Africa: Era of the African Passport - a Mixed Bag of Opportunities?

Could this be the year that the much-anticipated African Passport is availed to ordinary citizens across the continent?

Despite the passage of numerous set deadlines, incessant delays exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic; after eight years since inception of the initiative, Africans continue to harbour hope that the African Passport nears its official distribution date, and will prove instrumental in relaxing travel restrictions, thereby breaking barriers in intra-African trade and mobility. The mass rollout is yet to materialize but is projected to happen this year.

The African Passport is a flagship project of the African Union's (AU) continental blueprint Agenda 2063; which is additionally well aligned to the 1981 African Charter on human and People's Rights and the 1991 Treaty, establishing the African Economic Community, a nascent regional trade bloc. The Agenda envisions 'an integrated continent, politically united and based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism and the vision of Africa's Renaissance. By the same token, under aspiration 5, the agenda works towards 'an Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics', therefore recommending the collapse of both physical and invisible barriers that have thwarted the integration of the African people.

Hailed as a key component of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the AU unified African passport was launched in July 2016, at the 27th Ordinary session of the AU held in Kigali, Rwanda, and was scheduled to be availed to Africans by 2020. Hitherto, only AU officials, diplomats and government leaders have been issued with the passport.

Similarly, the Union had set a target of achieving intracontinental free trade by 2017, and abolishing visas for Africans to move within the continent by 2018. However, its mass roll-out has been plagued by delays and further worsened by the pandemic, which heralded travel restrictions. Nonetheless, with dispensation of vaccines, a return to normalcy has been witnessed that has in tandem seen most restrictions get lifted.

The African passport is a common passport document that is set to replace the existing nationally issued AU member states' passport, and exempt bearers from having to obtain any visas for all 55 states in Africa. The three types of AU passports that are to be issued include, the Ordinary Passport which is 32 pages and valid for five years, that will be issued to citizens and is intended for occasional travel such as business trips and vacations. The Official or Service passport will be issued to officials attached to government institutions, who have to travel on official business.

Finally, the diplomatic passport will be issued to diplomats and consuls for work-related travel and to their accompanying dependents. The passport has inscriptions in English, Swahili, Arabic, French and Portuguese.

The initiative aims at transforming Africa's laws, which remain generally restrictive on the movement of people. This, despite political commitments to bring down borders, with the view to promote the issuance of visas by member states, thereby enhancing free movement of all African citizens within the continent. The passport will be biometric or an e-passport that meets international standards and will be modeled akin to the EU's Schengen Zone one; to prevent fraud and illegal issuances therefore ensuring accountability. Leveraging on technology, the electronic system could be used to track movements, and hence aid in monitoring illegal travel and improve safe travel conditions.

This will not only aid in tracking criminals and terrorists, but also reduce illegal migration and thus save the lives of the many, who perish on illegal journeys in search of greener pastures.

Despite the enthusiasm around the African Passport, pertinent questions have emerged such as why the AU embarked on this project instead of initiating a visa-free agreement, to change the restrictive visa system. According to many skeptics, it would have been faster, cheaper and more prudent; given that visa-free concessions are already in place in several countries. Restrictive visa regimes across many African countries, have resulted in travel blockages for Africans. Travelling within the continent is not only tedious but also costly.

According to the Africa Visa Openness Index, Africans need a visa entry to 55 per cent of African countries on average. Most of this visas are valid for one month, making frequent business trips an unnecessary struggle. Currently, it takes about 30 visas to get through the entire continent, often you have to leave the continent to only to come back. In some cases, it's easier for people outside Africa to travel to several countries on the continent, such as Americans and Canadians, who can get visas on arrival in 35 per cent of African countries. This has posed a major obstacle to increased intra-African trade, which still remains very low. It's quite unfortunate that many African countries still do more business with their former colonial power masters, than with their neighbours.

According to the 2021 Africa Visa Openness Index, opening up Africa's borders will drive investment and result in an economic rebound. The Index aligns with the African Union's Agenda 2063 and the Protocol on the Free Movement of People. It shows that 36 countries have improved or maintained their Visa Openness Index score since 2016. Over 80 per cent of the countries that have made gains in openness, are low-income or lower-middle-income countries. The report mentioned Namibia, Morocco, and Tunisia as countries that have made the most progress in visa openness.

The report indicates that overall, Africa is almost evenly split between countries with a liberal visa policy and those that partially restrict entry from other African states. A quarter of African countries welcome some or all African visitors visa-free; another quarter roughly permit some or all African visitors, to obtain a visa on arrival.

"By supporting the free movement of people, we make it easier for Africans to do business in Africa. Free movement of people, especially workers could help plug skills gaps, while enabling countries to fix skills mismatches in their labour markets," said Jean-Guy Afrika, the Officer-In-Charge of the Regional Integration Coordination Office at the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Prospects of the African Passport

The African passport will facilitate the free movement of persons in Africa, and is expected to deliver several benefits to all participating countries.

It will open up borders and minimize bureaucracies, associated with intra-continental travel. The document is largely expected to boost intra-Africa trade, manufacturing and commerce, given that AfCFTA is already in effect. According to an analysis for the residency firm Henley & Partners, the passport initiative will prove vital to the success of the trade agreement, as it will ease travel within the continent.

The purpose of AfCFTA is to bring together 1.3 billion people in a $3.4 trillion economic bloc, creating a single market for goods and services; in addition to a customs union with free movement of both capital and business travelers. African citizens will be able to cross all borders on African soil, this will largely simplify the trading matrix which is bound to cause a domino effect, bolstering other key sectors in these economies, hence aiding in poverty eradication.

The African Passport will greatly boost Africa's tourism sector, which is a top foreign exchange earner in many African countries, making significant contributions to their respective GDPs such as Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Drawing an example from the EU's Schengen passport, that has turned Europe into a tourism hub, due to the fact that a single visa with multiple entries permit one to access 26 states; one can only imagine how the same scenario would skyrocket Africa's industry.

The passport is bound to create employment across many African nations, solving one of the continent's greatest quandaries; unemployment. Given the open-door policy, the passport will permit skilled Africans to cross borders to find opportunities. Entrepreneurs can move from country to country establishing their businesses with ease, and creating job opportunities. This could also serve as a viable solution to end the dangerous journeys by many African youth, in their attempt to reach Europe mostly through the Mediterranean Sea; with opportunities abounding within the continent, they can move to a country within the continent to find greener pastures.

Africa stands to benefit from a unified approach to solving economic problems, as it serves as a powerful tool to unify trade and labour mobility allowing for strength in numbers that the continent urgently needs. Other benefits that the African Passport is expected to bring include: promoting pan-African identity and social integration; facilitating labour mobility, intra-Africa knowledge and skills transfer; improving trans-border infrastructure and shared development; fostering a comprehensive approach to border management; promoting rule of law, human rights and public health.

Plausible impediments

The African Passport project presents certain challenges, whose forfeiture could prove detrimental should they lack proper address.

Among the major concerns has been increased terrorist activity, due to the open border policy. With the continent harbouring several terror groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab among others, fears exist that they would take advantage of the free and open borders to coordinate attacks in vast areas.

Logistical issues could prove existential in regards to issuing the passports. At present, only 24 countries have implemented biometrics passport issuance systems; this could pose a challenge in issuing a standard AU passport. Furthermore, with perspective to the differences in technology advancement levels across Africa, accessing the passport could be a hurdle for some countries.

The issue of porous borders does not settle well with several countries, due to the fear of an influx of migrants. Already even before the passports are issued, some countries have been struggling with xenophobia due to the large inflow of migrants. South Africa has particularly been on the spotlight for this, due to migrants from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique. In the same breath, some African countries are very strict and protective of their borders such as Equatorial Guinea, therefore opening them up might prove challenging. Moreover, some countries might not want to relinquish the benefits of visa fees, as it forms a part of government revenue.

Furthermore, the AU needs to shed light on several issues such as whether the passport will be issued alongside a national one, or will it supersede the relevance of a national one. Another query would be the extent to which the passport will promote labour mobility; will the passport resemble the Schengen Zone one, which affords EU passport holders the same employment opportunities across Europe regardless of citizenship. Or, will protectionism give way to restrictions? Into the bargain, will the passport be useful for travelling abroad or only remain acceptable in Africa?

Going forward, African countries additionally need to invest in travel infrastructure, which is lagging behind. For instance, there are very few flights between Abuja and Dakar, two major West African capitals, and passengers sometimes have to travel via Nairobi, Addis Ababa or even Europe. Yes, the passport will soon be availed, but with ineffective travel infrastructure, priorities appear misplaced.

Even as Africa looks forward to the mass distribution of the African passport, so much remains undone and so many questions remain unanswered. Inarguably, the initiative is capital and Africa could reap a plethora of benefits, catapulting the continent closer to the realization of Agenda 2063.

However, the AU should address these existing quibbles, and clearly outline concrete plans and mechanisms for implementation thereof.

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