If Africa’s 1.26 billion people share a dream, beyond peace and progress on the continent, it would be the ability to move freely across its borders. The one thing a refugee traveling by foot might share with rich businessman flying first class is that both are likely to come up against, in some form or another, the incredible difficulties and frustrations of trying to move from one country to another on the continent.
Indeed, the African Union’s current chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa, wrapped up her latest State of the Continent address on Dec. 19 with a summary of the AU’s efforts to transcend borders—an effort often coined as the creation of a “borderless Africa”—from free trade areas and transport corridors, to internet exchange points and regional energy pools. She talked of the importance of African unity, an ideal that stretches back 100 years at least.
“As globalization, travel and information communications technology have turned our world into a global village, as economic shocks and booms affect all of us, as diseases such as HIV, Ebola, Zika and SARS know no borders, the imperative for African integration has become even more urgent in today’s world,” Dlamini-Zuma said. “History will judge us if we do not seize the moment.”
Making Africa’s borders more permeable could be a huge boost for trade and tourism on the continent. In her speech, Zuma cited a study predicting that the extension of African passports (launched in July last year) on the continent “could increase travel in the continent by 24% and revenues from tourism by 20%.” Under this ideal, many more Africans could experience the beauty, wonder and history of their neighbors without having to endure the excessive restrictions, costs and even indignities this travel can sometimes entail.
“That Africa must unite, at the very least in economic terms, is not a question of pandering to romantic notions,” writes Y. G-M. Lulat in A History of African Higher Education (p. 252). “It is necessitated by the simple fact that if it is to ever escape the political and economic morass it is in today, then economic unity of some kind is absolutely essential.” For Lulat, that answer lay in “sectorally diverse, cross-border institution building,” particularly between universities.
But at the heart of this issue—and the reason a united Africa has not moved from a utopian ideal to a concrete reality—is that for many African states, the current limitations imposed by their borders, many artificially created by colonialists, have come to suit them over time. Opening their borders and having to deal with the resulting challenges of xenophobia, terrorism, socio-eonomic and legal pressures—could be a nightmare for them if they’re not ready or willing to deal with those downsides.
“The present reality actually suits a good many of the African elites, particularly given the close association between control of government and control of the economy,” says John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “When you see statements about, or even mechanisms designed to promote African unity, my first question always is to what extent is this essentially aspirational, and to what extent is it real?”
Many Africans have also yet to be convinced of the benefits of this utopian ideal. An Afrobarometer survey (pdf) last year of people in 36 African countries found that while on average, a majority of respondents favored free cross-border movement, this was not the majority view in 15 countries. The public opinion data showed large regional differences in attitudes towards integration, with support for freedom of movement highest among West Africans (66%) and East Africans (64%), and lowest in North Africa. Three out of ten people surveyed didn’t know enough about the AU or some of the regional bodies to offer a view.
“Africa is far from being borderless, partly because it is not clearly defined what that entails, and partly because national interests remain a key priority for most member states,” says Nedson Pophiwa, chief researcher at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council and an expert on migration. “Borderlessness is a political and economic ideal that many leaders preach at regional community forums but rarely practice at local level.”
While the AU has acknowledged challenges exist, the body’s push for integration shouldn’t come at the expense of tackling some of the region’s most bitterly persistent issues. ”My concern would be a focus on something like a borderless Africa, means that the focus is not on things that are more practical, more concrete, and more realizable,” Campbell says. “After all, below a kind of tiny elite, what most Africans have to be concerned about is getting from today to tomorrow, not abstractions.”
In order for the notion of a borderless Africa to become a reality, the AU’s member states need to wholeheartedly embrace the ideal, both its positive and negative consequences, and show their countrymen that it would benefit the majority of Africans, and not just the well-travelled elite.
“National sovereignty remains important for most Africans,” writes Rorisang Lekalake, a research fellow at University of Cape Town’s Centre for Social Sciences Research (CSSR). “Resistance to free movement across borders suggests that significant numbers see foreign migrants as competition to local labor and businesses. This is true even in the continent’s most well-off countries.”
However, the notion of breaking down those borders would not be that unimaginable a concept for most Africans, given how indiscriminately their current borders were drawn up in the first place. Hence the growing number of separatist groups that are rejecting the artificial borders enforced by colonialism, and pushing for a reinterpretation of the continent’s dividing lines.
“Citizenship is not something that all residents in a specific national boundary enjoy,” adds Pophiwa. “African borders were crafted by imperialists in an arbitrary manner. Certain people may belong to a specific national boundary, but are marginalized on the basis of ethnic origin or religion. Some by virtue of location, especially borderland residents, remain at margins usually straddling two countries.”
That’s why Pophiwa believes the notion of a borderless Africa will persist, despite the many challenges that stand in its way. “I personally doubt we will see a unified approach to rejecting a ‘United States of Africa,’ as visualized by certain fathers of liberation,” he says. As a sentiment, many Africans wholeheartedly embrace the ideal of a unified Africa. But for it to become a reality, the AU and its member states will need to first realize—and sell—its practical benefits for all Africans.