A Wake-Up Call? The Recent Travel Restrictions on Nigerians

It will be a grave mistake to treat Nigeria’s recent US visa ban as a one-off event, rather than a larger issue of limited leverage in a rapidly changing world that we seem ill-prepared to navigate.

Nigeria was recently slapped with a series of humiliating travel restrictions by some of the world’s most advanced economies. It started with an executive order by United States’ President Donald Trump on 31 January, Nigeria was one of six countries included in a new iteration of visa restrictions. According to this policy, the United States will no longer issue immigrant visas that offer a path to permanent residency (green cards) and possible citizenship to Nigerians. Although Nigerians can still apply for non-immigrant visas for tourism, business and study, the reality is that the refusal rate for these visa categories is extremely high, at 57.5 per cent in 2018, and the process is more arduous.

Following closely in America’s footsteps, on 21 February the European Union announced its plans to ‘tighten the procedures for getting a Schengen or short-stay Visa for the nationals of Nigeria, as the latter is failing to play its part in the return and readmission of its nationals staying illegally in Europe’. The announcement further states that these new rules ‘could have an impact on the processing time, the length of validity of the visa to be issued, the level of the visa fee to be charged and the fee waivers.’

These developments should be cause for concern to every discerning Nigerian as they indicate a severe diminution of Nigeria’s global status. The US visa restrictions in particular, point to a complete lack of leverage or strategic advantage that Nigeria has within American policy. It is unable to strategically use its vast potential and resources: being Africa’s largest economy, the world’s most populous black nation, and having a large and accomplished diaspora—as effective tools of international relations. This lack of leverage can be traced to a complex interplay of domestic and geopolitical factors, of which I will mention three.

1 –Easy Picking. It appears that Nigeria, given the size of its national population and diaspora, is an easy target for powerful countries that want to restrict immigration. In 2017, there were 348,000 Nigerian immigrants living in the US according to the Pew Research Centre. One of the reasons given for including Nigeria in the list is insufficient sharing of national-security related information. This is a valid concern. Yet, despite Nigeria’s internal security challenges, it is not an exporter of terrorism to the US. There has only been one attempted attack by a Nigerian, the ‘Underwear Bomber’ who, in December 2009, unsuccessfully tried to detonate an explosive device on a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit. The Middle Eastern countries whose citizens have perpetrated terrorist attacks on US soil, from 9/11 to the San Bernardino shooting in 2015, are not subject to travel and visa bans. The country of an ancient civilization in the desert whose military killed over 800 peaceful protesters in 2013 after a military coup is not under visa restrictions. What all these countries have in common is their proactiveness in pre-empting unfavourable US foreign policies using legitimate channels, including the engagement of lobbying firms on K-street in Washington DC. Nigeria, aloof, divided and distracted, is caught on its back foot, and relegated to a recipient rather than influencer of US policy.

2 –Weak Diplomacy. Part of the reason why Nigeria seems incapable of leveraging its economic weight is its weak diplomatic presence in Washington DC. To begin with, Nigeria’s ambassador to the US, Sylvanus Nsofor, is 84 years old, called out of retirement by President Buhari to take the position. He is a retired justice of the Nigerian Court of Appeal who had a very distinguished professional career. However, there is no reason why an octogenarian should be the representative of which over 60 per cent are under the age of 30, in the world’s superpower. Tellingly, due to concerns about his age and fit for the position, the Nigerian Senate initially rejected his nomination in 2017 but upon resubmission of his name by the President, the Ambassador was eventually cleared. The position of ambassador entails running around, coordination, being actively engaged at high-level events and politicking at such a crucial time. We need to be serious. People’s futures are at stake. There are Nigerian families—planning to apply for green cards and working permits—that will be devastated by this decision.

3 –Disorganized Diaspora. The admirable achievements of individual Nigerians in the diaspora do not seem to be translating into any kind of collective influence in Washington DC. From tech empires in Silicon Valley to the financial hub of Wall Street, from Hollywood to sports leagues and Ivy League universities, there are Nigerians excelling. Nigerian-Americans are one of the most successful immigrant communities in the US: 29 per cent over the age of 25 hold a graduate degree, compared to 11 per cent of the overall US population, according to the Migrations Policy Institute. Nigerians in the US have a median household income of $62,351, compared to $57,617 nationally, as of 2015. Yet, these individual achievements have not translated into collective influence, comparable to say, the highly organized Indian diaspora or the Italian community in the early 20th century. Beyond just celebrating individual achievements and the $25 billion of remittances we send back to Nigeria annually, what can we achieve as a group? What communities are we building that will further support and reinforce these individual achievements?

When you combine these three factors, it becomes clear that collectively as a nation and as a people, we are confused, distracted and divided. This really should not be happening, not to a country of Nigeria’s stature. There are indeed domestic political factors in the US driving the swift changes in immigration policies, but the blunt end of these policy changes seem to affect countries with minimal leverage. It is depressing to see Nigeria carelessly rendering itself globally irrelevant. This travel restriction may very well be reversed, with serious negotiations and commitment by the Nigerian government to address US concerns around information sharing and identity management. In 2018, Chad was eventually taken off the first travel ban of 2017 after it addressed similar issues.

Regardless, the larger perception issue around Nigerians persists and we do little as a group to bust these pernicious stereotypes. We have a reputation as criminal gangs in the United States, drug barons in south-east Asia, illegal immigrants in Europe eager to overstay visitor visas and of a government that is indifferent to the plight of its citizens. Our individual achievements as high-flying academics, artistes, athletes, bankers, doctors, lawyers, and writers, are insufficient to shield us from these global stereotypes of us as a collective. As the former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, put it in a controversial speech in 2016 to the Conservative Party ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.’ I have been detained at various airports, shouted at, questioned intrusively and subjected to humiliating treatment for no reason than the colour of my passport. It will, therefore, be a grave mistake to treat this visa ban as a one-off event rather than a larger issue of a limited leverage in a rapidly changing world that we seem ill-prepared to navigate as a nation and as a people. One has to wonder, what other countries will follow the steps of the US and the EU.

Nigeria needs to wake up to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. I do hope the unmistakable grinding sounds of draw bridges being drawn up across the world’s advanced economies will motivate serious introspection among us all. In January, the US government announced its plans to end birth tourism. Politicians in Europe are enacting strong anti-immigrant policies in response to popular domestic pressures. It is their prerogative to manage migration as they deem fit. Amidst all these developments, the Nigerian middle-class longs to escape to ‘greener pastures’ and, indeed, I am also typing on a keyboard in the cushy suburbs of northern Virginia. Yet, we all need to do some serious soul-searching to overcome our collective action problems; to build a country conducive enough for the vast majority to live decent lives; and have supportive diaspora communities to reinforce our individual achievements so we can be accorded the dignity we deserve around the world

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