Will Creation Of An All-Africa Passport Deliver African Unity?

Written by Staff

From New Times Rwanda.

The African Union is set to launch a common electronic passport that would grant visa-free travel to all of its 54 member-states, a move that hits at the organisation’s long-running goal of more closely linking nations from across the continent.

The passport will first be issued to heads of state and senior officials at the A.U.’s summit in Kigali, Rwanda, next week, with the A.U. saying it aims to provide passports to all African citizens by 2020.

The A.U.’s efforts to create a common passport dates back to its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. It comes as the European Union faces growing fissures in the wake of Britain’s landmark vote to leave.

Britain’s vote came amid campaigns that appealed to economic concerns, a sense of national sovereignty and what some say were racially-tinged anti-immigrant sentiments. For the A.U. nations, many of them with a relatively recent colonial past, a common passport appeals to a shared ideal of pan-Africanism.

“The passport is a way to deepen the integration of Africa as one continent,” says Rita Kiki Edozie, who coauthored a book about the A.U., which replaced the earlier Organisation of African Unity in 2002.

“I see it as an African Union at least attempting to address the concerns of African people,” said Edozie, a professor of international relations and African affairs at Michigan State University, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

The passports may represent an offering to a growing cosmopolitan middle class that hopes to take advantage of the mobility and economic benefits offered by visa-free travel.

“This flagship project has the specific aim of facilitating free movement of persons, goods and services around the continent in order to foster intra-Africa trade, integration and socioeconomic development,” the A.U. said in a statement on June 13, only weeks before Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

Visa-free plans are underway in Ghana and Mauritius.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has long offered visa-free travel to citizens of its member states, including Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal.

The A.U. has also made passports a key part of its Agenda 2063 plan, which aims to create a common trading market for its member-states by 2063.

But implementing the common passports for all African citizens could be a complex task.

The A.U.’s proposal is intended to be a common standard for electronic passports, while individual member states will still have to work out how individual citizens will actually receive the visa-free travel benefits, said Bronwen Manby, a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics who has studied citizenship issues in Africa.

“An ECOWAS biometric identity document is not going to solve the issue of who’s Ivorian and who isn’t and that question of statelessness,” she told the Monitor.

Statelessness is a particular concern. Millions of Africans lack official documentation of nationality, though its hard to estimate how many are stateless.

In some countries, Manby says, access to citizenship is difficult because of rules limiting rights to citizenship for children of foreigners, racial, ethnic and gender discrimination and lack of accommodation for a nomadic lifestyle.

“I think a lot of this focus has been around technical issues and not enough emphasis on migration,” she adds.

The A.U. and the E.U. also face somewhat different issues, though some concerns are linked. One is the possibility of racially-tinged backlash that could result from any plan to roll out passports to citizens of all the A.U.’s member states, particularly in South Africa, said Prof. Edozie of Michigan State.

The AU’s timeline is ambitious.

Khabele Matlosa, the A.U.’s director of political affairs, says the move to open borders between member countries could have a large-scale impact on young people traveling large distances in search of work.

Africa’s history also means that a move toward a common passport has drawn a different reaction than the debates that have roiled Europe, he told CNN.

“Africa is a continent of migrants so we are not as suspicious of refugees,” Matlosa said. “This is a test of our pan-Africanism, the doctrine which underpins the African Union’s existence. We are committed to this philosophy.”

Read more at New Times Rwanda.