President Muhammadu Buhari recently announced to the world that beginning from January 1, 2020 there will be a free visa policy for Africans willing to visit Nigeria.
Buhari stated this in Egypt during the opening session of the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development in Africa. Under the new policy, all Africans could come to Nigeria without visas and would obtain same on arrival in the country.
This is coming months after Nigeria signed on to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) which is geared towards boosting integration and trade amongst African countries.
Invariably, the visa on arrival policy will trigger a lot of movements towards Nigeria from all corners of Africa. This expected influx of people will hopefully include tourists, businessmen and other migrants who will be coming to Nigeria in search of opportunities.
Since the Nigerian economy is in dire need of foreign investments, this policy of throwing our doors open to our brothers across the continent appears like a potential elixir to our economic rejuvenation.
However, we have some reservations about the policy given its timing and the manner in which it has been unveiled. We find it somewhat contradictory coming at a time our borders are closed to our immediate neighbours in the West African sub-region.
A few months ago when the nation’s borders were shut down, the Federal Government had explained that such an action became necessary because Nigeria had become a dumping ground for goods, most of them imported from all parts of the world and smuggled into our country.
The border closure was also hinged on the rising insecurity in Nigeria and the strong suspicion that the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and Goods had been abused to the extent that terrorists were entering our country with huge cache of small arms and light weapons almost on a daily basis.
The fundamental question we must ask is: Have we successfully addressed these economic and security concerns that led to the current border closure? If the answer is in the negative, why are we in a hurry to throw our doors open to more visitors whose missions we may not be able to ascertain?
In a country where the economy is weak and nearly half of the population is living below the poverty line, it is rather curious that the government is inviting visitors from all corners of the earth when it is yet to fix basic public infrastructure such as road, rail, health and power needed to make it a choice destination for citizens of other countries.
This is why we think that the Senate was right when it entertained a motion in its hallowed chamber last week, demanding explanations from the executive on this new policy. We concur with the Senate that Immigration is a serious matter that requires a government to consult widely and weigh all available options before taking a leap. A no visa policy is not a matter that could be activated through an executive fiat because it has to do with foreign relations and treaties with other nations.
Section 12 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) stipulates that: No treaty between the Federation and any other country shall have the force of law except to the extent to which any such treaty has been enacted into law by the National Assembly.
Beyond the legal and constitutional hurdles this policy has to cross, we think that Nigeria needs to put its house in order before throwing its borders open to visitors without any restrictions.
Ideally, the privilege of entering another without a visa is usually granted on the basis of reciprocity or a mutual agreement between countries.
In addition, participating countries have common strategic interests such as trade and cultural cooperation which the liberal visa policy is designed to promote.
Today, Nigerian citizens and holders of the Nigerian passport are free to visit certain countries without a visa because these countries do not require a visa upon entry as long as you hold a valid Nigerian international passport. There presently 45 of such countries, 29 of them in Africa. While some of these countries require that you obtain a visa immediately on arrival, in others you are granted a period of a few weeks or months to obtain the visa.
We urge the Federal Government to open its doors to only those with whom we share mutually beneficial relationships rather than making it an all comers affair. If we consider the fact that we are yet to get over the challenges of terrorism and insurgency brought upon us by Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa province (ISWAP), the government needs not to be told to be cautious in matters of this nature.
We therefore urge President Muhammadu Buhari to put the no visa policy on hold pending a full investigation of its various dimensions and implications on our economy and national security. As the self-styled Big Brother in Africa, Nigeria must not bite more than it can chew just to impress others even more endowed nations on the continent of Africa.