The African Union passport and dreams of democratic mobility

The African Union passport and dreams of democratic mobility


On mobility, democracy and making a decolonized future for Africa.


Image credit Riccardo Palazzani via Flickr (CC).

During the 32nd Summit of the African Union (AU), in early February, delegates unveiled logistical details on the issuance of the AU passport. The travel document is scheduled for wide release in 2020 and will give citizens of member states the right to travel across the continent without a visa. The passport is the first step towards implementing Agenda 2063, a “strategic framework” designed to accelerate socio-economic growth through the sustainable expansion of domestic industries, transportation and communication infrastructures, and democratic governance—all of which could make Africa feel like a single country.

A number of prominent Africans have already been issued with the passport (which has been in use since 2016 for government officials and other dignitaries). Recently, a few of these have complained that it doesn’t allow visa-free travel to all AU member states. So, it would be easy to dismiss the new passport and Agenda 2063 as quixotic, attempting the impossible given the continent’s current politics and bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Nevertheless, this passport and the potential for a truly mobile continent could also subvert historical and contemporary knowledge that considers African nation-states as over-determined by their colonial history and lack of democratic longevity. As the chaos of Brexit, Trump’s America, and France’s Yellow Vests escalates; the West has finally realized what Africans already knew: liberal democracy is a highly unstable system of government. All the protests, uprisings, foreign government interference, xenophobic violence, routinized gender violence, ethnic/regional conflicts, and detention camps is what democracy looks like.

During 20th century struggles for liberation, Africans endured political chaos at the hands of Western democratic governments. Sixty years later, the same type of chaos has created an existential crisis in the West and produced debates on democracy’s future survival. In the first decades of decolonization, liberation leaders worked to resolve a fundamental contradiction:  how to extend freedom, equality, and prosperity to all its citizens. But given the political and economic failures of the post-independence era; “decolonization” and “decolonial” have taken on new meanings.

Today, decolonization is more than the removal of foreign bodies from demarcated places; it is also working towards the subversion of Euro-American modernity and the epistemic violence that erased, silenced, or distorted modes of communal organization and knowledge from indigenous communities. While decolonial social movements have made tremendous strides within academic communities and popular culture, most famously during South Africa’s #FeesMustFall movement, it has been more difficult to translate such subversion into a radical disruption of politics that can articulate a viable alternative to liberal democracy and the nation-state. Even though decolonial movements highlight how the historic freedom of the West and the nation-state was/is constituted through the unfreedom of communities both within and beyond its borders; the only practical solution today is to fully incorporate the unfree into the democratic governments that most affect their life. Ironically, this incorporation will require the West to be decolonized.

Immediately after World War II but before the independence movements in Africa and the Caribbean, Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal proposed to forego national independence and endorsed a radical interpretation of the French Union. They advocated remaining part of a French Union that would incorporate colonial outposts as equal states in a federation with France.

Their goal, Gary Wilder argues, was for Africans and Afro-descendants to decolonize France. A process that would have compelled the French to take direct responsibility for their imperial (mis)adventures and realize Africans’ humanity.  While Césaire’s and Senghor’s proposals were considered counter to an authentic African identity; when juxtaposed with debates about Afro-French identity after the 2018 World Cup, their goals now appear more radical than national independence. By suggesting that the political chaos in the West is part of a decolonization process, there is a tacit realization that there never could be a satisfactory apology or financial settlement for colonialism. Rather a sustainable form of justice begins with humble acts that are within our reach, such as the recovery of silenced and distorted histories, cosmologies, and knowledge from the colonial era that can disrupt contemporary politics and inspire the future.

Mobility, the Wits University social theorist Achille Mbembe suggests, is perhaps the greatest chance to generate societal transformation as the quest to survive compels novel engagements with others, which can eventually lead to new modes of being. It is hard to appreciate the radical potential of mobility from a 21st century vantage point, given the slow march of time and the urgency placed on African states to deliver justice now. But we often forget how movement is an essential practice of life, especially in Africa where geography, urban design, and infrastructure make long journeys essential for survival.

The AU passport simply expands the scope of where one can travel and live a democratic life—a life in which migrants engage with their new communities and together they shape their future survival. Decolonizing Africa’s future is a move towards dismantling expectations that assumed African states would replicate their colonial forebears; and rehabilitate innovate ideas that sought to transcend the reproduction of Africans’ subjugation. Even though the AU passport and African integration appear as a consequence of the 21st century, African integration as a political future dates back to 1924 with Marcus Garvey’s poem Hail! United States of Africa and his goal of returning Afro-descendants to Africa. Another node in the African integration genealogy is Muammar al-Gaddafi’s goal to introduce a continental currency and incorporate Caribbean states into the AU.

Finally, there are new possibilities of incorporating the diaspora given Ghana’s right of abode.  Ultimately, the emergence of the AU passport, at a time of global democratic crisis, translates the pragmatic goals of easier travel, trade, and migration into a new decolonized future for Africa and its diaspora. A future that will come, in part, due to the failures of Euro-American modernity.


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