The African Development Bank just launched the Africa Visa Openness Report 2016, and it highlights a huge problem: as Africans, we cannot move easily between our countries.
On average, Africans need visas to travel to 55% of other African countries and can only get visas on arrival in 25% of other countries. This means they can only travel to 20% of the countries without a visa. Even though countries such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda, Ghana and Kenya have tried to reduce visa restrictions, other countries are not reciprocating.
This revelation is in sharp contrast to the African Union’s goal to introduce an African passport and abolish visa requirements for all African citizens in all African countries by 2018.
What is really appalling is that it is easier for Europeans or Americans to travel within Africa than for many Africans themselves. In 2015, holders of a United States of America passport, for example, could travel to 172 countries and territories visa-free or with visa on arrival, including at least 20 African countries.
Ultimately, the visa restrictions mean that African countries are losing out.
One of the benefits of free movement of people that visa restrictions inhibit is increased tourism. Tourism contributes to one in every 11 jobs and 9% of gross domestic product worldwide. With high youth unemployment, improved tourism could create thousands of jobs and help reduce inequality. More visitors mean more hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, and a growth in transport and entertainment sectors. The impact could be felt in both urban areas and rural areas.
Currently, according to the Africa Tourism Monitor report, while Africa accounts for about 15% of the world population, it receives only about 3% of world tourism receipts and 5% of tourist arrivals. The report further says that visa requirements imply missed economic opportunities for intra-regional trade, and the local service economy (such as cross-country medical services or education). Visa policies are among the most important governmental formalities negatively influencing international tourism.
This is not just about non-Africans visiting our continent. As the new generation of middle class is ushered into Africa, spending on holidays and shopping is increasing, but African countries may not fully benefit. Many of my friends opt to travel to Europe for holidays and shopping as opposed to other African countries. They cite as major reasons the ease of travelling in the Schengen area, which allows a visitor access to 26 countries within Europe, with one visa. Combined with the cost-effective and easy interconnectivity through rail, air and road transport, it is no surprise that Europe receives the highest number of tourists globally.
Businesses beyond tourism are affected, too. As an entrepreneur, when choosing a new country to venture into, I consider the openness and ease of doing business, with free movement of labor, goods and services as key indicators. I’m not alone. The ongoing integration in the East African community has seen many businesses that were initially based in one country expand into the others. For instance, a number of Kenyan based banks have expanded into Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan because of the improved ease of doing business within the region.
According to the paper Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk? open borders could lead to a one-time boost in world gross domestic product by about 50-150%. Hence, African countries should strive to make the dreams of the founders of the then Organization of African unity (OAU) true by allowing Africans to move easily and encourage intra Africa trade and investments.
Easier movement could also help the unemployment rates. I have often found European or Chinese ‘expatriates’ doing jobs that could be done by highly skilled Africans, some of whom lack opportunities in their home countries, if only they could more easily move between countries for work. Movement of people can also be a driver of technological change and a fresh source of entrepreneurs. Much innovation comes from the work of teams of people who have different perspectives and experiences. This can also make countries within Africa to be more attractive to foreign direct investment.
While some have argued that strict travel regulations, including visa requirements, are necessary for security purposes, there has been no direct link showing how free movement of people has perpetuated terrorism. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has been on the forefront saying that a few bad elements should not be used to restrict millions of good citizens who want to travel for leisure or business.
Political executive editor of the Telegraph James Kirkup recently argued too that “Simply, all the border checks in the world will not keep us safe. Passport controls can’t stop the spread of ideas, and it is ideas, not people, that are the essence of the terrorism that has just killed so many in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad.”
Ultimately, there are many more reasons to remove visa restrictions for Africans traveling in Africa than keeping them. I hope that by 2018, that truly is a reality.