The Founding Fathers of independent Africa dreamt of a united continent one day. They hoped it would be sooner rather than later. And so they formed the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as a forum for the attainment of that dream.
The OAU made significant gains. But we all know it did not work as had been hoped and so the dream remained elusive. Many factors conspired to thwart every effort at unity.
Different ideologies played their part. Big egos of some of the leaders and paranoid dictators stood in the way. Active discouragement and even outright interference from outside the continent made sure it didn’t happen. Poverty too was a stumbling block.
In fact many countries raised even stronger barriers and became more closed to fellow Africans. In many instances, foreigners, especially from the west, had easier access than Africans.
Still, the search for unity went on. The African Union (AU) was born to further promote unity and accelerate the process of integration of the continent and give it a strong voice in international affairs. We are not much closer to achieving the objectives of the AU.
That unity that has continued to elude us may now come from a different, unexpected route. It is coming from the actions of individual countries to remove or ease visa requirements for Africans. This is bringing down barriers fast and promoting greater movement of people, trade and investment across the continent.
And the leaders of this movement of greater openness are not the giants of the continent but the smaller nations. The latest to join the handful of countries with more open borders is Benin whose President Patrice Talon announced a visa waiver for Africans on his recent visit to Rwanda. Benin follows Rwanda, Mauritius, the Seychelles and a few others.
Openness, it turns out, is smart economics. According to the Africa Visa Openness Report 2016, it is about breaking down physical and cultural barriers, unlocking Africa’s growth and future development, as well as building a common identity for Africans.
The African Bank Regional Integration Policy Strategy 2014-2023 also has the free movement of people as the hallmark of regional integration, facilitating trade and economic growth across the continent. In addition to tourism, it helps fill gaps in the labour market and increase efficiency by reducing labour shortages.
Results from countries with open border policies show that indeed the choice is smart.
Mauritius is consistently number one in Africa in various economic rankings. That was not always the case. The island nation was once known only for sugar cane growing.
They still grow sugar cane and make sugar in Mauritius, but that is no longer the mainstay of its economy. Tourism, financial services and foreign investments have eclipsed the original sugary business.
For instance, gross earnings from tourism in 2014 totalled US dollars 1.4 billion according to the Board of Investment of Mauritius. The same Board says there are over 20,000 global companies registered in Mauritius.
The story is the same in the Seychelles. The African Economic Outlook 2014 reported a 7% growth in international tourist arrivals in the space of five years (2009-2014).
In Rwanda, greater openness has produced similar remarkable results. Mr Francis Gatare, CEO of Rwanda Development Board (RDB) told an international news agency recently that Rwanda earned US$ 400 million from tourism in 2016, which was a 25% increase on the previous year’s earnings brought by 1.3 million visitors. In only one year the introduction of the single tourist visa by Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya led to a 17% increase in tourist arrivals in Rwanda.
He has also said African travellers to Rwanda increased by 22% annually, while conference visitors increased by 24% in 2014 alone.
The removal of work permit requirements for East African Community citizens saw over 12,000 people get work permits. Similarly, the use of national identity cards as travel documents has led to a 50% rise in cross-border trade. The figure for 2016 must be much higher, judging from the number and size of recent conferences.
Of course, the success of these countries is not due to open borders alone. It is also explained by the adoption of other liberal business policies, like the ease of doing business, relevant laws that protect investment, and other incentives.
These countries have shown something else. They have dispelled the fears that often lead to more closed borders.
None of them has been swamped by hordes of immigrants. No nationals have lost jobs because of unfair competition from foreigners.
Equally, no serious cases of insecurity, more grave than those in countries with stricter controls have been reported.
The smaller nations have shown more daring. They are bringing down barriers and creating prosperity with more friendliness, not excessive controls and restrictions. Small wonder others are increasingly following their example. This may be the route to follow to continental unity.