Published On : Wednesday, July 13 2016
In policy as in life, one man’s poison is another man’s cure. While Brexit and rising nationalism across Europe have called into question the European project, last Sunday the African Union (AU) unveiled an electronic passport intended to allow the free movement of people, goods and services across the continent’s 54 countries.
The e-passport is part of what Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chair of the African Union Commission, has called a “strategic plan to accelerate progress towards an integrated, prosperous and inclusive Africa”. It will be given first to heads of state, foreign ministers and permanent representatives of member states based at the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, but the plan is to roll out the e-passport to all AU citizens by 2018.
The move is of strategic importance as it will provide an opportunity to boost African economies through trade and travel. Intra-Africa trade is only 11%, the lowest in the world (in Europe, it is above 60%), so removing the barriers to the free movement of labour could also encourage more regional and continental trade, strengthening economies often vulnerable to external shocks.
But the introduction of an African passport is also symbolic. Since the “scramble for Africa” that saw the continent divided up by colonial masters, African countries have largely maintained closer links with former colonisers than they have with each other. The EU is Africa’s second most-important trading partner (it has been losing ground to China) and carriers of European passports enjoy mostly visa-free access to the continent. The introduction of an African passport says that there is much to be gained economically and culturally from greater integration.
Despite the passport’s theoretical appeal, there are challenges ahead. First, it is unlikely that all countries will adopt visa-free policies so those behind the initiative are pushing for visas on arrival, and buy-in for even that has been slow. Countries such as the Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda and Ghana have relaxed or lifted visa restrictions, but not many others have followed suit.
With hugely different administrative infrastructures, technologies and bureaucratic capacity, adopting the single passport will be a costly and complicated process. Only a fifth of African countries are described as having “functioning” civil registration systems, so how the AU will roll out the passport – and who will bear the costs – remains to be seen.
Encouragingly, there is a precedent to show it can be done: Ecowas, the regional trading block for west Africa, has had free movement of people since 1995. But there are also cautionary tales: the Southern African Development Community failed to ratify a draft protocol on free movement put forward in the 1990s. “Unfortunately, the issue of migration is often talked about in terms that elicit negative reactions, xenophobic fears and security concerns,” writes Lorenzo Fioramonti, an associate professor at the University of Pretoria, in a blog for the African Development Bank that pressed for the free movement of people across southern Africa be taken more seriously.
And it is these concerns rather than the practicalities that pose the greatest threat to the pan-African project. The fear in some quarters is that countries such as South Africa or Morocco will drown in migrant labour. But Fioramonti argues that evidence from the EU tells a different story. “Throughout the European common market, the amount of people who have decided to move their physical and fiscal residence to another country of the Union is less than 5% of the entire population,” he writes. “Freedom of movement need not result in an apocalyptic exodus of migrants from low-income to high-income countries.”
Evidence is one thing but, as Brexit proved, facts wither in the face of fear of the unknown and fatigue with the political establishment.
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It will be up to the AU and Africa’s political class (who arguably have long enjoyed the kind of movement across the continent most citizens can only dream of) to convince their people that freedom of movement will be more of an opportunity than a threat. That is invariably easier said than done: physical borders are easy enough to remove, the same can’t be said for borders in the mind.