How Kenya is leading the move towards a borderless Africa

The Week, 01 November 2023

Concerns around security, smuggling and the impact on local employment markets continue to hamper integration efforts

Kenya will scrap visas for all African nationals by the end of the year, a move it hopes will open up trade and travel on the continent.

Speaking at a climate change conference in Congo-Brazzaville, the country's president William Ruto said the removal of barriers was needed to realise the dream of a continental free trade agreement, adding that "it is time we…realise that having visa restrictions among ourselves is working against us".

Kenya joins The Gambia, Benin and Seychelles as the only countries to offer unrestricted travel on the continent despite the long-held dream of a borderless Africa.

How would a borderless Africa work?

"Costly and time-consuming" visa requirements – 32 out of 54 African countries still require the nationals of at least half the continent's countries to obtain a visa – combined with high air fares, have "long created barriers to inter-African travel for African passport holders", said The Guardian.

To address this, the African Union (AU) has aggressively "pursued the goal of facilitating visa-free travel within the continent", Africa News reported, but although there have been bilateral and regional agreements, progress towards completely unrestricted travel has been "slow".

2018 saw the AU assembly adopt the Protocol to the Treaty, establishing the African Economic Community relating to the free movement of people and rights of residence and establishment. While hailed as a landmark document, five years later little over half the countries in Africa have signed it, and just four – Rwanda, Niger, São Tomé and Principe, and Mali – have ratified it.

This shows that the "political determination to fulfil the widely shared aspiration for a borderless Africa is still inadequate", said Al Jazeera columnist Tafi Mhaka.

What are the obstacles to integration?

The primary fear among leaders is that implementation of the protocol would "trigger political instability", said Alan Hirsch, Professor at The Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town, in The Conversation. Several of Africa's richer countries appear concerned that free movement could precipitate the "sudden influx of low-skilled economic migrants from poorer countries".

Meanwhile in West Africa, "where borders are porous, easy movement through states has contributed to the crossing of borders in the region by terrorists such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State", said The Republic.

In the post-colonial era African states have "had to consider the myriad of challenges including terrorism, economic meltdown, poverty and unemployment", said the news site. These pose a "unique challenge to states who must choose whether to shed their ability to control and dictate the internal affairs of their countries or abide by ideology and international agreements".

What are the ways forward?

There have been conflicting views about how to achieve Pan-Africanism since the end of colonial rule in the middle of the 20th century. While some leaders believed the objective should be continental integration from the start, others favoured an incremental approach starting at a regional level.

Regional blocs – most notably the East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) – have already made huge strides in lifting restrictions in cross-border movement and in some cases even allow passport-free cross-border travel within their respective regions.

One possibility, wrote Hirsch for the Global Government Forum, would be to try to follow the "European model". Europe is "unique in achieving internal freedom of movement, residence, and establishment for all citizens of EU countries", he argued, but this was achieved over 40 or so years, meaning that the road to free movement "would be long".

A second example would be South America, where "there was the attention given to common documentation, border management systems and bureaucratic procedures, even before there was significant border opening", said Hirsch. Only after this were systems developed "to facilitate business travel and the mobility of skilled people". Then "when the decision was made to liberalise further in the 2000s, reliable systems and practices were already in place".

Another, more radical solution, is an African Union passport. First mooted a quarter of a century ago, an "AU passport" was launched in 2016 to allow unrestricted travel for Africans within the continent.

However, concerns about security, smuggling and the impact on the local employment markets meant the "roll-out has been limited and the passports are mainly used by diplomats and high-ranking officials", said The Guardian.


Rwanda has also announced that there would be no visa requirements for Africans.