Rwanda is laying the ground for the removal of visa requirements for African nationals ahead of a 2018 deadline set by the African Union.
The agency in charge of immigration says a study is ongoing on the modalities of implementing the AU protocol and revising its visa policies. The review is expected to lead to Rwanda, which allowed African nationals to acquire visas on arrival, abolishing the documents; becoming only the second country after Seychelles to do so.
But while Rwanda is walking the talk on integration, the same cannot be said of many other countries that cite revenue losses, terrorism and unemployment as barriers to open borders.
A recent study by the Africa Development Bank showed that three-quarters, or 42 of Africa’s 55 countries still require African nationals to obtain visas while in their home country instead of at points of entry. The implication is that travellers on detour cannot enter those countries, reducing opportunities for both tourism and trade.
Closely related to open borders are open skies, because they help provide cheaper, unrestricted means to reach destinations.
In 1999, African countries committed themselves to curb aviation taxes and offer qualifying airlines entry rights in order to reduce ticket prices, increase traffic and improve safety.
Almost 20 years, later many countries still restrict services in their airspace with a view to shielding local carriers which, with the exception of Ethiopia Airways, Kenya Airways and South Africa Airways, cannot be said to have realised their potential.
That African airlines account for no more than a fifth of the aviation traffic of the continent speaks volumes on the folly of such policies; airlines from outside Africa and nationals of other continents who are given visa concessions in the name of tourism are the beneficiaries.
Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands are good examples of countries that were bold enough to turn their backs on market restrictions after finding that in most cases they did not achieve the result desired.
New investments in aviation infrastructure have been a notable dividend and Africa would do well to pay heed. With African countries struggling to raise money for investments across various sectors, opening up restrictions on movement of people and their means of travel would attract new capital.
China is already working to conclude a continental financing plan for African airports in due course but the appeal to investors may be undermined by low volumes at most facilities.
At risk would be the eight million jobs the sector supports in Africa as well in its contribution to economies, which stood at $81 billion in 2014.
The main reason why closed airspace and visa restrictions do not yield results is that they are so vulnerable to retaliation by other countries. While Rwanda is working to remove visa requirements for African nationals, for instance, it has said that this will be only for countries that extend the gesture to its own nationals.
Implied here is that Rwanda has thrown down the gauntlet for other African countries to push the integration agenda forward, this time through deeds rather than words. And they do not have much choice or time.
A Continental Free Trade Area that is high on the Africa Union agenda is supposed to come into operation next year. It is unlikely to succeed without freer, faster and cheaper access to market.