The African passport: What it could mean for trade and intra-African visas

“The African passport will pave way to easy travelling among African countries which is critical to foster trade, tourism and economic growth”

In light of promoting the concept —- for sustainable development, the AU discussed details about an African passport during its 32nd summit in February.

Legal advisor and member of the Council of Ambassadors for the AU Namira Negm had mentioned in a televised interview with media outlet Extra News that state members discussed a unified design and the specifications of the passport.

No details were revealed about these specifications, approval of the passport’s issuance or its release date.

There were also no clear details about the requirements to issue the passport; however, according to a detailed statementby the United Nations (UN), the electronic passport will first be issued to African heads of state, foreign ministers and diplomats accredited by the AU headquarters.

Holding the AU’s name and the name of the issuing country, the passport will be granted to citizens at a later stage, which has not been announced.

In December, AU chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat had statedthat the passport “is one step closer for the long-held dream of complete free movement across the continent.”

How will the passport contribute to trade?
Originally introduced in 2016, the new passport also aims to spur economic growth and promote intra-African trade, facilitating entry to African countries.

Those goals were listed among some of the objectives tackled in February’s summit, including coordinating with international financial institutions to fund development projects.

“Expected to be in reach of all African citizens by 2020, the African passport is a gateway to dealing with intra-African challenges today instead of later, such as properly connecting African countries on ground and seas, tackling illegal immigration and unemployment issues,” former AU member and board member of Bavaria Gamal Abdel Nasser tells Business Forward.

According to the 2018 African Trade report released by the African Export-Import Bank, the ratio of African trade growth to GDP growth increased by 1.5 percent in 2017, after falling below parity in 2016 for 15 years in a row.

The African passport will pave way to easy travelling among African countries which is critical to foster trade, tourism and economic growth

The report points out the low ratio of intra-African trade which stood at 15 percent in 2017, compared to Europe’s 67 percent, Asia’s 58 percent and North America’s 48 percent.

In efforts to improve intra-African trade, the temporarily African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) was signed early 2018 in support of the Boosting Intra-African Trade (BIAT) action plan. Both initiatives aim to work under AU’s Agenda 2063, offering a plan to push forward economic growth, industrialization and doubling intra-African trade flows by 2022.

The efficiency of intra-African trade and potential gains are hindered by tariff barriers; therefore, a 100-percent tariff reduction is needed on all goods, the bank’s report suggests.

Abdel Nasser argues that the passport will only improve trade marginally because Africa lacks the proper transportation infrastructure to encourage trade throughout lands and sea.

“Custom facilitations, elimination of trade barriers and building a proper infrastructure to process more shipping lines routed everywhere are essentials for the passport’s success in trade activity,” Abdel Nasser elaborates.

Former senior director at the World Bank Group Global Practice on Trade and Competitiveness and current member of the World Trade Organization Anabel González tells Business Forward that government institutions need to study all constraints that hinder daily operations of traders and producers. In her opinion, removing tariff barriers is not enough.

“The African passport will pave way to easy travelling among African countries which is critical to foster trade, tourism and economic growth. Africa is one of the most fragmented regions in the world, with travel being very expensive and time-consuming,” González adds.

The changing trends of African visas
Since the 1970s, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been offering a 90-day visa-free entry to Africans. However, restrictions have grown on the entry of Africans, who need visas to travel to almost 55 percent of other countries on the continent, according to the latest African Development Bank report.

The report remarks that only 13 out of the 55 countries in Africa, including Ghana, Mauritius and Rwanda, provide easy visa regulations for Africans. One of these policies includes adapting an East-African tourist visa initiative.

The UN’s World Tourism Organization (WTO) states that Africa has facilitated visa issuance since the organization’s monitoring of tourism visa policies since 2008.

“On many occasions, business travelers in particular have to pay expensive visas and wait a long time for their issuance. Easy and agile cross-border movement of African people will contribute to lowering the cost of doing business and open new opportunities for traders,” González says.

Africans make up approximately 88 percent of the world’s population and were obliged to apply for a visa prior to their departure in 2008; however, that ratio dropped to 57 percent in 2015 as a result of the newly introduced visa facilitations, according to WTO media officer Rut Gomez Sobrino who was quoted in the UN’s report.

Although the passport paves way to a boost in tourism, Abdel Nasser mentions that Africa’s economic growth is rather spurred by international tourism than regional.

Road to trade prosperity
The African passport will also help the continent reduce its reliance on donor aid or loans from foreign financial institutions.

Spokesperson for the Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration Yves Buetra mentions in a public statement that Rwanda’s open-visa policy has boosted the country’s trade by 50 percent with Kenya and Uganda, and increased employment rates.

Its visa-on-arrival policy has increased African travels to the country by an annual of 22 percent.  Through the new passport, international and interregional cargo transport is expected to be facilitated with the creation of the one-national-border control process.

Challenges in the way of “One Africa”
Although the concept of the new passport is said to pave way for open visa policies in Africa, a number of hurdles stand in the way of implementation. According to the UN report, some African countries do not have access to the biometrics systems needed to register the new passports. This includes Egypt, Algeria, Gabon, Ghana and Tunisia.

“Egypt could easily obtain the biometric technological systems to issue the passport; however, authorities will be cautious of how its objectives will be implemented as the country is already dealing with high unemployment rates and immigration challenges,” Abdel Nasser adds.

He mentions that although Egypt is a gateway to Asia and Europe, the government will be concerned about Africans taking up Egyptian jobs or acquiring asylum status.

Other challenges include some African countries’ potential refusals to adopting changes in visa policies; for example, Burundi and Tanzania have refused to issue an East Africa tourist visa due to national security concerns, according to the UN report.

Abdel Nasser adds that the passport could not stand alone as a business mechanism; it needs to be backed by a regulatory body such as custom unions or trade agreements that would fully address intra-African challenges. These should tackle, for instance, the decrease of transportation costs until a proper infrastructure is built between borders.

“It is then that trade will increase and inevitably boost tourism as a result of increased movement,” he concludes.






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