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Africa with open borders: A possibility or a pipe dream?

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Africa with open borders: A possibility or a pipe dream?

Terence Corrigan

07 Dec 2017

5min min read
  • Regionalism
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hether described as ‘African Unity’ or ‘integration’, and whether for ideological or pragmatic reasons, overcoming the fragmentation of the continent has been an enduring theme in African statecraft since the 1960s. The borders dividing Africa’s 55 states from one another, so this reasoning goes, have lessened Africa’s global presence and kept markets small and anaemic. They have also prevented its citizens from reaching out to one another and taking advantage of the vast potential that the continent has to offer.

Adopted in 2015, the African Union’s (AU’s) long-term development blueprint, Agenda 2063, pledged to bring about free movement of African citizens across the continent. It envisioned that all visa requirements for travel by Africans within the continent would be abolished by 2018, and a common African passport introduced by 2025. 

How is this progressing?

According to the 2017 Visa Openness Report – an initiative of the African Development Bank, the African Union Commission and the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Africa – progress on creating a ‘visa-free Africa’ has been modest. The report looks at the accessibility of Africa’s 55 countries to visitors from each of the others. 

It analyses the requirements that each African country imposes on visitors from other countries on the continent in terms of a three-phase model: how many countries’ citizens are required to obtain visas prior to travel; how many countries’ citizens are able to obtain visas on arrival; and how many countries’ citizens can enter the country with no visa at all. 

In 2016 (the period covered by the report), there were 2 970 requirements imposed by African countries on other African citizens – in other words, each of the 55 countries had a visa or non-visa requirement for each of the other 54 countries. Of these, a little over half (54%) were for visas to be obtained prior to departure. This suggests that, on balance, Africa’s borders remain closed. Just over a fifth or requirements (22%) were for no visas, and around a quarter (24%) were for visas on arrival. 

Only one country, the Seychelles, was truly ‘visa free’ – it granted citizens of every other African country entry with no visa, and had no requirement that they obtain one upon entry. 

The greatest strides in openness have been made among island states, and East and West Africa. Rwanda and Ghana stand out as countries that have made particular progress. Ghana introduced a new visa regime in 2016, extending visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to the citizens of all AU countries. Rwanda has been opening up its borders to African travellers since 2013 – accommodating all AU visitors with visas on arrival – and recently announced that this would be extended to all countries at the beginning of 2018.  

Most recently, Kenya has followed suit in opening its borders. In late November 2017, newly inaugurated President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that citizens of all African countries would be able to obtain a visa on arrival.

"The greatest strides in openness have been made among island states, and East and West Africa. Rwanda and Ghana stand out as countries that have made particular progress."

But open borders are a far from the norm in Africa. Most countries retain visa requirements vis-à-vis the citizens of other African countries. The northern, central and southern parts of Africa, as well as its wealthier countries have taken less ambitious action on openness.  

Jeggan Grey-Johnson of the Open Society Foundation's Africa regional office questions the manner in which the AU has conceptualised an open-border regime. He argues that the idea of opening up Africa’s borders speaks to a long-standing aspiration, but it is not ideally suited to an AU or pan-African rollout. Rather, borders should open to facilitate practical exchanges among the continent’s people – the starting point should be reciprocal freedom of movement between neighbours. In this context, the key obstacle to free movement of people has been the failure of Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs) – the Economic Community of West African States excepted – to take it seriously. 

In addition, Grey-Johnson points to the lack of leadership on freedom of movement provided by regional hegemons, such as South Africa and Angola in the Southern African Development Community. Perhaps because they are likely to attract migrants – with the possibility that this will fuel economic and socio-political stresses – such countries have been lukewarm in their support for free movement. "Africa’s powerhouses," Grey-Johnson remarks, "are holding integration back."

AU passport

Opening up Africa’s borders by way of visa free access is seen (officially) by the AU as a prelude to the introduction of an AU passport. Launched at an AU summit in Kigali in July 2016, AU the document is in very limited circulation. It is currently available to AU staff, national leaders and select officials from AU member states. The first were presented to Chad's President Idriss Déby, and to the summit host,  Rwanda's President Paul Kagame. It has been reported that prominent Nigerian entrepreneur Aliko Dangote is to be issued with one.


In theory, a continental passport should make visas redundant and imply open borders for all. The official narrative is that it is to be made available to ordinary citizens by the middle of the next decade. There is, however, little clarity about how this will be implemented. 

Veteran South African journalist Peter Fabricius remarks that there was some unintended symbolism in presenting the first AU passports to heads of state: "This sent a symbolic message that it was for elites, not the ordinary populace. Governments will decide which of their citizens get it and also whether to recognise passport holders from other countries. So, it seems likely that it might go to some influential business people but not much further for a while."

An AU passport would raise a number of issues that go beyond mere freedom of movement and to the heart of the long-term ideals of African integration. Passports do not serve only as travel documents but also as signifiers of citizenship. Would this be the case in respect of an AU passport? If so, what rights and obligations would that confer on its holders? Would it imply not only the right to travel, but the right of settlement? And if it does indeed denote such expanded rights, can it justifiably be withheld from the broader population while being made available to a small group of elites? Conversely, would African countries that are fearful of their ability to handle increased migration be reluctant to recognise an emerging AU citizenship? 

Added to this is the thorny issue of stateless people and refugees: those who are clearly of the continent without a stable relationship to any country. Would this compromise their claims to AU citizenship? 

Each of these issues will inevitably arise as the AU passport becomes more common. Firm and satisfactory responses will need to be crafted – they do not exist at present. 

A continent of free movement, an AU passport and the possibility of pan-African citizenship rights – these are alluring aspirations, but at present, they remain for most of the continent largely in the realm of aspiration. With some exceptions, rhetoric on these issues far exceeds reality. There is very little prospect of a visa-free Africa or a common passport in general use in the foreseeable future. These goals will best be achieved through recommitting to ground-level action aimed at practical outcomes. 

For example, opening borders– where possible, through the continent’s RECs – should in the first instance seek to facilitate linkages between neighbours so as to encourage trade and tourism. Continental ambitions can come later. The rollout of the African passport, likewise, needs to be meticulously planned if it is indeed to signify a new and inclusive chapter in African integration.

Africa has no shortage of symbolism. Now it requires resolute action.    

(Main image: Flickr/BBC World Service)