One of the key highlights of the 27th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government, which held in Kigali, Rwanda in July 2016, was the launch of the African Union passport. Remarkably Idris Deby, the Chairperson of the African Union and President of the Republic of Chad, and Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, received the first AU passports. Their AU passports were handed over to them by the Chairperson of the AU Commission Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.
Though the two Presidents received their AU passports, the full roll-out of the passport for ordinary citizens is slated for the end of 2018. And that is after each state has passed the necessary legislation that would legalize the acceptance of such a passport in its territory. The AU is however pushing for citizens of its member states to have the possibility of travelling and staying visa- free in member states for up to 30 days before the formal rollout of the AU passports in 2018.
There are some pertinent questions. What precisely does the AU passport intend to achieve? Do Africans really need it at this point of internal tensions in several African countries? Is the idea of a common passport a pathway to the United States for Africa along the lines proposed by Kwame Nkrumah in the late 1960s and the late Muammar Ghaddafi?
This piece is a reflection on some of the questions and concerns surrounding the African Union passport and African integration. I note the following:
One, the idea behind a common passport is to make it possible for all African citizens to be able to travel throughout the continent without visas. In fact, a report by African Development Bank on visa openness found that only 13 out of 55 African countries allow all Africans to enter their countries either without a visa or to get visa on arrival. Ghana became one of the latest African countries to change its visa policy when in July 2016 it introduced a new visa-on-arrival policy for citizens of AU member states.
Two, proponents of a common African passport argue that it will foster regional integration in Africa. The argument is that free movement of people along the lines of what the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECWOAS) have for their citizens will further boost the cause of unity in the continent. This is true, though it is equally true that having a common passport will be insufficient to address the problem. There is for instance the whole question of travel infrastructure in the continent; it is often easier to travel from one African country to Western countries than from one African country to another. Quite often you may have to fly to a third country for a connecting flight to the African country you are travelling to and even where there are direct flights among African countries, they are often very infrequent. Supporters of a common passport accept that a common AU passport will be insufficient to promote the cause of unity in the continent but contend that it will be a bold statement in that direction.
Three, questions have been asked on whether a common African passport will not create problems for the relatively wealthy countries, which may risk being swarmed with economic and illegal immigrants or even those who want to use some countries as transit routes to the more prosperous parts of the world. Again supporters of a common African passport accept that such are real possibilities as the experiences with countries like South Africa, (where there have been periodic eruptions of xenophobia and Afrophobia), show. They however counter that every policy has unintended consequences – just as every medication has a side effect – which has to be managed.
Four, questions have been asked of the relationship between the African passport and the quest for greater economic integration in the continent. My opinion is that many regional groupings that started a process of economic integration discovered sooner than later that political integration would be a necessary complement. This was the experience of the European Union and ECOWAS. You can also argue that those that started as political unions such as the Organisation of African Unity (the precursor to the African Union) also discovered that economic integration would be a necessary complement to a political union.
It is therefore not surprising that the African Union, which succeeded the OAU in 2002, has continued the push for greater economic integration of the continent. The African Union wants to achieve a single currency – possibly called Afro or Afriq – for the continent by 2028. Proponents of a single African currency argue that such would lower transaction costs in the continent, facilitate pan-African monetary decision-making and promote greater African unity.
The OAU’s quest for economic integration was given an impetus by the Abuja Treaty of 1991, which proposed the creation of an African Economic Community in 2023 to be followed by the creation of an African Central Bank in 2028. It was proposed that an African Monetary Union should be created for member unions which would create a new unified currency, similar to the Euro. One common concern is whether this is not being too ambitious given the wide disparities in the economies of the member states and the unpalatable experiences of some of the richer members of the euro countries such as France and Germany. The other concern is how to integrate the economies of the member states.
Supporters do not deny that challenges of integration will be there but they argue that there will be criteria to be met by countries aspiring to become members of the single currency. Supporters also argue that the idea of a single currency has been practised with success in some parts of Africa. For instance in West Africa, there are two existing currency unions – the West African CFA franc (made up of eight countries) and the Central African CFA (made up of six countries. The two regional currency unions have been in operation since 1945 and despite challenges have survived to this day. In Southern Africa, there is the Common Monetary Area, which links South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland. Though these countries use their own local currencies, the South African Rand is a legal tender in the CMA. Proponents of a single currency for African countries believe that Africa can learn from the experiences of the European Union and also build on the successes of its existing regional currency unions.
Five, how will the current push for both political and economic integration in the continent interface with the sharp contradictions of ethnicity, regionalism and even ‘clash of civilizations’ among the member states? Supporters concede that it is true that in many parts of the continent the basis of nationhood remains contested and many groups are delinking from the formal state system into primordial identities often with the state as the enemy. They however argue that the nation-states will not disappear overnight just because of the quest for greater integration. They contend that many of the contradictions in each state system will continue in one form or the other depending on the balance of the contending forces. They also argue that even separatist forces are not likely to be against the economic and political integration of the continent as that will not harm their interest. Supporters equally believe that the world is changing so fast that no one will be sure whether these contradictions and ‘clashes of civilization’ will still remain as salient as they are today a few years from now.
Six, those of us very supportive of the integrative efforts of the AU are proud that the members were not deterred by the outcome of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. In fact the AU’s meeting in Kigali came roughly one month after Brexit. Many had thought that Brexit would damp the enthusiasm for greater integration in Africa. The idea for both the African Union passports and the quest for greater economic integration should therefore be seen as part of the determination by African countries to look inward for solutions to their development challenges. It is precisely for this reason that some of us are very excited about it – despite the real challenges that such integrative efforts are likely to encounter ‘on the ground’ (as Nigerian politicians would put it).