Obijiofor Aginam: Africa’s Development – The Paradox of Continental Integration and Closed Borders

Africa’s Development: The Paradox of Continental Integration and Closed Borders


Obijiofor Aginam

Obijiofor Aginam

By: Obijiofor Aginam, Ph.D


The Crux of the Argument 

The decolonization of most of Africa which largely occurred in the decade of the 1960s – heralded by the independence of Ghana in 1957 – led to the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on 25 May, 1963. One of the primary aims of OAU was to defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of African states.” Given the peculiar historical circumstance and timing of its formation, the OAU dedicated most of its efforts to the struggle for the eradication of all forms of colonialism and minority rule from the continent. With the total “liberation” of the vestiges of colonialism and minority rule from the continent, the end of Cold War, and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the OAU was expected to turn its energy to issues of continental integration to facilitate the increased movement of people, goods and services across the borders of its 54 member-states. This was to be done looking at comparable continental integration frameworks in other regions of the world. Thirty-nine years after it was formed, the OAU transformed into the African Union (AU) in 2002. Even with more lofty objectives for continental integration than the OAU, 53 years after OAU, and 14 years after AU, Africa remains the least integrated continent in the world. Intra-Africa trade between African countries is very low, and Africa’s 54 member-states are not connected by land, sea, and commercial aviation services. As one BBC commentator observed, “anyone who has tried to cross borders on the African continent will have experienced the difficulties with travelling in Africa. Air fares cost more than anywhere else and few roads or railways connect the countries to each other”. Approximately an estimated 70% or more Africans would require visas to travel to African countries outside their immediate sub-regions. This short article urges an accelerated opening of Africa sovereign borders to citizens of African countries to facilitate economic integration of the continent.

In Africa, Africans are Aliens and Foreigners are Africans

Travelling across the African continent offers an opportunity to reflect on the policy paradox that unconsciously treats Africans as aliens, and foreigners as Africans within Africa. Although decisions concerning the requirement or otherwise of entry visas from one country to another are always based on a number of factors including reciprocity between countries, nonetheless free movement of people has historically been one of the very first things to achieve when countries in one geographic region decide to pursue integration. Take the case of Europe from the late 1950s to the present day; the 10 countries in the Southeast Asian region; or the countries in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean now commonly referred to as “Latin America and the Caribbean”. Even bilaterally, neighbouring countries or countries with some mutual social, economic, historical or other interests would facilitate visa-free entries between their citizens to advance those interests. Very good examples include United States and Canada; Australia and New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, and many others. The question remains why most Europeans, Canadians and Americans can, for instance, travel to South Africa without a visa and Africans from outside the Southern African region cannot. Why would an African from Cameroun require an entry visa for a 3-day business trip to Swaziland or Kingdom of Lesotho and vice-versa?

This question becomes much more complex to unravel when one recalls that free movement of people has been achieved fairly easily in Africa’s major sub-regions dating back to decades. In West Africa, for instance, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) put in place a policy of visa free travel among the citizens of the 14 countries in the sub-region for visits not exceeding 90 days. These 14 countries have religiously followed this policy since the late 1970s when ECOWAS was formed. This is also largely the case among the partner states in the East African Community (EAC). In Southern Africa, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has facilitated visa free travel among 12 of its 15 member-states since its formation in 1992. For the Maghreb region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea, free movement of persons – even in the absence of formal sub-regional organization is boosted by common interests including their Arabic ties. If free movement of persons has been achieved in Africa’s major sub-regions as facilitated by ECOWAS, EAC, and SADC, why has it been exceedingly difficult for the OAU or its successor institution, the African Union to bring the policy of the various sub-regions together toward a continent-wide integration? An ECOWAS citizen can travel freely within the 14 countries in West Africa but cannot easily do so in Eastern, Southern or North Africa.

Slow Pace of Change

Five decades after decolonization, some of the African countries have only recently started to look beyond their sub-regional blocs to address the urgent need of visa free travel for Africans. In a State of the Nation address delivered on 6 March, 2016, Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama announced that with effect from July 2016, citizens of the 53 Member-States of the African Union can obtain visas on arrival (in Ghana) for visits of up to 30 days. In July, President Gage Geingob announced that Namibia will soon start issuing African passport holders with visas on arrival at ports of entry as a first step towards the eventual abolition of visa requirements for all Africans. A few years ago, Kenya announced a policy of visas on arrival for most (African) countries. In August, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama announced that Nigeria was seriously considering adopting a visa on arrival policy for all Africans “in support of the African single passport and the proposed Free Trade Area in the continent”. This would “enable Nigerian manufacturers and entrepreneurs to have a larger market for their produce. Nigeria wants to extend the free movement of people across the continent beyond the ECOWAS as unrestricted movement of people will promote trade”. Most of the recent policy announcements are in tandem with the proposal of a common continental passport and a visa free travel for all African citizens within the continent by 2020 as part of the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

Africa seems to be waking up from 5 decades of deep slumber concerning one simple policy aspect of African integration. Some analysts and commentators have criticized the present African leaders of living far short of the Pan-Africanist dreams and ambitions of the founding fathers of post-independence Africa. The famous independence speech by Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah is always a reference point in which he stated that the independence of Ghana is “meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa”. Nkrumah and some of the pan-Africanists of his time went a step further to articulate a model of continental integration which has eluded Africa 60 years after independence aspects of which has been functional in the European Union model.

Agenda 2063: Africa Does Not Lack Big Plans

In 2015, the African Union adopted the ambitious Agenda 2063 which articulates a vision of “the Africa we want” by 2063. Like past development plans in Africa, it says all the good things under 7 aspirational goals: (i) inclusive growth and sustainable development (ii) an integrated and politically untied continent based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism and vision of Africa’s Renaissance (iii) good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law (iv) peace and security (v)strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics (vi) people-driven development, relying on the potential of African people, especially women, youth and children (vii) Africa as a strong, united and influential global player and partner.

Agenda 2063 does not say anything radically different from Africa’s past big development plans, especially the Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa, 1980–2000, and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) which was launched in 2001 containing a vision for promoting better governance, development and economic growth by ending conflicts and wars, and reducing poverty. Big plans are not in short supply in Africa neither do African thinkers lack big ideas. After 5 decades of decolonization, one of the enablers of continental integration is a policy framework for free movement of people across Africa. Requiring a university Vice Chancellor from Ghana to obtain a South African entry visa to attend a 2-day academic conference in South Africa or a Namibian business man and entrepreneur to do the same for a quick business trip to Nigeria is totally repugnant to the tenets Pan-Africanism. In recent times, it is appalling to read how the national football team of Djibouti was stranded at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi and missed a first round FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifying game against Swaziland because of visa and transit visa problems. There are other instances of Africans being denied entry for the sole purpose of transit to other African countries involving a few hours stay at an international airport. Multiple sovereignties founded on geo-political boundaries of nation-states based on European imperialist and colonial project in Africa over a hundred years ago ought now to be re-assessed if Agenda 2063 will lead Africa to true Pan-Africanism.

About the writer

Professor Aginam is a Nigerian lawyer and currently Director Ad-Interim and Head of Governance for Global Health, United Nations University-International Institute for Global Health, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is also Research Professor of Law, Carleton University, Canada, and Visiting Professor in IR3S, University of Tokyo. The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and do not represent the official position of the United Nations University or any of its affiliated institutes.

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