At its recent summit, in Kigali, Rwanda, the African Union revealed, launched, and rolled out plans of an electronic African passport. By that revelation, and its gradual crystallisation, the continent could soon become really borderless with the introduction of the bloc’s 2063 agenda. The passport is a much needed development as it enforces most of the labour laws on the continent, as it is intended to allow free movement of among all 54 markets in the region.
According to the African Development Bank, the African Union’s vision is matched by a call to action to introduce an African Passport and abolish visa requirements for all African citizens in all African countries by 2018. The 2063 Agenda is for a continent with seamless borders. There will, hopefully, be no need to carry a visa to gain access to other African countries. The roll out is the latest in a series of continent-wide digital document initiatives aimed at addressing a broad range of issues such as national security, financial inclusion, identity protection, and improved cross-border relations.
As an illustration from other blocs in the world; unions such as the border free Schengen Area, a creation of the Schengen Agreement, which includes 26 European countries, have abolished passports and other border controls. The member states have a common visa policy, which facilitates the free movement of people.
In Africa, the East African Community (EAC), and the Economic Community Of West Africa (ECOWAS), two regional blocs which encompass more than 20 countries, have already started to set up the infrastructure to deploy electronic passports and other digital ID documents. All East African Community have recently registered their citizens and issued them with digital passports. In July 2016, Ghana implemented a visa on arrival systems for citizens of African Union members countries, joining some dozen others working towards the same policy. In the meantime, the African Development Bank is finalising the first Africa Openness Index, which ranks African countries on the level of openness or restrictions of their visa regimes, which aims to drive visa policy reforms across Africa, simplify visa application procedures and encourage positive reciprocity.
The benefits of having the African Passport are vast. It has potential to spike visa free travel among Africans and boast trade and economic growth across the continent, free movement of citizens, an electronic passport system is quick and limits fraud, help prevent refugees and migrants from facing dangerous voyages, and creating a centralised system that tracks travel.
The disadvantages of having one are equally present as well. Only 13 countries have the biometric systems needed for the passport; the passport will eliminate visa revenue, which many African nations rely on; the African Union has to first overcome resistance to migration among African nation, which is illustrated by strict visa requirements; and, also, open borders could increase terrorism as relaxing barriers will invite more terrorism across the continent.
The challenges too are not to be ignored. It is a wonderful thing having a continental passport, but it must be noted that regional blocs have not even operationalized their existing travel documents yet. The existing plan is to enable every African have the passport by 2018. However, some countries’ citizens do not have national identity cards. Africa as a continent still lacks strong institutions. The Union and the individual countries governments are run in unsystematic, unimpressive ways. The region’s lack of finances and its tendency for delays, the process of availing the passport to those who need it might take longer.
Importantly, until now, only 19 countries have implemented an essential legal instrument for the protection of migrants, the International Convention on the Protection of The Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. This shows that countries are more inclined to determine their own migration policies.
The idea behind the African passport is phenomenal, but existing challenges and unintended consequences need to be considered and carefully examined before the rolling out can be done.