A Dream of Schengen: Visa-Free Travel in Africa Remains Far Off


Tuesday, July 04, 2017 6:35 PM /FDC 

It Is Still Remarkably Hard For Africans to Get Around Their Own Continent
By 2063, according to the African Union’s (AU) rather long-range prediction, Africa will be “a continent of seamless borders”. People, capital, goods and services will flow freely from South Africa to Tunisia and from Senegal to Somalia. 

Europe’s frontier-free Schengen area may be creaking under the strain of migration and terror, but another will arise, this one encompassing a continent of more than 1.2bn people. Last year, with that goal in mind, the AU boldly introduced a single African passport. 

The first recipients were two of the continent’s most powerful strongmen: Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, and Chad’s president, IdrissDéby. 

For now, however, crossing borders remains a painful experience for most Africans. The World Bank estimates that intra-African trade is more expensive, all things considered, than trade in any other region. 

According to Anabel Gonzalez, senior director of a World Bank group on trade and competitiveness, one African supermarket chain reports that it spends $20,000 every week to get import permits for meat, milk and other goods in one country alone; every day one of its lorries is held up at a border, costs it $500. 

On average, Africans need a visa to travel to 54% of the continent’s countries; it’s easier for Americans to travel around Africa than it is for Africans themselves. So far, the AU has issued its single African passport only to heads of state and senior AU officials. 

But in the past year things have improved a little, according to a new report from the African Development Bank. Africans now need visas to travel to slightly fewer countries than they did in 2015, and 13 African countries now offer electronic visas, up from 9 the previous year. 

Ghana made the most progress: in 2016 the government announced that it would provide visas on arrival for citizens of every AU member state, while offering entirely visa-free travel to 17 African countries, including the 14 other members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). 

The Seychelles is still the only country on the continent to offer visa-free access to all Africans. (An archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it is a haven for well-heeled tourists but hard to get to if you are poor.) 

Elsewhere, progress has been patchy. Less than a quarter of African countries provide “liberal access”—meaning visa-free travel or at least visas on arrival—to all African citizens, and most of the continent’s richest countries tend to be more restrictive. 

War-torn central Africa remains the most closed region; east and west Africa have opened up the most. 

The Worst Growth Figures for Two Decades Fail To Keep Pace with a Rising Population 
Wearing a cowboy hat and holding two scrawny goats at the end of a tether, the farmer scowls when asked how business is going at Nyamata Market, a patch of dusty earth about 25km south of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. 

“People have no money,” he grumbles, pointing at his unsold animals. As if to underscore the point, one of the goats jets a stream of urine at your correspondent’s shoe. Rwanda’s economy, like many across Africa, has been hit by the twin blows of drought and low prices for minerals. 

Growth in sub-Saharan Africa slumped to 1.4% last year, its slow-est pace in two decades, reckons the IMF. Since the region’s population is growing at about twice that rate, this means that GDP per head fell for the first time in more than 20 years. 

Economies slowed in two-thirds of countries south of the Sahara. 

A year earlier, cheaper oil helped speed growth in some countries. Nigeria and Angola, where the black stuff used to account for as much as 90% of exports, were walloped. 

But countries that import most of their fuel, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, enjoyed a boomlet. 

When the price of crude slumped further in the early months of last year, the big oil exporters fell into recession. This time there seemed to be no offsetting benefit for others. 

The misery was more widespread than in 2015, and more sustained than expected, for two main reasons. The first was a drought across much of east and southern Africa that shrivelled crops, driving up food prices and slashing farmers’ incomes. 

The second was that ill fortune was exacerbated by government policies that have hobbled growth in Africa’s two biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa. 

In Nigeria the government refused to let its currency float freely in response to the sharp drop in its export earnings from oil. Faced with an overpriced currency investors held back, waiting for the naira to fall. 

In South Africa, mean-while, investment and growth dried up as news of government corruption and economic mismanagement spurred credit-rating agencies to downgrade the country’s debt to junk. 

Even many of the region’s faster-growing countries have passed foolish economic policies. Kenya has capped the rate of interest banks can charge, prompting most of them to stop lending to businesses. 

Tanzania has barred its main gold producer from ex-porting gold concentrate. Cameroon’s government, fearful of dissent, shut off the internet to English-speaking parts of the country, which is where technology start-ups cluster. 

More worrying is that as economies slowed, the parlous state of public finances became clear. The ratio of public debt to GDP has jumped ten percentage points to 42% on average since 2014—the highest level for many countries since they had their debts written off a decade or so ago. 

The level may not look high by the standards of rich countries, but interest rates in Africa are much higher. The governments of Nigeria and Angola now spend more than half of all their revenue on servicing their debts. 

Countries such as Ghana, Zambia and Mozambique risk drowning in red ink, having ramped up government spending when GDP growth was stronger and global credit was easy. 

Growth should pick up a little this year—the IMF hopes for about 2.6%—but its fragility highlights how the region has yet to kick its addiction to commodity exports, and how it can ill afford to keep piling on debt as it has in recent years. 

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