Remove all travel restrictions for Africans

Saturday February 9 2019

A view of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). FILE PHOTO | DIANA NGILA

A view of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). It is time to remove all travel restrictions for Africans. Only then can we start talking about free trade, and one people. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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We are living in an age of contradictions. The world is rapidly shrinking due to globalisation yet borders have never been erected higher and made as impenetrable as they are in 2019.

Never before has the need for ease of movement of people and goods been greater yet countries seem to be working overtime to keep non-citizens out by tightening travel restrictions and making life hard for those they perceive to be “aliens”. We do not trust each other, we have become fluent in the language of nationalism and our behaviour is like that of recalcitrant teenagers who just want to be left alone in their rooms.

When our independence heroes founded the Organisation of African Unity (later renamed African Union — AU — in 2001), they envisioned a continent that would rally post-colonialism into a formidable, unified force that would usher each member state into prosperity powered by the winds of trade, integration and pan-Africanism.

This is yet to happen six decades later.

Achieving integration for Africa has always been on the AU’s agenda but has remained elusive even as heads of state and government meet today and tomorrow in Addis Ababa for their annual summit.

Despite concerted pressure to ease movement across the continent, the latest report by the African Development Bank (AfDB) shows that Africans need a visa to travel to 51 per cent of the continent, and that they can get a visa on arrival in 24 per cent of African countries. Only a quarter of the continent is open to Africans without a visa.

Out of 55 countries, Benin and Seychelles are the only ones to have removed all visa restrictions for Africans.


In my travels across Africa — with a Ugandan passport — I have experienced first-hand how Africans are (mis)handled at ports of entry: The delays, the intrusive questions and contempt from immigrations officials.

As Africans, we are intimately acquainted with the humiliation of visa denials from the West. Many are routinely turned away without explanation or the conditions are set so high that only the elite can meet them. Why then do we insist on inflicting the same pain on fellow Africans, while conversely giving people from Europe and America a free pass?

Visa regimes are driven by power dynamics whose sole purpose is to alienate, subjugate and negatively profile those that are perceived to be “foreign”. They are motivated by the desire for exclusivity which thrives on inequality and non-reciprocity. Intrinsically, we are taught to view some countries as “superior” and “aspirational” and others as “undesirable”. This need to draw arbitrary lines on worthiness has fuelled some of humanity’s worst instincts into the very vices of racism, xenophobia and tribalism that we fight today.

And it is costing us greatly. According to 2017 statistics from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, intra-region travel in Africa is much lower than the global average. Only four out of 10 international tourists in Africa originate from within the continent. The global average is twice that, with four out of five international tourists originating from the same region.

The report says that better integration of African countries would create an extra 155,000 jobs, lead to an increase of almost 5 million passengers and contribute almost $1.3 billion to the continent’s GDP and generate $1 billion in consumer benefits.

Latest data from the World Economic Forum shows that contrary to popular belief Africans are not scrambling to exit the continent – they are emigrating to other African countries indicating that intra-African travel remains the most desirable for Africans.


The number of African international migrants living within the region jumped from roughly 16 million to 19 million between 2015 and 2017, while within the same period, the number of Africans living outside the continent increased slightly from 16 million to 17 million.

Most of Africa’s population is below the age of 25 and this demographic accounts for 60 per cent of all unemployment, according to AfDB. Communities wracked by unemployment where even breadwinners are in vulnerable jobs are likely to see their youth fleeing for better opportunities elsewhere. If other African countries are not an option for this disenfranchised demographic, we shall lose them to Europe.

Our leaders are fortunately waking up to this reality. The AU has introduced a passport which grants Africans visa free travel across the continent, but this document is currently available only to heads of state and diplomats, extending the very same barriers to free movement that it seeks to eradicate.

For six decades, our leaders have been dreaming big about transforming Africa into a rich economy for its robust citizens, but they have fallen horribly short on implementation. It is time to remove all travel restrictions for Africans. Only then can we start talking about free trade, and one people.

Mr Sebunya is CEO of African Wildlife Foundation; [email protected]