Calls grow for more Africans to adopt open border policy

Passengers queue to board a RwandAir plane en route to Cape Town earlier this year. Rwanda has a visa-on-arrival policy not just for Africans, but also citizens of the whole world. Photo: Sam Ngendahimana.

 Nigeria, Africa's biggest economy in terms of nominal GDP, announced it will start issuing visa on arrival to travelers from all African countries, dropping the requirement that they must apply in advance.

Integration and trade policy experts and members of the civil society have called for more countries to do the same to deepen integration on the continent.

President Muhammadu Buhari made the announcement this week during the Aswan Forum on peace and security in Africa, a continental meeting that was held in Egypt.

Buhari said that Nigeria “is committed to supporting the free movement of Africans within Africa,” adding that the new visa regime for African passport holders would be in force in January 2020.

“We will commence issuance of visas at the point of entry into Nigeria, to all persons holding passports of African countries,” he told the meeting.

His announcement came five months after Nigeria, which is also Africa’s most populous country, signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), a deal aimed at promoting free trade on the continent.

Buhari’s announcement was commended by many, considering that free movement of the people is the hallmark of regional economic integration, facilitating trade and economic growth across the continent.

Speaking to The New Times, Peter Mathuki, the East Africa Business Council (EABC) Executive Director said: “This is a great step towards realising the AfCFTA and, other partner states of AU should emulate Nigeria”.

Signed in Kigali in 2018, AfCTA is expected to make Africa the largest trading bloc in the world once it is fully implemented.

Ziad Hamoui, the National President of Borderless Alliance in Ghana, said President Buhari “should be lauded for making it easier for Africans to travel to Nigeria.”

However, Hamoui noted some conflicting elements.

Nigeria, he said, also recently announced that “they shall only recognise passports as valid identification documents for entry into their country, and I think this is a bit unfair, but understandable, with their security and smuggling concerns.”

This, he said, is not the best solution, since freedom of moment is enshrined in the Economic Community of West African States protocol and the region was synchronizing the launching of an ECOWAS ID card, simplifying transport across West Africa.

“What Nigeria needs to focus on at the moment, is to build the capacity of its revenue collection force, replacing the current ones with more competent elements with integrity, because smuggling is a shared responsibility and is mostly done in connivance with bad elements within the government agencies,” Hamoui said.

Towards the “Africa We Want”

The African Union, which unveiled an AU passport in 2016, issuing it to heads of state and diplomats, is pushing for a single passport for all African nationals so that they can travel across the continent without requiring visas.

No country has as yet given it to its ordinary citizens.

Asked if he thought Buhari’s move is a signal that the continent was making steps towards its Agenda 2063, Africa’s blueprint for transforming the continent into a global powerhouse of the future, Hamoui responded affirmatively but noted that the pace is slow.

“Yes, but the pace is still somewhat slow. I believe that the private sector and civil society representatives have a crucial role to play, in order to accelerate the much needed reforms to allow freer movement of goods and people across the continent,” Hamoui said.

Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want; is the continent’s strategic framework which aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development.

Martha Joash Makenge, acting CEO at the East African Civil Society Organisations’ Forum (EACSOF), said Nigeria’s move is “a huge commitment and it shows political will” in terms of facilitating the free trade area agreement.

“This should be duplicated by all member states in order to make sure that we, Africans, can move easily but also trade easily. It is a strategic decision to reduce barriers that hinder free movement of people within the continent and it promotes free trade within Africa. And it will bring on board massive investment in Nigerians economy and open market.”

The Africa We Want agenda is gaining momentum; Makenge said, but “not in a pace that we want.”

“We want to see more countries committed towards the agreed processes.”

The continent’s strategic framework is a concrete manifestation of the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity pursued under Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.

The media too, Hamoui observed, have a role to play in widening the reach of engagement of the parties involved.

The Africa Visa Openness Index, a measure of how open countries are when it comes to visas by looking at what they ask of citizens from other countries in Africa when they travel, key facts about visa openness in Africa in 2019.

Data on visa openness collected in June and July 2019, from the research released by the African Development Bank shows that while Africans have liberal access to 51% of other African countries; Africans need visas to travel to 49% of other African countries.

Africans don’t need a visa to travel to 25% of other African countries and 21 African countries out of 54 (39%) offer eVisas.

Out Africa’s 54 countries, the five with the best “visa openness” policies were Seychelles, Benin, Senegal, Rwanda and Ghana.

Rwanda started implementing visa on arrival for African citizens in January 2016 and expanded it in 2018 to people from all countries in the world.

The five worst were Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea and South Sudan. Nigeria was ranked at number 30, one down from 2018. Ethiopia, listed as one of the worst performers in 2018, later announced a visa-on-arrival policy for Africans.

Wanyama Masinde, a Kenyan don who is an expert on regional integration and public policy, observed that it is important to distinguish between visa free and visa on arrival – as in Nigeria’s case – as “visa on arrival does not mean no visa.” 

While visa-free travel enables the holder of a valid passport to enter a country without needing to apply for a visa beforehand, and without needing to undergo any further visa attainment procedure upon entering a country, visa-on-arrival suggests that a visa is issued when the visitor ‘arrives’ in a country.

The process of issuing the visa is initiated and completed at the port of entry, where government authorities examine the visitor’s passport, collect the relevant visa payment, and ultimately issue the visa.

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