The ambitious programme by the African Union to remove visa charges for Africans travelling within the continent moved one step closer to fruition on May 23. This followed a meeting of over 100 African government officials in Kigali to fine-tune a draft treaty establishing free movement around the continent.
The draft protocol has to be submitted to the ministerial committee, and must be ready before the AU Heads of State summit slated for January 2018 when it is expected to be adopted.
“The progress we have made so far in improving the draft shows that we are capable of coming up with a policy that overcomes underlying fears of integration, such as those experienced by Europe under Brexit,” said Katyen Jackden, chairperson of the Committee on the Free Movement of Persons in Africa.
“For us, the benefit of free movement of people, goods and services outweighs the real potential security and economic challenges that may be generated.”
Apart from removal of visa requirements, adopting the protocol will usher in the African passport. It also introduces free movement of Africans for a period of 90 days, as well as right of residence for any African in a territory other than his or her country of origin.
However, a number of obstacles to this dream were raised during a closed-door session at the Kigali summit, according to a source who attended the meeting.
There were concerns over the short timeframe the AU gave itself to abolish visa requirements for all African citizens in all African countries by 2018.
“The dream of a visa-free Africa appeals to many countries. But let us not forget that many of the countries lack the technology and basic security measures to implement the plan. These are some of the things we must address before the draft protocol can be moved to the ministerial level,” the source told The EastAfrican.
The summit comes on the heels of the 2017 African Visa Openness Index launched by the African Development Bank last week, which indicates that African countries are becoming more open to each other, and travel is becoming easier.
Uganda tops the EAC on the visa openness ranking and comes second to Seychelles in Africa.
In the region, Rwanda is second, followed by Kenya and Tanzania, all of which feature in the top 20 visa open countries in Africa.
Burundi is among the most visa closed countries on the continent.
According to the Index, more Africans in 2016 did not need a visa to travel to more countries compared with the previous year.
“When we started this work, only five African countries offered liberal access to all Africans. We are making progress, but need to accelerate the pace,” said Dr Acha Leke, a member of President Paul Kagame’s AU Reform Team.
“For countries that have either visa-free or visa-on-arrival policies, you can see the positive impact on the number of visitors to those countries. Over time, you’ll also see it reflected in higher trade figures.”
Central Africa still remains the most closed region while East Africa is the most open.