Op-ed: Not yet quite one

Paula Akugizibwe was thrilled to receive her new East African Community passport, issued by the Rwandan government. Preparing to use it for the first time, however, brought on new anxieties.

Collective Media
Jan 15, 2020 · 5 min read
Unified passports are gaining traction across the continent but cannot override deeper barriers to free movement (Image: Paula Akugizibwe)

Newly arrived, my passport is sleek; sky blue, with “East African Community” (EAC) emblazoned in gold on the cover — as will now be the case for all ordinary passports issued in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and my home country of Rwanda. The biodata page is made of stiff plastic and contains an electronic chip with identifying biological information: iris scans and fingerprints. Beneath the EAC lettering is the emblem of the specific country to which the passport holder belongs. Because, although we might be together, we are not yet quite one.

I am as thrilled to receive the passport as I am anxious about my first trip with it. Final destination? Kampala, Uganda. Reason for visit? To see Akiiki, a family member recently returned from prolonged medical treatment in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was unable to visit her. Since tensions flared up between South Africa and Rwanda in 2014, the embassy in Kigali has kept its visa section closed, effectively prohibiting any Rwandan without a diplomatic passport from entering South Africa.

“Just pray,” said the pleasant woman on the phone when I called in the early days of the standoff to enquire if or when visa processing would resume.

Four years later, during a visit to Rwanda for the African Union (AU) summit that launched the Continental Free Trade Area, newly inaugurated Cyril Ramaphosa declared that the visa situation should be “considered solved”. But while diplomats of both countries continue to enjoy free movement and cheery photo ops, ordinary Rwandans have been barred from South Africa for almost six years now.

The standoff did not trouble me at first; until Akiiki, who has a Ugandan passport, had to spend five months in South Africa for major surgery and cancer treatment. Instead of accompanying her to gruelling medical procedures, sharing hugs or holding hands, my support was confined to WhatsApp chats or joining oncologist appointments via speakerphone. I dared to hope that the bureaucracy of borders would yield to my needs.

Instead I was left regretting my past reluctance to yield to the bureaucracy.

I could have applied for permanent residency during my 15 years in South Africa, if only I hadn’t been put off by the hostility of the Home Affairs department. I could have applied for a visa through the embassy in Kampala, if only I hadn’t quit the process of renewing my Ugandan passport years ago; discouraged by the lengthy list of requirements for a dual-citizenship certificate, which ranged from psychiatric evaluation to Interpol clearance. For neighbouring countries with intermingled histories and bloodlines, these hurdles to holding both Rwandan and Ugandan citizenship seemed irrational, especially in a region whose progress towards integration has been ranked as the most advanced on the continent.

Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya have significantly relaxed work permit requirements for each other’s nationals, including waiving all fees. They offer a joint East African tourist visa to encourage wider travel within the region. Citizens of the three countries no longer need passports to move between them: national IDs, voter’s cards or student cards can be used to cross borders. And now we have the EAC passport, which has been hailed as a milestone for regional harmonisation. But harmonisation does not mean harmony.

My reunion with Akiiki is clouded by the Rwandan government’s recent travel advisory against its citizens going to Uganda, following months of growing tensions between the two countries. Family and friends on both sides worry when I tell them about my planned trip.

“Don’t go,” they warn me in Kigali.

“Don’t come,” they urge me from Kampala.

When I insist, my mother turns to the only authority she believes can guarantee safe travels.

“We will pray,” she says. “You’ll be fine.”

And I am.

My experience, although frustrating, is on the mild end of the range of problems that Africans have faced when moving around the continent. The past few years have brought a wave of integration activities wrapped in pan-African rhetoric. Movement is easier than ever before, though still not easy, according to the 2019 Visa Openness report. One in four countries now offer visas-on-arrival to anyone with an African passport.

Meanwhile the long-awaited AU passport, which would do away with visas altogether, lingers in the background, only accessible to diplomats who needed no visas anyway. Four years after its launch, roll-out to the masses has been slated for 2020. It remains to be seen if and how a unified passport can work around the cracks in our aspirational togetherness.

The AU has developed tools to capture these complexities in neat numbers: systems to measure the status of integration, indexes that calculate composite scores to rank how naughty or nice countries have been to fellow African travellers. But, as my experience reminded me, the real issues lie between the lines of sleek graphs and ticked-off indicators.

Pan-Africanism is not birthed by institutions and frameworks, though these may be necessary facilitators. It is not a lack of tools that has impeded unity all these years, but the jagged histories that drive rifts between us, breaking down trust and solidarity, and that those shaping the rules are often insulated from the consequences of their decisions.

There are no 10-point plans for these realities; just a bureaucrat on the other end of the phone saying: “Just pray.”

Akugizibwe is a Rwandan-Ugandan writer.

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