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Is a borderless Africa possible?

April 18, 2024
topic:Economic Inclusion
tags:#Africa, #travel, #citizenship, #African Continental Free Trade Area, #African passport
located:Benin, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania
by:Bob Koigi
African nations are pushing for a "One Africa" reality with open borders and free movement. But can the continent clear the obstacles and truly unite?

Historically, non-African visitors have found it easier to travel within Africa than Africans themselves. It can be up to 50 per cent cheaper to fly from Africa to Europe or the UAE than to fly within the continent. Additionally, African countries tend to trade more with nations outside the continent than with each other, according to studies.

These situations have sparked discussions and even jokes about human mobility in Africa, highlighting factors like protectionist policies by African states that restrict travel. But the continent is making progress towards a borderless Africa, inspired by the African Union's ideals to increase intra-continental trade and promote the free movement of people, aiming to boost socio-economic and political development.

Only 28 per cent of African routes allowed Africans to travel visa-free by 2023, according to a Visa Openness in Africa report from the same year. The report evaluated different African countries’ openness to visitors from other African countries. This, the report notes, is an improvement from the 20 per cent levels recorded in 2016. 

Countries like Seychelles, Benin, Gambia and Rwanda have abolished visa requirements for all Africans, as the seek to capitalise on the market of over 1.2 billion people to expand their economies.

The African passport

The African Passport and Free Movement of People, a key initiative under the African Union's Agenda 2063, focuses on revising restrictive policies and legislation that hinder the interaction of African citizens across borders. A major milestone was the introduction of an African passport in 2016, designed to enable holders to travel visa-free throughout the continent.

The passport was initially issued to diplomats and African Union officials with plans to extend its availability to all African citizens once the necessary legislations were put in place.

Previous deadlines for the broader rollout of the passport were set, but have been delayed, with the COVID-19 pandemic further complicating the situation.

A Continental free trade pact

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), launched in 2021, aims to unify over 1.2 billion Africans within a market valued at an estimated USD 3.4 trillion, making it the largest free trade area globally since the World Trade Organization was established. The initiative seeks to liberalise the continental market by allowing Africans to trade freely with one another.

But free cross-border trade in the continent remains in its nascent stages, with COVID-19-related travel restrictions having slowed its implementation.

In 2022, the African Union launched the AfCFTA Guided Trade Initiative, which allows countries that have finalised legal agreements and submitted product offers to begin trading with each other. This initiative has already approved over 100 products for trade, including sugar, ceramic tiles, processed meat products, batteries and dried fruits.

Kenya and Rwanda, for instance, have sold domestic products like coffee and batteries to Ghana under the agreement, while South Africa has exported mining equipment, home appliances, and refrigerators to neighbouring countries. These transactions are facilitated by documents certifying that the products are made from African-sourced materials, which qualifies them for reduced custom fees.

But the free trade area has also faced headwinds. Traders have complained about a lack of information sharing among customs officers regarding the correct tariffs and product certifications. As a result, goods that should be exempt under the agreement are often subjected to the regular tariffs in the importing country.

There have also been concerns that AfCFTA concentrates on big companies and ignores small businesses and informal traders who account for a significant portion of the continent's trade.

Recent military coups and political upheavals have also threatened the agreement, with trade in countries in turmoil being halted.

Africa's open skies treaty

To address issues like high airfares and to liberalise the aviation sector, Africa in 2018 introduced an open skies treaty dubbed the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM). This initiative seeks to unify African skies and enable more free, convenient and faster travel across the continent.

So far, 35 countries have ratified the treaty, which the African Union Commission projects will create 300,000 direct jobs and an additional two million indirect job opportunities.

These efforts to create a border-free continent have been bolstered by regional economic blocs such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which allow citizens belonging to member countries to move freely within the blocs or work without restrictive conditions.

Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, for example, allow citizens to enter each other’s countries using only a national identity document.  

ECOWAS has been a model for free movement in Africa, with its protocol established in 1979 to allow citizens of member countries to travel visa-free, set up businesses and enjoy residence rights across the region.

However, the recent withdrawal of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso complicates the mobility matrix within ECOWAS. Mali is a major transit hub in the region, and Burkina Faso plays a pivotal role in labour migration, particularly for Côte d'Ivoire’s extensive cocoa industry.

"These efforts have been key in enhancing integration from the regional to the continental level," Anita Nkirote, a Kenyan-based political and development expert, told FairPlanet. "Landmark interventions, such as the African free trade area, have demonstrated that it is possible to have a continent where citizens can move freely, interact with each other, work in different countries, enjoy and appreciate each other’s culture and trade without restrictions."

The implementation question

But even as the continent forges ahead with an ambitious united Africa vision, it is grappling with snail-paced implementation of some of the initiatives. Treaties such as the free trade area and open skies require member countries to pass laws in their respective jurisdictions to legitimise and operationalise them, but some member countries, like Nigeria and South Africa, are being accused of imposing protectionist policies that curb trade with other African nations. 

Uganda and Tanzania, meanwhile, have refused or stalled on signing the open skies treaty, arguing that such a move would jeopardise their national airlines.

"Such challenges are expected. Countries focus on protecting their markets, jobs for their people or raise security concerns about certain countries," added Nkirote. "While these concerns are valid, they should be addressed at the continental level to allow open and transparent process of integration."

African heads of states also agree that restrictive policies ultimately hurt the continent and its people. "When people cannot travel, businesspeople cannot travel, entrepreneurs cannot travel, we all become net losers," Kenyan president William Ruto said during a summit in Congo-Brazzaville in October last year.

Slamming the brakes on a border-free Africa

Six years after the introduction of the African passport, its widespread rollout remains unfulfilled. Holders of the passport, including prominent African industrialist Aliko Dangote, who has business interests across the continent, still face visa requirements in certain countries.

In an interview, Dangote has expressed frustration that despite being an African passport holder, he was required to obtain a visa for entry into Angola.

"I was invited by the president of Angola to come and see him, and I had to go. When I went there, I had to be given visa on African Union passport," he said. "It is not about fees, when you say African Union passport, you should move everywhere, free of charge."

The open skies treaty has also made little progress in its implementation over the six years, with bottlenecks such as over-taxation by airlines in landing countries and a lack of political will by member countries slamming the brakes on its operationalisation.

Yet, according to the 2018 Visa Openness Report, countries that open their borders enjoy numerous benefits in areas ranging from tourism and investment to overall GDP.

As per the report, 18 out of the 20 most visa-open African countries saw improvements in their rankings on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. All 20 countries also experienced growth in travel and tourism, GDP and investments. Specifically, Rwanda's decision to lift travel restrictions led to a doubling of visitor numbers and a notable increase in conference tourism.

Experts agree that integration and a borderless Africa are essential for the continent to fulfill its social, economic and development goals. At the same time, they emphasise the need for transparent and structured processes to effectively pursue this ambition.

"Regional integration has to a large extent paved the way for a united Africa. The treaties and protocols are impressive on paper. The hurdle is implementation," Nkirote concluded.

"To realise this, African leaders must demonstrate political will by expediting ratification of the requisite laws and driving the integration agenda with clean hands. A one Africa requires the total support of all Africans to materialise."

Picture by Halima Bouchouicha

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Benin Rwanda Kenya Ghana South Africa Uganda Tanzania
Embed from Getty Images
African countries tend to trade more with nations outside the continent than with each other, according to studies.
Embed from Getty Images
The African Passport and Free Movement of People, a key initiative under the African Union's Agenda 2063, focuses on revising restrictive policies and legislation that hinder the interaction of African citizens across borders.
Embed from Getty Images
Experts agree that integration and a borderless Africa are essential for the continent to fulfill its social, economic and development goals.