DIANNA GAMES: Political will is weak to make travel in Africa cheaper and easier
ALIKO Dangote, Africa’s richest man, is fond of banging the visa drum. He uses many public platforms to urge leaders to make it easier for Africans to travel around their own continent.
Last week was no exception. Dangote, in a television interview in Nigeria with CNBC, said he needed 38 visas to travel across Africa. And it was not always straightforward to get them, he said.
"You go to a country that is looking for investment, that particular country will give you a runaround just to get a visa," he said.
"You have to know somebody who is big in that country to call somebody. They are giving you visas as if it is a favour."
Dangote’s comments will resonate with many people who have battled to get visas timeously for multiple business trips. Only 13 African countries allow other Africans to enter without a visa or give visas on arrival.
South Africans often complain about the hoops they have to jump through to get visas for other African states, but in fact, SA is part of the problem. According to the African Development Bank, 75% of the most visa-friendly countries in Africa are in East Africa.
In Southern Africa, the visa-friendly nations are Mauritius, Madagascar, Zambia and Mozambique. West Africa fares better with six countries regarded as visa-friendly. Nigeria is not among them.
So what about the African passport? The AU launched it earlier in 2016 with some fanfare, and without a hint of irony. Two passports have been issued so far — to the presidents of Rwanda and Chad. That is a start, on a continent of a billion people.
How soon the passports will be implemented will depend on each country and their preparation to distribute widely, the AU says.
But political will for pan-African initiatives mooted on political platforms is in short supply at home in most cases. Even Ethiopia, the home of the AU, requires visas for African visitors.
There are many well-intended AU initiatives that have stalled on the issue of sovereignty and local protection. An often cited one is the Yamoussoukro Agreement to free up African skies. It was signed in 1988 and was due to come into force by 2002. Rather than leading to open skies, the African Airline Association reports that levels of protectionism have increased to protect domestic carriers, where they exist.
Although it is no longer necessary to fly via Europe to access certain African destinations, it can require a time-consuming complicated timetable and extortionate air fares. The concept of an African passport may be a popular symbolic gesture. But it is a red herring for the actual problems on the ground that plague Africans.
There are many things that can be done to make it easier and cheaper to move around the continent that do not require such an ambitious solution.
It is those who want to bring their money in, either to shop, go on holiday or invest, who are bearing the brunt of visa hassles. Many Africans now prefer to take their money to countries that welcome them and give them long-term visas. Some countries cite security. But the Rwandan government, which has introduced visas on arrival for African visitors, says the benefits of bringing new talent and visitors with money to spend far outweighs the potential problems.
Africa’s development challenges, high unemployment rates and security issues are factors used to determine immigration policy. But some of these may be attended to by making it easier to investors, students and others to travel.
There is a rumour that Dangote will be a recipient of an African passport. That might keep him quiet, but it will not change the underlying problem that has become a significant cost to African development and progress.
• Games is CEO of business advisory, Africa @ Work