Visa-free Africa agenda faces obstacles, hurts AU SAATM

Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote in 2018 said he needed 38 visas to travel within the continent on his Nigerian passport. Many European nationals, meanwhile, waltz into most African countries visa-free. WOLE SHADARE takes a careful look at why African nations are yet to scrap visa requirements for all African citizens and how visa policy in the continent hurts businesses and the free movement of people

Intra-Continental prospect

Would an Africa in which Africans require no visas to travel boost prospects for intra-continental trade and the success of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM)?

The African Union (AU) and many of the continent’s economic organisations think so and want it to be a reality by 2023. It is not an entirely original concept (the European Union already has a visa-free policy for its citizens), and many experts laud the AU’s position, at least in principle.


The idea of an African passport dates back a quarter of a century but has failed to catch on with countries that fear an increase in smuggling, illegal immigration, terrorism, and the spread of disease as well as a negative impact on local job markets. With migration, legal and illegal, blamed for recent outbreaks of xenophobia in South Africa, some of these fears seem credible.

Aspiration 2 of Agenda 2063 envisions “An integrated continent, politically united and based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism and the vision of Africa’s Renaissance” and Aspiration 5 envisions “An Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values, and ethics,” African passport

To achieve these aspirations of Africans seeing themselves as one people united under the ideals of pan-Africanism, the physical and invisible barriers that have prevented the integration of Africa’s people need to be removed.

Removal of restrictions

The Agenda 2063 flagship project, “The African Passport and Free Movement of People” aims to remove restrictions on Africans’ ability to travel, work and live within their own continent.

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The initiative aims at transforming Africa’s laws, which remain generally restrictive on the movement of people despite political commitments to bring down borders with the view to promoting the issuance of visas by Member States to enhance the free movement of all African citizens in all African countries.

In 2017, the AU launched an African passport, a signature project of former chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. However, the passport is currently available only to senior diplomats and top officials of AU’s 55 member states.

Of those member states, only Seychelles offers visa-free access to all African countries. “The large and fast-growing economies aren’t following suit because the visa regime itself has created a bureaucratic habit,” noted Daniel Silke, director of South Africa–based Political Futures Consultancy.
“Old habits are hard to break, although there is justification for hesitation in terms of the legitimate layer of security that visas provide.”

Silke added that growing and large economies worry about the impact that increased population movements might have on labour markets and cities. Some of Africa’s fast-growing economies are Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Senegal, and Tanzania. Out of desperation, thousands of immigrants travel to South Africa, the continent’s second-largest economy behind Nigeria, to find work.

“With urban cities expanding rapidly across Africa, government institutions are strained, and cities that offer opportunities for trade, health care, a booming labour market, and infrastructure, among others, will be under increased pressure,” Silke noted.

He suggested a focus on efficient and affordable visa procurement processes, advising regional communities to enact and implement policies that make it easier for their citizens to move from one member state to another.

In November 2017, after 15 years of negotiations, the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), comprising of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo, ratified the visa-free movement of its citizens.

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Under the policy, member states adopted biometric technology, ensure police and security services’ coordination, and respect different labour regulations.

The next best thing to a visa-free system is a visa on arrival, which may include authorisation to stay for up to 90 days. Rwanda adopted this protocol in 2013 and has witnessed an increase in African visitors and investors, noted Mr. Anaclet Kalibata, the country’s director general of immigration and emigration.

Kalibata told Africa Renewal that between 2013 and 2016, the number of Africans receiving visas on arrival at Rwandan entry points increased by more than 100%. “We have also hosted many more conferences as a result of the removal of travel restrictions,” he said.

He maintained that crime rates in the country did not increase because of visa on arrival, contrary to fears initially expressed by skeptics.

Kenya Airways

Uphill task for SAATM

The SAATM competition regulation requires the revision of visa requirements to enable the free movement of Africans in the continent. But this is an uphill task as many countries within the continent still require excruciating visa processes to travel from one African country to the other.

Despite several improvements to visa legislation in African countries (such as in Djibouti, Mozambique, and Rwanda), many immigration policies no longer respond to the present-day needs of African businesses and citizens.

African countries remain closed off to each other, making travel within the continent difficult. Africa is one of the regions in the world with the highest visa requirements. This situation is even more restricted for Africans traveling within Africa, as compared to Europeans and North Americans.

This is despite the fact that the number of arrivals to the continent’s destinations (and especially intra-African flights) has shown the highest growth globally over the years.

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One should add that business visas are often more difficult to obtain than tourist visas. Few African countries offer visa-free access or visas on arrival to citizens of all African countries. On average, African citizens require visas to visit 60 percent of African countries – ranging from a high of 84 percent for Somalia to a low of 41 percent for The Gambia.

There are substantial differences between the African regions. Central Africa is the least connected, and the use of traditional visas is the highest of all of Africa’s sub-regions. Comparatively, East Africa is the second most open sub-region in the world, with high numbers of visas on arrival.

Double standards

South Africa appears to be the most visible representative of the continent’s visa double standard, remaining largely closed to other Africans but more welcoming to the wider world.

East Africans, on the other hand, require the most visas to travel within Africa, while countries in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have the most access, requiring a visa to visit under 50 percent of the African countries.

This is mainly due to the visa-free movement within the ECOWAS sub-region, implemented under the 1979 Protocol of Free Movement. Free Movement is also in place in the East African Community (EAC).

Last line

Visa restrictions have broad economic consequences, notably for the tourism sector. Beyond tourism, visa requirements imply missed economic opportunities for intra-regional trade, and the local service economy (such as cross-country medical services or education). Improving visa facilitation could generate an additional $300 billion for the tourism sector alone, and create as many as 6.1 million new jobs by 2024 in the G20 countries (WEF, 2013).

Wole Shadare