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Africa’s visa conundrum is crying out for political will to fix it

By Dianna Games
Monday, June 8, 2015

The best African passports to have are those from The Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire or Kenya. Why? Because travellers with these passports need visas for just 41% of African countries, lower than the average of 55% of countries requiring Africans to have visas for other African countries.

The worst to have is a Somali passport, even though the country does not require visitors to have visas — rather unsurprisingly.

These findings from research conducted by McKinsey were part of a broader discussion at the recent African Development Bank annual meetings in Abidjan, where business people, politicians and others raised questions about why the free movement of people across the continent, enshrined in the founding principles of pan-African organisations, is still difficult. The issue is one of the sticky items on the agenda of the Tripartite Free Trade Area negotiations, which are scheduled to be launched at this week’s African Union summit in Johannesburg. The free trade area, due to be launched in 2017, will cover an area stretching from Egypt to Cape Town.

Many of those governments around the table will be the same officials who have visa regimes in place for fellow Africans.

At the African Development Bank meeting, delegates asked why government officials and diplomats could travel freely through the continent with diplomatic passports but business people, who are called on to be partners in developing Africa, could not.

The visa restrictions Kenya briefly imposed on South Africans last year did not include holders of official or diplomatic passports — ironic, seeing as it was the actions of officials who put the regulations in place. A business passport was mooted at the Abidjan discussion for regular travellers and investors. Business people have their passports stuck in embassies for weeks trying to get visas for multiple countries.

This is not contributing to economic development but adding to the cost of doing business. For informal traders, a visa could cost a month’s salary or more. Work permit issues are preventing companies from moving professionals throughout their pan-African operations.

There has been some movement. Nationals of Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), for example, qualify for an Ecowas passport. In the East African Community, citizens of the five states can now use identity cards or driving licences instead of passports to move across the bloc.

SA and others could learn a lot from the East African Community. But the political will is not universal. As long as politicians exempt themselves from visa regulations in Africa, widespread change may be a while coming.

Rwandans maintain that the benefits of bringing new talent and visitors with money to spend far outweighs the potential problems of troublemakers.

It is those who want to bring their money in, either to shop, go on holiday or invest, who are bearing the brunt of visa hassles.

Africans tend to get short-term visas for SA, for example. They are now choosing to avoid SA and take their money to countries, such as the UK and US, that offer visas for up to 10 years.

Ethiopia, despite hosting the African Union, still has visa restrictions for many Africans.

As SA has shown, illegal immigrants get into countries that do not have properly enforced controls. Visas do not stop them.

Africa’s development challenges, high unemployment rates and security issues are factors used to determine immigration policy. But there are surely ways to deal with these problems that are about economic interests, not defensive actions. Many countries do skills audits and link immigration policies to their economic needs, for example.

As African countries deepen free trade, it is time to consider the freer movement of people who are boosting Africa’s development. These are not just politicians but talented professionals, African investors and many others.


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