14 June 2017

Note: This article first appeared on the Economist

BY 2063, according to the African Union’s (AU) rather long-range prediction, Africa will be “a continent of seamless borders”. People, capital, goods and services will flow freely from South Africa to Tunisia and from Senegal to Somalia. Europe’s frontier-free Schengen area may be creaking under the strain of migration and terror, but another will arise, this one encompassing a continent of more than 1.2bn people. Last year, with that goal in mind, the AU boldly introduced a single African passport. The first recipients were two of the continent’s most powerful strongmen: Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, and Chad’s president, Idriss Déby.

For now, however, crossing borders remains a painful experience for most Africans. The World Bank estimates that intra-African trade is more expensive, all things considered, than trade in any other region. According to Anabel Gonzalez, senior director of a World Bank group on trade and competitiveness, one African supermarket chain reports that it spends $20,000 every week to get import permits for meat, milk and other goods in one country alone; every day one of its lorries is held up at a border costs it $500. On average, Africans need a visa to travel to 54% of the continent’s countries; it’s easier for Americans to travel around Africa than it is for Africans themselves. So far, the AU has issued its single African passport only to heads of state and senior AU officials.

But in the past year things have improved a little, according to a new report from the African Development Bank. Africans now need visas to travel to slightly fewer countries than they did in 2015, and 13 African countries now offer electronic visas, up from 9 the previous year. Ghana made the most progress: in 2016 the government announced that it would provide visas on arrival for citizens of every AU member state, while offering entirely visa-free travel to 17 African countries, including the 14 other members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The Seychelles is still the only country on the continent to offer visa-free access to all Africans. (An archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it is a haven for well-heeled tourists but hard to get to if you are poor.)

Elsewhere, progress has been patchy. Less than a quarter of African countries provide “liberal access”—meaning visa-free travel or at least visas on arrival—to all African citizens, and most of the continent’s richest countries tend to be more restrictive. War-torn central Africa remains the most closed region; east and west Africa have opened up the most