Visa on Arrival and the Dream of a Union of African States

When the OAU was created in 1963 it had two main objectives - the total liberation of the continent from colonial rule, and the unity of Africa. The 60’s and 70’s saw several countries including Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe liberated.
Gerald Mpyisi
Gerald Mpyisi

When the OAU was created in 1963 it had two main objectives - the total liberation of the continent from colonial rule, and the unity of Africa. The 60’s and 70’s saw several countries including Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe liberated.

The OAU played an important role in this liberation and some countries such as Tanzania and Zambia sacrificed a lot to support the liberation movements. The liberation struggle for political freedom ended with the crushing of apartheid and the installation of Nelson Mandela as the first President of a free South Africa in 1994.

Remarkable economic developments have been achieved since the OAU was established. It is predicted that on the average sub-Saharan Africa will grow at 6 percent economic growth in the next few years with some countries achieving up to 10 percent. Democracy is now well established and leaders are now installed by the ballot as opposed to a couple of decades ago when the bullet ruled. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has doubled in the last 10 years and continues to increase. In spite of these impressive statistics and the huge wealth of natural resources that Africa possesses, many visionary people are concerned about the ability of the continent to become a major economic power in its current formation of balkanized and poor countries.

The OAU’s second objective – the unity of Africa, was never addressed in any significant way.  In the hope of making the organisation more meaningful and to address pressing economic and social issues, the OAU was rebranded the African Union (AU) with the objective “to ensure that Africans own and control Africa from Cape to Cairo”. While the 10 years that the AU has been in existence is a short time to censure it, few states can claim “ownership and control” of their economies. Many states still depend on foreign direct aid for as much as 50 percent of their budget. The AU member states contribute only 40% of its budget with the rest coming from external “partners”.

The words of two visionary leaders among the founding fathers of the OAU are as true today as they were in 1963 and 1997 when they were spoken. At the first OAU meeting in Addis Ababa on 24th May 1963, Kwame Nkrumah had this to say. “Unite we must, or else we perish. We can here and now forge a political union based on defence, foreign affairs and diplomacy, and a common citizenship, an African currency, an African monetary zone, and an African central bank.” In 1965 in Accra, Nkrumah recommended to the OAU Heads of State Summit the establishment of a union government for the whole of independent Africa. According to Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the reason the Summit failed to adopt Nkrumah’s recommendation was because most Heads of State did not want to lose their entitlement to the 21-gun salute, seat at the UN and the other perks that come with the position. There were leaders who had vested interest in keeping Africa divided. In 1997, again in Accra, while addressing an OAU summit, Mwalimu Nyerere said of the
African unity – “Together, we the peoples of Africa will be incomparably stronger internationally than we are now with our multiplicity of unviable states.” Nyerere went on to add that “without unity there is no future for Africa.”  50 years on it does not look like we are anywhere closer to the realization of the dream of the founding fathers of a continental government. In fact, the dream seems to be fading. Let us hope that the words of Nkrumah and Nyerere do not turn out to be prophetic.

When Nkrumah was no more, no one took on the mantle of championing the concept of a union of African states. The only other leader who tried to revive the idea through the AU was Muammar Al Gathafi. Perhaps, considering the interest of the West to keep Africa divided, their role in Gathafi ’s death, among other reasons, could have been to cut short his ambition to reawaken the dream.  

The government of Rwanda has announced that beginning this year anyone holding an African passport will receive an entry visa on arrival at the point of entry. I have been disappointed by the cool reaction by the media and the absence of foresight into the potential implication of this act for the unity and future of this continent. This deed, and much more, should really have been implemented soon after the creation of the OAU when the opportunity, the euphoria for freedom and the will of the people was still alive. We should all applaud the government of Rwanda.

I am hopeful that this deed that Rwanda has implemented will somehow find itself on the agenda of the next AU summit. Just as Nkrumah proposed a union government, Rwanda should revive the debate back to this union by tabling a proposal for all countries to grant visa on arrival to all Africans. It would certainly make a lot of sense if Ethiopia, home to the AU, would follow Rwanda’s example. 

An African union does not necessarily imply re-drawing the boarders as this would lead to opening up the proverbial Pandora box. However, if we are truly serious and committed to the idea of an African union, there are some basic guiding principles that could easily be implemented without affecting nationalistic feelings. Granting visa on arrival to all Africans is a great starting point. There is no greater emotion than feeling at home in another country. I look back with nostalgia my time in Tanzania during Mwalimu Nyerere’s governance. Every non Tanzanian African was treated like a Tanzanian and was welcome to stay as long as he/she wanted. Unfortunately we can’t say this for most African countries today.

Just as there is an AU flag there should also be an AU anthem which should be sung at every summit – yes, by the heads of state. I propose “Mungu Ubariki Africa” as this tune is common to several southern African countries. I am informed that Swahili is being promoted as a continental lingua franca - if it is true kudos to whoever is championing it. A key policy that would impact heavily on the union is inter-state trade. The need for this has been highlighted in many forums and plenty of literature exists but somehow inter-state trade is growing at a very slow pace. In order to achieve this we first need to make it easy for people to move across borders. If rebranding OAU to AU was influenced by the European Union (EU) which used to be the European Economic Community (EEC), we should do more than just changing the name and remove all barriers to the free movement of people, goods and services just as the EU has done. 

Powerful nations trample on us without flinching and in most conflicts in Africa there is always a foreign hand. We all know France’s indifferent meddling in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 and the subsequent indictment of Gbagbo by the ICC.  When NATO powers attacked and bombed Libya, they completely disregarded the opinion of the AU. Institutions like the Human Rights Watch and others, while serving their masters, often present distorted and undeserved picture of Africa. These powerful nations and institutions are able to get away with these things because they are dealing with small, weak and poor states. 

Our founding fathers bequeathed us political freedom; what legacy shall we bestow the next generation? The current leaders should recognize that our Agaciro (dignity) and economic growth are invariably intertwined with the Union of African States.


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