Abolishment of visa requirements for African holders of diplomatic and official passports: Is it a symbolic gesture or a significant policy pronouncement? Namibia has announced the abolishment of visa requirements for African holders of diplomatic and official passports in May 2016. The announcement was made immediately after the celebration of Africa Day on 25 May 2016, which is a public holiday in Namibia. This article asks whether the announcement was a symbolic gesture or a significant policy shift asserting solidarity and unity of the African people. To answer the question, one has to review some legal instruments that speak to regional integration, solidarity and unity of the African people. One of the objectives of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), as contained in the Declaration Treaty and Protocol of SADC, is to “strengthen and consolidate the long standing historical, social and cultural affinities and links among the peoples of the Region.”
This objective presupposes established social and cultural affinities between the peoples of Southern Africa. Against this background, any immigration policy that hinders free movement of people in Southern Africa denies the existence of social and cultural bonds between the peoples of Southern Africa. It is also important to recall that the current borders in Africa are imagined inventions of colonial expansionism. They were designed to serve the purpose of divide and rule. Heads of African States and Government in signing the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Charter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on the 25th of May 1963, stated the following in the preamble of the Charter: “Inspired by a common determination to promote understanding among our peoples and cooperation among States in response to the aspirations of our peoples for brotherhood and solidarity, in a larger unity transcending ethnic and national differences.”
I argue that unity of the African people and cooperation cannot be realised, if the necessary conditions facilitating their free movement are not in place. Many people who have travelled in Africa will testify how difficult it is for Africans both in Africa and Africans in the diaspora to travel on the continent. By virtue of being an African, you are always a suspect and have to explain to the immigration officials time and again the purpose of your visit, the person you are visiting and the cash at hand. People from European or Asian descent who are together with you in the same line are not asked the humiliating questions, but welcomed with smiles. They are treated humanely as experts or investors coming to Africa with bags full of money to create employment for “our people.” Many immigration officials in Africa are notorious for dehumanising African peoples. African Member States will not realise “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in global arena” in our lifetime, if African people feel like aliens. Africa, as stipulated in the objectives of the AU needs to achieve greater unity and solidarity between the States and the peoples of Africa. Promoting free movement of the African people is one of the contributions to the unity of the African people. The ideology of Pan-Africanism, which was very strong in the 1960s needs revitalisation. Political and socio-economic integration of Africa is not possible, if the necessary conditions do not exit to facilitate free movement of people, goods and services. I am not naïve, however, to suggest free movement without the necessary systems, processes and capabilities to detect people with ill-intentions in the era of international terrorism. The solution in my view is not necessarily restricting free movement of people, but to have effective systems, processes and capabilities to deal with the threats of international terrorism both at our ports of entry and in our countries.
Against the background of the objectives of the legal documents that I have referred to, I argue that the abolishment of visa requirements for African holders of diplomatic and official passport is not a symbolic gesture, but a very important public policy pronouncement. It is actually an obligation in terms of the SADC Treaty, the OAU Charter and the Constitutive Act of the AU to give practical meaning to solidarity and the unity of the African people. I hope that it will apply in due course to holders of ordinary passports and Africans in the diaspora. First impressions and experiences are important in human interactions. The way forward for Namibia in my view in addition to abolishment of certain categories of visa requirements, is to make the post designation of Immigration Officials a lucrative career path where only the best should be appointed and not an occupation of last resort. Secondly, Africa, including Namibia needs to pay attention to education programmes dealing with the decolonisation of the minds where everything African is regarded as bad and backward. We need to instil the values of Pan-Africanism and unity. Africans need to internalise why Africa as a continent and the African people need to integrate. We need to be conscious at all times that our individual neo-colonial States are weak and insignificant in the global arena. The unity of the people whose history, consciousness and culture derives from the African continent is the basis of the socio-economic emancipation of the African continent. The abolishment of visa requirements for African holders of diplomatic and official passports was indeed a profound public policy pronouncement and not a symbolic gesture.
Marius Kudumo is the Director of International Relations at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. He holds a Master of Policy Studies degrees specializing in International Relations from the Southern African Regional Institute for Policy Studies in Zimbabwe.