MULIRO: We’ll be truly united when all colonial borders cease to exist

Thursday December 12 2019

Mutual respect fosters unity

Mutual respect fosters unity: Free movement of people brings communities and countries closer. SHUTTERSTOCK 

ARTHUR MULIRO
By ARTHUR MULIRO
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Looking back at my childhood days, I recall history and geography lessons in which we learnt about the different countries of the continent. We learnt about the different peoples across the vastness of Africa and were constantly reminded about how much luckier we were than some of them.

Our country was large and well-endowed with natural resources, benevolent leaders, and a hard-working and thrifty people...we would prosper, our flag would fly high, and we would be proud to be citizens of our nation.

But I also recall the stories I heard from my father and his friends as they recounted their ordeals trying to travel in Africa. From having to bribe their way across borders (even when they had all the necessary documents), to unnecessary and unwanted hold-ups simply because they were the wrong nationality. It seemed that Africans didn’t want other Africans to travel to their territories, and “others” always seemed more welcome.

But all this is part of a collection of fading memories. We are now in 2039, and the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is an ordinary reality. This is how long-dreamed-of “borderless Africa” looks:

I have just come back from visiting my son and his family in Guinea. It was a relatively easy trip to Conakry from Dar es Salaam. I flew from Dar to Yaoundé, and then onwards to Conakry. Guess how many times I had to show my passport? None!

At each boarding gate, I’d simply swiped my national ID card and was allowed access to the flight. When I landed in Conakry, no one asked me where I was coming from or what my business was in Guinea. I simply collected my luggage and walked out of the restricted area to meet my welcoming party.

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My son moved to Conakry a decade ago, responding to an opportunity to help rebuild its energy infrastructure after hurricanes struck the West African coast in 2027-28, devastating much of the country.

Moving around Guinea, I was struck by the number of Africans of different nationalities that were gainfully employed in the country.

I met Egyptians, Rwandans, Zambians, Namibians. The local economy seemed to be ticking over well and many of those I met and spoke to were happy to consider Guinea home–it had offered them new and different opportunities from those that they had at home. And if there were other options elsewhere on the continent? They would move – after all, it wasn’t such a taboo to shift countries anymore.

Visiting the local markets, it was refreshing to see produce from all over the continent being sold. You could still find stuff from far-off places (like New Zealand butter), but you were just as well served by Bamenda butter, which was tastier (and cheaper anyway).

In the evening, in the Ratoma neighbourhood, you were just as likely to hear Xhosa or Kiswahili being spoken as you would Fulani or Mandinka. Africa was in Guinea.

None of this came easily. If during my childhood our leaders were intent on competing against each other and trying to prove which country was best, things had changed.

Since the ratification of AfCFTA in 2019, confidence had grown to the point that our countries no longer saw each other as rivals in a zero-sum game, but more as players on the same team–different skills and capabilities but committed to working together towards a mutually rewarding outcome.

The challenges that the continent had faced in the period thereafter had convinced even the most recalcitrant leadership that there was benefit in real collaboration.

This meant that even as the free trade area initially caused some friction due to some countries having to bear some revenue losses and adjustment costs, these inconveniences were soon outweighed by the benefits that were accruing over time.

Freedom of movement and establishment was one of the hardest barriers for our governments to let go of, but by 2028 the majority were on board and the transfer of skills, knowledge, and creativity within the continent saw unexpected development hubs emerge and begin to boost local economies.

By then, the Single African Air Transport Market saw a majority of African countries sign up and the era of lower-cost air travel debut on the continent, opening it up in ways that had previously only been dreamt of. Hence my flight to Conakry via Yaoundé.

For as long as anyone of my age could remember, relations between North Africa and the rest of the continent had always been frosty. We recalled the horror stories of African migrants being tortured and mistreated in the North African countries through which they had to transit on their way to “greener” pastures in Europe. But things have changed.

Libya, which had been notorious for its role in this regard, was now welcoming other Africans and allowing them to settle. The peace deal that had come after a decade of civil war was holding and there was new optimism, in part boosted by the arrival and expansion of new migrant groups that had settled there and were helping rebuild their adopted country. North African states have opened their borders and are reaping the benefits of integration.

What caused the walls to come down? Why did our leaders give up their vision of our countries as fortresses?

First, it was the realisation that only we, Africans, were responsible for our future. Working together to maximise the opportunities the continent offered and creating chances for our citizens to thrive, we finally awakened the sleeping giant that was Africa.

Not surprisingly, it was a combination of new and old potential that smoothed this path. The technology hubs in Kigali, Nairobi, and Lagos had matured and were now up there, challenging the best in the world.

We were now providing critical support to global software development and infrastructure—and were increasingly recognised as the “go to” specialists.

Second, collective challenges—climate change, conflict, and the need to tackle the rapidly growing population—convinced the leadership that there was a need to go beyond rhetoric and make real the many continental agreements that had been signed but were not active. After all, Africa had a large reservoir of skills and knowledge that were poorly applied on the continent and frequently sent offshore (and therefore lost to the people).

Third, people were moving and integrating anyway. Where Africans saw and found opportunities, they moved there and began to build on them. Even though tensions and hostility were a frequent by-product, their commitment to contribute to their host communities and to succeed soon wore down the resistance.

The fact that Europe and the United States had by 2025 all but shut down pathways for legal and illegal migration also helped focus African energies on making Africa successful. Many Africans who had settled abroad as well as persons of African origin were returning in droves, bringing with them not only capital, but more importantly, the skills and networks that were critical to transforming the fortunes of the continent. Their impact could be seen and felt in various fields—business, governance, culture, science, and engineering.

Lastly, sport was a huge motivator and catalyst for free movement and integration. With many of our sports stars frozen out of the (not so big anymore) leagues in Europe and elsewhere, in soccer, the African Champions League was now acknowledged as a mini World Cup—with global TV audiences to match.

African athletes in various disciplines were drawing crowds around the continent in various competitions and their success and exploits boosted internal tourism and travel.

We should not forget the role South Africa played in breaking the taboos. In 2024, President Malema surprised everyone by announcing that South Africa would no longer require visas for all persons of African origin and that they were welcome to settle and establish themselves in South Africa.

There was an initial chaotic period, but things settled down and there was no longer a mad rush to South Africa. This convinced other countries to drop their resistance and push for a true borderless continent.

What about all those sceptics who had suggested that a borderless Africa would lead to a proliferation of jobless migrants, terrorists, and other miscreants? Well, technology partly took care of that.

When I swiped my ID card to get on the flight from Dar to Yaoundé, in the blink of an eye, a lot of information about my person was linked and sent to Conakry. Even before I boarded, my risk profile had been evaluated and any necessary measures required put in place. Beyond this, the slow but steady growth of our economies has also allowed the authorities to be more accommodating of jobseekers.

Porous borders? By creating a borderless continent, the question of surveilling boundaries has become more or less an academic issue. Yes, there are still a few bad apples in our midst, but a combination of new and old technologies has made it easier to curtail their reach and harm.

But what is even more important is that by lowering and eliminating boundaries, we have finally allowed ourselves to build and reinforce the networks of trust and reciprocity that are vital to our well-being and prosperity, and which had been largely disrupted by the creation of the boundaries that our leaders at independence were so proud of.

The geography and history lessons that my grandchildren are learning today are very different from what I was taught. They learn about the pride of a resurgent continent that has rediscovered its identity and is taking its rightful place in the pantheon of nations.

The story of Africa is no longer about under-development, bad governance, or missed opportunities. It is about leadership, fraternity, and the possibility of new horizons. We haven’t yet conquered all our challenges, but we are making headway. And the decision to pave the way for a truly borderless continent has given us unlimited opportunities.

Arthur Muliro is the deputy managing director of the Society for International Development working out of Rome and Nairobi. He is a futurist thinker.