The dream of visa-free travel in Africa for Africans is still a dream, but it’s changing. Here’s what you should know.
If you’ve ever tried to travel around the continent on an African visa, you know that it can be quite confusing. From having to contact embassies in third countries to obtuse rules at customs. A few years back when I was backpacking through Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin, I was asked to provide various documentation from my hosts. This documentation had to be stamped by a high ranking police officer in their countries of residency.
I should mention that I was planning to couchsurf in all these countries. I was also asked to provide proof of bus ticket bookings—despite the fact that you can only get your next bus ticket when you get to a certain city. The administrative hurdles almost made me give up on the trip altogether. The reader will understand why even when I fell terribly ill in Ouagadougou, I was still quite tempted to take the 17 hour bus ride to Lome. After all the money I had spent getting the various visas, the 5+ trips to each of the embassies, only to get a one month single-entry visa, I was not about to cut my trip short.
In 2016, the African Development Bank published the first Africa Visa Openness report. It confirmed what many Africans had always suspected, but never really had numbers to confirm: It’s easier for North Americans to travel within Africa than Africans themselves. To be precise, at that time in 2016, Africans needed visas to enter 55 percent of countries on the continent while North Americans only needed them for 45 percent of African countries. In addition, Africans could only get visas on arrival in 25 percent of African countries compared to the 35 percent for North Americans.
Since then, there have been some changes and improvements to visa policies on the continent with some of them being highlighted in the third edition of the Africa Visa Openness report that was published at the end of 2018.
Okayafrica rounds up all the important information for the African wanderluster looking to travel on the continent!
- Contrary to what you would expect, the strongest African passport for traveling within Africa isn’t South Africa, but Kenya. A Kenyan passport can get you to 33 African countries (18 visa free, 15 visa on arrival), compared to 29 countries for an South African passport (16 visa free, 13 on arrival) and 28 for a Nigerian one (17 visa free and 11 on arrival.
- You can now easily access up to date information from the AfDB visa openness site that shows which countries you need a visa for, which ones you can get on arrival and which ones you must apply for before travel. The data is available for all African countries and periodically verified with data from The International Air Transport Association. This is a relief! No need to spend hours on the phone trying to reach embassies that might not even be in your country!
- While the continent is still a long way from visa free travel for Africans, there have been great improvements in the past 3 years since the first AfDB visa openness report was released. By the end of 2018, Africans on average do not need visas to travel to 25 percent of other African countries (up from 20 percent in 2016), need visas to travel to 51 percent of other countries (down from 55 percent in 2016) and can get visas on arrival in 24 percent of other countries (down from 25 percent in 2016.) In 2016, only Seychelles allowed visa free entry to all Africans. By the end of 2018 Benin also scrapped all visas for Africans. From 2016 to mid 2018, 43 countries improved or maintained their visa openness score. Progress is painfully slow but in the right direction.
- The weakest African passports for traveling in the continent are all found in East Africa—Somalia , Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Somalis get visa free travel only to only 2 countries and visa on arrival in 11, Eritreans (3 no visa, 14 on arrival), Sudanese (2 no visa, 15 on arrival), Ethiopians (4 no visa, 14 on arrival) and Djiboutians (4 no visa, 15 on arrival)\
- The countries that are most welcoming to other Africans in terms of not needing visas or giving visas on arrival are Benin & Seychelles (1st place), Rwanda & Togo (2nd place), Guinea-Bissau & Uganda (3rd place), Ghana (4th place) & Cape Verde (5th).
- Visa openness is good business and African airlines are beginning to understand the opportunity. It is paying off. As of November 2018, Addis Ababa has overtaken Dubai as the hub of african flights thanks to Ethiopian Airlines. The airline has revived defunct African airlines, increased partnerships with other national carriers, established hubs in Malawi and Togo, and flies to more than 60 destinations across Africa. As of November 2018, Ethiopia plans to offer visa on arrival to all Africans. A recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report says 40 percent of international tourists in Africa are African.
- There are three policy changes that bode well for increased intra-africa travel and trade. The first is the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) which was launched in January 2018 at the African Union Summit and signed by 23 countries. The SAATM aims to promote trade, investment and tourism, creating more jobs and growth. The second is the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which was officially established in March 2018 and adopted by close to 50 countries. AfCFTA aims to create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments. The third is the Free Movement Protocol that was launched at the same time as AfCFTA and was adopted by 30 countries. It aims to ease travel restrictions for African citizens. It does take a long time from when policies are drafted to when they are implemented, but it does give some hope that the movement of people, goods and services on the continent could be easier in the future.
With the world getting more closed up and anti-immigrant it’s a positive sign that African countries are beginning to see the opportunity in other Africans.