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Across Africa, people still less free to move than capital or goods

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Monday, 18 November 2019 17:08

African governments need to reduce tariffs and non-tariff barriers in order to increase regional trade. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

African countries are becoming increasingly open to visitors from across the continent, with most countries making “steady progress” in terms of visa openness, according to the Africa Visa Openness Index presented by the African Union Commission and the African Development Bank at the Africa Investment Forum (AIF) in Johannesburg last week.

For the first time, Africans need visas to travel to less than half of other African countries, the report finds. A record 87% of African countries either improved or maintained their score, an increase of 9 points from 2018.

  • The biggest improvements were made by Ethiopia, which moved up 32 places to join the top 20 in terms of openness, mirroring the country’s progress in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.
  • Senegal’s move to introduce visas on arrival for some African countries and removing visas required before travel pushed it up into the top 10.

Yet the freedom of movement that will be needed to make the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) a success remains a work in progress.

Africa’s infrastructure deficit was a central theme at the AIF, which highlighted the need to attract investment into large-scale railway and road projects. Such projects will both require and further stimulate the free movement of people.

  • Only two African countries, Seychelles and Benin, offer visa-free access to all Africans.
  • Higher income African countries are among the laggards. Seven out of eight of Africa’s upper-middle income economies have low visa openness scores, the report finds.
  • Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Cameroon remain near the bottom of the table.

Trust deficit

The absence of the protocol for free movement of persons was a notable omission from the agenda at the African Union Summit in Niger in July, according to a paper by Mehari Taddele Maru of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence. The AfCFTA was launched at the Niger summit.

Mehari Taddele Maru argues that a trust deficit and the negative mindset of government officials are key constraints, and arise from a lack of political will and determination.

  • “The logic of states is usually to control their borders; hence, free movement of people impinges on sovereignty.”

Regardless of the existence of a free movement regime, African states are vulnerable to threats from within as much from without, the paper says.

  • Security threats are increasingly likely to be homegrown rather than imported, the paper finds.
  • These threats are “not the necessary result of free movement, but mainly arise from limited or non-existent capabilities of the state to effectively differentiate ‘good’ mobility . . . from ‘bad’ mobility, such as trafficking, smuggling and irregular migration.”

A true free mobility regime requires “better-resourced airports and border posts and significant work and investment in border governance,” Mehari Taddele Maru writes.

Bottom Line: Increased investment in border capacity would give African states greater confidence to further liberalise their visa policies.

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