In Depth

Fact Check: Would a visa-free Africa break down colonial-era borders?

In Depth: can the African Union keep its promise to abolish travel restrictions?

While Western nations retreat behind ever higher fences and longer walls, African states are beginning to break down the colonial-era boundaries that hinder travel and trade across the continent.

The African Union (AU) is moving ahead with plans to abolish travel restrictions for citizens of all 55 member states, but critics say such promises have been made - and broken - before.

More than 50 years after the AU’s inception, The Week looks at how much progress has been towards the pan-Africanist vision of a borderless continent, and the barriers that remain.

What have leaders promised?

At an AU summit in 2013, leaders approved Agenda 2063, an ambitious and wide-ranging initiative that aims to boost intercontinental relations, strengthen the region’s self-reliance and improve Africa’s global status over the next five decades.

Among the goals is a common visa policy that includes visas on arrival (VOA) for all African nationals, and mandatory granting of a minimum 30-day visa for Africans visiting any country on the continent by the end of 2018.

The AU has also pledged to introduce a single, continental passport allowing Africans to move freely between borders by 2020.

The plan is aimed at “creating a strong, prosperous and integrated Africa, driven by its own citizens and capable of taking its rightful place on the world stage”, said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, then chair of the AU Commission, at the organisation’s 2016 summit.

The AU’s director for political affairs, Dr Khabele Matlosa, said that opening up Africa’s borders could also help ease the ongoing Mediterranean migrant crisis, according to CNN.

“We have a problem now that young people are risking their lives to cross the Sahara Desert or travel by boat [to Europe],” Matlosa said. “If we open up opportunities in Africa, we reduce that risk.”

What do critics say?

Writing for South Africa’s Daily Maverick website, Zimbabwean journalist Mako Muzenda welcomes the plan, but argues that a “pattern of grand promises and broken dreams” has come to characterise the AU.

Muzenda asks: “Why should I believe that Agenda 2063 will work when other initiatives have failed before they even began?” 

Others have voiced concerns about the impact on regional security. Detractors argue that visa-free travel would make it easier for terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers to move between countries, says Anne Fruge, a PhD candidate in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

As has happened in Europe, a single passport “may intensify competition for jobs and public services, leading to more xenophobic political rhetoric and attacks”, Fruge writes in The Washington Post. Migration is already a contentious issue in many parts of Africa, she adds, as has been shown by deadly anti-immigrant riots in South Africa and Zambia, and heated debates over refugees in Kenya.

Civil society leaders have also cautioned that the new African passports will provide another way for dictators to “track dissidents and journalists across borders”, says Revi Mfizi, a Rwandan doctoral candidate at the State University of New York.

Is progress being made?

Africans needed a visa to travel to 54% of the continent’s countries in 2016 - a 1% drop from the previous year, according to the latest Africa Visa Openness Index Report.

“Important progress was made in 2016, with African countries on average becoming more open to each other,” the annual report from the African Development Bank and the AU Commission said.

However, only 13 out of 55 countries offer liberal access (visa-free or visa on arrival) to all Africans.

Free movement of people continues to vary region by region, with West and East Africa leading the way, while Central Africa remains the most closed part of the continent.

Africa’s smaller states, and those that are landlocked or islands, are more open, while many of the continent’s regional and strategic hubs continue to have restrictive visa policies, the report says.

The Seychelles, a group of islands off the coast of East Africa, is the top-performing country in the index, offering visa-free access to all African citizens.

But crossing borders remains a “painful experience” for most Africans, The Economist says. It can take weeks to apply for visas, and getting them involves significant travel and expense. It is still “easier for Americans to travel around Africa than it is for Africans themselves”, the magazine says.

The all-Africa passport, meanwhile, was officially launched in 2016 but has so far only been made available to African heads of state, AU officials and select national government personnel.

With the exception of the Economic Community of West Africa, the right to mobility within and across national and regional boundaries “is still a dream”, says Achille Mbembe, a research professor in history and politics at the Johannesburg-based Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research, in South African newspaper the Mail and Guardian.

Will the AU keep its promise?

Despite encouraging steps towards greater freedom of movement on the continent, huge hurdles remain. The AU is unlikely to meet its ambitious visa-free pledge by the end of 2018, nor its promise of a freely available African passport by 2020.

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