only 12%, compared to 40% in North America and 60% in Western Europe, both areas where there is free movement between states and countries. The Africa Agenda 2063 plan is to boost intra-African trade from 12% to 45% by 2045, and raise Africa’s share of global trade from 2% to 12%. (Source: African Union)

The Heads of State and Government of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), East African Community (EAC) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) met in June, 2015 in Egypt to officially launch the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA). The creation of a free trade area from Cape Town to Cairo was possibly the most significant event in Africa since the formation of the AU in 1963, and considered a milestone for Africa’s regional integration process. The 26 countries represent 48% of the AU membership, a combined population of 632 million and a combined GDP of 1.3 million Trillion Dollars. The area spans 17.3 million square kilometres. If the TFTA countries were one country, it would be the thirteenth largest economy in the world.

It is a brazen move to merge existing regional organisations into a single African economic community. The question will be whether Africa can mitigate integration barriers.

Fatima Haram ACYL, Commissioner for Trade & Industry, AU said, “Colonial powers divided Africa, but we are better as an integrated continent. Some countries are still sceptical about embracing a borderless Africa, but they need to realise there is One Africa. One Market.

She added, “Today, our young are migrating to Europe. We live in a world with terrorists, ignorance, intolerance and lack of respect of human dignity. These problems lead to extreme actions, but we need to address the root causes of why these challenges are here. We need to have systems in place to address these issues at our borders to allow free movement of people. The proportion of risks is less than the benefits we will get. The whole world has this problem, not just Africa.”

The idea of a borderless Africa and its potential to transform the continent’s economies has received strong backing from Africa’s entrepreneurs and Government.

The countries that have benefited from visa-free policies suggest that the stimulation of open borders in Africa is geared to aid investment in infrastructure and education and will narrow the divide. Careful regulation and implementation plans will be essential to its success.

This article was written by NICOLE LESCHINSKY.

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