Munyaga: Borderless Africa most welcome gift from Ghana


President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana
President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana

When the history of Africa is written anew for the Africans themselves, Ghana will no doubt feature once more as the country that pioneered a borderless Africa.

On Sunday March 6, 2016, Ghana celebrated its 59th Independence anniversary with President John Dramani Mahama carrying a “gift” for all Africans. 

During his speech, President Mahama announced that Ghana shall effective next July, begin to offer visas on arrival to citizens of all the 54 African Union (AU) member states.

Currently, only the Island nation of the Seychelles has an open access visa policy applicable to citizens of all AU member states.

Ghana was the first country in Africa to gain independence from colonialism on March 6, 1957 led by Pan African stalwart, Dr Kwame Nkrumah.

I say open border policy is a huge gift, although ideally it is a basic right of all Africans and their descendants wherever they are, because according to current officialdom throughout much of the continent, it is easier for Africans to travel to other parts of the world, even though they are always looked upon with suspicion, than it is for them to travel within the continent!

Conversely, it is much easier for other world citizens to access the continent than it is for Africans, who are often put to strict proof of their itineraries and invitation by “hosts” in the countries they plan to visit.  Yet, the AU has resolved to do away with visas for intra African travel by citizens of member states come 2018.

Can it happen? This visa thing for Africans within Africa is extremely ridiculous. I travelled to neighbouring Burundi in 2007 and had to get a visa first in Dar es Salaam.

I just mused that if Tanzania also required visas for the thousands of Burundian refugees hosted by their neighbour, where would they be? But my most laughable visas experience  was probably in Kampala, Uganda in 2011. The East African Community (EAC) had just resolved that citizens of member states were entitled to automatic 180 days of stay upon arrival.

The immigration officer at Entebbe International Airport stamped 90 days visa in my passport. When I asked him why he wasn’t giving me my rightful 180 days, he replied: “That applies only if you are travelling on an EAC Passport but not when you are using your international passport.” Strange. If I am holding an international passport, then I am not Tanzanian and East African! In any case, I was just staying for a week. So I hardly needed the more than 93 per cent of the time allowed me anyway. But the question is: Your right!

I was in Egypt in 2008 on a study tour sponsored by the Egyptian government. As usual, I had to get a visa. The area for visa payment was written: “Gratis,” meaning free but in reality the charges were paid for by the Egyptian people. I would have preferred it to read N/A or Non Applicable by virtue of my being an African. 

In fact, during an earlier visit a year before, a Tea Shop owner at Tanta had refused to accept my payment for a cup of tea saying since I was a first time customer and a brother from Africa, my cup of tea was on the house. That gesture of brotherhood touched me greatly and remains one of my most treasured memories of Egyptian hospitality. It was a chilly midnight stopover on my way to Alexandria from Cairo, chauffeured also by a very friendly taxi driver. 

Unfortunately though, Egypt is one of the most visa restrictive countries in Africa. The need for security is often cited as the main reason but real terrorists don’t come in through open doors. In any case, crimes are fanned by ideas, which spread faster than any physical movement. Jamses Kirkup, Executive Political Editor of The Telegraph recently argued:

“Simply, all the border checks in the world will not keep us safe. Passport controls can’t stop the spread of ideas, and it is ideas, not people, that are the essence of the terrorism that has just killed so many in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad.” Few will disagree. Near home, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame whose country has one of the highest ratings for open visa policy in Africa summed it up all very correctly that a few bad elements should not be used to restrict millions of good citizens who want to travel for leisure or business.

Open borders would help Africa integrate, increase employment, bring the people closer culturally and boost trade and investments for the benefit of the Africans themselves as opposed to the current situation whereby Africans do not know each other well. Bravo once more to Ghana for showing leadership in an area considered sensitive. If indeed Africa does have an agenda for a borderless continent by 2018, then the time to act is now.

By Mboneko Munyaga

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