Liberia Not Visa-Friendly Beyond ECOWAS

.... But nearly 10 years since Agenda 2063, Liberia has not done much to improve its restrictive visa policy, which would have made it possible for more Africans to come to Liberia visa-free, or with an e-visa. The country allows some travelers to access visas on arrival, but the process is still rather complicated.

The Africa Visa Openness Index (AVOI) report has shown that Liberia is yet to make progress in scrapping visa requirements for all African citizens despite pledging nearly 10 years ago to end the restrictive policy.

With a score of 0.26, Liberia is ranked in 40th place on the index — falling far behind many African countries including war-torn Somalia, which ranks in the top 20 African countries in 2022 with liberal visa policies.

The Index score is an indication that Liberia remains one of the closed-off countries in Africa, with some of the highest visa requirement policies. Out of the 54 countries on the continent, only citizens of the country’s fellow ECOWAS states do not require a visa to travel to Liberia — thanks to the ECOWAS passport.

Citizens of more than half of the countries on the continent — 40 in all — need a visa before traveling to Liberia. This policy goes against the African Union Agenda 2063, which  was adopted in 2013.

Essential part of that "vision and roadmap for the next 50 years" called for all African countries to scrap visa requirements  by 2018 to boost inter-Africa trade as well as tourism.  The vision was also intended to end the double standard in certain countries, where it is open to countries outside of the continent but remains largely closed in Africa.

But nearly 10 years since Agenda 2063, Liberia has not done much to improve its restrictive visa policy, which would have made it possible for more Africans to come to Liberia visa-free, or with an e-visa. The country allows some travelers to access visas on arrival, but the process is still rather complicated.

This places Liberia far behind its ECOWAS counterparts Benin and The Gambia, which are jointly ranked the most visa-open countries on the continent. Even Guinea has improved remarkably over the last year, rising from 52nd.

According to the index, which is an annual publication, prepared by the African Development Bank Group in collaboration with the African Union Commission, 47% of intra-Africa African citizens are still required to obtain a visa before traveling, an improvement from 51% in 2021.

While 27% of intra-Africa travel, African citizens do not need a visa, up from 25% in 2021; however, an additional,  27%  need a visa on arrival, up from 24% in 2021.  Intra-Africa travel refers to travel by African citizens between African countries.

African Union Commission Deputy Chairperson Dr. Monique Nsanzabaganwa, in the foreword of the report, said that “One of the most important is the free movement of persons. Restricting Africans’ ability to move across borders, right to residence and right to establishment impedes trade and stifles industrialization.”

Nsanzabaganwa noted that human mobility is key to Africa’s integration efforts, as such, any limitation discourages innovation and stymies the formation of regional value chains.

“It is not enough to agree on rules of origin that promote ‘Made in Africa’ products. For the AfCFTA to succeed, non-tariff barriers to trade must be dismantled, too. Among other things, Africans must be free to move around the continent without being denied the right to board on planes, applying for costly and time-consuming visas, which are not readily available electronically, to study, trade, and develop their businesses,” Nsanzabaganwa said.

The AfCFTA is the  African Union’s flagship project—the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is intended to liberalize free trade among African countries. However, Liberia is not yet a signatory.

Also, the African Development Bank Group Acting Vice President in charge of Regional Development, Integration, and Business Delivery, Marie-Laure Akin-Olugbade, remarked that the free movement of people creates business and stimulates intra- and interregional trade. 

“We understand that freeing the movement of people creates a more favorable business environment, attracts investment, and stimulates intra- and interregional trade. It also promotes social cohesion and improves African citizens’ quality of life. Africa deserves nothing less.”

The 2022 Africa Visa Openness Index, which is now in its 7th edition, shows that some African countries are making progress in their freedom of travel policies, most of which had been severely curtailed by the Covid-19 crisis.

The index is anchored on tracking visa policies adopted by African governments on three main criteria: whether entry to citizens from other African countries is visa-free, if a visa on arrival can be obtained, and whether travelers are required to obtain visas ahead of traveling to other African countries.

This year’s report underlines the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the last two years (2020 and 2021) during which most countries restricted movement, both domestically and for international travel. 

The 2022 index, according to a release from the African Development Bank, reflects renewed signs of progress.

“10 countries have improved their visa openness score over the past year, and visa openness on the continent now exceeds that recorded during the year prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and is in line with the peak score achieved in 2020.”

“Progressive visa policies that increase visa-free entry or to visa on arrival policies, will ensure that this positive trend continues. The use of technology and a greater adoption of e-Visa systems, will help fast-track the ease at which travelers can cross borders,” the release said. 

Highlights of the Index

As per the report finds, African countries are becoming more open to each other’s nationals with fewer restrictions overall. It says that there is currently an equal split between visa-free travel and visa-on-arrival travel.

Three countries — Benin, The Gambia, and Seychelles — offer visa-free entry to Africans from all other countries. In 2016 and 2017, only one country did so, while 24 African countries offered an eVisa — 5 more than five years ago, the index noted. 

The index also disclosed that 36 countries have improved or maintained their Visa Openness Index score since 2016, and 50 countries have maintained or improved their Visa Openness Index score relative to 2021, usually after removing some of the visa policy restrictions implemented during the pandemic.

It is also stated that 48 countries out of 54 — the vast majority of African countries — now offer visa-free travel to the nationals of at least one other African country, and 42 countries offer visa-free travel to the nationals of at least 5 other African countries.

The 2022 edition of the index showcases three countries that have made the most progress in their visa openness, namely Burundi, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia in particular has risen several places on the index to regain its position in the continent’s top 20 performers after removing the temporary measures instituted in 2021.

Lower-income countries account for a large share of the countries that make up the top-20 ranked countries in 2022 with liberal visa policies: 45% of countries in the top 20 on the index are classified as low-income countries, while a further 45% of countries are classified as lower middle-income.

“EVisas allow prospective travelers to apply for a visa from the comfort of their home or workplace ahead of travel, streamline the application process reduce time at borders, provide a greater measure of certainty ahead of travel, reduce the need to submit a passport for processing to consular offices, and make travel safer and more secure,” the AfBD released said. 

The index also provides an analysis of the free movement of persons at the regional economic community level in Africa. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community are the most open communities, with ECOWAS hosting eight of the top ten countries.

Commenting on the report, African Development Bank Group Acting Director in charge of the Regional Integration Coordination Office Jean-Guy Afrika, said: “The Africa Visa Openness Index has tracked the evolution of visa regimes on the African continent from before the pandemic to today. As the 2022 report shows, African countries are dismantling many of the measures imposed during the pandemic. Indeed, on the whole, the continent has returned to a level of visa openness last seen just before the pandemic began.”