Africa is a continent of diverse cultures, languages, and landscapes, with over 1.3 billion people. It is also home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as Ghana, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. However, traveling within Africa can be challenging for many Africans, as they often visa restrictions and high fees when visiting other African countries. Only 26% of African countries offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to all African citizens, while 49% require visas for all or most African visitors. This situation limits the potential for intra-African trade, tourism, and integration, as well as the opportunities for cultural exchange and mutual understanding among Africans.

In 2016, the African Union introduced the AU passport, in an effort for a united and integrated Africa. The passport aims to grant visa-free access to all 55 AU member states by 2023. However, the implementation of the passport has been slow and uneven, as only a few countries have issued it to their citizens or accepted it from other Africans.

The case for reciprocal visa waivers

Reciprocal visa waivers are visas that allow travelers from both countries to enter and stay in each other’s territory without a visa for a certain period. This idea is similar to the Schengen visa, which allows travelers to visit any of the 26 Schengen countries in Europe for up to 90 days without the need for separate visas or passport checks. This makes travel within Europe much easier and more convenient, as it eliminates the hassle of applying for multiple visas, paying multiple fees, and waiting in long queues at border crossings. Travelers can also enjoy the diversity of cultures, languages, and landscapes that Europe has to offer.

Reciprocal visa waivers are good for economies and societies, such as increased trade, tourism, investment, and innovation. It can reduce the cost and time of cross-border trade, as well as increase the volume and diversity of goods and services exchanged between countries. The African Development Bank reported that intra-African trade increased from 10.2% in 2000 to 16.6% in 2017, and is expected to reach 25% by 2023 with the implementation of the AfCFTA. It is also a powerful tool to enhance intra-African mobility and integration, fostering a sense of African identity and solidarity among Africans who share common values and aspirations.

Recently more African countries are implementing reciprocal visa waivers. Ghana and South Africa signed one which will take effect on November 1, 2023. The agreement allows travelers from both countries to transit through, depart from, and stay in the territory of the other country for up to 90 days without a visa, as long as they are not working. This is expected to boost tourism and trade between the two countries, as well as strengthen their bilateral relations. South Africa also signed a similar waiver with Kenya last year.

The border for borders

However, implementing reciprocal visa waivers in Africa is not as simple as it seems. The first clue is in the name, with the presence of the word, “reciprocal’. This implies that there is mutual trust and cooperation between the countries involved, as well as a common understanding of the benefits and risks of visa-free travel. Some countries may have different levels of development, infrastructure, and governance. This means they may have different priorities and interests in terms of regional integration, trade, tourism, and diplomacy. Moreover, there is a lack of harmonized visa policies and standards across the continent. Different countries have different visa requirements, fees, and procedures, which can create confusion and inconsistency for travelers and authorities. For example, some countries in Africa require a yellow fever vaccination certificate, while others do not.

Many African countries also fear that implementing visa waivers would lead to increased crime, illegal immigration, and terrorism. Some countries may be reluctant to open their borders to other Africans, especially those from conflict-prone or unstable regions, as they may pose a threat to their national security and public health. In 2019, Nigeria imposed a partial border closure to curb the smuggling of goods into Nigeria, especially staple food commodities. However, the border closure also had security implications for Nigeria. It helped to reduce the smuggling of firearms and drugs, human trafficking, and trans-border insurgency, which posed threats to the peace and stability of the country. Understandably, African countries may need to cooperate and coordinate their visa policies and standards to ensure a high level of protection for their citizens. For example, the Schengen visa has an Information System, a singular database that allows customs, police, and justice authorities to exchange data on wanted or missing persons, stolen or lost objects, and alerts on specific persons or objects.

Some countries may also fear that the newcomers will compete with the locals for scarce resources, such as jobs, housing, and education, and overwhelm their social welfare systems, which are already strained by the economic crises. South Africa, which is one of the most developed and prosperous countries in Africa, has experienced several outbreaks of violence against foreign nationals for similar reasons in recent years. However, reciprocal visa waivers are a powerful tool to enhance intra-African mobility and integration, fostering a sense of African identity and solidarity among Africans who share common values and aspirations.

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