Ultimately, the solution to our angst lies inwards. We must get our acts right, here at home… Until we get our acts right to the point where our people have more hope in this country than elsewhere; where our citizens will not risk life and limb to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life, our citizens will continue to get the short shrift elsewhere.
There is palpable anger over South Africa’s recent decision to allow visa-free entry to Ghanaians et al. But not to Nigerians. Apparently, the South Africans have made getting a visa even more stringent for Nigerians, with short stay visas now taking months to process. Worse, most applications are ultimately rejected. Only a few weeks ago, the United States implemented the same policies – giving Ghanaians visa-free entry into the U.S., while simultaneously requiring personal appearance for visa renewals by Nigerians. I sympathise with those who are angry at the treatment we are getting. But I am with South Africa (and the U.S.) on this matter.
The reality is that no developed country (or country with better economic prospects than Nigeria) is going to throw its doors wide open to our citizens. With our poverty-stricken population, a large one at that, who wants to shoulder the burden of taking in the millions that will walk in and stay in? A generation ago, Nigerians walked into airports, bought tickets and flew into just about any country in the world with their green passports. Visas were granted on arrival. Back then, the Nigerian economy was relatively strong, and the lure of living abroad was unappealing in the face of better prospects at home. Not today. Hence the more stringent the conditions for granting visas to Nigerians have become.
Ghanaians, conversely, are getting free entry into many parts (U.S., S.A., etc) because their country is working, citizens have hope, leaders are accountable, and there is the diminishing need to be an economic migrant elsewhere. Ghana is the Beautiful Bride from Africa, with global companies falling over themselves to camp there. It has become the exact opposite of Nigeria, where hardly any human development indicator is trending in the right direction; and many multinationals are struggling to stay in, what with our decaying infrastructure and the assault course they have to navigate in order to stay in business.
There has been talk about putting pressure on South Africa, via its multinationals in Nigeria, to change its policy. This is unlikely to have any major impact. The reality is that too many of our citizens have gone there and overstayed their visas. For good reasons – they fancy their economic and life chances there better than at home. Their presence is already impacting local (South African) politics amidst security concerns over xenophobic attacks. Xenophobia is condemnable. But it is hard to blame a government for looking to limit the number of those who come in, as part of the solutions to the problem. They have citizens to worry about too.
There is also the recourse to the sentimental argument that Nigeria helped to free South Africa from apartheid and deserves better treatment. This is all well and good. But our support for the anti-apartheid movement was anchored on humanitarian grounds, as well as our historic commitment to the decolonisation of Africa.
Many have also suggested the use of the diplomatic principle of reciprocity. This is unlikely to be effective. Making it harder for South Africans to come here is neither comforting nor progressive. And even if we give free entry to South Africans seeking to come here, it’s unlikely to change the fundamentals of their entry rules for us. Ours is a large population and our median income is way below theirs, so we know in which direction migration will flow. The same happened to Nigeria in the early years of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), when migrants swarmed the country from West Africa, arising from the free movement of people under the initial ECOWAS protocol. This forced us to compel a renegotiation of the “free movement” protocol to a restricted category of people under the ECOWAS charter. The revised protocol was the basis upon which we carried out two episodes of “Illegal Aliens Deportation”, otherwise known as “Ghana Must Go”, in 1982 and 1984.
There is also the recourse to the sentimental argument that Nigeria helped to free South Africa from apartheid and deserves better treatment. This is all well and good. But our support for the anti-apartheid movement was anchored on humanitarian grounds, as well as our historic commitment to the decolonisation of Africa. It was not founded on some economic or territorial expansion drive. Indeed, Nigeria was a driving force for inserting the principle of respect for colonial boundaries when the original Organisation of Africa Unity was founded in 1963. We did not support the anti-apartheid movement so that our citizens can have sovereign rights over the place, anymore than the U.S. did when it decisively intervened in the two world wars of the 20th century. Americans freed Europe from the Nazis and got on with building their own country, so their citizens won’t be looking in envy at the folks on the other side of the Atlantic.
Ultimately, the solution to our angst lies inwards. We must get our acts right, here at home. We must give people hope and opportunities, the very same thing that is causing many to look elsewhere in desperation. Our leaders must stand up to the challenges we face on security, on equality, on economic development, on access to justice, on the ease of doing business, and on so many of the issues that have hobbled this country for too long. Until we get our acts right to the point where our people have more hope in this country than elsewhere; where our citizens will not risk life and limb to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life, our citizens will continue to get the short shrift elsewhere.
Lets make Nigeria better and then opening borders with countries that matter will become easy to pursue.
Chris Adetayo is a public affairs commentator.