A.U Electronic Passport: A steady but slow step for African Trade

By Kelvin Chiringa
August 2016
Prime Business

The announcement by the African Union and the preceding issuance of an electronic continental passport has been hailed by many as positive and practical strides towards realizing a tightly integrated African Trade Community.

A.U announced that this is in line with the ambitious agenda 2063 which seeks to bring to the fore the old pan-Africanist dream of a United Africa where geopolitical boundaries are dismantled to pave way for free human movement and a freer trade environment.

 While the marriage of the American states which was consequently followed by the coalescing  of European nationalities to form the EU significantly stimulated and  bolstered economic growth in both the American and Eurozone, the fact that a United States of Africa would do the same for a “dis-United States of Africa” is out of question provided the ground is level.

Yet the pace at which the strides towards this vision has been going ever since the times of Kwameh Nkrumah, Julius Mwalimu Nyerere and Muamar Al Gadhafi has been at snail’s pace, due primarily to political factors since the vision itself is primarily a political brain child mooted and contested by political figure-heads.

While business has reacted quite positively to this flagship project in the name of progress within the wash-basin of integrated continental commerce, political forces seem to consciously and secretly delay the entire process while vehemently supporting the speedy implementation of the same on public platforms.

Speaking to the media at a press briefing, Coordinator for Agenda 2063 Retselisitsoe Mabote said, “In Namibia it is easy to enter as long as one’s passport is still valid, while in other countries you need three months before you get your passport. We say Africans should open up the borders.’’
The urgency in the voices of these proponents of A.U plan can be mistaken to imply a speedy practical follow up which is often times not the case, the irony of it is non-the-less baffling.

 Talks around implementation were resurrected in 2014 to bring about this project which falls squarely within the framework of Africa’s Agenda 2063 and had the political will matched the urgency for the growth of continental trade every business person who is an African citizen would be with the electronic passport by now.

The cold hearted approach to a speedy implementation of the ambitions of Agenda 2063 has thus seen the issuing of the electronic passports to people who do not really need them, 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.

And while it is indeed still a pilot project, what boggles the mind is the fact that heads of state have always had the ease of travel anywhere in the world under the wing of diplomatic immunity with the exception of those under travel bans.
“Freedom of movement is primarily important for the business and it was better if the priority had been given to them, because presidents already have exemptions,” concurs political analyst Dr Andrew Nikondo.

It is people like billionaire  Aliko Dangote who at one time failed to attend a business meeting in South Africa simply because of comprised travel documents, the foot soldiers and front runners of African business from the private to the public sector who have the greatest need of this.

Moono Mupotola for Regional Integration and Trade at the African Development Bank is quoted as saying in order for Africans to capitalize on this growth and potential, “Africa’s leaders and policymakers have to move freely in support of Agenda 2063’s call to abolish visa requirements for all Africans by 2018.”

While the idea is not for an aristocratic few to move around flaunting around an electronic passport that does not significantly change much in the manner they have traditionally gallivanted around the continent, it still needs to be seen by when the passport shall be in the hands of ordinary men and women.

The Chairperson of the AU Commission, South Africa’s Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s remarks that the initiative 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,” may come as a shock given that this was the same woman who scoffed at the prospects of a United States of Africa as a pipe dream.

Her phrasing it as a “steady” stride towards the realization of the continent’s objectives speaks volumes of the slow manner in which Africa has to catch up with its paper-commitments and pledges, i.e. the Lagos Plan of Action and the Abuja Treaty.

Africa Development Bank’s “Africa Visa Openness Index” launched in May of 2015 provides a conspicuous reflection of how much the African continent harbor many closed doors that restrict travelers which comes in time to bear heavily on the fostering and growth of trade.

And while ADB has put in the pipeline its plans that seek to see the doing away with of   visa requirements for all Africans by 2018  in order to assist the business community which suffer heavily at the bureaucracies which veil Visa processing and procurement, the plan itself challenges African statesmen to move out of Nkosazana Zuma’s “steady move” mentality into a well protracted and fast tracked dismantling of barriers to movement.