The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

Could the recent institution of a single African passport, by stimulating trade and movement, effectively reduce poverty in the world’s most fragmented continent? Although this initiative signals a positive trend towards greater integration, only concerted effort and investment towards education, infrastructure, and conflict reduction will support long-term unity, growth and prosperity for Africa.

Can the institutionalisation of a single African biometric passport effect integration and poverty reduction in Africa amid security and stability concerns?

In recent years, African leaders have seen the pressing need for Africa’s development and have called for greater integration. This is now firmly rooted in Aspirations 2 and 7 of Agenda 2063 of the African Union (AU), respectively calling for an ‘integrated’ and a ‘united’ Africa. The recent adoption of the single African biometric passport, similar to Schengen in the European Union (EU), is a major step in this direction.

Under the 1991 Abuja Treaty, frameworks for African integration and economic development were established, with the division of the continent into sub regional (integration) blocs, or Regional Economic Communities (RECs), intended to serve as pillars of a united African economy, the African Economic Community (AEC). However, Africa is still considered the most fragmented region in the world. Infrastructural, security and stability constraints do not facilitate integration and trade, as compared with other regions, such as the Caribbean and South-East Asia. It has thus been rightly observed that Africa has integrated with the rest of the world faster than with itself.

Long-term peace, security and political stability among African states are vital tools of unrestricted mobility, integration, economic growth and poverty alleviation plans.

Economically, easing entry restrictions among African nations through a common passport would create a continent-wide market which could stimulate intra-African trade and investment, encourage entrepreneurship and business diversification. This would reduce the widespread dependence on goods from outside the continent and offer new business opportunities to many citizens, including jobs, as a result of greater employment mobility, thus helping to reduce the poverty cycle. Improved standards of living would in turn reduce brain drain and illegal migration from the continent by educated and skilled workers in search of greener pastures, as well as the tragedies which go with this. However, as in the case of the EU, some of the more developed economies within Africa would likely restrict entry of nationals from weaker economies in search of jobs, for fear of socioeconomic pressures.

Nonetheless, integration cannot be achieved by merely facilitating free movements through a single passport. Single passports have been introduced in RECs such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa States (CEMAC), but proven not to be the litmus test for true integration, and even less so for poverty reduction. According to the 2013 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 12 out of the 15 countries within ECOWAS experience some of the lowest socio-economic development indicators, including the lowest Human Development Index ratings in the world, and the situation in CEMAC is no better. The traditional problems of poverty, disease, malnutrition, unemployment and low living standards continue to exist in those Communities. Indeed, African integration should be considered as a development-oriented project incorporating regionalisation of citizenship through effective mobility and formal trade and investment, and include other standard socioeconomic and political measures such as developing human capital and infrastructural, and a focus on peace and stability.

States have to adopt an integrated approach to develop a reliable workforce which will drive the desired economic growth and sustainable development – prerequisites for poverty reduction. Ease of movement under the single passport regime will support the distribution of human capital across the Continent, and might constitute a trigger towards its development. States should therefore invest in human capital via education and training as well as skills development. Increased spending in education, in itself, is a strategy to produce an intelligent, creative and reliable workforce. Enhanced mobility under the single passport would promote a more even distribution of technical expertise across states, and alleviate shortages in certain parts of the continent. However, concerns associated with the free movement of labour may arise, particularly in relation to the recognition of qualifications from different regions or unfamiliar educational systems. The establishment of national equivalence systems could be of great help here. The East African region has addressed this difficulty by encouraging mutual recognition of professional and academic qualifications in areas crucial for the continent’s industrialisation, such as engineering and architecture. Interuniversity cooperation, facilitating cross-border mobility for students and lecturers, will also be helpful in better spreading training and trained labour.

The single passport would invariably trigger investment in infrastructure, since free movement of persons and goods cannot be achieved in the absence of robust and reliable transport infrastructure networks. Currently, Africa is poorly serviced with roads and railways, while air flights are still very expensive. A robust regional transport infrastructure would contribute to the political, economic and social integration of the continent as well as enable the even distribution of human capital and the transportation of goods between important areas of production and consumption. The completion of the trans-African highway project, consisting of nine main corridors on a 59 100 kilometres stretch, can propel the achievement of this goal. The highway should be supplemented by railway networks and sub-regional networks. Also, African states should consider (re)launching a continental airline company, which would operate affordable intra-continental flights. Infrastructural strides must be complemented by the elimination of abusive tariff and customs/immigration barriers, police controls and other non-physical barriers. In fact, non-tariff and regulatory barriers cause unnecessary delays, raise transaction costs and prices, limit the movement of goods, services, people and capital across borders, and encourage corrupt practices, which are all inimical to sound integration and poverty reduction strategies.

Long-term peace, security and political stability among African states are vital tools of unrestricted mobility, integration, economic growth and poverty alleviation plans. Conversely, mobility and integration can propagate peace, security and stability by spreading the culture of tolerance and the virtues of good governance which underlie them (transparency, accountability, respect for human rights, primacy of the rule of law, etc). Yet, considering present conditions of insecurity and instability, particularly in the Sahel belt and central Africa, enhanced mobility could equally work the other way. In this context, mobility may facilitate the spillage of insecurity and instability into peaceful areas. In fact, some countries will legitimately resist free access into their territories, if that were to happen or could be anticipated. To safeguard greater security and stability, African states would have to resolutely work to prevent and end conflicts peacefully. They unavoidably need to invest in new technologies supporting effective traveller identification, such as tracking management systems and integrated border controls. Police and judicial cooperation between states should also be reinforced.

Obviously, the upshot of the single African passport is huge. Regional integration and economic development leading to poverty reduction could be achieved by increased mobility of persons, goods/services and capital. However, they involve long term processes, which must be accompanied by both economic and non-economic factors including reforms, mobilisation of financial resources, institutions, implementation strategies and mechanisms, human capital and infrastructural development, security and stable conditions as well as politically committed African leaders ready to share and achieve the common vision. Thus, the single passport is a precursor to integration and development, not a magic wand towards those ends.

Atangcho Nji Akonumbo

Atangcho Nji Akonumbo is an Associate Professor of Law and Vice-Dean in Charge of Research and Cooperation at the University of Bamenda, Cameroon. He serves as an Official legal advisor to the Board of Custodians of the AfricaWide Movement for Children (AMC). His main fields of expertise are human rights law, corporate law and intellectual property. He is a lecturer and a professor of law in several universities in Cameroon, South Africa, and in the USA, and a very active expert providing legal advice and drafting laws in the areas of intellectual property and human rights issues since 1998 in several countries. He is consultant on child rights with a number of organizations such as AU and ACPF. He also serves as an Official Legal Advisor to the Board of Custodians of the AfricaWide Movement for Children (AMC).