Intra-African trade will remain a farce unless we scrap visa requirements

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No one can question the fact that all of these trade agreements, were signed in good faith and with the best of intentions. However, the question we need to ask ourselves whether we have done or are doing enough in terms of implementation.”

Namibian President Hage Geingob, the Chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), made this self-assessment recently. He was questioning SADC’s inability to implement many agreements and protocols that ought to propel Southern Africa to prosperity. But this self-assessment can be expanded to the rest of Africa – under the auspices of the African Union (AU).

Last year, African leaders launched the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), an ambitious project planned to boost intra-Africa trade. The AfCFTA launch in Kigali came after AU acknowledged that African citizens still find it difficult to travel in their own continent. This is despite repeated attempts to implement the Free Movement of Persons Protocol, which ought to open up borders in the continent. Visa-free Africa together with the Single African Air Transport Market (also launched in 2018) are the most important agreements that Africa could have implemented a long time ago.

This is what President Geingob was talking about that “…sometimes we take decisions and after failing to implement them, we simply move on to another decision”. Africa cannot talk of intra-free trade if its citizens continue to experience hurdles travelling within the continent. Travelling in Africa for Africans remains a headache. Africans have to contend with the complex application process, compounded by colossal visa fees and long waiting periods. And these visas are often for short periods – so one has to keep repeating the cycle.

Regions like SADC have passed this huddle because citizens of member states can freely travel in the region. But SADC’s achievement needs to be replicated to citizens from other regional economic communities like ECOWAS, COMESA, EAC, ECCAS, CENSAD and AMU.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) through its yearly Africa Visa Openness Index – is championing easier travel for Africans. Dr Khaled F Sherif, deputy president AfDB has reminded that “with a simple policy shift to liberalise visa regimes, countries can tap into the economic benefits of opening up borders and join the upward trend on integration”.

Africa Visa Openness Index 2018 noted that the developments on free movement of persons pave the way for countries to take steps towards allowing African citizens rights of residence and establishment of Africa-wide. In addition, the Single African Air Transport Market – marks another milestone to improve air connectivity that means faster, cheaper and accessible travel across Africa. But this simple policy shift is unlikely to happen soon – because our leaders lack the political will.

The Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment was launched in January 2018. However, the AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, has said 32 nations have signed this instrument, while only Rwanda has ratified it as of October 2018. It requires 15 ratifications for it to be enforced. Most African leaders have cited security concerns as the main reason they are dragging their feet in opening their borders to fellow Africans. But there are several countries that have successfully implemented the visa-free and visa-on-arrival access – like Seychelles, Ethiopia, Mali, Uganda, Cape Verde, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Mozambique, Mauritius, Rwanda, Burundi, Comoros, Madagascar, Somalia and Benin to all African citizens. It is, however, laughable that citizens from Europe, Asia and the Americas can just waltz into any African country – without a visa. Like President Geingob reminded – we Africans should first remove obstacles to free movement in the continent before we move on to the AfCFTA and other trade regimes. How do we achieve intra-Africa trade – when Africans are unable to freely travel the length and breadth of the continent to explore trade opportunities?

 

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