Borderless Africa: Free movement in Africa is a step towards complete decolonisation

Politics and Society

Borderless Africa: Free movement in Africa is a step towards complete decolonisation

Rapid decolonisation is a prerequisite for African emancipation, and Free Movement is a great step towards that.

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From 29th to 31st August 2022, Africans Rising held the All-African Movement Assembly (AAMA), a hybrid gathering of more than 600 movement leaders, activists, Pan-Africanists and change agents. I was leading the coordination and organising of the whole event under the supervision of then movement co-coordinators, Mohammed Lamin Saidykhan and Coumba Toure. As part of my duties prior to the main event, I had to deal with visas for people to enter Tanzania where the Assembly was to be held. An experience from this role turned out to be one of the key highlights of the event for me. One of my colleagues was travelling to Tanzania with three children, one of whom had an American passport while the other two had Senegalese passports. You won’t believe this, but the one with an American passport found it easier to enter Tanzania than the rest. We went through so much just to get visas for the two because of their Senegalese passports. And this was not isolated. At least 13 African countries need a pre-entry visa to enter Tanzania. 

Unsurprisingly, one of the popular sentiments prevalent among the participants was the notion of borderless Africa. This idea itself found its way onto the program only because the series of Pre-Assembly regional consultative convenings revealed it as one of the key issues Africans Rising’s members wanted to discuss . It was an obvious choice for at least two reasons – first because of the difficulties many people faced to travel to Tanzania, the land of Julius Nyerere, and second, the long-held vision passed from earlier generations of a united, prosperous Africa. The former perhaps showed the wisdom of the latter as many began to recount the hurdles, they faced trying to travel from one African country to another. In fact, some could not even attend just because of visa issues.

Come to think of it; the way these divisive borders are guarded and defended makes one wonder if policymakers in Africa remember the historicity of the borderlines. It was in the Berlin conference of 1884-85 that European colonialists began the process of carving out the continent and dividing it among themselves with arbitrary borders that gave no consideration to the people of Africa then living on the territories they were taking. In fact, none of those colonialists had ever even been to Africa to see how the people lived. This action divided families, ethnic groups, and large polities, which hitherto either lived together or maintained close relationships. For example, in West Africa, the borderlines between Benin-Niger and Benin-Nigeria divided cultural areas such as the Hausa, Fulani, Gourmantche, Adja, Yoruba and Bariba among the three countries. The Adja and Gourmanche are further divided by the Benin-Togo and Benin-Burkina Faso borders respectively. In Southern Africa, the Tonga and Subiya were divided by the Botswana-Zambia border, the Va-Kalanga, Babirwa etc by the Botswana-Zimbabwe border and the Ba-tswana between the Botswana-South Africa border to name a few. These are just a few of the cultural areas arbitrarily divided by the borders. (For a more expansive list, see Asimaju’s Partitioned Culture Areas: a Checklist). For the colonialists, their commercial and other interests trumped everything. The direct colonial rule that followed from the partition cemented the domination of the people’s social, political, economic, and cultural systems for so long that even after political independence was regained, the legacy of colonialism remains till date and shapes decision-making and the interactions between the people and the institutions.

The legacy of colonialism remains till date and shapes decision-making and the interactions between the people and the institutions

After the AAMA, the participants dedicated themselves to run a post-event campaign on borderless Africa, advocating for connections between Africans across the arbitrary borders to build more solidarity and fellow feeling. Other campaigns that were hatched concerned gender justice, economic justice, climate justice etc. We subsequently launched the first pillar of the campaign – the People’s Petition for Borderless Africa and are currently in the process of deploying volunteers across the 55 African countries to reach millions with the message.

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Two people shaking hands across Ghana/Cote D’Voire border. Credit: Les Ethnies De La Cote D’ivoire Et D’afrique

If one analyses critically, drawing from historical facts, it is apparent that the present injustices and systemic oppression in Africa, and indeed the rest of the so-called Global South are the effects of the continuing domination of systems and structures by neo-colonial ideology. The outcomes of the former are dictated by the interests of the latter. Much of the institutions, structures, and knowledge processes are still to this day designed and function for the purpose of extracting economic value for the richest while the rest are poor and subjugated. Lack of economic independence seems to be eroding the gains of freedom. Unaccountable governance and leadership continues while the comity of nations selectively supports or condemns based on what best serves their interests.

The struggle for decolonisation certainly acknowledges the deep-seated nature of the structures and institutions and the difficulty in eradicating them because they are so intangible and yet their effects are so real, excruciating and long lasting. Perhaps one of the most concrete of the remaining legacies of colonialism are the borders still dividing African countries. On a daily basis, African people struggle to trade across these borders. Maintaining these borders means travelling between African countries remains very difficult with visa restriction and border controls. Not being able to move freely between territories, people in different countries rarely know about one another and this significantly limits solidarity. When something is happening in Togo or Benin, Ghanaians hardly even know of it, nor do they show much solidarity when they do know.

It also limits trade amongst us. Intra-African trade is the lowest among all regions, 15% as opposed to 60% in Europe and 45% in Asia according to UNCTAD estimates. The effects on the African economy are obvious. On the other hand, a lot of studies have shown how free movement can unlock the African economy through increased trade, labour mobility, cross-border infrastructure, and security. 

Part of decolonisation is to remove these barriers erected between Africans and allow us to express ourselves freely through mobility. An African from Senegal should not need a visa to travel to Tanzania. Likewise, an African from Ghana must not need a visa to travel to South Africa. With free movement, we would be able to move several steps towards total liberation and unification. It will also catalyse trade, employment and boost the economies of Africa. Realising this, the African Union adopted a protocol on free movement in 2018. But it requires 15 ratifications to come into force. So far only four (4) countries have ratified it – Niger, Rwanda, Mali, Sao Tome and Principe. At this rate (that is 1 ratification per year), it will take another decade before the protocol kicks into effect. If we recognise the urgency of decolonisation, then we must not wait upon the snail-paced evolution of history. We must be prepared to give history a revolutionary push. We hope to use the #BorderlessAfrica campaign for that push.

Hardi Yakubu, Movement Coordinator, Africans Rising

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