Some passports are better

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Some passports are better


Nanjala Nyabola shows how some complicated systems in Africa work against the people and come from the colonial time.

I’ve been travelling around the world recently and seeing ‘passport privilege’ (the benefits that some people get in foreign countries because of their citizenship). The benefits can be like getting a visa when you arrive at the airport, not having to apply three months before. Or they can give people better treatment from police.

My British friends get their Kenyan visas on arrival, and they are often very surprised that, to get a UK visa, I have to send a 10-year travel history, three months of bank statements and health documentation, and other things. Some passports are better than others. And people like me with ‘weak’ passports know this.

And we also have many problems just to get our weak passports. I did a survey on Twitter to find out more. In Kenya we need a ‘recommender’ to support the passport application – this continues from colonial times. But in Tanzania, applicants must also send a letter from a local administrator and have all their documents checked by a lawyer. This, of course, costs more money. In Ethiopia you need a letter explaining why you need a passport. And in South Sudan someone told me they had to take a local elder to the application office to confirm their identity.

A lot of these complicated rules come from the colonial time, when Europeans tried to make the systems like Europe. One idea is the surname – a European idea (and also for Islamic communities) - always based on the line of the man. Many Africans alive today have never had a surname, because they don’t need one. They show their social position with a nickname or a name from a relative who has died.

In the Cold War period, many socialist countries were afraid that people would leave to capitalist countries, so they made it difficult to leave. They show how the government does not trust the people and the border is where they have control. Ethiopia has always controlled people leaving. But because of this, many people left during the Derg regime in the 1980s.

There are exceptions. In Namibia and Botswana, it is easier to get a passport. But mostly, an African passport gives least benefit for the citizen in their own country. The African Union is working on an African passport over the next 10 years. This should make it easier for all Africans to travel around the continent. And it will be interesting to see how these different systems come together.

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