Diplomatic and security experts have expressed divergent views on the security and economic implications of the new visa regime announced by President Muhammadu Buhari.
On December 11, Buhari announced that Nigeria would begin to issue visas on arrival to all African nationals. He announced the plan at the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development in Africa, held in Egypt.
“We in Nigeria have already taken the strategic decision to bring down barriers that have hindered the free movement of our people within the continent by introducing the issuance of visa at the point of entry into Nigeria to all persons holding passports of African countries, with effect from January 2020,” Buhari said.
The change in visa policy by Nigeria comes on the back of the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, a treaty seeking to establish a continent-wide marketplace with increased trade and freer movement among its major pillars.
The Comptroller General,of Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Mohammed Babandede, in a statement explaining the policy further, said the visa-on-arrival for holders of passports of African countries from January 2020 was to accelerate African integration.
“Nigeria’s strategic decision is taken to bring down barriers that have hindered free movement of our people within the continent by introducing the visa at the point of entry policy in Nigeria with effect from January 2020,” he said.
But a week later, the Senate rejected the visa-on-arrival policy, saying it is premature, considering the spate of insecurity in the country. The Senate, therefore, summoned the Minister of Interior Rauf Aregbesola, along with the Comptroller General of Immigration to appear before its Committee on Interior, Judiciary and Legal matters to explain the legality, logistics and constitutional issues available and required for compliance, before the implementation of the visa-on-arrival policy.
If the new policy is implemented, Nigeria would join Sierra Leone, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia as countries that recently established visa-on-arrival policies for all African nationals.
As part of efforts to promote tourism and attract foreign direct investment, the government of Sierra Leone rolled out a visa-on-arrival regime for all Africans entering the country, effective from September 2019. This means that Africans do not necessarily need to apply for visas before flying into the country.
Starting January 1, 2018, Rwanda announced a global visa-free entry for travellers from everywhere in the world. Citizens of all countries the world over could enjoy 30 days visa-on-arrival under the regime. The country is reputed as one of the most open in visa index publications.
Seychelles is said to be the only country where visa-free travel is open to all Africans, as well as, to citizens of every nation, though Ghana, Rwanda, Namibia, Mauritius, Benin and Kenya have all loosened travel restrictions for other African nationals.
Findings of the Africa Visa Openness Index Report, 2018, published by the African Development Bank and the Africa Union Commission, shows that on average, African countries are becoming more open to one another. The top 20 most visa-open countries continue to improve their average score, reflecting the countries’ more liberal visa policies.
Benin made the most progress in opening up its borders to African travellers, moving from 27th place in the 2017 edition to first place in the 2018 report.
Zimbabwe also broke into the top 20 with the introduction of a visa-on-arrival policy for Southern African Development Community (SADC) members.
Overall, when compared to 2017, Africans do not need visas to travel to 25per cent of other African countries. Twenty-two per cent can get visas on arrival in 24per cent of other African countries (same as last year), but need visas to travel to 51per cent of other African countries (down from 54per cent).
Diplomatic and security experts who spoke to Daily Trust on Sunday said the policy’s economic benefits should be considered vis-a-vis its security implication owing to the prevalence of violent conflicts in the continent.
Others who harped on the economic gains said efforts should be intensified to block any security loophole the policy may create.
Ambassador Gani Lawal, the president, Association of Foreign Relations Professionals of Nigeria (AFRPN), said the new visa policy would deepen the people-to-people exchanges between Nigerians and other Africans, as well as improve intra-Africa trade, which he said was mostly informal.
“If we now have a visa regime in which a visitor can enter the country with visa on arrival, it is good because it will ease other Africans’ business engagements with their Nigerian partners.
“It will also encourage other African countries to open up because visa is reciprocal; whatever we do to your citizens, we expect you to also do to our citizens. Nigeria is playing a leadership role. This will encourage other African countries to follow suit,” he said.
Ambassador Lawal said though the policy is not devoid of any security implication, it is a work in progress.
“You can’t get it together in one day. If we start practising it now, we will begin to perfect the loose areas like surveillance of those coming in. The security agencies, especially the Nigerian Intelligence Agency, should do more checking,” Lawal said.
He added, “The new visa regime should also include a process in which a prospective visitor will start the application online and get a pre-approval before leaving his/her home country.
“With that, immigration officials are already aware that someone is coming to Nigeria, and then do background checking before his arrival.’’
A retired diplomat, Ambassador Sani Saulawa Bala, also said, “The policy shouldn’t create any panic. We have the human capacity to manage the situation.”
He said the visa-on-arrival policy was not new, but Nigerians were expressing security concerns because it is now to be applied on a continental level.
“It is a good thing to challenge our institutions to live up to expectations. A visitor must be properly identified and the immigration authorities must be satisfied before he can be allowed to come in,” the diplomat said.
On the economic benefits of the policy, Ambassador Bala said, “Burundi and some African countries have already implemented the visa-on-arrival policy. What we are doing now should have been done before. Nigerians should support the policy. It will be to our advantage.
“The policy is to ease the process of coming into Nigeria. Once the process is easy it will have a multiplying effect on the economy. It will open the door for Africans to come and do business or invest.”
However, Dr Amaechi Nwokolo, an international terrorism and development consultant, expressed worry over the policy’s security implication, saying the Federal Government should toe the path of caution.
“Are we prepared for the implication?” He queried.
“There are lots of conflicts in many West African countries. We have to look at the economic benefits, vis-a-vis the security implication.
“Nations are now realising that globalisation is not beneficial to the security of their countries, and are wanting to secure their borders. But here, we are throwing ours open.
“Germany, where the government opened its borders to migrants from the Middle East, is now reviewing its immigration decision.
“Terrorist networks are aiming to establish international cells everywhere. We shouldn’t energise our sleeping cells in Nigeria and aggravate our security problem,” he said.
He said the policy may benefit the country economically but added that the current industrial capacity is still very low to throw the borders open for anyone to come in.
“If the government wants to do that because of economic prosperity of the country and the continent, what are we putting on the table? Enough of this big brother role,” he added.
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