East African Community citizens will have to wait longer for “smart” national and regional passports as member states lag a year behind schedule in delays that highlight the obstacles facing joint issuance of travel documents in Africa.
East African Community partner states were supposed to begin issuing e-passports at the beginning of this year. However, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya have said that they cannot begin this process until later this year while Tanzania has said it will start in 2018. Burundi has made the most progress having completed the process of procuring the e-passport booklets.
A council of ministers meeting last week agreed to give the region until January 2018 to begin issuing the passports.
“The council noted the importance of commencing the issuance of the EA e-passports at the same time to enable the required recognition within the Partner States and agreed that Partner States should be allowed to conclude the process of commencing the issuance of the new EA e-Passports by January 2018,” reads a report from the meeting in part.
The EAC already issues regional passports in addition to those granted by individual member states. The EAC is not the only regional body pursuing integration of passport issuance. The African Union also has plans for its own passports.
The rationale behind issuing new passports in East Africa and the African Union’s drive is the same. Countries say that they want to ease the freedom of movement in the continent.
However, experts are pointing out that this path is fraught with obstacles. For one, countries have to overcome their rivalries and align their policy priorities.
“It is a good idea but not very practical… The practical issues are going to be very difficult to address. There are also a lot of rivalries, countries that are hostile to each other in Africa that will have to agree to issue the same travel documents,” said Macharia Munene, a professor of international relations at United States International University (USIU).
It has been argued that countries could go for smaller goals. The issue of freedom of movement, for instance, could be very well addressed with better visa regulations. In fact, it has been suggested that the continent as a whole might be reluctant to introduce freedom of movement as countries pursue protectionist measures in the face of the daunting security challenges posed by civil strife and terror groups like the Al Shabaab.
The African Union passport is initially being issued to government officials and high level diplomats. Prof Munene argues that perhaps maintaining its issuance at this high level and crafting something akin to the United Nations passport might be a more practical goal for the continent.
A 2015 article from the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) showed that the idea of an African passport had resurfaced repeatedly over the last decade, most famously fronted by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but has amounted to little.
The EAC e-Passport will have diplomatic, service and ordinary categories. The diplomatic passport and service passport will be valid according to specific terms of the holder and will have 32 to 64 pages.
The community argues that the document is secure and difficult to duplicate compared with the existing passports. Travelers will be able to use automated border clearance or e-gates.
In 2003, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) adopted a global plan for the implementation of not just machine–readable passports but also for use of biometric identifiers in all of its 188 member countries including all the EAC nations. The standard international e-passport will have a chip that holds the same information that is printed on the passport’s data page including the holder’s name, date of birth, and other biographic information.
It will also contain a biometric identifier and have a digital photograph of the holder and security features to prevent un-authorised reading or “scanning” of data stored.