While western governments toy with isolationism, the African Union (AU) is making moves in the opposite direction.
In July, the continental organisation launched an electronic passport intended to allow free movement among all 54 markets in the region at its summit in Kigali, Rwanda.
The passport will be available to diplomats and heads of state by 2018, and to citizens by 2020, according to the AU. However, given the scale of the project and the region’s tendency for delays, it might take longer.
The rollout is the latest in a series of continent-wide digital document initiatives aimed at addressing a broad range of issues such as national security, financial inclusion, identity protection and improved cross-border relations.
According to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chair of the AU Commission, the initiative is a “steady step toward the objective of creating a strong, prosperous and integrated Africa, driven by its own citizens and capable of taking its rightful place on the world stage”.
The East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Union of West African States (ECOWAS), two regional blocks encompassing more than 20 countries, have already started to set up the infrastructure to deploy electronic passports and other digital ID documents. In July, Ghana implemented a visa on arrival systems for citizens of AU member countries, joining some dozen others working towards the same policy.
AU heads of state and government, ministers of foreign affairs and the permanent representatives of AU member states based at the organisation’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will be the first to receive the AU-wide ePassports.
Setting up systems
Africa’s 54 markets have long placed regional integration high on their development agendas. These objectives form part of the vision for Africa set out in the AU’s Agenda 2063 white paper. However, the process of regional consolidation has been slow due to political and structural barriers.
According to the 2016 Africa Visa Openness Index Report, on average African citizens require visas to travel to 55 percent of the continent’s countries.
As a result, interregional trade between African countries remains low – with the bulk of exports still destined for China, Europe and America – especially when compared to counterparts in Europe and Asia.
Electronic passports in Africa use the same technology as in other parts of the world, and they comply with standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). This means African governments can be confident the technology works and is interoperable across borders, helping to facilitate business, travel and tourism across the continent.
The security and biometric features of these documents should also help combat identity fraud, which is a problem across much of the region. In the year to April 2014, 1370 cases of identity theft were reported to the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS), a 16 percent increase in ID theft on 2012. More secure identity documents are also seen as weapon in the fight against cross-border terrorism.
“Trusted verification of the document means increased certainty about the bearer’s identity, and the technology is a vital tool to combat identity theft, so ePassports are an important part of the focus on global security, and key to Africa,” says Tony Mullen, key accounts director at De La Rue. The firm is involved in ePassport projects in several African countries.
However, the document itself is only one part of the secure process. The right infrastructure and databases need to be built to support them.
“You need to roll out enrolment equipment in different centres throughout a country, and you need to have the infrastructure in place to trust the data from these enrolment centres to enable you to print the documents,” says Charles Mevaa, vice president for government programs in Africa at Gemalto. The company is involved in ePassport deployments in countries such as Algeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Morocco and South Africa.
Finding the funds
Given the scale of these projects and the systems involved, in Africa lack of finance is one of the biggest challenges to rolling out major ePassport and eID schemes.
A popular solution is for governments to turn to public-private partnership models. When Côte d'Ivoire adopted ePassports in 2008, it granted a 15-year concession to produce the documents to ID and secure printing specialist SNEDAI, supported by technical partner Zetes.
SNEDAI’s contract with Zetes to ‘build, operate and transfer’ means that Zetes manages the project from start to finish, and is paid according to the number of passports issued.
In 2008, the project forecasted it would issue 200,000 five-year passports per year. Over the course of the 15-year contract, that should generate an estimated €60m ($67m) in revenue for the firms. “Using PPP, governments do not have to provide funds or set funds aside or manage complex standards processes,” says Ronny Depoortere, senior vice president at Zetes.
“Usually countries have figures for the number of travel documents they’ve issued previously, so you might have relatively reliable numbers to advertise to investors,” he adds.
Multilateral organisations are also providing support and channeling funds into eID programmes. According to the World Bank, those who lack official identification are typically the world’s most vulnerable and poorest.
“People with no identity are unable to access educational opportunities, financial services, health and social welfare benefits. Further, these people are disenfranchised, unable to have their say in their country’s electoral process,” the bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) strategic framework claims.
Other challenges persist. Lack of power and network connectivity top the list. Mr Mullen of De La Rue points out that solutions should be designed to work without guaranteed power and internet connectivity, or to use alternative sources such as solar power.
Country-specific factors must also be taken into account. Unrealistic budgets and lack of political continuity can stymie projects. “It is important to work with government decision makers to understand their needs, stay close to their original idea, keep projects on track and manage risk – even when governments go through periods of transition,” Mr Depoortere concludes.