As Europe looks inwards, Africa is issuing a Pan-African passport.
I’m in Addis Ababa where the 30th annual meeting of the African Union is taking place. For once all the talk is a subject after my own heart: passports. Soon, in less than two years, every African citizen will be eligible to apply for a continent-wide passport, the African Union passport.
First mooted a couple of years ago in Kigali, Rwanda, where a few token passports were issued to heads of state and senior diplomats, the new red passports with gold writing are aimed at encouraging greater mobility and visa-free access to all 54 member states.
As the European Union is considering raising borders in the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote and looking at ways of slowing the freedom of movement, the African Union is going in the opposite direction and pursuing a path of closer integration. This is not just a symbolic move, but a very sensible one. Currently just 13 African states allow visa free access to Africans, with many others placing severe restrictions on travel.
A recent report from the African Development Bank advised that easing entrance requirements would support economic growth, citing the case of Rwanda, which saw GDP and tourism revenues climb after abolishing visas. It is also often difficult to travel between different African countries. I know this from bitter experience. Often the easiest way to get around Africa is to fly via London, Paris or Frankfurt every time, and then return to the continent.
Greater mobility will lead to so many benefits. Freedom of movement has been a longstanding priority among member states, as enshrined in previous agreements such as the 1991 Abuja Treaty. Common passports have already been adopted for several regions, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). There are a few African countries looking at citizenship-by-investment programmes, and this will lead to greater mobility for all those involved.
There will be those who highlight the risks of a single passport for the continent. They will talk about security threats, the lack of technology for the biometric system, the loss of visa revenue, and even that some of the more powerful states will override the concerns of smaller countries.
I think these fears are overblown. Giving everyone a pan-African passport will encourage education and mobility, support cross-border trade within the continent, reduce the widespread dependence on Western goods, and offer new opportunities to many citizens. One of the hidden benefits is that by abolishing border controls, you can banish a lot of corruption, one of the main topics of the African Union’s assembly this year.
People and goods will be able to flow throughout the continent, rather than being trapped at barriers. Given the love of bureaucracy in some parts of Africa, there is bound to be some resistance and hurdles to overcome before you can drive from Cairo to Cape Town with the wave of one travel document. Politics often comes between people. But for myself, I’m hopeful, and will be looking to see if I can apply for an African Union passport.