Prof. Mehari Taddele Maru is a Part-time Professor at the Migration Policy Centre. He is also a Fellow at the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies in Bruges, Belgium.
The ongoing effects of Covid-19 mean there is little mobility in the world, and Africa is no exception. The vaccine rollout may take at least two to three years, and African nations are likely to regain pre-pandemic volumes of travelers only after 2024. Travel restrictions and delays in the vaccine rollout on the continent constitute the most formidable challenges to people's free movement.
The speed of vaccination programs and the existence of vaccine passports may soon become additional factors to consider when determining a country’s passport strength. But no matter where their countries are ranked in the Henley Passport Index, the reality is that the majority of Africans are likely to wait years to travel beyond their countries’ borders. Inequitable vaccine distribution will slow the return to travel normalcy both within and from Africa. While travel to destinations in Africa and beyond will be relatively restricted for Africans, citizens of countries with faster and broader vaccine rollouts will resume travel globally, including to and within Africa. Governments that roll-out the vaccine fast and widely to the public would strengthen their passports.
Countries that are able to vaccinate their populations relatively rapidly will also facilitate their citizens' higher mobility and attract visitors for business and leisure, while countries that are facing conflicts and those that lack funding to ensure adequate storage and efficient distribution of vaccines will lag in easing mobility restrictions. Fundamentally, this is attributed to the power asymmetries between wealthy and better-governed nations on the one hand, and those that are not on the other, further widening the gap between Africa and the rest of the world. It will also weaken many African passports.
After many decades of delay, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was launched in January 2021 in the context of Covid-19 restrictions. A demographically young and rapidly changing continent, under AfCFTA, Africa should be one of the world’s largest free trade areas, with vast opportunities but AfCFTA’s success is unthinkable without the free movement of people. Continental and regional cooperation for human mobility gained momentum in the few years preceding 2020 but implementation remains dismal. As such, AfCFTA will continue to face complex challenges owing to the lack of free movement regimes beyond national borders, among others. Covid-19 and slow and delayed vaccine rollouts are additional barriers to the other existing and all too familiar factors that inhibit free movement in Africa.
Long-standing challenges are holding back progress towards pan African free movement of people, including poor integrative infrastructure, political and policy constraints, historical factors, security threats, a trust deficit, and government officials’ mindset. Broadly, the issues arise from a lack of political will and determination expressed in resource allocation and leadership.
Too often, nationalism has been a leading factor that has inhibited Africa from achieving its full potential in mobility and economic integration. Colonialism and nationalism entrenched in the old construal of sovereignty have fragmented Africa into 55 jurisdictions, hampering its progress towards a dynamic integrated economy with a strong voice in the global arena. There are sufficient reasons for states to control their borders — national security and protection of sovereignty come to mind. Many political decision-makers could consider cross-border cooperation and free movement of people, goods, services, and finance to impinge on their sovereignty. Free movement of people is one of those supranational sirens that entice national sovereignty-based protectionism, including on pan African mobility and trade.
However, change towards a more integrated continent will be impossible without the complete vaccination of most African populations.
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “Germany and other wealthy countries may need to give some of their own stock to developing countries in addition to money since only vaccinating the whole world will end the coronavirus pandemic.” Above all, African countries need to do their utmost to address the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic by accelerating the universal rollout of the vaccine and issuing vaccine passports or cards.
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