To speed up development, African states can start with free movement of people

Sunday February 24 2019


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As an African who often travels in the continent and encounters the challenges associated with it, I was delighted when President Paul Kagame recognized that “institutions of government” are what stand in the way of free movement of people.

In an exclusive interview with The EastAfrican, Kagame said, “Every day ordinary people try to cross borders to trade with each other ... I have seen with my own eyes how Africans are struggling to cross borders, fighting with police and immigration. So, you can imagine having this situation where institutions of government are the ones standing in the way of ordinary people who want to do business.”

Its inexplicable yet true.

Institutions of government, particularly immigration officials and some police officers, regularly frustrate free movement of people and goods and in the process not only making ordinary citizen’s lives harder, but unwittingly undermining development.

And this problem isn’t limited to individuals who want to cross borders to another country with or without visas and have to be quizzed about where they are going; what they are going to do or how long they will spend.

The problem is also prevalent within countries starting with the difficulties associated with getting a passport; its costs; the aura with which immigration officials attend to citizens who seek their services; the corruption in some cases and its inaccessibility especially to ordinary citizens who live in villages (who are the majority).

In part, that’s why travel to other countries is largely for government officials who are funded by the state or a few elite. Otherwise, the greater majority of citizens rarely get to travel with the exception of some who live near borders.

Those who try to travel have to pay exorbitant visa fees and meet requirements like hotel booking, (hotels the working class who travel in buses can’t be booked in online).

In fact, from personal experience and stories from family members and friends, I would say that it’s when one attempts to travel and requires documents to do so that you realise that you are truly “owned” by the state and its agents.

Yet, opening borders for Africans to move freely and trade is economically profitable to both the travellers and governments.

For instance, a 2016 Africa Development report shows that when travel restrictions and visa requirements were removed in Seychelles, tourism rose by seven per cent while travel to Rwanda by Africans increased by 22 per cent when it removed such restrictions in 2013.

In terms of numbers, by 2016, Rwanda’s cross-border trade with Uganda and Kenya increased by 50 per cent due to the removal of restrictions. But where restrictions exist, trade suffers as do relations between citizens.

Due to the benefits that free movement of people and goods bring to individuals and communities, Kagame suggests that even where there are quarrels between states, this shouldn’t affect this flow.

He observed: “You know, even countries may quarrel among themselves some even have gone to war, but the ordinary people don’t even understand why these quarrels exist. They don’t care. They try to survive.”

An example is the closure of the Burundian border to traffic from Rwanda when relations between the two countries were affected by the effects of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s quest for a third term.

As we speak, Burundians and Rwandans who used to travel and trade with each other no longer do so; businesses that were booming on the border closed down and everyone who depended on the open-border policy that existed before May 2015 when demonstrations and the failed coup against Nkurunziza took place are now suffering.

Reflectively, it’s as if the African state treats the citizen as hostages to the homeland.

This phenomenon of making it hard for citizens to access travel documents and travel; explore the continent and search for opportunities also highlights the bigger problem of why Africa remains poor and dependent on aid.

It’s impossible for a nation to develop if it can’t do “small” things like providing travel documents for its citizens just as it is difficult for nations on the continent to develop if Africans don’t travel freely.