Not even being Africa’s richest man or one of its most famous daughters can keep you immune from the travails of visa applications on the continent, even if you have an all-Africa passport, as both Aliko Dangote and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala have found out.
Like Dangote, Okonjo-Iweala – the well-known former managing director of the World Bank and ex-Nigerian finance minister – is one of the lucky few people who hold the African Union passport. Which is meant to be a universally accepted document first launched at a meeting of the African Union in Kigali in July 2016.
She wrote on Facebook that she still needed a visa to enter Mauritania and that, in Morocco, the immigration officials “were initially not familiar with passport”.
“African governments must make this initiative work to prove we have collective will to move investments, goods, services and people across borders,” she stressed.
Her concerns echoed that of Aliko Dangote during his “tell-all” chat with fellow billionaire Mo Ibrahim (who most likely finds it easier to move around Africa with his British passport than with his Sudanese one) at the Ibrahim Governance Weekend in Abidjan last week. Dangote lamented the lack of ease in moving goods and manpower across countries and regions within the continent.
“I was invited by the president of Angola to come and see him, and I had to go,” said the Nigerian-born industrialist. “When I went there, I had to be given visa on African Union passport. It is not about fees, when you say African Union passport, you should be able to go everywhere, free of charge.”
Both Okonjo-Iweala and Dangote are right
The passport is meant to ease travel within the continent by exempting bearers from needing visas at any of the 55 African nations and will replace individual passports after full adoption in 2020. But so far the new document has failed to be the magic wand it has been made out to be.
If the first – and most elite – bearers of the passport are still having issues with free movement across the continent, what hope is there for us, the proletariat?
It is a well-established fact that traveling within the continent is cumbersome due to unfriendly borders and expensive travel. A ticket for Lagos-Abidjan costs something in the region of $650. What should be a simple 30-minute flight sometimes takes the whole day with needless 4-6 hour layovers in Lomé or Accra.
By contrast, the 19-hour journey from Lagos to Singapore ticket costs approximately $900.
In Abidjan, I was privileged to have breakfast with Jay Naidoo and Aïcha Bah Diallo, members of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s board and former ministers in South Africa and Guinea respectively. Diallo told me she had visited the Nigerian city of Kaduna a few years ago; to return to Conakry, the earliest flight she could find was through Paris! Expensive tickets on closed routes are a double tragedy.
Migration happens more within the continent than outside it. Considering that there are many porous borders, it makes sense to formalise free movement. Regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) allow citizens from their member countries to work and move freely within the clusters, without visas – a situation quite similar to the common visa policy of the Schengen Area in Europe. This is brilliant.
Beyond home regions however, the rules begin to change and this ought not to be so. For example, my Nigerian passport can’t get me anywhere in Central Africa without a visa, except for Cameroon which has a standing agreement with Nigeria. That includes Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé e Principe, with which it shares maritime borders.
While the African Union is taking its time to release a strong travel document as it fine tunes the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), the regional blocs could start fostering inter-regional growth and partnership by opening up their borders.