The African Union (AU) has launched its visa-free passport which will allow Africans to travel freely throughout the continent. But free and unchecked travel is not yet a reality, as the current passport will only be issued to heads of state, AU officials and selected government staff.
When will the new AU passport be a reality?
The 54 member states of the AU plan to issue the new biometric e-passport to citizens in these countries between 2018 and 2020. The launch of the new African Passport was announced during the opening ceremony of the 27th AU Summit in Kigali.
African Passport plagued with ambiguity and complexity
Although several countries have embraced the idea of free travel throughout Africa, there are several concerns as to the administrative and legal implications of such travel. Legal and political negotiations are still in process, and there’s no clarity as to when proper agreements will be in place.
In addition, there is no clarity as to the qualifying criteria for passport applicants. The greatest question seems to be whether or not citizens of all member states will qualify automatically, or whether they will have to qualify for the passport using the same criteria as current visa requirements. Some of these requirements include income, motive for travel, criminal records and travel blacklisting.
Some officials are of the opinion that a better way to address the issue of easier travel would be to address current visa restrictions as this would be an easier administrative process to manage. In addition, ease-of-travel is said to be impeded by cost of travel and not by visa restrictions, so it would be most beneficial to address the issue of free movement trade through re-evaluating travel costs.
The other concern is that many African countries don’t have access to biometric systems at all their border posts (only 13 of the 54 currently use biometric systems) to make use of a new format of passport.
Immigration lawyer, Craig Smith, has stated that the current trend in immigration and travel is to increase security across borders in order to safeguard against security threats – making AU passports rather problematic.
Implications for South Africans
The outgoing AU Commission chairperson is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and it is under her leadership that the new visa-free travel was put forward. Her rationale is that the African Passport would improve trade and build the African economy. Under her new model the member states would each contribute 0.2% of their import levies to the AU. Whereas the intra-Euripe trade stands at between 43% and 83%, trade amongst African nations stands at a mere 13% currently.
But many analysts and officials are sceptical of the benefits and implementation of visa-free travel across South African borders.
South Africa has one of the most powerful passports in Africa, behind Seychelles and Mauritius. At the moment the passport allows visa-free travel to 114 countries. The great question mark looming over the AU passport is therefore how such a passport will benefit countries who already travel across Africa with relative freedom and what the security implications would be for accepting this passport.
With South Africa’s history of xenophobia, it’s highly unlikely that the AU passport will be accepted. There are other countries who are also averse to the new borderless travel.
Equatorial Guinea for instance currently has the highest GDP per capita in Africa and requires that all citizens from the other sovereign African states enter the country with a visa. Other countries opposing the AU passport are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sao Tome and Principe and Sudan.
What does the future hold?
It’s still unclear how the AU as well as the individual member states will address the issues presented to them. It is clear that there will still be a lot of deliberation, negotiation and administrative red tape to overcome before the African Passport will become a reality.
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