Free movement will help bring Africa together Africa must improve its transport network to boost trade

Ruth Butaumocho

African Agenda

Unite we must. Without necessarily sacrificing our sovereignties, big or small, we can here and now forge a political union based on defence, foreign affairs and diplomacy, and a common citizenship, an African currency, an African monetary zone, and an African central bank. We must unite in order to achieve the full liberation of our continent.”

The above is an extract from renowned pan Africanist and Ghana’s first president, the late Kwame Nkrumah’s speech at the formation of the Organisation of the African Union now the African Union in 1963.

Speaking at the highly-revered meeting, Nkrumah appealed to the African leaders to create a strong continental unity.

For Nkrumah, “unity” was not just a mere word that nations could hum about, without putting meaning to it. 

Nkrumah knew “unity” would be crucial in reversing Africa’s colonial balkanisation and reunify the continent so that it could compete economically with the advanced industrialised countries of the world.

Nearly 60 years after Nkrumah’s iconic speech, several African countries continue to push for a united continent, though with hurdles in between.

One sign that the region is making progress in dismantling intra-African trade barriers is the relaxation of the ease of doing business between countries, through a litany of progressive measures.

The recent decision by Zimbabwe to exempt all member states of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) from visa requirements brings the nation closer to the dream of a united continent, which is one of the goals under the African Union’s Agenda 2063, of achieving the “Africa We Want”.

Zimbabwe’s robust decision comes hard on the heels of several other initiatives the country is making to ensure that it plays a critical role in the move towards the 2063 agenda of ensuring that the African continent moves ahead as bloc.

In 2018, Zimbabwe was one of the first countries to rally behind the historic free tree agreement, the African Continental Free Trade Area when Africa’s citizens, business leaders and politicians came together to agree on and implement a pan-Africanist strategy for economic development.

Strategically, the AfCFTA, is poised to be one of the greatest trading platforms that would enable even the smallest African economies to draw strength from an expanded continental market and survive competition by global forces. 

And for that to be achieved with less headaches, most African countries would have to remove a lot of hurdles that may impede free trading within.

One of the biggest challenges have always been stringent travel restrictions where citizens of neighbouring countries need visas for either personal or business transactions.

As a result, use of visas has been holding trade in many ways, forcing many to totally abandon business or use unorthodox means to gain entry.

According to the African Development Bank’s Africa Visa Openness Report 2016, acquiring a visa remains a challenge for travellers, especially for African citizens who still need visas to travel to half of the countries in the continent include their neighbours.

Yet, several researches over the year, show that countries that have relaxed travel restrictions tend to benefit more on trade matters and earn goodwill from potential investors. 

Trade experts say maintaining visa-free regimes promote intra-African trade and investment, facilitate business and create employment opportunities.

Once a country attains that level of hassle-free travelling, it attracts a good number of investors, enhances its trade relations and embraces opportunities within the shortest possible time.

Rwanda is among the few African countries that are now reaping the fruits of ease of doing business after it removed visas for a number of countries. 

Other African countries that have since removed visas include Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles and Ghana that have since joined the borderless concept.

An Africa Visa Openness Report noted that after Rwanda abolished work permits for East African Community citizens to support its open-visa policy, it witnessed an increase in trade with Kenya and Uganda by at least 50 percent, while the visa-on-arrival policy has increased African arrivals in Rwanda by an average of about 22 per year.

It is for that reason that Zimbabwe should be applauded for such a robust and progressive move to enable free movement within the SADC region by relaxing visa rules for regional member states.

The success of Zimbabwe’s move to create conducive travel arrangements will depend on the cooperation of other Sadc country members, before cascading to other blocs.

In the case of Rwanda and other like-minded countries that have taken that route, the benefits are immense The country reports that business is now brisk on both trade and investment opportunities which are coming from all over the world.

That is the trajectory that Zimbabwe is now taking, and the country now needs to move a gear up through streamlining its immigration requirements so that the visa relaxation is not implemented in isolation, but strengthens the existing procedures.

Outside the elimination of visa requirements, African countries, should also push for the continuous liberalisation of international air transport to the benefit of all stakeholders, promotion of one-stop border posts to reduce delays, and creating interregional and international transport and road transit points.

But of course, like any other novel experience, elimination of visa requirements by Zimbabwe would not be smooth sailing and is likely to be met with challenges, which the Government would need to plug as a matter of urgency.

The greatest challenge will probably be increased risk to national security and potential health crises that likely to emerge as a result of variations in legislation and containment measures. 

With the whole world reeling under the effects of Covid-19 that now has various variants, the Government will need to keep its eyes open for potential serious outbreaks owing to a sudden deluge in human traffic.

Once human traffic increases between countries, it becomes difficult to control and manage activities that may result in outbreaks of diseases, enhanced criminal activities and a flood of immigrants in search of opportunities. The political willingness would need to be matched with enough resources to ensure a smooth take off of such a progressive decision and one of its kind in the region. 

In an era where technology has become the buzzword, biometric documentation is a necessary tool the country would need to rely on to improve the visa-relaxation processes.

Such innovations call for the allocation of more resources to upgrade the technological infrastructure that is fit for purpose and can process data and other technological requirements within minutes.  

These progressive moves also need to be ably supported with statutory requirements to safeguard the country’s good intentions against misuse and abuse by malcontents that may want to manipulate the relaxation for selfish reasons.

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