Check your passport privilege

Nanjala Nyabola explains the weighty, 'anti-citizen' African bureaucracies that have their origins in the colonial period.

I’ve recently been travelling around the world to promote my book, which has led to a few routine collisions with the concept of passport privilege. For the untutored, passport privilege is basically the benefits that a person gets in foreign countries because of their citizenship. These range from the predictable – visa on arrival versus having to apply three months in advance – to the unpredictable: preferential treatment from law enforcement officials.

My British friends, who easily pick up their Kenyan visas on arrival, are often incredulously surprised that for a UK visa, I have to submit a 10-year travel history, three months of notarized bank statements and health documentation, and submit to other invasive procedures. There is an unspoken hierarchy of passports out there, and those of us with ‘weak’ passports are keenly aware of it.

Less expected are the penalties we endure from our own countries when acquiring our feebler passports. I recently did an informal survey from my Twitter account that was alarming in its findings. In Kenya, we have inherited the absurd colonial-era requirement of needing a ‘recommender’ – a fellow Kenyan of ‘sound mind’ – to verify an application. But in Tanzania, applicants must supplement this with a letter from a local administrator and have all their documentation verified by a lawyer – which, of course, costs more money. Ethiopia has gone a step further, requiring individuals to provide a letter explaining why they need a passport, while in South Sudan someone told me they had to drag a poor local elder to the application station to verify their identity.

Many complicated and weighty bureaucracies have their origins in the colonial period, when European officials tried to supplant indigenous systems of identity with their own. Consider the idea of the surname – there are still many Africans alive today who survived the colonial period and have never had a surname, because naming conventions in their communities didn’t require them. The social position of the individual might be marked by a nickname or a name inherited from a deceased relative. But with the notable exception of Islamic communities, a surname – and with it the idea that we all belong to some grand patriarch – is a European construction.

These bureaucracies were also affected by the Cold War period, when, in fear of defections to capitalist countries, many nominally socialist states imposed strict exit regulations. They are a projection of the state’s mistrust of its people, where the border becomes one of the few potent sites for control. Ethiopia stands out as a country where exit has always been strictly regulated, with the ironic consequence of encouraging a mass exodus during the Derg regime in the 1980s.

There are exceptions, though. Namibia and Botswana stand out as countries that have built pro-citizen passport bureaucracies, with other countries existing across a spectrum. But for the most part, the place where an African passport confers the least privilege for the citizen is often their own state. As the African Union moves towards launching an African passport over the next 10 years – a project that is supposed to make it easier for all Africans to travel within the continent – it will be interesting to see how these various contradictory regimes are reconciled.