If Britain’s exit of the EU has been coined ‘Brexit’ what will the progress the African Union is making eventually be called? The United States of Africa? July 2016 saw the potentially significant launch of an electronic passport intended to allow free movement among all 54 markets in the region at the African Union summit in Kigali, Rwanda. The timing of both events happening so close together, but at opposite ends of the political and economic landscape, is intriguing.
According to the AU, the passport will be available to diplomats and heads of state by 2018, and to everyone else by 2020. Ambitious timings perhaps, but it seems that we are finally moving a step closer to the Union’s overall goal of visa-free travel for African citizens within the continent.
It is well known that improvements need to be made to allow Africans to travel more easily from one country to another within the continent. According to the 2016 Africa Visa Openness Index Report, African citizens require visas to travel to 55 percent of the continent’s countries. Only 13 states are open to all African citizens without advance visas with many placing severe restrictions on travel.
But, an African Union passport alone will not be enough. A concerted effort will also need to be made to opening air routes between the continent’s biggest markets. In the African aviation industry it is well known that sustained growth remains bleak until state protectionism is removed. This will cut down journey times, drive down ticket prices and also boost local economies. At Executives in Africa we experience many African candidates struggling to get to interviews because of travelling problems. One candidate in particular travelled from Johannesburg to Lomé. It took him two days to get there another two to get back so he was away from work for five days just to attend an interview! He had to stop twice and get connecting flights at Nairobi and Accra – the lack of direct flights is a real hindrance on international travel.
This would not be the first time of talk of long term African collaboration. The 1991 Abuja Treaty had as its central concept continental economic integration. And of course the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Union of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) are all regional trading blocks which have been operating for many years with the aim of encouraging economic integration and have regional passport schemes in place. Some progress has already been made and Ghana in particular has implemented a visa on arrival system for citizens of AU member countries.
Picture- By Jon Rawlinson [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
There are the usual challenges which affect any other large scale project in Africa namely lack of funds, lack of power/network connectivity and political instability. And there is the added problem that visa revenue is an important source of income for some countries so not all will be enthusiastic for the project to get off the ground. However, the overwhelming sentiment seems to be positive.
Whatever your political leanings a Pan African style passport will increase Inter country trade. According to UN figures, the share of intra-continental trade in Africa over the past decade was only about 11%, with the bulk of exports going to China, Europe and America. A separate study by the African Development Bank found that by relaxing visa entrance requirements in Rwanda, both GDP and tourism revenues increased. The passport will also encourage easier flow of nationals from one African country to the next which many will see as a sign of a more progressive and diverse society as well as enhancing talent mobilisation. With many companies still struggling to hire senior executives from their own country, surely improvements which enable greater mobilisation of Africans is preferable to sourcing expatriates from outside the continent at a time where localisation has become high on the agenda for most companies operating on the continent.
In the last year, African nationals represented 74% of successful hires made by Executives in Africa. News of a pan-African passport is something our clients will likely embrace and support as it will make it easier for them to employ and retain the very best talent across Africa, enabling them to continue capability building and supporting expansion of their businesses across borders.