In The Spotlight
Announcing Nigeria’s visa-on-arrival policy for all Africans at the Peace and Development Summit in faraway Egypt, President Muhammadu Buhari failed to disclose that Africa’s largest economy has one of the continent’s weakest passports; having suffered the worst decline in rankings over the last decade, on the annual Henley Passport Index with a 19-place drop. The decline in passport power now sees Africa’s most populous country rank 95th - firmly etched in the bottom quarter of the rankings. The drop in rankings also means Nigerian passport holders can visit two countries fewer now than they could in 2010 without first obtaining a visa.
Regionally, Africa accounts for four of the seven biggest drops in ranking on the index since 2010. Keeping with the historical trends, Africa also dominates the bottom quarter of the rankings with only two countries—Seychelles and Mauritius—in the top 50. 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% cheaper to travel intercontinental than from one African country to another due to stringent restrictions and barriers. What is worse, only 19% of African trade stays within the continent, just as only 20% of air passenger traffic is carried by African airlines. Little wonder that Africa sees less than 5% of international tourists’ arrival yearly, and none of its cities merits the top 25 most visited cities in the world.
While Henley & Partners, the residence and citizenship consultancy that collates the index, notes a “substantial increase in the number of countries an average individual can visit without needing to get a visa in advance,” it also admits much of the progress on this front is firmly skewed towards holders of passports of developing countries. As such, the firm says the current global mobility gap is the “starkest” ever since the inception of the index. In some cases, passport power is affected by local conflict and security fears as seen in the cases of Libya which has dropped 16 places since 2010 and Mali which has dropped 13 places. But, generally, the decline in the power of African countries is largely because countries in other regions are easing travel with reciprocity and boosting the strength of their passports at a much faster pace.
On the face of it, the visa-on-arrival to all African nationals policy which went into effect from January 2020, was long overdue as Nigeria leads the way in promoting free movement of persons, goods and services for African integration. 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. 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 Nigeria. But open arms to all 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 interests.
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 process less discriminatory and cumbersome. Without the luxury of visa-free travel or even receiving visas on arrival, traveling abroad comes with the hurdle of expensive, paperwork-intensive visa application processes for a majority of holders of African passports since most applications are likely to be rejected—sometimes without just cause. A joint All-Party Parliamentary Group report from British lawmakers last August showed Africans are being unfairly denied UK visas.
The real-life implications of difficult visa processes for Africans; range from being unable to visit family members abroad, to scuttling higher education plans. Up to 75% of African students who applied for student visas to study in Canada between January and May 2019 were rejected— far higher than the global rejection rate of 39%. One easy way for African countries to boost the strength of their passports is by easing visa regimes on the continent. Yet, progress in easing travel between African countries remains slow: 49% of countries on the continent offer neither visa on arrival nor visa-free travel to other African visitors.
Ideally, therefore, the new visa-on-arrival policy is a right step in the right direction, especially for the African continent. But charity should begin at home and with the Nigerian passport all but worthless, it suffices to raise a few posers: What has Nigeria put in place to properly domesticate the visa-on-arrival policy to maximum local advantage? To what extent has Nigeria developed and packaged its 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 visa-on-arrival policy? These are questions the Federal Government must answer because countries always put their citizens first; and cherry-pick their friends based on mutual interests and prevalent circumstances.
Even countries that permit visa exemptions to some countries still issue mandatory electronic authorizations to such visitors. This raises the question how beneficial the open invitation to all-comers visa-on-arrival policy will benefit Nigerians with Nigerian passports which have little or no international value or respect. More so, as there is no inherent stated guarantee that that other African countries will reciprocate and stop treating Nigerian passport holders as criminals, drug pushers and sex traffickers. Nigeria already has her plate full of challenges for it to be bothered with fresh threats on accounts of welcoming foreigners with open arms.