Letter from Africa: Red tape and visas

Egyptian custom officials check passports and identity cards as travellers wait on Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing point on 10 August 2012

In our series of letters from African journalists, BBC Africa's Komla Dumor takes issue with the frustrations of the continent's bureaucracy.

A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with an Ethiopian businessman as I was sitting at a bar in a hotel in Addis Ababa.

He had come over and introduced himself, telling me that he was an exporter of meat products and business was going well.

I asked him where his major markets were; he responded: "Mainly the UAE and Gulf region."

What about other African countries I enquired.

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My first trip to Addis Ababa left me frustrated as I was pulled out of the line at immigration and subjected to pretty severe scrutiny by immigration officials”

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He gave me a quizzical look as if I was asking him a silly question.

He then explained why it was cheaper to send his products to the Gulf than across the border to another African country.

He gave me a long list of complaints from red tape bureaucracy to transportation costs and other "hidden fees".

Ironically he claimed that someone in the Gulf was re-exporting his meat with a different label to the African countries that he found too expensive to export to.

His sentiments are backed by numbers: Whereas roughly 60% of Europe's trade is with other European countries, only 12% of African trade is with other African countries.

I can relate to some of the issues my businessman friend raised.

Frank talk

I have had the pleasure of travelling to several nations across Africa - and each country has given me extraordinary experiences and there are many places that now really feel like home when I touch down: Johannesburg, Maputo, Nairobi or Lagos.

However the process of getting from point A to point B can still be a struggle.

Earlier this year I travelled to Morocco for a big African conference.

Everyone from politicians and economists to non-government activists and journalists gathered in Marrakesh for debates and discussions about Africa's future.

Ethiopia's stock exchange Ethiopia's booming economy will attract more foreign visitors

The week-long event was well attended and wonderfully engaging, with a lot of frank talk.

While the general tone of these discussions was quite optimistic there were some legitimate gripes.

One issue which was not the headline topic of any panel discussion but was talked about nevertheless was travelling in Africa.

Many of the participants narrated tales about how flying to parts of Africa meant a mandatory connecting flight through Europe.

Though the skies above the continent are opening up, the cost and complexity of air travel leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Then there is the additional layer of complexity when it comes to visa requirements.

Again I have had a wide range of experiences.

I am a Ghanaian; I hold a Ghanaian passport; I can travel freely within West Africa without needing a visa.

I can travel to Kenya and Tanzania without a visa; I need one for Uganda though.

Angola, Botswana and Mozambique also require a visa.

My first trip to Addis Ababa left me frustrated as I was pulled out of the line at immigration and subjected to pretty severe scrutiny by immigration officials.

My frustration was exacerbated as I watched "preferred passport holders" breeze through the process with welcoming smiles from immigration officials.

I have since returned to Addis many times and the kindness and generosity of Ethiopians has more than compensated for the immigration headaches.

Pioneering Rwanda

However, even for the places I like to visit for work or pleasure, the thought of applying for a visa is a turn-off.

I love South Africa for a whole range of reasons but every three months, I have to apply for a new visa which includes letters from my employers in London and the bureau in Johannesburg along with adequate evidence that I will return to London when I finish my assignment.

My British colleagues do not have that problem.

Change definitely seems to be on the horizon.

At the beginning of 2013, Rwanda took the extraordinary step of lifting pre-travel visa requirements for African travellers.

For me that is an extraordinary step: Arrive in Kigali; get a stamp in your passport; move on with your business.

The African Union celebrated 50 years of unity earlier this year and many agree that the movement of goods and people across borders is necessary to make the concept of unity more than just a conversation.

If you would like to comment on Komla Dumor's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Komla, your point is very clear and this is an African problem. The African immigration officer is always on the look out for money. Look at the situation at Aflao in Ghana. All people from Togo, Benin, Nigeria and the rest are forced paying 1,000 CFA to the Ghanaian Immigration staff despite the fact they have passports or national ID cards. Corruption is an African sickness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Good thoughts Komla, one of the very reasons why many Ghanaian / African residents in UK / US opt for Bristish or American citizenships. Its embarrasing to say the least. The earlier we appreciated ourselves, the better others will appreciate us.
    As the saying goes, when you go to a parlour with empty hands, you return with a goodbye slap.
    We treat ourselves right, and others will

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I feel your pain, Komla. This is one of the reasons why so many Africans will either ditch their citizenship altogether or go to dual citizenship where possible. Whereas a European passport is welcome, the African one is looked upon with scorn (or pity). That kind of treatment is not limited to Africa... it persists in the USA, in Europe...

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Don't be fooled by Rwanda's Paul Kagame. He want to diminish Hutu population dominance by actively importing and encouraging outsiders from settling in Rwanda

    Free travelling is good but in Rwanda, there are ulterior motives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Roughly four years ago I was on a coach from Dar es Salaam to Lusaka. When we arrived at the Tanz-Zam border myself and my fellow British friend had our visa granted an issued within 15 mins, which was actually embarrassing as many of our African fellow travellers had to wait hours for theirs and seemingly go through all manner of probing. It appears not much has changed in recent times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Very interesting article.
    I would be most grateful if you could also do an article on the difficulties to obtain African passports
    I am a Ghanaian in the USA and I have tried to renew my passport. It is difficult because the individuals at the embassy in Washington refuse to pick up, and they still issue the old format passport even though the biometric passports have been available since 2010

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    There were some good African leaders who wanted African people to feel free in Africa. Africans are missing these leaders! http://mycontinent.co/Heroes.php

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    But the main concern for many in Africa is transport, either by air, road and water. Its difficult to comprehend that to go to say Lagos from Dar es Salaam, we have to go to South Africa first and then to Nigeria! This has to change...

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    well i have never had the experience of traveling outside my country but i have from research i have seen and heard Africans who are strict on their borders do come to this part of ours without any difficulties. so why is it difficult when we also want to go to their country ?
    this must change

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    easing up travel requirements for Africans travelling withing Africa will consolidate regional integration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I worked for a christian students organisation in Nigeria a couple of years ago. I had the additional responsibility of organising travel visas for staff since I was in Lagos. It was easier to procure visas to European & other Western countries than fellow African nations especially southern and eastern African nations.This is not good enough travel within Africa must improve like in ECOWAS. Akin

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Rustrutt: Obviously, that there is no love lost between you & Nigeria. Nigeria is not even half the population of India or China. It may be the most populous country in Africa, it is not the world's most populous. There are more scammers in the West than in Nigeria or anywhere in Africa. Anyone greedy/gullible enough, wanting to share $millions with a Nigerian prince, have themselves to blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Visa requirements tend to restrict the free movement of people, especially, cross-border movement. The issue is this, how can governments separate the 'wolfs' from the 'sheep'?

    Were most of us not born free, but in chains everywhere?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Some of these Visa's are necessary.. u lift them and every Crazy Somali, Scamming Nigerian and economic Refugees from francophone west Africa to guns for hire from the Congo will be flooding and destabilizing countries like South Africa, Kenya, Mauritius and the likes.. Nigerians are bursting in at seams they are so many they could overpopulate your country in 5 minutes

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Dear Those In Power,

    Please give free movement to fellow Africans (follow the Rwanda example). Ease the sufferings of countrymen & solve the problem of so called "illegal" migration (within Africa) & boost our economies. Lift fellow Africans & lift your respective countries. Don't keep me out & hope I survive on aid. No one truly wants to leave fatherland & never returns.

    Long Live Africa

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Thanks for the article.
    I am Austrian and I travelled a few times in Eastern Afrika with a car .
    No one could tell me why Austrians cannot get Visas at the border to Malawi but all the other EU members can! Crossing borders into most of the countries is a big hassle because people looking for money and pull you around. Bad experience in Kenya, Mosambique, Tansania and Zambia. Good in Botswana.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Good observations. Things are gradually improving and the Rwanda plan should be embraced by the AU. West Africa is ok and flights abound. I tried the road trip recently from Ghana to Nigeria, crossing Togo and Benin. While it took much longer than I thought, the border crossings were ok. The bus company sorted it all out and the worst we did was to come down, walk across and get back into our bus.


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