With the creation of an all-Africa passport, a push toward African unity?

The African Union is set to launch an e-passport that allows visa-free travel through its 54 member states, a move that comes amid turmoil in the European Union.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File
A Zimbabwean man carries forms as others line up to apply for residence and study permits outside the Home Affairs office in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010. The African Union is launching an effort to create a common passport that allows visa-free travel across 54 member-states initially for diplomats and eventually for all African citizens by 2020.

The African Union is set to launch a common electronic passport that would grant visa-free travel to all of its 54 member-states, a move that hits at the organization’s long-running goal of more closely linking nations from across the continent.

The passport will first be issued to heads of state and senior officials at the AU’s summit in Kigali, Rwanda, later this month, with the Union saying it aims to provide passports to all African citizens by 2020.

But the AU’s efforts to create a common passport, which observers say is in line with the organization’s mission dating back to its earlier iteration as the Organization of African Unity, comes as the European Union faces growing fissures in the wake of Britain’s landmark vote to leave.

While Britain’s vote came amid campaigns that appealed to economic concerns, a sense of national sovereignty and what some say were racially-tinged anti-immigrant sentiments, for the AU nations, many of them with a relatively recent colonial past, a common passport appeals to an shared ideal of Pan-Africanism.

“The passport is a way to deepen the integration of Africa as one continent,” says Rita Kiki Edozie, who coauthored a book about the AU, which replaced the earlier OAU in 2002.

“I see it as an African Union at least attempting to address the concerns of African people,” Dr. Edozie, a professor of international relations and African affairs at Michigan State University, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

But the AU has also faced concerns about whether its leadership is truly concerned about the citizens of its member states, much like the EU, she says.

In that sense, the passports may represent an offering to a growing cosmopolitan middle class that hopes to take advantage of the mobility and economic benefits offered by visa-free travel.

This flagship project has the specific aim of facilitating free movement of persons, goods and services around the continent in order to foster intra-Africa trade, integration and socio-economic development," the Union said in a statement on June 13, only weeks before Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

Such smaller-scale efforts are on the rise across the continent, with the AU noting visa-free plans underway in Ghana and Mauritius.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has long offered visa-free travel to citizens of its member states, including Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal. The AU has also made passports a key part of its Agenda 2063 plan, which aims to create a common trading market for its member-states by 2063.

But implementing the common passports for all African citizens could be a complex task.

The AU’s proposal is intended to be a common a standard for electronic passports, while individual member states will still have to work out how individual citizens will actually receive the visa-free travel benefits, notes Bronwen Manby, a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics who has studied citizenship issues in Africa.

“I think a disproportionate amount of emphasis has been placed on what’s the document, how its going to look, rather than who is West African for example,” she tells the Monitor. “An ECOWAS biometric identity document is not going to solve the issue of who’s Ivorian and who isn’t and that question of statelessness.”

Stateleness is a particular concern. Many millions of Africans currently lack official documentation of nationality, though its hard to estimate how many are stateless. In some countries, Dr. Manby finds, access to citizenship is made difficult by factors such as rules limiting rights to citizenship for the children of foreigners, racial, ethnic and gender discrimination and lack of accommodation for a nomadic lifestyle. 

“I think a lot of this focus has been around technical issues and not enough emphasis on migration, on how do your procedures work and how to incorporate people [into a particular country],” she adds.

The African Union and the European Union also face somewhat different issues, though some concerns are linked. One is the possibility of racially-tinged backlash that could result from any plan to roll out passports to citizens of all the AU’s member states, particularly in South Africa, notes Professor Edozie, of Michigan State.

A diplomatic move might also counterbalance that potential opposition. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the current head of the African Union Commission, is stepping down as she is rumored to be discussing a run for president of South Africa as part of the ruling African National Congress party.

The AU’s own position means it’s less likely to spark the kind of populist backlash that fueled the "Leave" campaign in Britain, says Manby of the London School of Economics.

“The people who interact with the AU are those that are going to be aware of it and thinking about it,” she says. “The proverbial taxi driver doesn’t express frustration with the AU in the way that the proverbial taxi driver would in Britain about the EU.”

The AU’s timeline, however, is still ambitious.

“It's a little bit of an ideal to achieve, all [the AU is] saying is that they’re providing visas, they’re not saying they’re providing citizenship, to provide visas might be realistic, but citizenship is a different question,” says Edozie.

But Khabele Matlosa, the AU’s director of political affairs, says the move to open borders between member states could have a large-scale impact on young people traveling large distances in search of work.

Africa’s history also means that a move toward a common passport has drawn a different reaction than the debates that have roiled Europe, he told CNN.

Africa is a continent of migrants so we are not as suspicious of refugees," Mr. Matlosa said. "This is a test of our Pan-Africanism, the doctrine which underpins the African Union's existence. We are committed to this philosophy."

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