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Africa

Nigeria downplays AU plans for visa-free travel

media People walk past an Internal Revenue Service signboard along a dusty road in the Bata district in Nigeria's northern city of Kano August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye/File Photo

Nigeria has downplayed claims by the African Union (AU) that it plans to start issuing visas upon arrival for Africans, in a move that's now cast doubt on hopes for visa free travel in Africa. The AU says visa restrictions hurt trade.

The African Union tweeted Friday that Nigeria had announced plans to issue visa-free travel during a retreat, raising hopes that the continent would adopt a Schenghen-free style zone that would boost intra-African trade.

Nigerian Minister Lai Mohamed responded that the country had no such plans.

"From a security perspective with the challenges we're facing in the north east [against Boko Haram insurgents] I don't think the premise is right to begin to consider such a policy," Aliyu Ibrahim Gebi, a senior advisor to Nigeria's interior minister told RFI on Monday.

"I am fully aware of the advocacy of the African Union to ensure seamless borderless travel and integration between African states," he says in reference to the AU's plans to roll out a single passport for all African citizens by 2018.

"But we must also remember there is also the premise of efficacity."

As things stand, only certain business professionals are eligible for a visa upon arrival in Nigeria, everyone else must apply online either through the consulate or embassy.

A difficult exercise for those in the know like Yves Ekoué Amaizo, president of the think tank Afrocentricity, who travels regularly to Lagos.

"Sometimes it works, but often it does not work. So what do you do? You get back to the embassy. Some will help you to do it (...) but often it does not work also. So they tell you if you agree to pay a bit more than what is paid to get the visa then it will be done," he told RFI.

Trade affected

Ghana, Seychelles and Rwanda already issue visa on arrival to all African passport holders.

But currently it is easier for travelers from developed countries to enter Africa without a visa compared to Africans.

"We’ve not been able to grow our revenues in terms of tourism, business is still very slow," says economist Tunji Andrews, for whom visa restrictions hurt trade.

"Anybody that is flying into Nigeria is flying in for business or tourism, which are fantastic means of revenue for Nigeria, and if it’s going to come from other African nations then fantastic! But somehow, the government is trying to take you three or five steps back and it’s just not helping."

Security first

"Despite the fact that there may be a need in the future, we have to have guarantees that Nigerian citizens will be protected," insists MP Gebi.

For Andrews, playing the security card doesn't work: "You find situations where people come into Nigeria and walk out without even knowing they’ve passed its borders. So it begs belief that people who then have a legitimate interest to come into Nigeria are being restricted, whilst others can just walk in."

For now though free movement remains premature reckons Gebi, talking specifically in reference to travel to South Africa.

"With all the prosecutions that Nigerians are facing, it kind of defeats the purpose," says the former Deputy Chair of Trade Customs and Free Movement of Persons at the Ecowas parliament.

As he spoke, a statue in honour of South African President Jacob Zuma was being unveiled by the State governor of Imo, in the south of Nigeria.

"It's ironic, on a monthly basis there is violence against Nigerians, even the South Africans are laughing at us. It doesn't make sense!"

Obstacles

Security however isn't the only obstacle to free movement on the continent.

"Do not forget the issue of custom officers or embassy people who are quite corrupt," Yves Ekoué Amaizo reminds us. "Behind the free movement of people, you move into the free movement of goods and capital, that’s another problem."

So too is health.

"Everybody seems to have forgotten the proliferation of diseases such as ebola, which is a major preoccupation for the Nigerian authorities also. If a virus or bacteria comes to the country, that's a major problem for the population."

Asked why these risks were better managed in visa-free countries like the Seychelles, Amaizo said "those countries are smaller and want to facilitate the return of their Diaspora."

This is not the same case for Nigeria, he says, which has a constant flow of population moving back and forth. "The need for openness is not there."

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