Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
I recently transited through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on an overseas trip. I had a good seven hours to kill before embarking on my on-ward flight.
Now, I have a friend in Addis. I thought this would be a great chance to catch up on some gossip and all that.
In my naivety I assumed I could just step off the plane, get out into town, see the friend and return to the airport to hop back on the connecting flight to continue with my trip. We are in Africa, anyway, and, by jove, Addis is supposed to be the capital of Africa since that is where the African Union is domiciled.
But I had a rude awakening when I learnt that it may not be as easy. I needed to first go to the nearest Ethiopian embassy – Dar es Salaam, in my case; pay a non-refundable US $20, fill out a complicated form justifying why I needed to get out of BoleInternationalAirport, and wait for the approval or disapproval of the visa.
My friend, too, needed at least a week to alert the Ethiopian Foreign Affairs ministry that he was going to receive a visitor, and request permission for the same. All this just for my seven-hour visit to Addis!
And here is where it gets funny! My friend told me I would only be exempted this rigmarole if I held a UK or US passport. In that case, I would simply step off the plane, be given a visa (well, at the exchange of US $20, of course!) and disappear into the dusty streets of Addis, done and dusted, fair and square!
Oh, my good God! You must be joking! I mused. How could that be? I thought we are in the African Union? Why do we need a continental body if not for the easiness in the movement of people, goods and services? How should non-Africans find it easy to enter an African country while it is almost impossible for an African to do the same?
By the way, is Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, not where the African Union has its headquarters and, therefore, the de facto capital of the continent? What happened to pan-Africanism?
All this against the backdrop of summit after summit where the 52 men and (now) two women (one of whom our own) who lead us year in, year out meeting at the edifice bequeathed to us by the Chinese agreeing on plans to integrate the continent better.
Are we not in the middle of celebrating 50 years of the African Union with the tired refrain of pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance playing on everybody’s lips? What is all that jazz about if not for me to feel African in any African state I visit?
I have been privileged to travel through continental blocs in Europe and North America. If I have a Schengen visa, for example, I can jump on a train from Brussels to Geneva, Paris to London, Berlin to Madrid without much bother.
By the way, I later returned to Addis last week with a ‘proper’ Ethiopian visa. My business took me to the African Union headquarters where I engaged Jean-Baptiste Natama, Chief of Staff of the African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Now, Ambassador Natama is an interesting, lively and engaging guy. But when I asked him why, as an African, it was difficult for me to move from one African country to another while it was easy for me to jump from one European border to the next as long as I have a proper visa, he was rather tongue-tied.
Indeed, I asked Natama why is it easy for an American or a Briton to enter Addis while, for me – an African, I not only need a visa but also have to endure a barrage of sometimes embarrassing questions before I am granted leave to proceed.
“We understand the need for persons, goods and services to move freely on the continent,” Ambassador Natama told me. “We are working on it.”
And you are surprised that most Africans have a negative view of the African Union and dismiss African leaders as having no desire to make the continent a better place for all? If they ever attempt to make it some better place, then it must be for themselves and their families and cronies!
May be we should have embraced Muammar Gaddafi’s crazy idea of turning Africa into one single state with him at the helm? Maybe then it would have been easier to drive from Lilongwe through Harare to Johannesburg, up to Nairobi and Kampala ending up in Cairo, without hassles?
Africans fought for independence as a larger continental struggle to free all African people. Independence for the continent was achieved through active solidarity that was manifest in deeds and actions. Leaders in the struggle had a sense for the African identity and thought not only on a continental level but also beyond the geographical boundaries of the continent.
That is why black people in North America, Europe and the Caribbean were part of the pan-African consciousness. Their pan-African consciousness manifested itself not only in their skin colour, but by histories of oppression and a legacy of resistance.
But looking at the state of African integration today, it seems pan-Africanism took one step forward and three steps backward.
The other day I happened to be on a plane with an African cattle rancher who told me that it was cheaper for him to ship his beef into the European Union market than through chain-stores Shoprite or Spurs in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Lusaka or Dar es Salaam because of punitive levies and taxes.
Where is the fabled integration when we cannot visit or trade with each other easily?
Indeed, just why do I require a visa and several questions to visit an African country? And yet we talk about integration daily!