The World Economic Forum Works To Spur A Visa-Free Africa

A fortnight ago in Abuja, Nigeria the World Economic Forum brought together political, economic and thought leaders from throughout the continent. This included Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan as well as others from across the globe such as China’s Premiere Li Keqiang.

A travelling passport

While many political and economic issues were discussed, according to the Rwandan New Times, one issue dominated the conversation unlike any other. This issue was greater continental cooperation on open, visa-free movement throughout the continent.

This focus comes from the tremendous impediment to movement and trade caused by various visa restrictions throughout the continent. According to a 2013 study by the African Development Bank, “Visas represent high cost in terms of money and time for the individual applying for visas, as well as missed opportunities for the local service economy and for trade.”

The study goes further, declaring that the continent has among the world’s “highest visa requirements.”

At the time the analysis was conducted only five African countries admitted all other African passport-holders without a visa, Seychelles, Mozambique, Rwanda, Comoros and Madagascar. Nearly as many countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome and Sudan required visas from every single African country.

On average, citizens from African states require visas to visit 60 percent of African countries.

The difficulty of movement is compounded by the importance of cross border movement and migration throughout sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of all South-South migration takes place between border countries. When those borders are difficult to cross, migration and inter-regional cooperation becomes even more difficult.

In the beginning of 2013 Rwanda instituted a policy liberalizing entry-visas for all African passport-holders. This policy allowed such individuals to acquire their visa when arriving at the Rwandan border, reducing necessary preparation, confusion and difficulty.

Additionally, the country instituted a bio-metric identification system using facial recognition and fingerprinting to dissuade unlawful entry.

Many states across the continent require advanced visas for entry, a major impediment to travel. The standard difficulty advanced visas cause is compounded by low internet access, difficulty of travel to embassies and consulates, language and literacy barriers and countless other factors.

According to the African Development Bank the visa reform has been a godsend for the Rwanda, leading to a 24 percent increase in total tourism from African states, a 50 percent increase in trade with neighboring countries and a 73 percent increase in trade with the DRC.

Rwanda is not the only country that has experienced growth thanks to relaxed visa regimes.

According to the study, “…prior to 2013, Mauritius required visitors to apply for visas before arriving, while Seychelles does not require entry visas at all – this has led to a high gap in tourist growth. The number of tourists to Seychelles has grown by 7 per cent per annum in the last five years while Mauritius has remained almost stagnant.”

The direct comparison is apt when one looks at the lack of tourism in many African states due to difficult or expensive visa processes.

According to the Economist, some of the world’s poorest countries, many of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, have the most expensive and difficult visa processes. When comparing North-South visitors, the magazine states “It is probably safe to assume that the 2,500 British visitors who paid £50 to enter Sierra Leone in 2011 generated far less revenue for the country’s economy, and created fewer hospitality jobs, than the 111,000 visitors who paid nothing to enter Gambia.”

Using Rwanda’s policy as a model, the African Development Bank recommends five policy changes in the short term to improve mobility and cross-border cooperation.
First, it is necessary to increase the number of countries that are eligible for visa-on-arrival rather than pre-clearance, and second to simplify the whole process for application. Third, the countries must extending the time limitations on visas or increase “long-dating” for 10 years or more. Fourth and fifth are encouraging reciprocity amongst countries and developing more regional visa-free zones such as the Economic Coalition of West African States (“ECOWAS”) and similar.

Additionally, in the long-term, the Bank recommends improving infrastructure connections and working to provide greater migration abilities for service providers of all education levels.

Addressing these major issues must be done at the highest level of policymakers. The prevalence of this topic at the recent World Economic Forum in Abuja is an important start to the conversation. In addition to South-South migration and economic cooperation, the visa process should be lightened for visitors from outside the continent to spur tourism. Increased tourism can be directly attributable to clear and cheap tourist visas. This revenue is much needed throughout the region.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.

– AFK Insider