Behind the African Union Passport and Challenges Ahead

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The 27th African Union (AU) Summit ended with a flagship launch in Kigali on 18 July 2016. The African Union passport was launched at the summit, a step seeking to facilitate the free movement of people and commodities within the continent.

This launch followed a year after the signing of Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) in June 2015 combining COMESA, SADC and EAC regional communities. Rwandan President Paul Kagame (Summit host President) and Chadian President Idriss Déby (African Union Chairperson) were the first recipients of the AU diplomatic passport, a launch that set 2018 as target for completion by member states. The e-passport comprises of diplomatic passport for heads of states, passport for frequent business travellers as well as passport for the rest of the African citizens. The launch has received mixed reactions most of them regarding it as a blue-sky idea farfetched for a continent with multiplicity of challenges. Not far from the reactions, the passport launch has its root motives and has challenges lying ahead of its expectancy.

About the African Union e-passport

The AU e-passport proposal was raised by some member states in 2014 as a follow-up to the implementation of the Agenda 2063. This came as a remedy to Africa’s low level of visa openness. Looking at the timeline of Agenda 2063, the launch is one, which also acted as a ‘quick win’ in the implementation process. This quick win is intended to motivate and increase the commitment of member states to Agenda 2063 as it also aligns with the TFTA agreement. As the passport is a response to member states (Seychelles, Mauritius, Senegal and Rwanda) who pushed for it, a few member states do not recognise it. This illustrates the challenge the passport will face in its efforts to challenge the status quo of member states with least visa openness. Furthermore, the AU passport was an initiative to leapfrog the bureaucratic process of negotiating with member states on increasing their visa openness where currently only 13 out of 55 member states offer liberal access (allow all Africans to enter without visa or to get one on arrival).

The Challenges Lying Ahead

Other than the acknowledged merits of the passport which cut across economic, political, social  and environmental spectrum, five critical challenges pose risk to the successful implementation of the AU e-passport.

  • Non-compliance by Outlier-Member States

One thing to remember is that regional integration in Africa builds on the cooperation to fight challenges rather than cooperation to maximise the strengths of member states. As such, this form of integration is vulnerable to member states’ economic boom, as they tend to regionally diverge during their boom and commit less to Regional Economic Communities. One example is Angola as the SADC’s reluctant trader during its oil exploration. As such, member states who realise the possibility of large waves of labour migration such as South Africa may be reluctant to adopt the AU passport. Critical to note is to look as how the AU passport proposal unfolded. The countries in the top 20 of Visa openness (Seychelles, Mauritius, Senegal and Rwanda) were the major proponents of the passport. As this resemble the status quo on visa openness, the lack of enthusiasm and fore-fronting   by member states on the bottom of the continent’s visa openness renders the role of the AU passport cumbersome.

  • Member States’ Incapacity

A common lesson from AU’s 50 years of experience is that member states lack adequate capacity to implement the continent’s flagship initiatives. From the Lagos Action Plan, Monrovia Declaration the commitments have not seen much fruition since member states mainly lack capacity to implement them. AU passport is another launch to face such a drawback. Majority of member countries on the bottom of visa openness index which the passport seeks to address also lack capacity to manage effectively the administration of their own passports. Given that, the AU e-passport uses the biometric system, which only 13 countries in Africa currently offer, it poses pressure on countries with less capacity to execute effectively the initiative. This might be in turn a justification not to implement the initiative. Given the incapacity challenge, the popular reaction among African citizen has been why not directly interrogate the visa openness of the less open countries without imposing the administrative burden of a new passport. While the continent-wide system will have to rely on the trust of each member states to avoid passport fraud, the incapacity of other member states might render the whole system vulnerable to passport fraud.

  • Lack of Marginal-Proofing

As African Union has member states in different stages of development, the launch of the AU e-passport will affect member states differently. Among the most affected members are the less developed countries who have their industrialisation in infancy or in stagnation. These are the countries, which are facing high level of labour emigration and the common challenge of brain drain. The introduction of the passport if unchecked will worsen the labour emigration of these countries. In this case, marginal proofing of the initiative is crucial which could harmonise the AU passport with the Commission’s industrialisation strategy to maintain the development balances. This is another case of development initiatives, which are focusing more on migration of labour than regional distribution of industries.

  • Harmonisation of African Citizenship

The launch of the AU e-passport faces the citizenship law variations across Africa. There are variations in Citizenship law across the continent where almost 50% of member states recognise dual citizenship while the rest do not, variations in the right to a nationality. Given the considerable pool of African Diaspora, the AU commission also has a responsibility to align the initiative with harmonisation of the passport to various citizenship laws and how the populace which is considered stateless or with refugee status will be addressed in the implementation of the e-passport. This extends to need for clarifications on how member states  address the refugee policy which can be controversial since refugee policy has been discretion of member states.

  • Musical Chair Syndrome

The AU e-passport launch happened at the twilight of Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s chairpersonship. While the outgoing chairperson ticked it as a flagship achievement, the passport is yet to face the test of change in leadership during its two years of implementation (2016-2018).The change in the chairpersonship is going to have considerable impact on the progress of adoption of the Pan-African passport on top of the commission’s monitoring and evaluation challenges. As such, it risks becoming another flagship initiative, which will lack a follow-up in its implementation until the excitement goes away.

As Africa execute its 50-year road map the Agenda 2063, the AU e-passport proves to be supportive of other pillars. Other than the recommendations to the challenges lying ahead of the passport, and learning from the Union’s 50 years of existence, it is imperative to realise that a series of small fixes to the existing system could be the continent’s next big thing.

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