On 30 May this year, President William Ruto of Kenya announced a decision that unleashed an avalanche of reactions. Visa restrictions and requirements, border issues and continental unity have been topics of much interest to almost all nations, for years. Certain countries worry less about some of these requirements since the whole world seems to be open to them, and Western wealthy capitalist countries are at the top of the list. The imbalanced traveling possibilities between Africa and the West (mainly Europe and North America) has resulted in one of the tragedies that befell Africa and still lingers: millions of people of almost all age groups do not hesitate to take to the sea in a desperate attempt to reach the shores of the “developed” nations, in search of greener pastures. The opposite applies to many Europeans and North Americans who travel to Africa since no visa is required from them or they simply “pick it up” on arrival. So, President Ruto’s decision to scrap visa fees for Africans traveling to Kenya for business purposes was a very welcome decision for most Africans and all those who have Africa’s progress at heart.
This is not the first time that Kenya has taken a step in that direction. In November 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta made a similar decision when he stated that all Africans traveling to Kenya would be granted visas on arrival. It was an effort to boost trade and business relations between Kenya and all African nations. He cited the following as reasons behind his decision: the free movement of people on the African continent is a cornerstone of Pan-African brotherhood and fraternity, and traveling freely makes Africans appreciate their diversity. Then this May, when as part of his remarks during the African private sector dialogue conference on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Nairobi, President Ruto exempted all Africans from the visa requirement and many will simply wonder if Kenyan leaders’ inclination towards visa free movements on the continent is not related to the Pan-African verve of their first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who with Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana spearheaded the move for a united Africa.
In a truly diplomatic style and with grand humility the Kenyan president apologized to African officials who suffered the discomfort of visa regulations during their trips to his country to attend a forum on African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Nairobi: “Trade Minister Moses Kuria has informed me that somehow some of our officials made you pay for visas to come home and asked me to apologize, which I do. When one comes home, they don’t pay”. He later boldly added a historical decision, in the same speech: “I want to promise you that this might be the last time you are looking for a visa to come to Kenya because of two reasons. Number one, because this is home and number two, we support, wholeheartedly, the AfCFTA. We must remove any impediments to the movement of people around our continent”.
Ruto was certainly continuing the African integration policy of his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta. This looks like a new wind blowing on the continent, since Rwanda put similar measures in place, the same month, by issuing a similar directive in the spirit of Pan-Africanism and did not require any reciprocity from other countries. The Rwandan decision is also to be praised, since this country is obviously and tenaciously working towards flourishing, after the genocide. Rwanda encourages the movement of all those who can help move the country forward, although some critics keep stating that President Kagame simply cares about the interest of his country and as a result, uses the skills of expatriates and abrogates their contract when their services are no longer needed. I guess this recent decision proves such critics wrong. Kagame seems to insist on discipline and the respect of law while prioritizing an enviable onward move of his country’s socio-economic life.
What cannot be denied is that Kenya has, for years, been championing the removal of trade barriers among African countries to ease the movement of goods, services and labour through the integration of regional trading blocs. The reasons hampering that easy and fructuous mobility in Africa are said to be the poor road networks that raise the costs of goods and services as much as 40 per cent and, as a result, intra-African trade is less competitive than doing business with Western countries. Aside from the weak transport system, other factors compound the woes related to intra-African trade: poor logistics capacity, customs related delays, rules of origin, import bans and export restrictions, quotas and levies, technical barriers and import permits and licenses.
Reliable data shows that Africa accounts for 18 per cent of Kenya’s total trade value, which means that the remaining biggest chunk of the country’s business was transacted with other continents. One instance of this infrastructural hurdle is the sad story of the first consignment of Kenya’s value-added tea to Ghana. It left Kenya in October 2022 and reached Tema Harbour in Ghana in February 2023.
While the majority applauds Kenya’s new continental or global decision, which they believe is a move that could one day lead to a profitable model like the Schengen Agreement, others fear the security risks that might ensue. So, concerns have been raised regarding potential abuses of this opportunity, particularly by individuals from certain countries where there is a strong stereotype of criminals and scammers. Many Twitter users suggest that measures should be implemented to prevent the influx of individuals engaging in illegal activities such as drug trafficking and scams. They argue for the need to strike a balance between facilitating open borders and ensuring appropriate checks and controls to maintain security and protect the integrity of the system.
Africa’s openness to visitors from other African countries has been so for some time. The Africa Visa Openness Index (AVOI) which measures that level of openness shows that only three countries — Benin, The Gambia, and Seychelles — currently offer visa-free access to all African nationals. The AVOI 2022 report shows progress in visa openness in Africa, with 10 countries improving their score and exceeding pre-pandemic levels. This statistic therefore reinforces the sentiment that Kenya’s decision is a significant step towards greater regional integration and inclusivity, a move that contributes to the improvement of the image of the continent in the eyes of the world.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.