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What an Open African Union Would Mean for Mobility and Economic Power

Justice Malala

Justice Malala

Justice Malala is the author of The Plot to Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War and Forged a New Nation. He is an award-winning journalist, television host, political commentator, and newspaper columnist. Malala’s work has been published in the Financial Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and many others.

African mobility is headed for a crossroads in 2024, with the possibility of a drastic improvement in intracontinental travel, passport power, and passport openness. This opportunity to bolster travel freedom as well as openness to other countries follows Kenya’s bold (and welcome) announcement that visitors no longer require a visa from January 2024.

Kenya following in Rwanda's visa-free footsteps

It’s a significant step. According to the Henley Openness Index 2023 (which measures a country’s openness to other nations), only seven small island nations and relatively fragile African states were ‘completely open’ to other nationalities. Kenya and Rwanda are the first major political and economic powers to offer completely visa-free access to international and continental visitors. Their no-visa policies breathe new life into the African Union’s (AU) attempts — through legislation such as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement — to bring about free movement of goods, services, capital, and the continent’s 1.4 billion people.

The flag of the African Union

Kenya’s move sees the country’s score on the Henley Openness Index improve dramatically. From giving visa-free access to only 49 passports in 2023, it now leaps to being visa-free for 198 passports. The benefits of a change in openness can be exponential and immediate for most countries. For example, South Africa removed visa requirements for Kenyans in January 2023 and, by year-end, Kenyan arrivals had surged by 94.2% compared to 2022, reaching 37,414. Kenya is now the fastest growing source of tourists to South Africa.

What would an open AU look like for travel and trade?

So, what if all AU member states granted visa-free access to all other members — a key pillar of Agenda 2063, the AU’s blueprint for transforming the continent into a global powerhouse by 2063? The Henley Passport Index (HPI) (which measures a passport’s strength based on the number of destinations it can access visa-free) suggests that although such a move would lead to increases in the scores of many AU member states, very few would actually break into the top half of the index due to their limited visa-free access to the rest of the world.

This hypothetical scenario would also only slightly improve the ‘passport power’ of the AU member states. The Henley Passport Power Index (HPP) is based on the percentage of global GDP that a passport (and its holder) can access visa-free. Despite being the second-most open of the world’s economic blocs, the AU only accounts for 3% of global GDP, so its HPP scores will only increase by a small margin.

The travel and economic freedom disparity is changing though. Perhaps the most important takeaway from the hypothetical scenario we painted is the fact that although there are 55 AU members, their HPI scores only increased by 12 to 30 points, meaning that there is already a fairly high level of openness between them. In 2017, only one country offered visa-free entry to fellow Africans. Today, 12 of the 20 most open countries in the world are African. At least 24 African countries were offering e-visas by 2023, up from just nine countries in 2016. Kenya’s visa-free policy signals a growing shift in Africa’s policy mindset.

It’s worth noting that Singapore, which ranked 6th on the HPI in 2013 and has improved to a consistent 1st place in recent years, allows visa-free access to 163 countries. Seychelles and Mauritius, the two most powerful passports in the AU, with access to more than 50% of the global economy, rank 3rd and 9th respectively for openness globally. They also have the strongest passports on the continent, with visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 156 and 150 destinations worldwide, respectively.

South Africa closefisted while Europe welcomes African talent

Unfortunately, some AU members are putting up barriers to travel freedom. South Africa has announced a radical overhaul of its liberal citizenship, immigration, and refugee laws. The new laws aim to make it harder for foreign nationals to acquire South African citizenship. South Africa ironically mimics a trend that’s likely to intensify in the US, Europe, and the Americas as voters veer towards politicians intent on limiting travel freedom.

Yet, highly skilled Africans are in demand. Germany, for example, announced a project for migrant centers in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, and Tunisia to offer a select category of skilled Africans to move to the country. Likewise, France plans to create a specific residence permit for foreign doctors to add to the 25,000 foreign-born doctors it recruited worldwide in 2022.

Factors affecting global mobility

War, conflict, food insecurity, and climate change will continue to be major drivers of migration in Africa. The continent has seen democratic backsliding recently, with nine military coups and two “counter-coups” between 2020 and 2023. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says ‘displaced and stateless’ people in Africa will reach 49.4 million in 2024.

Political instability has some negative consequences for the countries concerned. The Central African Republic, Gabon, and Niger (who have experienced coups), and Uganda (which has outlawed homosexuality) were suspended from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a pact that allows 35 African nations to export certain goods to the US without having to pay duties.

The overall trend for African mobility is positive despite these headwinds. Africa will have the second fastest growing major economy in the world in 2024, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Economic ties with China and Russia continue to grow while longstanding arrangements with the West are holding despite pressure by major powers for the continent to take sides in geopolitical disputes.

All the while, Africa leads in passport openness. The challenge in 2024 is to deepen policies that enhance global mobility and passport power.

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