*By Paul Ejime
President John Dramani Mahama in a State of the Nation address to mark Ghana’s 59th independence anniversary on 6th March 2016 made two important pronouncements with foreign relations implications.
The first was his government’s plan to improve the knowledge and usage of French language in Anglophone Ghana, which is surrounded by French speaking nations. The advantages of this strategic initiative if effectively implemented are many.
The second policy statement of international import, but which almost escaped media attention is that, starting next July citizens of the other 53 Member States of the African Union (AU) can “obtain visas on arrival (in Ghana) with the option of staying for up to 30 days.” President Mahama expects this measure to stimulate air travel, trade, investment and tourism in Ghana which, like many other African countries is going through a difficult economic patch.
Historically, this should not be a big deal in Africa that prides itself as the Land of Hospitality, where the people are their brother’s and sister’s keeper. In fact, Ghana’s independence President Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, had boasted on 6th March 1957 when the then Gold Coast became independent Ghana that “…our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”
To his credit, under Nkrumah and until his overthrow in the coup of 24 February 1966, Ghana granted visa exemptions to "persons of African descent" born in the neighbouring West African countries, and members of the Casablanca Group – Guinea, Tunisia, Mali, United Arab Republic, Morocco and Algeria – which along with the Liberia Group, formed the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, with the Pan-Africanist Ghanaian leader playing a leading role. In his 1961 book, I Speak of Freedom, Nkrumah had also expressed the hope that: …the African race, united under one federal government, will emerge not as just another world bloc to flaunt its wealth and strength, but as a Great Power whose greatness is indestructible because it is built not on fear, envy and suspicion, nor won at the expense of others, but founded on hope, trust, friendship and directed to the good of all mankind.”
But so much has happened with the concept of a United States of Africa, which took its origin from the 1924 poem “Hail, United States of Africa” by Marcus Garvey, American civil rights activist and great Pan-Africanist. The late Libyan leader Muoamar Gaddafi had romanced with the same idea in his relentless push for the formation of the AU, which succeeded the OAU in 2002, and many still talk with passion about the African Renaissance.
As expected the AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has lauded Ghana’s visa-on-arrival plan, expressing the hope that “many other African countries will follow suit, in the interest of achieving an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa.”
Modern Africa owes a debt of eternal gratitude to Pan-Africanists and independent leaders such as Nkrumah, for their sacrificial struggles, so any initiative that seeks to rekindle the dreams of those founding fathers must be welcomed by all true Africans and friends of Africa. But it is a strong indictment on the continent’s post-independent leadership that almost 60 years after many of the countries gained political freedom, Africans are more divided than ever. Africa is not zero-poor, but with the mismanagement of its rich human and natural resources, bad governance, corruption and the vicious circle of social strife, poverty and unemployment, there are today more skilled Africans in Europe, and the Americas than are in their home countries. And almost on a daily basis thousands of disillusioned, hopeless and desperate African youths risk their lives on perilous journeys to Europe.
It is no longer news that Africa and Africans are fast losing their unique identity if they have not already done so, with Pan-Africanism now at best a slogan to the inattentive ears of present generation of Africans. Not a few African leaders have proclaimed or still proclaim Africa as the centre piece of their national foreign policy. But the reality today is that while they continue to pay lip service to African unity, most of these leaders, under the guise of solving domestic problems, many of which are self-inflicted any way, steal their countries dry to build personal castles at home and abroad.
Ghana’s visa-on-arrival plan for AU citizens may also be viewed against the deafening complaints by African citizens about the difficulties and humiliations they suffer to obtain visas for Europe and the US. But the truth is that the process for obtaining visas to African countries is no less laborious and frustrating. For many Africans, travelling in the continent whether by road or by air is a nightmarish experience. In some cases air fares cost more than elsewhere while immigration and check points punctuate the transnational roads, some of which are in terrible conditions, with the attendant extortion of travellers by the border security personnel. The travel delays and the lack of deliberate pan-African national policies have ensured that intra-African trade hovers between 10% and 12% compared to 40% in North America and 60% in Western Europe.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) founded in 1975 deserves commendation for its 1979 flagship Protocol on Free Movement of persons, goods and services, rights to Establishment and Residence, which guarantees community citizens, a free-visa entry and stay in countries other than their own for 90 days at first instance. In spite of its imperfections, the implementation of this protocol is a major stride towards regional integration and makes ECOWAS the only Regional Economic Community (REC) with a free-visa regime. In fact, in the whole of Africa, it is only the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean off East Africa, with a population of less than 90,000 people, which grants visa free access to all foreign nationals.
Time was when Africans took refuge and were even provided the national passports of their host African countries during the independence struggles. Hundreds even received free education in their host countries during the Anti-Apartheid era. But with globalization and world economic crisis African migrants who once constituted the bulwark of economic development on the continent, have become targets of violent xenophobic attacks by fellow Africans who accuse them of stealing their jobs.
If Europe is accused of erecting walls/fences to stop immigrants, African countries are no less guilty for the erection of invisible walls against fellow Africans even in their times of need.
With their ill-gotten wealth and multiple foreign visas, many African leaders and members of their families flaunt their ostentatious life styles abroad, while the majority of Africans are stranded and condemned to abject poverty at home. The same leaders bemoan capital flight and brain-drain from Africa but do very little or nothing to incentivise or create the enabling environment to retain local capital or manpower. Instead, they encourage the mass exodus of Africa’s best brains; discourage foreign investment and incite social crisis that cause death, destruction and render citizens, refugees in their own countries. With their dual/multiple nationalities, these unpatriotic leaders easily disappear with their families to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth abroad. And unsatisfied with presiding over comatose or non-existent local health systems, these selfish leaders are now promoting medical tourism at the expense of their own countries.
As things stand, every African must undertake a serious realty check to determine their Africanness and how they have derailed the lofty dreams of African founding fathers, for the purpose of damage control/limitation. Symbolic as Ghana’s visa-on-arrival initiative may seem, it is a reminder to Africans in general about where they are coming from. The AU and various Pan-Africanist groups/institutions and policy think-tanks must wake up from their slumber. It is bad enough that through slavery, colonial and neo-colonial exploitations and plundering, Africa’s sweat, blood and wealth were used to lay the foundations for the industrialisation and transformation of many countries in Europe and the Americas. For Africans themselves to now become champions of Africa’s disunity/disintegration, and the continued siphoning of the continent’s resources, is an unpardonable crime against humanity.
According to Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” It is not enough for Africans to know their history and culture; or to continue to blame others for their woes, they must use that knowledge strategically to work for the good of present and future generations.
*Ejime is a Media/Communications Consultant