Securing a VISA to visit another African destination is a nightmare for most indigenous African nomads. Conversations with immigration officers become something of a chess match: they make their move then you make yours. You even forget that immigration officials are doing their job. But then, you also are doing yours: subtly making the point that you have every right to travel. Most nomads claim that as Africans, the most painful visa transactions have, sadly, been on the African continent – the place where passports should be recognized immediately for the useless, artificial construct they are; where members of the same ethnic group are separated by barriers imposed from outside.
But Africa’s leaders have been among the most ardent defenders of national boundaries. In 2013, the African Development Bank wrote: “African countries remain closed off to each other, making travel within the continent difficult. Africa is one of the regions in the world with the highest visa requirements. This situation is even more restricted for Africans travelling within Africa, as compared to Europeans and North Americans. On average, African citizens require visas to visit 60% of African countries.” But immigration systems and visa requirements aren’t designed with actual people in mind. Instead, they are a reflection of the geopolitics of the day and of voter sentiment. The number of countries your passport grants you access to is directly proportional to how many friends your government has, and Cameroon’s Paul Biya is famously reclusive. That said, Cameroon is not the worst. In a 2014 ranking of countries by the strength of their passport, Finns, Swedes and Brits can travel the most freely, swanning into 173 countries of their choosing. Cameroon came in at 43, alongside China, Congo, Jordan and Rwanda. The least desirable passport was Afghanistan’s, giving its citizens access to a paltry 28 countries.
The system is broken, and the idea that where you are born is a lottery exempts us from our collective responsibility to change that system. But then we are all idealists with wanderlust. When it comes to advancing the dream of a more open and prosperous Africa, 2018 has been a good one. Leaders across the continent signed the Continental Free Trade Agreement, which aims to connect a marketplace with 1.2 billion people and a GDP of $2.5 trillion. Another milestone was also marked with the launch of the Single Air Transport Market initiative which outlines a better and faster connected continent through air travel. Many countries from Kenya to Ethiopia, Senegal, and Namibia also relaxed their visa rules for Africans to promote open borders, trade, security and Africa-wide integration.
Yet the free movement of people, and all the benefits that come with it, still remain beyond the reach of many Africans. The 2018 Africa Visa Openness Index shows that Africans still require visas to travel to over half of other African countries. Compiled by the African Union and the African Development Bank, the report shows citizens of 35 countries including Sierra Leone, Egypt, Morocco, and Angola need visas to travel to at least 26 countries or more. Across the continent, only Seychelles and Benin offer visa-free access to all African travellers. Many African leaders and commentators had become frustrated with a situation where it is often easier for North American or European passport holders to travel around Africa than Africans from many countries. Even citizens of the same regional economic and political blocs still find it hard to travel. Only one regional union, the Economic Community of West Africa, fully allows its passport holders to move around easily. The index noted that lack of deep integration hinders the ability of regional alliances to drive sustainable growth, boost investment opportunities, and allowing young people the ability to expand their horizons beyond their home nations. Yet even when African nations liberalize their visa regimes, challenges continue to persist. These include access to visa information in different languages via the internet, and what the time lag is between announcement and the implementation of policies.
Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote has said he needs 38 visas to travel within the continent on his Nigerian passport. Many European nationals, meanwhile, waltz into most Africans countries visa-free. African nations were supposed to scrap visa requirements for all African citizens by 2018. It was a key part of the African Union (AU) “vision and roadmap for the next 50 years” that was adopted by all members states in 2013. But to date, the Seychelles is the only nation where visa-free travel is open to all Africans – as well as to citizens of every nation – as it always has been. A recent AU report found that Africans can travel without a visa to just 22% of other African countries. It is a sensitive topic, provoking xenophobic attitudes in some of Africa’s wealthier nations despite policymakers from Cape to Cairo insisting that the free movement of people is key for economic transformation.
“Our leaders seem to go to ridiculous lengths to preserve and protect the colonial borders,” says South African travel blogger Katchie Nzama, who has visited 35 of Africa’s 55 countries. The AU may want a borderless continent where its 1.2 billion people can move freely between nations, similar to the European Union, but it seems there is no shortage of obstacles. Whether it is immigration officials in Burkina Faso charging an arbitrary $200 (£155) for a visa on arrival, or Tanzania arresting and deporting other East Africans who enter illegally, or Tunisia refusing visas to stranded African passengers after a cancelled flight, intra-African travel is fraught with suspicion.
Double standards? South Africa appears to be the most visible representative of the continent’s visa double standard, remaining largely closed to other Africans but more welcoming to the wider world. Citizens of only 15 African nations can travel to South Africa without a visa, yet holders of 28 different European passports can enter the country freely. The country’s Department of Home Affairs spokesman Thabo Mokgola defends its policy. “This is an unfair assertion – visa-waiver agreements are premised on reciprocity and we are finalising such with a number of African countries,” he told the BBC. Just how that reciprocity is applied is unclear. Kenya, for example, gives South African citizens a visa on arrival for free. But Kenyans must apply for a visa, then pay a service fee and wait for at least five working days before travelling to South Africa.
In 2015, two years after the African Union asked members to commit to abolishing visa requirements for all Africans by 2018, South Africa did the opposite and announced stricter regulations that were widely criticised. Hit by a recession and a drop in tourist numbers, the country caved in and recently announced that it was relaxing travel rules in the hope of reviving its struggling economy.
African passport: Namibia, Mauritius, Ghana, Rwanda, Benin and Kenya have all loosened travel restrictions for other African nationals, and now either grant a visa on arrival or allow for visits of up to 90 days with just a passport. But citizens of African countries still need a visa to travel to more than half of the continent’s 54 countries, protecting borders drawn up by European colonisers more than a century ago. “Somebody like me, despite the size of our group, I need 38 visas to move around Africa,” complained Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote in an interview in 2016. He is reportedly one of the first in line to receive the African passport which was launched in 2016. The travel document is supposed to eventually replace individual nations’ passports, but is currently only available to some heads of state, senior diplomats and top AU officials.
Additional Obstacles: According to qz.com/africa/641025/the-trials-restrictions-and-costs-of-traveling-in-africa-if-youre-an-african/, there are some additional factors that should be considered listed below:
- Middle class African are more willing to go to Dubai, London or Paris on vacation rather than immediately thinking of going to another African country. This is a great loss to the continent as it means collectively we are not yet benefitting from the “Africa rising” rhetoric if huge proportions of tourist spending is not used within the continent.
- Cost of visas: From my experience travelling, costs of visas to some African countries are unbelievably high. A one-month multiple entry visa to Ivory Coast is $125 for a Kenyan.
- Duration of visas: Most African countries are still only willing to give one month single entry visas to other African visitors (with a multiple entry visa for that same time-frame almost being twice as expensive.) Given all the hurdles one has to cross to obtain some of these African visas, the least that can be expected is not to have to go through the same process every time one travels to the same country again.
- Ambiguity of visa processes: Google any telephone number for an African country you know little about, but would really love to travel to. It is highly likely you will not find contact details for their embassy in your country (perhaps they do not have an embassy in your country.) If they do have an embassy in your country, it is very likely their website was last updated before the new millennium. Try calling the number on the website and it will likely not go through or you will get a message that the number no longer exists. Send an email to the general email address on the site and it will likely bounce back. You will have to go in person and even then you might arrive and have the guard tell you they only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am – 2pm. Eventually, you might give up and decide to travel elsewhere.
- Inflexible bureaucracy: Many times the consulates have a check-list that they will not make any compromises on especially if you are not flying to that specific country.
- Flight costs – It is sometimes said as a joke, but at any given point it is much cheaper (50-70% cheaper) to fly to Europe, the UAE and sometimes North America than it is to fly within the African continent. A quick internet search for flights, and you will find return flights at over $1,000 from Nairobi to Maputo, over $1,200 for Nairobi to Dakar, Nairobi to Zanzibar $300. A similar search for flights and you will find return tickets from Nairobi to Dubai for $350, Nairobi to London – $600 and Dakar to Paris – $600. Coupled with the visa challenges, it is easy to see how even well-travelled African nomads might just not be well-travelled on the continent. Travelling round our own continent is a labour of love.
- Shortage of tourist facilities – While tourist facilities are really well developed in some African countries, the reality is that in many others they are severely lagging behind. It is not surprising given some of these countries have not historically been seen as tourist attractions and have rarely been visited by tourists. In many cases the main interactions such countries have had with foreigners is with aid workers, NGO employees etc. As such a tourism industry has not developed—facilities like hotels will be poor and overpriced in many cases. It is noteworthy though that even in the most challenged of African countries, there is likely natural beauty, history and culture around which a tourism industry could be developed.
So what should we do about this as Africans? I agree with a lot of the AfDB’s commonsense suggestions including visa on arrival for Africans (Ghana/Rwanda seem to be ahead of the pack on this), visa-free regional blocs, multi-year visas, promoting positive reciprocity and opening up on visas unilaterally. African countries can also simplify visa processes and improve online access to information. The continent needs to capitalize on ways to increase intra-African travel with the aim of fostering unity and understanding and increasing trade and investment. On the demand side, there is no shortage of Africans who would love to see our continent with our own eyes.