In 2015, African Union (AU) Commissioner for Political Affairs, Dr. Aisha Abdullahi, indicated that a plan was underway to implement a single African passport. After recent announcements that the AU passport would be unveiled at the AU Summit in Kigali this month, the long-awaited continental e-passport has finally been revealed. The first recipients of the pan-African passport were Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose country hosted the summit, and Chadian President Idriss Deby, the chairperson of the AU. Others to receive some of the first pilot passports will include heads of state, foreign ministers and permanent representatives of the member states to the AU’s Addis Ababa headquarters. The timeline for the common passport roll-out to citizens of member countries is uncertain, although AU officials hope that citizens will have access by 2018.
This long-awaited passport is targeted to address the perennial problem of border openness in sub-Saharan Africa; closed borders are cited as a substantial impediment to both intra-African trade and economic growth.
Out of the 54 countries in Africa, to date, only thirteen allow citizens from any other African country to travel without advance visas. These significant barriers to intra-African travel are believed to be a leading cause of the low levels of trade between nations on the continent. Whereas intra-European trade accounts for approximately 60% of all European trade and intra-North American trade accounts for 40% of all trade on the North American continent, intra-African trade only counts for about 13% of African trade. While a small portion of this difference may be explained by unrecorded informal trade across porous borders, the difference is nevertheless notable.
There is evidence that opening borders can lead to economic growth globally, and experiences on the African continent support this contention. For example, in 2013, Rwanda announced that travelers from any African country could receive a visa on arrival. After improving visa openness, Rwanda’s GDP growth increased to 7% in 2014, tourism revenues rose by 4%, and the number of African travelers to Rwanda increased 22%.
Rwanda has led the charge for the creation of an AU passport. Now, the Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo, has indicated that Rwanda is fully prepared to begin issuing the common passport to all of its citizens. In contrast, other African nations would need to enact legislation that would allow them to begin issuing the African Union passports to citizens. Based on the general response to the common passport—the AU has been “overwhelmed” by requests for the passport—it is likely that AU member countries will feel pressure from their own citizens to do so quickly.
Interestingly, Morocco—the only African country that is not currently a member of the AU—has asked to rejoin the organization after a decades-long absence during the same summit in which the AU passports were unveiled. The timing of Morocco’s request could allow the county to take advantage of the new common passport and the expanding perks of AU membership.
The unified passport will undoubtedly present challenges for countries with less advanced border-security technology and fewer resources to devote to border control. Currently, only nine African countries offer eVisas. The AU passport is biometric and considered secure, but the issuance and acceptance of these e-passports at entry points of countries currently without e-passports may present a problem.
Relaxed immigration restrictions may also lead to larger inflows of migrant workers to the more economically stable countries on the continent, which may stoke the sort of anti-immigrant sentiment that led to violence in South Africa last year.
Travelers who are not citizens of AU member countries will not be able to benefit from the common passport, and will still face the relatively restrictive entry requirements on the continent. However, the enhanced labor mobility resulting from the AU’s e-passport program could have a catalytic effect on trans-African investments and commerce.
This post can also be found on CovAfrica, the firm’s blog on legal, regulatory, political and economic developments in Africa.