In November 2016, Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, and his Chadian counterpart, Idriss Deby Itno stepped out of the African Union summit in Kigali, brandishing the first two copies of the pan-African passport.
It was a historic moment rarely seen at such gatherings, where outcomes are often measured in declarations or resolutions.
It was a step towards forging the African vision 2063 adopted by African heads of state in 2013, wherein people and goods would travel across borders with relative ease.
That AU biometric passport would initially be issued to African heads of state, foreign ministers and diplomats accredited by the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but the plan entailed scrapping visa requirements for African citizens altogether by 2018.
But to date, moving across borders in Africa is still quite restrictive, safe for the Seychelles, the Gambia and Benin that offer visa-free access to all Africans, according to the African Development Bank’s 2021 Visa Openness Report.
“Nonetheless, visa openness in Africa as a whole dropped slightly over the year. The continent is almost evenly split between countries with a liberal visa policy and countries whose visa policy is more restrictive: 25% of African countries welcome some or all African visitors, visa-free. 24% of African countries allow some or all African visitors to obtain a visa on arrival. 51% of African countries require African visitors to obtain a visa before they arrive,” the report states.
Africa’s tough visa regime was the focus of discussions in a zoom call Tuesday, April 12, that brought together policymakers, journalists, researchers, and security experts across the continent.
“For you to move from one African country to the other, there is a restriction,” said Kennedy Wandera, a Kenyan journalist who coordinated deliberations.
“People thought that with the elaborate policy areas of regional integration coming up, or regional economic communities, there is going to be relaxed visa restrictions on the continent. That is not the case,” he said.
Participants came up with disturbing personal experiences that illustrate just how travel has been made more difficult across Africa,
Wole Ojewale, an expert on conflicts, organized crime and security governance in West Africa recalls how airport officials in Mali had to force him to present his passport, even though he had a notarized travel document that regional leaders had agreed could serve as a passport as well.
“You can’t talk about visa restrictions in Africa without talking about the political dimensions because essentially, travelling across Africa has to be driven by governmental readiness from your home country and intergovernmental partnerships across the board in Africa. So, you find this situation where it’s easier for people to travel outside Africa than to come into Africa,” he said during Tuesday’s zoom call.
“There has never been any serious commitment to integration in Africa on the part of the government,” he added, and then explained further: “If you are travelling from Dakar to Abuja in Nigeria, there is a notarized document that you can present on arrival at the airport instead of your passport. Most people that use that do so for the sake of not quickly exhausting their passport pages. But you find out that when you present this document in Francophone West African countries, they won’t even recognize it. You have to show them your passport. Yet, this was agreed upon by governments in West Africa that it should be presented as authentic travel documents in West Africa,” Dr. Ojewale lamented.
Jim Chick, head of the management unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute noted that although travelling within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) area is relatively easy, there still are disturbing limitations.
“I’ve seen cases at Cote d’Ivoire airports where an Ivorian would present an ID card to fly to Guinea, but a Ghanaian cannot use the ID card to fly to the same Guinea,” he said.
He also stated that it’s even more disturbing that to move from one part of some African countries to the other, a visa or a pass is required.
“In the DRC, you need a visa to move from one region to another. For instance, you need a pass to go from Kinshasa to the equator Province,” he noted.
Moustapha, a Malian national now living in Canada complained about the too much paperwork that goes into the visa procurement process, and noted that most of the forms to be filled are “redundant,’
“What that does is, it pushes people away,” he regretted.
Dr. Ojewale cast the blame on African governments that have so far shown scant commitment to implementing the very protocols they signed.
“Most of the time, our governments are quick to sign up on protocols and intergovernmental partnerships, but the actual implementation on the ground-the people that are supposed to drive that process are disconnected from it.”
Dr. Fareed Arthur Kwesi, National Coordinator and Senior Technical Advisor at the National African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Coordination Office, Ghana noted that travelling remains a “human right” and that facilitating the free movement of people across the continent would make Africans “more adventurous, and that is where cross-learning takes place.”
“Free movement is basic, it’s intrinsic to trade. You cannot trade if you cannot move goods and persons freely,” he said.
“If we had to make that big jump that we want-unimpeded movement with all the protocols observed-you are not transporting illegal goods, arms, women trafficking, children trafficking, sex trafficking, all those observed, I think we should encourage the movement of goods and services across the continent, it can only be good for the continent,” he pointed out.
And Stephen, a Nigerian who called in from the UK said part of the problem lies in the perceived strength, or lack thereof, of passports from African countries.
“Generally, wherever we go, as long as we have an African passport, the entire world does not respect us. Africans are seen as the lowest,” he said.
“For example, I was in Dubai with my wife on a trip. There was a line for those holding EU passports, American passports, and Australian passports which is express. Then we, the rest of the world, particularly Africans, have to line up and be subjected to hours of questioning. One of the fallouts of this is many people want to dump their African passports as soon as they can because they say it doesn’t have power,” he cried out.
“Freedom of movement is a natural African right. Our ancestors moved from Egypt down to Sudan and all over Africa. They had no passports. The European colonial masters never had passports to travel to any country,” Stephen concluded.