Could an African passport bring to life the dreams of Nkrumah, Senghor and Touré?
By Uchenna Okeja
Embassies, visas and immigration officers. These things invoke nightmarish feelings in many people. This is particularly true in Africa.
One cannot fail to notice the hallmarks of post-colonial performances of power at the gates of embassies in the major cities of African countries. There is always that feeling of lowliness created in visa applicants by the performances of authority at embassies. There you will find military, police and sundry security companies wielding high-calibre weapons.
It’s not unusual to witness instances of humiliation. Sometimes they shout instructions at visa applicants. Sometimes they throw documents back at them.
They, it seems, have great talent and insatiable penchant for choreographic, inane demonstrations of power. Or, as Nigerian superstar Fela Ransome Kuti would say, “demonstration of craze”.
Mostly, the wisdom of this endurance is the thought that there is an end in sight. Once you are handed your visa, its magical powers will at once restore your humanity. But before that is done, these visa applicants, these believers in the proverbial greener pasture on the other side, have to undergo the noisome purification process of psychological terrorism.
Against this background is the idea that the African Union wants to introduce an African passport. It’s apt to raise the hopes of many people for different reasons. At least, some will think, this passport will restore the dignity and self-worth of Africans. It will allow them to travel without visas to all of the 54 countries that make up the African Union.
If anything, Africans will no longer have to deal with the excesses of embassy staff and their security personnel.
I believe that the new passport could be taken to represent a new political agenda that is worth fighting for.
Visa free travels
Countries in the so-called Global North are striving to outdo one another in the race for their closed border utopia. African countries though, seem to be pushing strongly for open borders within the continent. But before basking in boisterous self-congratulation, it seems cogent to ask why an open border policy would be reasonable.
What justifies the decision of African leaders to pursue visa-free travel within the continent by 2018?
International travel for many Africans has often meant travel to countries in the Global North. The reality is that the Global North benefits from any gains derived from Africans undertaking international travel.
A possible argument for the African passport would be that it would help African countries end these historical patterns, and in so doing reap the gains that accrue from free movement within the continent.
Under this scenario, the African passport would allow African countries to profit from tourism. It would also help to shear mentally colonised Africans of their braggadocio which they often express by reminding people of how well-travelled they are, just because they’ve visited Paris, London or New York.
So travels to Bujumbura, Johannesburg, Lagos, Kampala and other cities on the continent would be international travel people could take pride in. And with this change in perception, the gains would begin to accrue to African countries.
Reasons in favour
What of the argument that the Africa passport can advance African cultural heritage? The crux of this argument is that Africa is a cultural community which shouldn’t be imprisoned by colonial border restrictions enforced by post-colonial states. The African passport might therefore bring to life the dreams of pan-Africanism dreamt by scholar-statesmen such as Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Senghor, Sékou Touré.
The cultural argument, therefore, is that the African passport will help the advancement of the African cultural community because free movement would provide the opportunity for increased contact and, hence, cultural exchange.
There’s a political argument for the African passport too. The open borders might also well mean the development of a positive political agenda for African countries that have struggled for too long to mitigate the deficit between what independence promised and what it brought about.
In other words, the African passport could be the viable response to the situation scholars such Ali Mazrui and others have called the African predicament. Although African countries were mainly creations of the struggle for freedom, Africans today have become prisoners of this freedom. Largely, it’s a multitude trapped in spaces created by their affirmation of freedom through independence.
And the introduction of an African passport has the capacity to redirect the discourse on migration in a way that makes neglected questions the centre of attention. This is the case because of the type of migration it will bring about – increased migration of Africans within Africa.
As such it could offer resistance to the frequent sacrifice of young African lives on the altar of the dreams about Europe erected in Lampedusa, the small Italian island with its bulging migrant reception centre.
Imagining open borders within Africa presents an opportunity to reinsert real world questions into the mainstream of political and social thought on immigration. – The Conversation Africa
• Uchenna Okeja is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Rhodes University