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Report highlights limitations of visa exemptions in promoting free movement across Africa

Monday, 15 April 2024 13:23
Report highlights limitations of visa exemptions in promoting free movement across Africa

(Ecofin Agency) - The report highlights the mixed experiences African nations that have implemented a continent-wide visa-free policy for their citizens have been facing recently, noting varying impacts on both tourism flows and trade exchanges.

In recent years, African nations have been gradually relaxing visa policies. Yet, the success of these initiatives in boosting intra-regional trade depends on their combination with significant investments in transport infrastructure, efficient border control procedures, and enhanced security across trans-border corridors, according to a report released on March 25 by Ecofin Pro.

Titled "Strengthening Intra-African Trade: Beyond Free-Visa Policies”,  the report states that 42 African countries grant visa-free entry to citizens from at least five other countries on the continent, with 33 extending this to citizens of at least ten African countries.


Visa-free policies primarily aim to enhance tourism flows, though motives vary from country to country. Based on its interests, each state adopts a visa policy targeting specific countries. Initially, some nations sign bilateral visa exemption agreements to foster economic or commercial relations. For instance, in late November 2023, Sierra Leone signed a visa exemption agreement with South Africa for diplomatic and service passport holders to facilitate exchanges among top officials and investors in key sectors like education, food security, energy, mining, and tourism.

In October 2023, Ghana and South Africa signed a visa exemption agreement for all citizens of the two countries to enhance business and tourism exchanges. Also, several states have announced visa exemption measures for citizens of other nations to accelerate the continent's integration process, which has entered an active phase since the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement. For example, Botswana signed bilateral visa exemption agreements in 2023 for citizens of Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Noting that four countries have implemented a visa-free policy for all African citizens (Benin, Gambia, Rwanda, and Seychelles), the report also indicates that the experiences of the three main pioneer countries remain mixed.

The Seychelles was the first country on the continent to lift visa requirements for African visitors, aiming to boost its tourism sector. However, no African country ranks in the top 10 or even top 15 tourist-sending countries to the Seychelles.

In Benin, the adoption of a visa-free policy for all African citizens has also not impacted the ranking of its primary tourist markets, notably Nigeria, Niger, and Togo.

Infrastructure deficit

The commercial impacts of visa-free policies are difficult to measure. In 2022, data from the World Bank revealed that the Seychelles, the first African nation to adopt such a policy, saw just 5% of its total merchandise imports coming from Sub-Saharan Africa in 2020, a decline from 7.16% in 2018. The percentage of exports to the region remained nearly unchanged at 0.96%, the same as in 2018.

The easing of visa regimes thus appears insufficient to address the problem of free movement of Africans across the continent and to develop intra-regional economic exchanges. One of the main obstacles to free movement between African countries remains the lack of infrastructure that allows for smooth exchanges not only from one territory to another but also within the same territory.

In Africa, the transport sector is largely dominated by roads, accounting for 80 to 90% of passenger and goods traffic. Yet, a significant part of the road network remains underdeveloped. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa needs an annual investment of between $130 and $170 billion to address its infrastructure deficit.

The free movement of people across several regions of the continent is also hampered by the complexity of border control procedures, compounded by extortion by border post agents. Additionally, insecurity along some trans-border corridors and conflict zones are further challenges.

The report also notes that significant tasks still await the states, including the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, signed by 32 African countries. This agreement, which aims to progressively liberalize the right of entry, residence, and establishment, has so far been ratified by only four countries.

Experts believe that concerns over national security, border management, and control of national migration policies have likely slowed the ratification process, along with misunderstandings about the obligations and implementation timeline.

And last but not least, a pooling of efforts in the air transport sector should accompany visa policies, given that intra-African travel is also hindered by the high cost of flights. The air transport market on the continent remains fragmented, with taxes sometimes representing up to 100% or more of the actual fare charged by airlines to each customer. Additionally, the continent continues to face the highest fuel costs for aircraft, with a nearly 20% price gap compared to North American countries.


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ECOFIN AGENCY offers a selection of articles translated from AGENCE ECOFIN. Founded in 2011, Agence Ecofin is a leader in Francophone Pan-African economic news, particularly in West and Central Africa. The agency publishes daily news on nine African economic sectors: Public Management, Finance, ICT, Agribusiness, Energy, Mining, Transport & Logistics, Communication, and Training.

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