The sky should not be the limit for Africans

If the just-concluded African Union Summit held in Kigali proves anything, it is that Africans are more than capable of sorting out our own problems without the need to continuously draw in sympathisers, the-know-it-all, and opportunists.

If the just-concluded African Union Summit held in Kigali proves anything, it is that Africans are more than capable of sorting out our own problems without the need to continuously draw in sympathisers, the-know-it-all, and opportunists.

At the Summit, it was evident that our leaders appeared to be eager to re-reinvigorate their commitment towards elevating the continent to its rightful place on the global stage.


In fact, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the current AU Commission chairperson, pointed out that “African countries should maintain this spirit of togetherness and start working together on action plans to foster economic development for the entire continent.”


Among the achievements were the adoption of recommendations for AU members to finance the Union’s entire budget themselves in order to free themselves from external influence, and the launch of the much anticipated AU passport.


Going forward, AU member states agreed to contribute 100 per cent of AU budget using a 0.2 per cent tax levy on eligible imports.

Currently, member states pay only 40 per cent of the AU budget, with the rest paid for largely by China, the European Union, and the United States. The AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was also funded entirely by the Chinese.

And, as we all know, he who pays the piper…

In any case, today I want to shed some light on an uncomfortable truth. The AU passport is only half a solution to a much bigger problem of travel within Africa.

It is true that the common passport will facilitate seamless mobility of the African people within the continent, thereby playing a leading role in boosting intra-African trade which is seen as a key pillar of economic integration. 

But the fact is, Africans won’t fly around the continent on passports – they will have to use planes too. However, at the current rate, it appears that Africans are not free to take to the skies.

Here is a statement I want you to hold onto: the majority of African countries have more flights to London or Paris and elsewhere outside the continent than with other countries on the continent. It is so bad that you could leave Nairobi for Accra, for instance, and be shipped off to Dubai first before arriving in Accra.

Equally, there are very few flights between Abuja and Dakar – arguably two of West Africa’s leading cities – and it is not uncommon for passengers intending to travel to either direction to have to travel via Addis Ababa or Nairobi first.

Sometimes, they even stopover in Paris before arriving at their final destination. This story is all too familiar to many African travellers.

Last week, via Twitter, I wrote a brief open letter addressed to the AU Heads of State and Government who had arrived in Kigali for the 27th AU Summit. In the letter, I courteously pointed out that my understanding was that all these leaders had made direct flights to Rwanda from their respective countries.

Not a single one of them was involuntarily made to stopover in Dubai or Paris before arriving in Kigali. If they had, I insisted, it was entirely their choice.

I proceeded to explain that the same cannot be said for their people who travel within the continent. You see, I clarified, when Africans travel within the continent for business or pleasure, many are often made to stopover somewhere outside the continent in places like Dubai or Paris, which is not only a waste of money but also time.

I concluded the letter by noting that it beats logic for us Africans to continue claiming that Africa is open for business while the continent remains inaccessible even from within.

Africa has for a long time been ruled by decades of bilateral restrictions, and these restrictions have affected the way we should be doing business between each other – intra-trade.

For instance, did you know that before an African airline can fly from its home nation to another on the continent, it must be designated as an approved carrier by both countries? And do you know how long it can take for that agreement to be reached?

The Economist reported earlier this year that it took Fastjet, a low-cost carrier, three years to be allowed to operate between Tanzania and Kenya. And that’s below the average waiting time!

Also, did you know that airlines wanting to fly new routes within the continent need the agreement of both governments first? But that’s not all, the above process has been known to attract bribes as public officials have to have their hands greased before business is allowed to commence. This alone has cost African economies a lot of money.

We all know that closed markets are bad for price, quality, and innovation. Liberalising air travel in Africa has the potential to boost business that depends entirely on mobility, here I can think of perishable goods like flowers for export, for instance.

When South Africa and Zambia struck a bilateral deal to open their skies to each other, air fares fell by up to 40 per cent, and numbers of passengers increased just as much.

But, that’s just a tiny fraction of what working together can lead to. A study released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) indicates that if just 12 of Africa’s bigger economies opened their skies to one another, fares would fall by more than a third and traffic between them would soar by 81 per cent, to roughly 11 million passengers, and $1.3 billion would be added to GDP.

So, why are we dragging our feet? I doubt it is because we don’t know the benefits. In fact, in 1988, AU members attempted to liberalise air travel under the Yamoussoukro Declaration (YD) – promising to create a single air transport market across Africa.

In 2000, the YD was endorsed by AU Head of State and Government, and became fully binding in 2002. But still little has been done to this end.

All things considered, I am hopeful that the Kigali AU summit is an indication of good things to come. Similarly, I am hopeful that our leaders will not act as if it is business as usual.

We are better than that. We cannot continue to drag our feet. And, as Winston Churchill once remarked, however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results. Our results have been poor. We need to do more.


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