‘Nigerian government is consciously facilitating entry into Nigeria by potential terrorists’
Former director general of Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Prof. Bola Akinterinwa, spoke with DEBO OLADIMEJI on the pros and cons of the new federal government policy of visa-on-arrival for African visitors.
What is your take on the new federal government visa-on-arrival policy?
I want to argue that it is a very good policy, but not wanted at this time. Good policy simply because it is a continuation of the efforts put in place by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, under whose administration, the idea of a visa at the point of entry and particularly free visa for all Africans was mooted, as he wanted African tourists, people who will want to visit Nigeria to be able to come freely to Nigeria. He suggested that within two weeks, you should be able to visit and stay in Nigeria. That was that idea.
But the problem was the situation of insecurity in Nigeria. The problem already been created by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocol on free movement of people and goods, particularly the rights of the community citizens to stay to establish and settle down in any member state. The protocol provides that any community citizen who can identify himself, in other words, holding the ECOWAS passport or an identity card of any member country of ECOWAS can visit Nigeria or any other country and reside there legally for a maximum period of 90 days, not more. Should you want to stay a minute thereafter, you must request for approval from the local authorities.
But the problem is that Nigeria is not a Police country as it is in many Francophone countries, where the Police gendarme has the right to stop any individual to identify him/herself. Nigeria is not part of that system, so nobody can easily stop you. Consequently, all those who have been visiting Nigeria stay comfortably well in Nigeria after their 90 days.
When some of these problems were discussed, Obasanjo decided to suspend the idea until the nitty-gritty is worked out. It was in light of this problem that Obasanjo directed some of the security agencies, particularly the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) to urgently establish offices in all the 774 councils headquarters, so that government would be better positioned to monitor the inflow and the activities of all foreigners in the country. In this case, some offices were actually opened and the immigration department has been looking, monitoring the inflow of foreigners.
Why do you believe the policy is not timely?
If government, especially if the intelligence gathering outfits, have the opportunity to listen to public comments, either in the social or print media, at seminars and conferences, they should have patriotically advised Mr. President never to announce that policy at this material time.One, the interpretation of the policy in the eye of the general public is that it is an agenda for the purposes of Fulanisation of Nigeria. That is what is trending. I believe in a vibrant and united Nigeria that would provide exemplary leadership for the black people of the world, because we have the highest population of black people in the world. We are the headquarters of the black world.
The thinking about that what Buhari is doing, they don’t look at it in terms of nation building; they look at it in terms of projection of Islamic interest, particularly the Fulani ethnic group. That is the way they look at it.
What do you think the government can now do to save the situation?
Government will have to convince the people that it doesn’t have anything to do with that. Another point is that people believe Nigerians are not given their due respect as African citizens. The xenophobic attacks in South Africa, closure of Nigerian traders shop in Ghana, Libya maltreatment, among others, are typical examples. And you are now leaving your doors widely open to all Africans? Is it not possible for Buhari to learn a lesson from President Donald Trump of the United States (US), who came with the policy of America first?
We aren’t sure at all that any serious national interest is being protected with that one. The mere fact that we have signed a comprehensive African Free Trade Agreement doesn’t mean anything; the national interest of Nigeria must take priority. The second point I have raised leading to the third one is the insecurity situation in Nigeria. Does Buhari want to claim that he doesn’t know? We are talking about insecurity in Nigeria and that does not warrant the opening of the border to any one at this critical time, because the terrorists who have been forced out of Syria need to find alternative places to go to.
Again, we have the factor of mercenaries, who survive on the basis of war. They are professional fighters and just want to be in war situation. Since there is no business for them in Syria, where do they want to go? It is only in Africa that such crisis and conflict do exist. So, naturally they will come to Africa and now you made life easy for them to come to Nigeria by saying visa is free.
The problem raised under Obasanjo was the issue of over stay. After 90 days, how do you monitor them if they did not leave the country?
Now Boko Haram is an affiliate of ISIS. If ISIS followers in Mali, Mauritania and those fighting there are successfully chased out by the French government, where will they go? Is it not that same Nigeria?
There are two categories of visa that are relevant-tourists visa (those visiting) and entry visa. Issuance of visa at the point of entry is a new category. You also have the business visa. If you are coming to Nigeria as a visitor, the requirement is that the applicant should hold a valid passport and the validity of the passport must not be less than six months before expiration.
The second requirement is that the holder must have filled an application form, applied and paid the visa fee and the receipt must also be made available. The applicant must have a yellow fever vaccination card. Even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that yellow fever has been completely eradicated, many countries still require that, in some cases they asked of vaccination against cholera. The applicant does not have any record to show whether there is a criminal record of him or her in the past.
For the point of entry visa, anybody coming to the airport can easily come with evidential document, which the immigration could discover to be forged after the person might have left the country.So, the critical and most disturbing aspect of the visa is that the Nigerian government is consciously facilitating the entry into Nigeria of potential terrorists. We don’t know why that one should be at this particular point in time when the people of Nigeria believe Buhari has a Fulanisation agenda.
Apart from that, it is good a policy when it is not inimical to the future interest of Nigeria. But the policy as it is, is very inimical, and I think it has to be reviewed. Government does not need to start implementing it. Why did the government go to the Aswan Forum in Egypt to tell the Arab world that the door is now widely opened for everybody to come in; why didn’t he tell the people of Nigeria first?
But some countries in Africa, like Malawi, allow visa at entry all along?
You have to look at your question at two levels. When a country maintain very warm and excellent relationship with another country, at that level of bilateralism, the two countries can agree that there is no need for any initial application for visa. But the issue is now beyond the level of bilateral consideration. But the new policy goes beyond that now. They didn’t tell us the modality of the procedures and what the applicant must have submitted to warrant issuance of visa at the point of entry. Government did not tell us much about that. Anybody just coming to the airport to apply for visa must expect much delay, because they must still verify where they are going to be quartered and when they want to go back home.
From my experience, when you get to a country, the hotel where you lodged will immediately after lodging inform the local authority of your arrival in the hotel room and when you are leaving. They also inform that you have left. Which means that the hoteliers are also agent of national security. But in Nigeria, our hotels are not of the types of hotel we do have in advanced countries. Do they have the telephone or intercom that works, apart from the big hotels? Many foreigners coming to Nigeria will never go to any of the big hotels; they will go to the smaller hotels. How do you monitor such people? If the government has alternative arguments, let them tell us. The other time, the President gave six months period during which illegal people in Nigeria should regularise their stay, now followed by saying the doors are opened.
When the policy becomes operational, what would our embassy be doing?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be required to give them instructions as to what to do. But under normal circumstance, I will expect the Buhari administration to ensure that any intending visitors pass through our diplomatic mission first, submit their applications, photographs and everything there. So, even if they do not have any visa from there, let there be a full documentation of their presence in the embassies, which the embassies must have forwarded to the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS). Then the Service, will collaborate with all the security agencies, particularly the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), when there is security clearance, you can now come to the airport, present all those documents and you will be let in.