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FREE MOVEMENT, FREE TRADE

African countries are relaxing visa rules for each other ahead of a historic free trade agreement

REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi
Passport control at Jomo Kenyatta international airport in Nairobi, Kenya
  • Yinka Adegoke
By Yinka Adegoke

Africa editor

There’s long been a push for African countries to open up their borders to visitors and many countries have done so to drive tourism and encourage global trade.

Passport holders from the US, UK, Europe, and increasingly, China can often show up at the borders of many African countries and pay a reasonable fee without paperwork and minimal fuss to gain entry, in some countries like South Africa there is no fee at all.

But the problem has often been many African countries have not been as welcoming to other Africans.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) has obsessed about this by creating the Visa Openness Index to put some data behind what most Africans know: it’s incredibly difficult to move around their own continent. Even after you get past the at times extortionate amounts, inconvenient travel routes and lack of options, then you have to contend with your African neighbors asking for burdensome visa documentation or fees to pay a visit.

The good thing about the Visa Openness Index is that by keeping track, more African leaders are forced to pay attention to an issue which is relatively low stakes in domestic politics but can give them some added credibility on the African stage. And in the four years it’s been going, there has been a trend towards, pardon the pun, openness.

This year 20 countries moved further up the index and since 2016 nearly all countries (93%) have improved or maintained their index scores, which is calculated by looking at whether an African visitor to another country needs to get a visa in their home country before traveling; has the option to get a visa on arrival; or can visit without a visa.

Seychelles, The Gambia, and Benin topped the index as countries that offer completely visa-free access to all African passport holders.

Now Africans do not need a visa to travel to 26% of the countries on the continent with most of that coming from sub-regional agreements such as in the East African Community and ECOWAS states in West Africa. Around 28% of Africans can get a visa on arrival. But nearly half of African passport holders still need to get visas before traveling.

This isn’t just about bragging rights on moving up an index, it’s also about the need for African governments to, at least, align with the spirit of what they’re expected to practice with the official implementation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement next year. In simple terms, under the agreement African countries will be able to trade goods and services without tariffs with each other.

As the AfDB says in its report: “Allowing freedom of movement will mean African investors and entrepreneurs, including young people, can access information, skills, and technology to capitalize on these opportunities.”

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