Before the 1885 Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa into exploitable colonies, Africans were "lexgens sans frontiers" - people without borders.
They did not know any borders until after the Berlin Conference that carved the continent according to Europe's whims under the guise of establishing formal states. After Africa attained political independence, the crusade for a United States of Africa began in earnest.
Kwame Nkrumah, the founding father of the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union), mooted the idea, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi pursued it vigorously and the AU meeting in Sirte, Libya, last month embraced the first giant step towards real continental unity. AU leaders resolved to introduce a uni-visa system that would facilitate the free movement of people across the continent.
This move would not only boost trade, but would also enhance communication and strengthen continental integration. The system has been in place in other regions such as the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the European Union (EU) where it reaped economic, social and political benefits for member states.
The EU has fostered unity since 1952, to the extent of introducing a single currency, the euro, which is speeding up economic development. Ecowas, on the other hand, has already opened borders in West Africa. Southern African Development Community (Sadc) countries agreed to speedily implement the uni-visa system. In fact, South Africa and Mozambique have already worked out modalities to enable their citizens to cross borders without visas, and Zimbabwe and Mozambique have also signed an agreement to this effect.
Africa can consolidate its power through integration of ideas, creation of one military force and one currency that would go a long way in asserting the sovereignty of the continent. The borders that African states have were carved by colonial powers to avoid conflicts at the feeding trough; but effectively delayed Africa's independence through divide and rule.
Though the Berlin Conference managed to avert settler conflicts, the colonial legacy that divided nationalities between countries like Chad and Sudan, Nigeria and Cameroon, Namibia and Angola, and Malawi and Zambia has at times brewed potentially disastrous conflicts, some of which degenerated into civil wars that retarded development.
The uni-visa system will be implemented at pilot or regional level before it spreads throughout the continent, and observers say that regional member states should be wary of the price of integration, which might see countries with strong economies like South Africa ending up with net immigration. Fear of this development forced Britain to remain outside the euro zone However, Sadc has already made huge strides towards free movement as cross-border truck drivers have been using uni-visas for sometime now.
Like what has been done with the Sadc driver's licence, there are plans to introduce a regional identity card that would allow easy monitoring of cross-border movement. All these moves will have positive spin-offs for tourism, which is incidentally the world's largest and fastest growing industry.
Sadc's immense tourism potential can only be fully tapped through greater integration. In 2003 alone, Sadc received 13,5 million tourists. However, the numbers would be much bigger if factors influencing tourist arrivals and expenditure are made more conducive. The scraping of visa requirements will also promote international tourism and, in turn, boost tourism revenue.
The common visa system is predicated on the principle that the easier a country is to visit, the greater the number of tourists. While the introduction of the uni-visa system is welcome, efforts should be made to mitigate the evils of cross-border crime as well as xenophobia, since nationals of one country may feel threatened by immigrants from other countries. If the uni-visa system is not properly implemented, it can worsen cross-border crimes like human and drug trafficking, car thefts and smuggling by criminals taking advantage of free passage.
There is need for the creation of a regional police force along the lines of Interpol. Cross-border crime has been a problem for Ecowas and the EU. Sadc countries must work towards the harmonisation of law enforcement to prevent the scourge.
There is also need to agree on certain principles before implementation. Immigration laws should be harmonised and entry points computerised. Most of the region's border posts use archaic manual methods, which need to be modernised for efficiency.
A centralised immigration database and training schemes for immigration and customs officials are also essential. Examination of immigration legislation and regulations of each member state will also need to be undertaken to come up with a timetable for the harmonisation of regulations and application forms for single and multi-destination travel within Sadc.
There is also need to agree on the format of a regional uni-visa sticker or stamp that will replace stamps of member states. On account of Africa's socio-cultural and economic dynamics, the uni-visa will be an excellent instrument in the promotion of economic development, understanding and goodwill and foster close relations between African people.
It is disheartening that in spite of the great promise that Africa has for economic unity, most of the potential remains un-or-underdeveloped, and thus does not contribute to the continent's economic growth. Since Africa in general and Sadc in particular will host the 2010 Fifa World Cup, the uni-visa would facilitate the free movement of tourist and football fans. Unhindered movement of people also paves way for the introduction of a single currency that would, in turn, stabilise the region's economies.
Africa's full potential can only be achieved through the collective and concerted action of all states by evolving clearly defined policies and strategies for development. Since the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the uni-visa is the first tentative stride that should translate into a giant leap for a United States of Africa.