The AU Passport: A waste of time

People across the African continent have been chatting excitedly about the latest Pan-African creation: The AU Passport. This new document is a direct draw from the European Union in that it serves as a travel document for all citizens of African Union member nations (basically the whole continent, excluding Morocco)* to travel the continent visa free. The premise is great. As a Kenyan citizen, I’m extremely aware of how much of a hassle international travel is, based on my passport. Lengthy visa applications, outrageous processing and admin fees, tiresome prior planning and airport security harassment are just a few of the major hiccups. It’s certainly true that in this day and age, African travellers are still considered inferior and more of a liability than those from developed countries.

Furthermore, the inspiration for the AU passport — Europe’s borderless Schengen area — has been a strong case for a single market. Yes, it’s not been a perfect ride; the past 2 years have painted a nasty picture with the migrant crisis, unfettered access for radical attackers, huge bailouts and sluggish economic growth. But the overarching fact is that despite all of this, the Schengen area is a huge success. One cannot deny the huge boost in growth, rapid development in the Eastern bloc and the immense travel culture change that came with it. Most Europeans take for granted the fact that they can just decide to pick up their belongings, choose a mode of transport and just settle in another country and make a living there with no paperwork at all. I digress though, the details of this are for another article. So back to the new kid on the block: The AU Passport. Given it’s positive premise, why am I so negative about it? Here are my thoughts.

Top down. Here we go again.

When it comes to any development on the continent, critics have been screaming this phrase for the last 30 years. Top down development continues to plague so many African innovations that people are tired of pointing it out. In this case, the AU passport was rolled out in full glam at the AU summit in July 2016. The first 2 passports were presented to Chadian president and AU chair Idriss Deby, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame respectively. Other heads of state will soon receive theirs, but that’s exactly the problem. Diplomats on the continent don’t actually have any issue with travel. Their possession of the passport is merely symbolic. Instead, a rollout should be done with ordinary people who would actually use one, have issues with it, give feedback and ultimately contribute towards the program by mutual investment. The users would gain from getting visa free access, the program would gain from getting increased travel and investment across borders.

Who gets the passport will depend on each government. They can decide to give it to, you know, good business people that they think can invest all across the continent and so forth. But the ultimate goal, as I said, is really to make sure that everybody moves freely.

  • Fatima Haram Acyl AU trade and industry commissioner

That statement in itself presents the problem in implementation. It hints that countries will have ultimate say over who gets it which beats the purpose of using this as a tool to elevate the travelling rights of all Africans. If oppressive regimes continue to flout rules on travel with the AU passport just as they do with current national passports, what’s the point? Moreover, the fact that “good business people” will get it first means we’re back to “money = more access”. And again, that is missing the point entirely. Business empire owners across the continent are already frequent travellers and have the resources to get visas quickly, operate multilaterally and use connections to get things done. The people who can’t travel are those in small, budding enterprises who are overwhelmed by cost and paperwork to spread their business over borders.

When it comes to accessibility based schemes such as AU passports, internet access or low bracket finance, successful initiatives such as M-Pesa, have started out with the common tier, not the high tier. If M-Pesa was first rolled out to NSE listed firms, nobody would have used it because big businesses were familiar with the banking sector and saw no need to change. Instead, they allowed the farmer in Kabarnet to send money to his nephew’s new enterprise in Mathare. Those are the people that needed and still need such a service.

No universal framework

Amidst all the chatter about the new passports, one crucial piece is missing: a formal framework adhered to by all member nations. The AU admits that this still has to be drawn up but has not offered any specifics of when and how. The AU also say that each country will be responsible for the implementation of their own AU passports. With such sharp differences in laws across the continent, how can such a program ever succeed? For example, Mauritius, having a highly developed passport control agency may deny someone an AU passport if they pose a credible threat. Theoretically, that seeker could get the very same document in Somalia, where issuing offices might have far less control. Whilst a centralised processing office for the whole continent would be sluggish and ineffective, giving each of the 54 members control in their own way is an even bigger mess with corruption and loopholes rife.

Integration

This is a massive topic on it’s own. For arguments sake, let’s simplistically hypothesise that every AU member state was at a similar economic level (which by the way is crucial for an economic bloc of this size), there are still so many cultural, legal and political differences between so many nations that trusting a single passport control policy is a wildly unrealistic idea. The EU itself has strict and well defined conditions for new members but they also benefited from the fact that all the founding members were economically advanced countries already. And even this was put into question from the accession of Greece onwards, with critics crying foul about countries doctoring their economic figures just to get an entry into the EU. Let’s look at Kenya and Tanzania — two friendly neighbours who share so much culturally. These two still cannot agree on a unified, borderless East African Community region. How can an AU-wide union even stand a chance?

A realistic alternative

Instead of pursuing lofty, impractical goals of a posh, green leather booklet for Africans, work should be done on the actual policies between neighbour states. We have spent decades building institutions like ECOWAS, EAC, COMESA and the SADC. ECOWAS perhaps being the most successful when it comes to freedom of travel of member nation citizens. Why not invest more time and effort into formalizing these frameworks and then looking at further integrations as necessary? Having focussed development on a few blocs comprised of a select few members is likely to go a longer way than a rough plan to make 50- some nations agree to a common framework. The problem with labour mobility in Africa is not that big businesses can’t spread across the continent, it’s that budding enterprises can’t do it thanks to the cost and time hurdles of getting paperwork done. Any proposed solution to this should target a lay person with their ordinary national ID document and not tycoons who can afford to pay their way through the system anyway. Integration of all sorts is also a huge issue and focussing on smaller blocs allows countries to develop faster together. Think of it this way, say that effort went into the existing 5 members of the EAC: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Given ample time, the economies would align much closer to each other thanks to common goals, mutual interests in infrastructure such as ports and common laws already in existence. The AU would then have only 4-5 sub-blocs of nations that require further alignment. But by this time, people would have already begun to enjoy the benefit of free travel, at least regionally of not continentally.

It’s sad to see such a wasteful, ill-prepared solution being applied to a big African problem in the form of the AU passport. It would be lovely to see AU member governments rethink their proposed solution on this one.