• The African Union is set to launch the electronic passport (e-Passport) at its summit to be held in Kigali, Rwanda this July. According to an AU statement, the project “first agreed upon in 2014, falls squarely within the framework of Africa’s Agenda 2063 and has the specific aim of facilitating free movement of persons, goods and services around the continent – in order to foster intra-Africa trade, integration and socio-economic development”. Dr Nkosazana Dhlamini, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) described this initiative as symbolic and significant, saying it is a “steady step toward the objective of creating a strong, prosperous and integrated Africa, driven by its own citizens and capable of taking its rightful place on the world stage”.

    In line with aspirations 2 and 7 of Agenda 2063 which call for an integrated and united Africa, the passport will be issued out firstly to AU Heads of State and Government, Ministers of Foreign Affairs; and the Permanent Representatives of AU Member States based at the AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. These pilot beneficiaries will get the e-passports in July 2016 at the 27th African Union Summit in Rwanda. The idea of unification and integration through unrestricted movement is not a concept alien to Africa as countries like Sychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda and Ghana have already been at the forefront of easing visa restrictions and even lifting the requirements. The ultimate goal is to realise visa-free travel for Africans in their own continent.

    Open Borders, Clear Economic Prospects

    It has been argued that open borders have the potential of doubling world Gross Domestic Product. Clearly, the easier traveling requirements would help migrants with employment opportunities and chances at a better life while boosting the economies of their host countries. Regional Tourism would also improve which translates to economic gains. The African Visa Openness Report of 2016 details how Visa Openness is helping Rwanda achieve its goal of becoming a Middle Income Country by 2020. The GDP growth of the country increased to 7% in 2014 while tourism revenues rose by 4%. Rwanda abolished work permits for East African Community citizens and this led to a huge 12,000 people getting work permits free of charge. The Report also highlights how Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda have managed to enhance cross-border trade by a whopping 50% by allowing travel with national identity cards. Rwanda’s 17% increase in tourist arrivals is attributable to the single tourist visa the three countries launched. Quite clearly, the ideas of opening up borders have economic advantages that cannot be ignored.

    Open Borders as Avenues for terrorism?

    One of the greatest fears moving into the African e-Passport era will be security as various terror groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab have instilled an inherent fear in most Africans. Visas have been traditionally said to be “a necessary security measure to tackle the threat of suspected illegitimate visitors who could pose a security risk to the country”. The reality, however, has been that the easing of restrictions in visa regimes has not necessarily been seen to have a correlation with security challenges. According to the Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration, in 2014, only 0.045% of travelers could potentially be considered suspect. The African Visa Openness Report therefore argues that the solution to security threats cannot be visas but instead, an overall robust system. It says, “Rather having strong systems in place, including biometric databases at border controls, and joining up IT systems with other countries and regions seems to be the answer. That allows information sharing and greater cooperation, which in turn minimises risk and provides higher levels of security overall.” In essence, the report’s recommendation is exactly what the AU e-passport personifies. David Zounmenou, senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies says, “One key advantage is that we will have centralized records to show who is going where.”

    The United States of Africa?

    While the European Union is dealing with the effects of the Brexit, Africa looks set to be the new formidable force in regional integration. Aspiration 2 of Agenda 2063 is, “An integrated continent, politically united, based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism and the vision of Africa’s Renaissance.” Aspiration 7 says, “Africa shall be a strong, united, resilient, peaceful and influential global player and partner with a significant role in world affairs. We affirm the importance of African unity and solidarity in the face of continued external interference including attempts to divide the continent and undue pressures and sanctions on some countries.”

    The e-passport will be a huge step towards achieving the unity Africa seeks.

    In African Union Director for Political Affairs Dr. Khabele Matlosa’s words, “This is a test of our Pan-Africanism, the doctrine which underpins the African Union’s existence. We are committed to this philosophy.”

    There are still logistical obstacles to be conquered like the accessing of technology for the biometric system. This will not be an easy task and Africa will have to pull all stops if the passport is to be a success.