The visa on arrival policy – Thisday

President Buhari should engage Nigerians before taking vital decisions that will affect them

Under pressure from an estimated population of some 200 million citizens, and without any structure in place, the federal government has decided that visitors from all African countries can now enter Nigeria without the requirement of applying for visa in advance. According to the announcement made from President Muhammadu Buhari’s official tweeter handle while in Egypt, Nigeria will give all African travellers visas on arrival from January 2020. “Nigeria is committed to supporting the free movement of Africans in Africa… At the Aswan Forum in Egypt, I announced that, in January 2020, we will commence issuance of visas at the point of entry into Nigeria, to all persons holding passports of African countries,” the statement said.

To be sure, there are some good grounds for this decision. As things stand today, out of Africa’s 54 countries, the five considered to have the best ‘visa openness’ policies are Rwanda, Ghana, Seychelles, Benin Republic and Senegal. With Nigeria ranked at number 30, and South Africa, at number 36 in 2019, it is obvious we are not doing well on that score. Within the context of the aspiration for the economic and eventual political integration of the continent, there are merits in the policy option.

However, we should be clear in separating the issues – the merits of the policy and the manner of its implementation. The immediate problem is with the latter on which pertinent questions arise. What is so urgent about the policy that there are only two weeks between announcement and implementation? Since we are neither a tourist destination nor an employment and labour attraction, what skills do African visitors have to bring to our country? Why was the policy not subjected to any debate in the country before it was announced abroad in a such a cavalier manner? Should we aim to undo the colonial boundaries or strengthen the nation states as units for continental integration? Against the background that one of the reasons often touted for the closure of land borders with neighbouring countries is national security, how does this sudden policy align with that decision which is yet to be rescinded?

There are also several challenges to consider. Nigeria does not have the resources to support an influx of African immigrants at a period our country ranks very high on the global poverty index. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocol on free movement of persons within 15 countries in the sub-region has its challenges. It is an open secret that the Nigeria Immigration Service and the security agencies lack the capacity to track and trace those who are granted visas into the country to ensure they do not overstay.

Without building such capacity, what this policy will ensure is that all manner of people will enter and vanish into the crowd in a country where locations, maps and addresses are fluid and far flung with the result that even legitimate residents are hard to trace.

We are concerned because the federal government has not provided a reasoned rationale for this policy that has not been debated anywhere; not even at the National Assembly. It is therefore very disrespectful of Nigerians, to put it mildly, that the president would just fly to a conference in Egypt and make such a serious announcement. It may sound expedient to want to align policies and practices with other African nations. It is however foolhardy to dabble into such policies without subjecting them to rigorous analysis against the dismal backdrop of our economic and national security circumstances.

Whatever may be the merit of the idea of Visa on arrival for African travellers, the real problem is the manner this administration has handled this very important policy decision. As witnessed recently with the controversial ill-fated RUGA policy, President Buhari must avoid smuggling in hasty policies that suggest less than altruistic motives in a badly divided polity.

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