On June 13, two weeks before the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the African Union announced a new “single African passport.” The lead-up discussion was much like the original debate on the European Economic Community, the E.U.’s predecessor. African passport proponents say it will boost the continent’s socioeconomic development because it will reduce trade barriers and allow people, ideas, goods, services and capital to flow more freely across borders.
But now the A.U. faces the challenge of making sure the “e-Passport” lives up to its potential – and doesn’t fulfill detractors’ fears of heightened terrorism, smuggling and illegal immigration.
The African e-Passport is part of a long-term plan for the continent
The e-Passport is an electronic document that permits any A.U. passport holder to enter any of the 54 A.U. member states, without requiring a visa. It will be unveiled this month during the next A.U. Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. Initially, the e-Passport will only be available to A.U. heads of state, foreign ministers and permanent representatives based in the A.U.’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The plan is to roll it out to all A.U. citizens by 2018.
The electronic passport initiative grows out of the A.U.’s Agenda 2063, a plan to mobilize Africa’s vast resources to strengthen the region’s self-reliance, global economic power and solidarity.
Why is the single African passport important?
The e-Passport is a step toward eliminating borders on the continent, aiming to enable deeper integration, increased trade and further development. Just as important, the passport is a powerful symbol of unity across Africa – and simultaneously a step toward connecting African countries economically and politically.
An A.U. passport represents the latest effort to creat
e a common market spanning the continent, much like that in the E.U. Such efforts date back to 1963 with the creation of the Organization of African Unity. Pan-Africanistscelebrating the demise of the colonial state and hailing a United States of Africadesigned the O.A.U. to unite Africans and dissolve the borders between them.
Essentially, the O.A.U. sought to raise living standards by supporting leaders of anti-colonial struggles in their roles as heads of new states. In its quest to make the transition to independence as smooth as possible, the organization at times defended national sovereignty to a fault. For example, the decision to respect arbitrary colonial borders had far-reaching consequences, including numerous identity-based conflicts.
Over time, other entities arose to coordinate economic activity across national lines: the East African Community (1967), the Economic Community of West African States (1975), the Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa (1980) and the Southern African Development Community (1992), just to name a few.
In 2002, the A.U. replaced the O.A.U.
Moving away from the O.A.U.’s state-centric approach, the A.U. attempts to balance “the principle of sovereignty with the need to accelerate political rights and socio-economic growth and cooperation,” according to Matebe Chisiza, visiting scholar at the South African Institute of International Affairs. For example, the A.U. suspended 12 member states after “unconstitutional changes in government,” including Libya, Central African Republic, Egypt and Burkina Faso.
None of Africa’s regional organizations have yet been able to create a common market. This vivid dream has endured despite the enormous political and logistical challenges it would entail. Deeper economic integration is seen by many, including the World Bank, as the road to prosperity and stability. In fact, the A.U. is guided by this premise.
What might be the downsides of the e-Passport?
Opponents of the passport are concerned about a range of security risks. Detractors argue that visa-free travel would make it easier for terrorists to move within and between countries. Human traffickers and drug smugglers could take advantage of the new system. Disease and other public health crises could spread more rapidly in a borderless Africa. As has happened in Europe, an e-Passport may intensify competition for jobs and public services, leading to more xenophobic political rhetoric and attacks. Migration is already a contentious issue, as shown by deadly anti-immigrant riots in South Africa andZambia and heated debates over refugees in Kenya.
Read more: The Washington Post The opposite of Brexit: African Union launches an all-Africa passport
Photo Credit: NASA – Africa from space