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The African Union’s E-Passport Can Make Intra-African Travel & Trade Easier Than Ever Before

On a 26-hour bus ride between Accra and Ouagadougou, Nanjala Nyabola sat next to a Burkinabe woman who had never met a Kenyan before who proceeds to grill her about life in Nairobi. Nyabola wrote aboutthe unique pleasures of traveling the continent as an African for us in March.

Earlier this month, in a spirit of Pan-Africanism, the African Union announced they would be launching an electronic passport system at its next summit in Kigali, Rwanda in July. The announcement is the first step to a more open and flourishing Africa that tangibly benefits its citizens. It also has the potential to dismantle imposed colonial borders. Overall, it’ll make it easier for Africans to move for better educational and professional opportunities as well as conduct business across borders.

Nyabola’s encounter illustrates how intra-African tourism has been severely underdeveloped caused by highly restrictive visa requirements among the continent’s 54 countries. Exorbitant costs in transportation, particularly air travel, an underwhelming culture of leisure travel in addition to stereotypes Africans from different countries have about each other have also contributed to some countries’ relative isolation.

As it stands, only 13 countries on the African continent allow visa-free entry or will issue temporary permit upon arrival, with Americans, one of the holders of the world’s most powerful passports benefiting the most.

Consequently, regional trade has suffered because of regulatory barriers that inhibit the exchange of goods and services. To put this in perspective, intra-African trade costsare approximately 50 percent higher than in East Asia, and the most costly for any developing region. Bureaucratic tape such as permits, licenses and other customs requirements makes it such that trucks transporting goods across borders have to carry more than 1,600 documents. These factors are popular topics of discussion for Africa’s policy wonks.

“[It’s] 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,” Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) says in the AU’s statement announcing the program launch.

The AU’s flagship program fulfills aspirations two and seven of Agenda 2063, both of which touch on fostering an “integrated” and “united” Africa. A single passport system can help promote a shared identity among the 3,000 distinct ethnic groups on the African continent. Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Ghana have already relaxed their visa restrictions or lifted visa requirements completely.

This concept of open borders isn’t particularly novel, it was outlined in the Lagos Plan of Action and the Abuja Treaty. Of course, the e-passport will be only a first step. AU member states still have to adopt the procedures and legislation for it to go into effect. And xenophobia presents another challenge.

As Nyabola articulates in How to Travel Africa as an African, “It never ceases to amaze me how easily we absorb other people’s prejudices about each other, without reflecting on who disseminates these stereotypes and why.” Adding, “I’m ashamed to admit that for most of my life, I had been afraid of Africa because most of the information I received about other countries has been filtered through the West.”

Plans are to roll out the e-passport to 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 first at the 27th AU Summit next month.

And so “the scene seems to be set to realize the dream of visa-free travel for African citizens within their own continent by 2020,” as the AU states.