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Africa’s richest man says he needs 35 visas to travel in Africa – way more than a European visitor

By Larry Madowo, CNN

Kigali, Rwanda (CNN) — Even Africa’s wealthiest man has trouble traveling in his own continent.

Despite doing business in multiple countries, Nigerian-born Aliko Dangote complains he faces far more hurdles crossing Africa than visitors with European passports ever do.

“As an investor, as someone who wants to make Africa great, I have to apply for 35 different visas on my passport,” Dangote told the recent Africa CEO Forum in Kigali.

“I really don’t have the time to go and drop off my passport in embassies to get a visa,” he said to laughter from the audience.

The 67-year-old entrepreneur’s visa woes have reignited a fresh firestorm about the frustrations of traveling within Africa for Africans.

It’s even more infuriating for many Africans that European passports from former colonial masters have more visa-free access in Africa than many African passports. It’s a point Dangote made powerfully in Kigali, when he turned to the French executive next to him and deadpanned: “I can assure you that Patrick (Pouyanné, CEO of Total Energies) doesn’t need 35 visas on a French passport, which means you have freer movement than myself in Africa.”

Dangote commended Rwanda, which eliminated visas for all African nationals in 2023. Benin, The Gambia and Seychelles also offer visa-free access to all Africans.

But many African countries still require visas from other Africans and the experience is fraught with discrimination, hostility and sky-high fees.

‘Humiliating experience’

Nigerian travel filmmaker Tayo Aina says he was forced to give a stool sample in front of an Ethiopian immigration officer, to confirm he hadn’t ingested any drugs, when he landed in Addis Ababa in April 2021.

“It was my most humiliating experience traveling within Africa,” he told CNN by phone from London. He has also been detained at airports in Kenya and South Africa because of his Nigerian passport.

This year, Aina announced that he bought a passport from the Caribbean country of St Kitts and Nevis for $150,000 so he can travel more freely. “Sometimes you go to a country, and it is no longer visa-on-arrival. There are cases where people get deported when they land because they changed the policy mid-flight,” the 31-year-old YouTuber says.

The African Union has said one of its goals is to remove “restrictions on Africans’ ability to travel, work and live within their own continent by transforming restrictive laws and promoting visa-free travel” but implementation has been slow. Free movement within the continent is a critical part of the African Continental Free Trade Area, but action hasn’t followed the commitments.

The fear of permanent migration is one of the reasons why African nations don’t make it easy for other Africans to visit, migration researcher Alan Hirsch told CNN.

“There’s a fear in richer African countries that people from poorer nations might be looking for a way to permanently move there,” he explains. “A lot of Africans cross borders informally and we don’t have a real record of that. Some countries fear people applying for asylum and then disappearing under the radar.”

The retired University of Cape Town professor runs a program on migration at the New South Institute think tank in Johannesburg. He says the integrity of passport and visa systems especially in poorer African countries has also held back Africans’ mobility. “People have found illegal ways of obtaining passports, for example someone pretending to be Burundian without actually being from that country.”

Fresh bottlenecks

While Africans can move relatively freely within their regions, traveling further away is still challenging. Travelers from East African Community countries don’t need a visa within the block and most parts of Southern and West Africa are open to nationals from the respective regions.

But even what looks like progress can introduce some fresh bottlenecks. A Nigerian visa on arrival used to be $25 for Kenyan passport holders. But after changes to the application process, Kenyans now have to apply for a Nigerian e-visa in advance, at a cost of $215.

Kenyan President William Ruto famously promised to eliminate visas for everybody traveling to the East African nation. He introduced an Electronic Travel Authorization instead but the application process is similar to that of a visa. It costs $30 without processing fees and approval may take several days. Many visa applications require an application form, bank statements, flight and hotel bookings. Applicants are often rejected for incomplete documentation or for unclear reasons.

“South Africa held my passport for almost five months,” the Nigerian content creator Tayo says. His new St Kitts passport allows him to go to more African countries than his Nigerian passport.

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