Increasing Visa Liberalization Among African Nations
Aggregately, sub-Saharan Africa remains a relatively poor performer on the Henley Passport Index, with the 2018 year-to-date ranking indicating an overall decline in the strength of the African passport. In fact, the African continent accounts for the majority of the countries whose rank has decreased over the past decade, whereas trends in all other geopolitical regions’ measures have been positive or remained relatively stable.
Driving the relative depreciation of Africa’s passport power are increasing levels of political instability, economic destitution, and a proliferation of terrorist activity and organized crime, which are inhibiting freedom of movement for passport holders from several African states. Nonetheless, while the current trend may indeed be negative, there is room for optimism amid a wave of democratization sweeping through the continent, optimistically prompting the return of former pariah states within the global socio-economic and political paradigm. Moreover, in line with the mandate of the African Union, several member states are also actively opening their borders to one another in a bid to ease the movement of goods, people, and investment across a continent that is striving to become increasingly self- sufficient and self-promoting.
Among the African countries that are experiencing a reduction in the travel freedom associated with their passports is South Africa. Since reaching its highest rank of 35th globally in both the 2008 and 2009 Henley Passport Index listings, South Africa has dropped 15 places, now occupying 50th place overall. Driving the downward spiral are concerns over the unlawful replication of South African passport documents, with replication often abetted by corrupt officials within the Department of Home Affairs. These concerns saw visa regulations being enforced by several countries, including the UK and Colombia. The decline of South Africa’s passport power has come at a particularly challenging economic period for the country, where recent political uncertainty, large-scale corruption, and ambiguous policy have culminated in sluggish economic growth and concerns over possible devestment.
However, the implementation of widespread reforms by the Department of Home Affairs since 2014 — focused on improving security features both in the application process and within the passport document itself — is expected to enhance confidence in the South African passport and may relax visa restrictions for its holders going forward. Other factors that could strengthen the South African passport over the short to medium term include President Cyril Ramaphosa’s intention to ease visa restrictions for African passport holders so as to induce greater intra-African trade, in addition to his deployment of an economic envoy with the mandate of securing USD 100 billion in foreign direct investment.
Both of these developments are expected to bring about an uptick in the signing of bilateral visa-waiver agreements between South Africa and its trade partners as a means of facilitating ease of trade and commerce. The tale of South Africa’s declining but potentially rebounding passport power is similar to that of another economic superpower on the continent. While Nigeria vies with South Africa for the position of Africa’s largest economy, its passport currently provides visa-free access to half the number of countries that South Africans can access. This is largely due to the country’s ongoing battle with corruption and terrorism, rendering the Nigerian passport a high-risk commodity. However, with Nigeria making strides in countering extremism within its borders, in addition to President Muhammadu Buhari’s position of maintaining an anti-corruption mandate should he secure a second term, the West African country could conclude 2019 on a more positive footing, which could instigate slight increases in the relative power of its passport in the short term.
For several years, the South African passport has remained the third strongest on the continent in terms of its levels of access, with first and second place held by the Seychelles and Mauritius respectively. Both islands continue to outperform their continental counterparts due to their maintenance of prized visa-waiver agreements with Schengen countries as well as their own relatively open visa policies, which have generally been reciprocated by countries seeking to access these sought-after holiday destinations.
The Seychelles, which renders itself a completely visa-free destination, secured further deregulated visa access for its passport-holders through visa waivers from the governments of Thailand and Angola in the first quarter of 2018. Similarly, Mauritius, which is visa-free for all but 16 countries, secured a visa-waiver agreement with New Zealand in April this year. Although countries in the rest of Africa continue to lag behind in the accessibility of their passports, there is reason for optimism. While visa-free access outside of the continent is still limited, African states are increasingly simplifying visa regulations for their continental counterparts.
A case in point is Angola, which recently removed visa requirements for nine African countries: Algeria, Cabo Verde, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Morocco, São Tomé and Príncipe, Swaziland, and Zambia. Similarly, the undertaking of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community to grant visa waivers to passport-holders of its member states (Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo- Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon) could also be replicated by other regional political blocs seeking to promote the African Union’s vision of increasing inter-African trade and travel, as outlined in its Agenda 2063 mandate.
While visa-free access outside of the continent is still limited, African states are increasingly simplifying visa regulations for their continental counterparts
Furthermore, increasing internal and external pressures for democratic reform on the African continent are likely to be reflected in an easing of entry requirements as a means of liberalizing both the political and economic spaces in states on the continent that have otherwise assumed isolationist positions. This has recently been exemplified in both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, which introduced a universal e-visa system in July and May respectively. In both countries, easing visa application processes for international visitors forms part of wider attempts at reforming governmental dispositions that, from both a political and economic standpoint, have long been cited as being nationalist and protectionist. By rendering their respective countries more accessible, the administrations of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are likely aiming to strengthen relations with the international community, stimulate trade and foreign direct investment, and assimilate the erstwhile pariah states over which they currently preside into the globalized political economy. This is particularly the case in Ethiopia where the country’s easing of entry requirements has coincided with the Ahmed administration’s decision to privatize a number of key state-owned enterprises and to position Ethiopia as a more attractive country for foreign direct investment.
Should this model prove successful in both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, whose directives could be reciprocated by international states seeking to assist the countries in their democratic reformist projects, it may serve as a salient blueprint for other African states seeking to transition from repressive and isolationist to liberalized and democratic. Those potentially fitting this mould include Cameroon and Togo, which will both be holding elections and where the strongman and long-serving regimes are facing intensive calls for greater political reforms.
Finally, countries such as Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia may also attempt to punt their tourist potential as their governments seek actively to lessen their reliance on the often-volatile extractive sectors for foreign earnings. In doing so, these states may ease entry requirements and specifically appeal to visitors from the wider continent to grow their tourism sector while simultaneously forging stronger economic and political ties with fellow African states.