Ex Africa semper aliquid novi— from Africa there is always something new — the ancient Roman known as Pliny the Elder said almost 2,000 years ago. The New Year 2020 is to become the year of freedom of travel within Africa. The African Union (AU) already made this commitment back in 2016.
Moreover, from 2020, Africans are to receive a common Africa passport. The structure, appearance and number of pages of the travel document have long since been finalized: 32 pages for the average citizen, with content written in five different languages; English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Kiswahili to make it truly African.
So far, not much has been heard about the passport despite the fact that more and more African countries are lifting travel restrictions. For example, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari recently announced that beginning January 2020, citizens of other African countries would no longer require visas to enter Africa’s most populous nation. Travellers will now be able to get visas on arrival at the airport or at any Nigerian border. This is great news — also for Deutsche Welle — our reporters can narrate many unpleasant experiences about their business trips.
Dreaming of open borders and the AU passport
Only recently, a colleague was a victim of false information from a travel agency. He was told that he, as a Ghanaian, could travel to South Africa without a visa. But he got a rude shock at the departure terminal in Frankfurt International Airport. His ambassador personally assured him that the matter was being worked on. That privilege, [Ghanaians traveling to South Africa visa free], he said, was previously only granted to diplomats. There was no mention of the AU passport in this context — 2020 will most likely not be the year of freedom of travel across Africa.
The “largest free trade zone in the world”, which was agreed upon with great enthusiasm by all African countries except Eritrea in 2018, is also expected to come to effect in 2020. The trade deal which bears the bulky acronym AfCFTA is to be implemented starting July 2020 onwards.
So far, not even the regional sub-agreements are bearing fruit. Africa’s borders are marked by record-breaking long queues of trucks loaded with goods. Recent developments give little hope that this will change decisively in 2020.
It appears the trend is towards closing borders, not opening them — Rwanda and Uganda, Nigeria and Benin, Kenya and Somalia — the borders are shut tight because neighbors are deeply suspicious of each other. Sometimes it’s about contraband goods, sometimes about serious security concerns, but political will is often the only thing missing. Pan-African institutions that could intervene or mediate in disputes are also lacking.
Africans have long known that open intra-Africa trade would bring them more prosperity than any free trade agreement with the EU, any Marshall Plan from abroad, or any ambitious Compact with Africa with the world’s major economic players. Today, astute African traders find it easier to procure goods by containers from China than to buy agricultural or finished products from the region. While the majority of African goods can be exported to Europe duty-free, most African countries have to pay hefty duties or bribe their way at the border between African countries.
Litmus test for Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Will 2020 be Africa’s year? In Germany, the narrative of the ‘continent of opportunity’ is slowly gaining ground. However, many experts are waving the warning flag: The security situation in the Sahel is getting increasingly out of control. The terror threat that never really went away is making a bloody comeback in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.
In Zimbabwe all hopes of reform have been dashed whereas in neighboring South Africa, citizens have to contend with a contracting economy which urgently needs reforms.
Out of the eleven African countries scheduled to hold elections in 2020, only in Ghana is one assured of a peaceful, free and fair electoral process which meets democratic standards.
The election planned for May in Ethiopia, a country with 105 million inhabitants, is likely to be a litmus test for an entire region. The 43-year-old Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize is regarded by young people throughout Africa as a bearer of hope. If the transition from an authoritarian hybrid state to an open, democratic and prosperous model of society succeeds in Ethiopia — a multi-ethnic country — why shouldn’t young leaders in other African countries be able to reciprocate the same feat?
However, destructive centrifugal forces are driving the ethnically defined Federal State of Ethiopia apart. Courageous as he may be, Abiy has long faced difficulties making himself and his reforms, which include improved security, prosperity and democracy, understandable. He’s also found it challenging to spread his enthusiasm across the ethnic divide.
The first truly free elections in Ethiopia must turn out to be a small miracle if they are to be a positive signal for the continent. Then can we finally agree with Pliny — something really new would have come out of Africa. After all, nearly 2,000 years ago, Pliny knew one thing: Hope is the pillar that holds up the world.