Walls are built for either of two reasons: to keep people away or to confine them. Hungary has a barrier on the border it shares with Serbia and Croatia, built during the height of the European migrant crisis a couple of years ago, for the former purpose. North Korea, by contrast, uses the demilitarised zone (DMZ) to ensure against its afflicted citizenry crossing-over to its more democratic immediate southern neighbour.
Africa’s political history is more beset by the North Korean case than that of the Hungarian one. If an African state is not suffering from a European coloniser, then it is a strong man that is trampling all over his countrymen’s human and political rights. If not a dictatorship, then it is inept leadership that lends itself to political uncertainty and economic stagnation.
For those Africans that do stay, for those whose fate is not determined by a makeshift boat somewhere along the Mediterranean Sea, the reason is not so much economic opportunities as it is hope: hope that someday things will be better.
And that hope is here. It comes in the form of the attempt to create a visa-free Africa, at least for Africans. It would very much be similar to Europe’s Schengen area, where there will be a free cross-border movement of people within the African continent.
The ambition is a continental citizenship, which was envisioned in half-century year term of the socio-economic transformation plan known as Agenda 2063. The plan envisaged an Africa which within a year will grant any African visiting any nation within the continent a 30-day minimum visa. By 2020, all visa requirements for Africans will be abolished.
The idea of a fully integrated Africa is not as original as some may think. It very much has its roots in the first pan-African movements of the 18th century, around the peak of the Atlantic slave trade. And then again in modern pan-African campaigns, this time around with more intellectuals, that attempted to instil a sense of solidarity between people of African descent.
From that movement were born institutions like that of the Organisation for African Unity, now known as African Union (AU). It is almost conceivable never to mind its trove of failures, for it was born from such lofty and commendable ideals.
And what better path forward for the institution than the removal of physical barriers between the continent’s 1.2 billion residents, whose quantity by 2050 will leap by more than twice that figure. Sure, this would not concur with the fact that most countries are not adequately economically integrated – a smoother transitional thoroughfare before taking on social integration. And the feeling of hostility between some nations of the world, take Ethiopia and Eritrea or Sudan and South Sudan, seems insurmountable.
But these should not be deterrents. There are free trade agreements between African nations – take the Common Market for Eastern & Southern Africa (COMESA) or the Southern African Development Community (SADC), both of which endeavour to create socio-economic integration. A flexible visa policy could start by being implemented between member countries that are already engaging diplomatically and economically.
As for the hard feelings that exist between countries, at least there is some consolation to be found in the saying that there is no such thing as eternal friends or foes when it comes to international politics. A maxim that, for better or worse, has been proven to be too accurate throughout history.
A visa-free Africa though has more considerable hurdles to overcome where policymakers and the public perceive it.
The first is lingo-cultural identity, which could become a significant obstacle on the path to socio-economic integration. With bad, bordering on awful, governance and a wealth gap that have lent themselves to political uncertainty, African nations could be said to be progressing in the opposite direction, towards disintegration along lingo-cultural lines.
Another is for reasons of security, which is a fear members of the Schengen area share. Unless there is a well-developed and well-coordinated security and law enforcement system, crime and terrorism can indeed get out of hand.
And then there is the fear of job losses. In Ethiopia, the unemployment rate is around 16pc, according to the estimates of the Central Statistical Agency (CSA). The majority of the unemployed are the youth, including fresh graduates from the country’s many public universities. Imagine how they would fare when once the labour market becomes more inclusive of non-nationals who could enter the country any second at a time when there are few job opportunities and a population spurt.
But let us apply the same arguments to the federated states of the United States (US) and Ethiopia. Imagine a world where the state of Arizona closes its borders to a neighbouring state like Utah because it fears the influx of outlaws, the peculiar (if it is peculiar) tradition of Utah’s residents, and skilled labour. Now imagine an Ethiopian regional state doing the same to one of its neighbouring states.
What kind of Ethiopia would that be? And what kind of Africa (and world) is it now?
A visa-free Africa will ensure free movement of individuals. This will allow investors to have more choices, not to mention Africans looking for a change of scenery. It will, in turn, ensure African countries become more competitive in opportunities they are willing to offer to investors. Governments will have no choice but to provide a business-friendly environment.
And there is no reason to fret over job opportunities. With better investment in and management of our education system, we should be able to ensure that an environment that rewards innovation and creativity is created. Then Ethiopians should find the courage to open up the borders in the attitude that we can compete in a region that is, let us face it, one of the least productive to begin with.
Down that road lie knowledge and skills transfer, a healthier working culture, better productivity, economic competitiveness and, hopefully, in the not so distant future, a trade surplus.
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