An Eye on West Africa

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If Africa is to realise its full potential, much needs to be done. Not least, there needs to be less of a reliance on exports to other continents, and more on inter-African trade. Incredibly, African countries’ trade with their neighbours is just 11% of the total export, compared with 70% in Europe. On his recent visit to Tanzania, President Obama remarked that it is easier to sell coffee to Europe than across the border.

Travellers around Africa will know that it is not just goods that are difficult to move around, it can be a serious challenge for people too.

The whole system of visas can really do one’s head in. What’s the problem? Well, before I give examples of the problem, let me offer a couple of solutions – a single visa for a region, or (and this needs a real – and naïve – stretch of the imagination) for the whole of Africa. 

In West Africa, visa-free travel does exist, but only for nationals of one of the countries of the region. A Nigerian passport holder can travel throughout the ECOWAS states without a visa.  Indeed, it is possible to get an ECOWAS passport, valid for travel only within the regional bloc – same day, no biometrics, no security check, just proof of identity, like a utilities bill. Pretty simple stuff, if you are a national of an ECOWAS country.

But between east and west, north and south, visas are required. They are difficult to obtain, and often refused. In recent years, frequent political spats between Nigeria and South Africa have meant an increase in refusals of visas, a ‘shortage’ of visa stickers, and, in the Nigerian High Commission in South Africa, a rejection of invitation letters signed by anyone with a non-Nigerian name.

To get a visa for most African countries, you need to be invited by someone. For Equatorial Guinea, that someone has to be the government. So no spur of the moment trips – that letter can take ‘a while’.

As an official and long-term resident of Nigeria, I still have to obtain visas like any other foreigner. With the exception of Angola, I am not aware of a single southern or eastern country for which I require a visa – I get one on arrival.

And by ‘get one’, I mean ‘buy one’. Because that’s what it’s all about – the money. Visas obtained on entry are not visas, per se, they are an entry tax. Governments have to raise money somehow, and a modest entry tax is one way of doing it. I certainly don’t believe that all this wahala involved in getting a visa in advance has anything to do with security; it is about collecting money, just more difficult than charging an entry tax. 

Three examples – Turkey, one of the world’s greatest success stories in terms of the growth in its tourism industry, and economic growth through its export trade, has an on-line system where nationals of most countries, including most African countries, can apply and pay for their visa. The one condition of using this system is that you hold a valid Schengen, UK or US visa – because the Turks are saying that if you’ve gone through the security checks, why should they conduct the same checks?

The second example is the old chestnut of the EAC (East African Countries) visa, which is ‘prioritised’ by government for implementation every single year, but cannot be implemented because they cannot decide on how to share the revenue. Nothing about security concerns; it is all about money.

Finally, have a look at the road border at Seme between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. The previous dreadful border posts are ‘under renovation’, and the border now comprises a dirt track between porta-cabins and wooden shacks (I kid you not). The words medieval and primeval (reference to the mud) come to mind, as you pick your way between the various officials demanding to see your passport, and writing your details in old ledgers, as you avoid the piles of garbage and the animals rooting around in them (still not kidding). All this while you watch a constant stream of people on motorbike taxis proceeding unimpeded through the border, visa- and ID-free, the officials having suffered temporary loss of sight through a ‘handshake’.

It’s all about short-term, now-now money, without any thought to the advantages of opening up the borders to people, and their trade.

Trevor Ward
MD: W Hospitality Group