President Muhammadu Buhari curiously announced the other day in Egypt, Nigeria’s visa-on-arrival policy for all Africans. President Buhari at the Peace and Development Summit in Egypt disclosed that Nigeria would begin issuing visa-on-arrival to all African nationals with effect from January 2020. The implication is that fellow Africans can now visit Nigeria with minimal restrictions.
They no longer have to queue and wait for weeks or months to be granted permit into the most populous African country, indeed the beacon of hope of the black race. There were dark hints last weekend that the policy had taken off at the entry ports and points despite a parliamentary query that the policy had not been endorsed by the country’s legislature. This is incredible as there should be no haste in implementing this sensitive policy if its specific objective is for ease of African integration.
On the face of it, the policy is long overdue as Nigeria leads the way in promoting free movement of persons, goods and services for African integration. No doubt, open arms to all our neighbours demand much more than an intent of friendship. It requires caution, awareness and preparedness on the home front – if it must safeguard national security, health and economic wellbeing.
Apparently hearing the big brother’s pronouncement on the prime-time news like other Nigerians, members of the National Assembly immediately raised concerns and summoned the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola. The senator’s eyebrow widened because the real intent of the declaration was not known. A president who cannot unveil policies at home can hardly be trusted. More so, under Buhari, Nigerians are always the last to come to knowledge of their own matter as the president is more comfortable talking from abroad. If we shall be welcoming more Africans to our neighbourhood, Nigerians need to know what terms and conditions apply through the Interior Ministry.
Ideally, as we noted earlier, the policy is a right step in the right direction, especially for the African continent. Globally, many countries are relaxing entry barriers to welcome foreigners as they market local travel and tourism to the world. More conservative countries like Saudi Arabia have lately opened up to attract non-religious tourists in preparation for the post-oil era. One of the strategies of opening up is to make the visa permit processes less discriminatory and cumbersome.
Regrettably, the African continent till date remains closed and the least accessible to fellow Africans. According to facts, it is a lot easier and 45 per cent cheaper to travel intercontinental than from one African country to another due to stringent restrictions and barriers.
What is worse, only 19 per cent of African trade stays within the continent, just as only 20 per cent of air passenger traffic are carried by African airlines. It is, therefore, a little wonder that the continent sees less than five per cent of international tourists’ arrival yearly, and none of its cities merits the top 25 most visited cities in the world. Besides promoting poverty, the age-long barriers and restrictions to fellow Africans are exposing the African nations to foreign exploitations and the visa-on-arrival policy by Nigeria has just shown others the way to go.
Meanwhile, visa-on-arrival policy is not new to Nigeria. In fact, since last year with the dawn of the Ease-of-Doing-Business agenda at the airports, the visa policy had been in operation, though for foreigners on business missions to the country. Widening the scope to all Africans is innovative and consistent with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) earlier signed by many of the 54 African countries.
Notwithstanding, charity should begin at home and this underscores some basic questions on our preparedness for such policies. It suffices to ask: What has the Nigerian system put in place to properly domesticate the international policy to maximum local advantage? To what extent have we developed and packaged the tourism and hospitality industry – the major consideration of visa-on-arrival policy – to attract the right nationals and attendant revenue into Nigeria? Religious tourism alone is a potential money spinner that is yet untapped. Again, how equipped is the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) to implement a seamless visa-on-arrival policy? These are questions the Federal Government cannot afford to ignore at this time.
The Comptroller-General of Immigration, Muhammed Babandede, lately commended the move as part of measures to accelerate the African integration and bring down barriers that had hindered free movement of the people and commerce. However, Babandede and other decision makers should know that such a policy is never an open invitation to all-comers. Countries, in putting their citizens first, cherry-pick their friends based on mutual benefits and prevalent circumstances. Even countries that permit visa exemptions to some countries still issue mandatory electronic authorisations to such visitors.
Let’s add that in many countries that practise visa-on-arrival, the application must have been made and eligibility confirmed at the country of origin or country of commencement of travel before the visitor departs. Applicants from or who have visited high risk countries – be it insecurity or epidemic threats – are screened thoroughly before being granted approval or denial.
That is the essence of the United States’ Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS) procedure for all inbound passengers. The NIS only started observing this restriction lately, when it officially warned all Lagos-bound foreign carriers against airlifting passengers without visa or application for visa-on-arrival. Such approval is part of the conditions airlines thoroughly consider before issuing tickets given the heavy penalty that goes with airlifting a persona non grata to some countries. Nigeria should not be an exception in these security measures.
Above all, the NIS must also put its house in order and have a transparent frontline desks at the airports. The current norm of insisting on cash payment for visa-on-arrival and additional $20 service charge even for those who have paid overseas is unwholesome and alien to modern airport services. It is a loophole that thrives on corruption, greed and beggarly tendencies.
The initiative that promotes African integration and Nigeria’s lead role on the continent is worth commending. The free movement of persons, goods and services with minimal barriers is the way to go to tackle endemic poverty, boost regional economies and help the continent breakfree from the shackles of imperialism and neo-colonialism.
The invitation to our African brothers must, however, be treated with the outmost caution it deserves to ensure that only the right persons are beneficiaries. Nigeria already has her plate full of challenges than to be bothered with fresh threats on accounts of welcoming Africa with open arms. This newspaper would, in the main, like to appeal to the authorities concerned to embark on civic education and public enlightenment on this policy, lest most people would run away with some impression that it is to allow the Fulani nation in West Africa to migrate to Nigeria.