Nigeria’s recent adoption of a visa-on-arrival policy for African countries decidedly constitutes an important step in the current drive by the Africa Union to actualise its desire for a single passport for all the nationals of the continent. But the policy is already raising questions concerning the preparedness of the largest economy in Africa to cope with an expected influx of visitors, given some of the challenges she is currently facing in the areas of smuggling and terrorism threats.
Already, Nigeria has challenges of policing her very porous borders, which are prone to infiltration by terrorists and smugglers. The country has, for the past 10 years, also been contending with a home-bred terrorist group, Boko Haram, which has now splintered into other deadly groups, with international affiliations, striving to destabilise the country. They have formed a deadly mix with arms-bearing herdsmen that were last year credited with killing more Nigerians than the Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa terror groups put together.
Each time they strike, the government has come out, tail between the legs, to lament that it was an attack by foreigners. It is the duty of the government to repel external threats to the country, if indeed they are outsiders. So, if the border control system that is currently in place cannot keep killer herdsmen or other external aggressors at bay, there is no guarantee that, now that the visa regime has been liberalised, they would be effectively screened.
Besides, the activities of smugglers have had a debilitating effect on the economy, with manufacturing left prostrate from the combined effects of smuggling and high cost of production. This has made made-in-Nigeria products uncompetitive. Very important is the effect of rice smuggling on Nigeria’s bid for self-sufficiency in rice production. This has also resulted in border closure, with the country’s authorities insisting that, until the neighbouring countries meet certain conditions, including adequate joint border patrol to reduce smuggling, the borders would remain closed.
The question then arises: if a country cannot adequately shut out unwanted visitors, why then embark on a policy that would make it easier for them to flock into the country? Although such a visa-at-entry-point policy has already been in operation for a select category of people, there are still reasons to believe that the Nigeria Immigration Service might not be quite ready in terms of personnel and equipment to take on such a policy at what seems like a very short notice. The President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), announced the adoption of the policy on December 13 in Egypt and it is expected to come into effect on Wednesday, the first day of 2020.
To be candid, with Nigeria committed, as a signatory, to the African Continental Free Trade Area and as a leading member of the Economic Community of West African States, visa on arrival is a policy that could not have been avoided. Already, many African countries have taken this step, including neighbouring Ghana and East Africa’s largest economy, Kenya. According to a report quoting the Africa Development Bank, only 49 per cent of African countries require visas from Africans. Of the remaining 51 per cent, visas are not required at all in 24 per cent, while 26 per cent give visas at entry point.
But Nigeria, just as she did with the World Trade Organisation, is walking into a very important commitment totally unprepared. Definitely, for those who operate this policy, what is uppermost in their minds is how to make their countries the preferred destination for investment and tourism. But what exactly is the attraction in Nigeria for tourists and investors? Tourism in Nigeria, though has a lot of potential, is not well developed, nor is it well structured, like what obtains in places like Egypt and South Africa, where it is a big source of revenue. Even then, a country like South Africa is not so liberal with its visa.
The policy has also been designed as part of Nigeria’s ease of doing business package. But, why limit it to Africans? While it may not be appropriate to write off Africa outright, it may still be relevant to question the quality of business that other African countries can bring to Nigeria.
The government should also think about what would happen in event of an outbreak of an epidemic in the mould of the Ebola Virus that is currently devastating the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nigeria may find it difficult to cope if there are no restrictions on entry into the country. Nigeria was lucky to escape with just a few casualties when a Liberian, Patrick Sawyer, brought Ebola Virus into the country through the airport in Lagos. If he had done so through any of the land borders, perhaps it would have been more disastrous.
As business friendly as the policy is, Nigeria has to start getting ready for the challenges that are likely to come with it. All the machines for screening that have packed up in her major airports should be made to start working, while those that are not available should be acquired. In the United Arab Emirates, which also operates a visa-on-arrival policy, for instance, security is taken so seriously that they are now considering carrying out eye screening on visitors, “as an added security measure.”
Special focus should be on countries known for exporting terrorism to ensure that terrorists do not slip into Nigeria. Besides, even when visitors have entered the country, the Nigerian security officials should develop the capacity to monitor them so that they do not constitute a threat to national security. The country should pay more attention to developing her tourism potential, including hotels, so that they can reap the fruit of the new policy.