Africans who want to travel have long endured gigantic hassles when trying to obtain visas, not just to rich countries but also to other African ones.
Ugandans now face an extra hurdle before they even reach a foreign embassy. On June 12th the government said it was running out of new passports and would ration them.
They will be issued only to people suffering medical emergencies, or needing to travel for government business or to study. Everyone else will have to wait, possibly for months.
Uganda says the shortage is because of a surge in demand. It is not the only country where getting identity documents has proved difficult.
Until last year Zimbabweans would spend nights sleeping outside the passport office to avoid losing their place in the queue. At one point, no more were issued because the ink ran out.
Nigerians, too, faced a passport drought when the company printing them slowed supplies as it haggled with the government over the price.
The shortage is particularly acute for Africans who live abroad. Queues of frustrated people demanding passports form most days outside Nigeria’s high commission in London. Processing applications can take months, says Feyi Fawehinmi, a Nigerian living in London. A friend of his waited three months for his children’s passports, only for them to arrive with the wrong names.
Perhaps those with the biggest cause to complain are citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its passports cost $185, making them some of the most expensive in the world. The average income in Congo is only $680, so this is utterly out of reach for most Congolese.
Unsurprisingly, there is a thriving black market in fake passports in Africa. Britain and New Zealand have ended visa-free travel arrangements with South Africa because of the large numbers of “counterfeit or fraudulently obtained” documents coming from that country.
And last year America shut down a fake embassy, complete with the Stars and Stripes and a photo of President Barack Obama, that had been operating in Ghana for a decade. It had been selling fake visas to America for $6,000 each.
Most Africans who can afford one can at least get a passport, if they are patient.
But for Eritreans, this is not enough. It is one of the few countries which, like the old Soviet Union, insist that citizens must obtain an exit visa to leave. It grants them only grudgingly, but this has not stopped Eritreans from escaping.
By one UN estimate, some 400,000 have fled the dictatorial regime over the past decade, almost a tenth of the population. When you have no intention of going back, why bother with the right papers?