Beyond being excessive, Seychelles’ recent ban on Nigerian passports highlights the weaknesses in Nigeria’s foreign diplomacy and the inconsistencies in Africa’s supposed vision of continent-wide integration.
In July 2023 information circulated online of a ban Seychelles had placed on Nigerian travellers. Seychelles had not officially announced the ban before implementing it and so people only realized what was happening after their applications had been rejected. The ban specifically affects Nigerians who wish to enter Seychelles as tourists or new immigrants, not those with diplomatic passports or residential permits. With some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, luxury accommodations catering to different budgets and a range of fun activities, Seychelles is a top travel destination within Africa, popular with as many Africans as foreign nationals. It is one of those paradises that people rave about going to or hope to be able to visit as soon as the money is right.
Before the ban, Nigeria had a visa-free agreement with Seychelles and as of December 2022, both countries had signed a pact to allow direct flights between them. However, the new ban effectively changed this reality overnight for several Nigerians, according to comments on online platforms. A major outcome of the online discussions was that there are numerous other countries that Nigerians can still visit, ‘better ones even’, and it was no use crying over no longer-accessible islands. After all, one out of 193 countries isn’t so bad, right? Except it isn’t just one country. In the last few years, Nigerians have been at the receiving end of travel restrictions from countries like the United States, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. This excludes restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In official remarks, the Seychellois vice president, Ahmed Afif, explained that the government’s move was necessitated by Nigerians in perpetrating crimes like drug trafficking and fraud in Seychelles. Afif pointed out cases of Nigerian tourists using false credit cards to pay businesses on the island, resulting in those businesses facing irrecoverable losses. There is also the larger issue of Nigerians being caught trafficking drugs into Seychelles. For example, in March 2023, a 52-year-old woman was arrested for trafficking cocaine. Seychelles claims that there may be a drug syndicate operating from Nigeria sending agents into the country as part of its operations. The ban was therefore a decision taken to curb what it sees as a mounting problem.
While Nigerians can be found on a number of reports documenting drug trafficking, Nigerians are far from being Seychelles’ foremost drug problem. The scenic island nation, with a population of just over 100,000 people is the world’s largest heroin consumer. It is a problem that has raged for decades, with about 10 per cent of its population succumbing to it, causing the country to actively recruit foreign labour to fill the employment gap created by its drug problem.
Seychelles’ drug problem is majorly a heroin problem; other drugs like cocaine and crystal meth are relatively newcomers and not nearly as popular. Heroin is largely sourced from Afghanistan and makes its way into Seychelles through the Southern route, which accounts for about six per cent of the global drug trade volume. Countries on the route include Iran and Pakistan. A 2023 BBC report mentions a statement Seychelles’ president, Wavel Ramkalawan, made about an already bad drug problem being exacerbated during a time when Iranian nationals convicted for trafficking were incarcerated on the island. Their incarceration allowed them to develop local networks. As recently as March 2023, the Seychelles Defence Forces confirmed the seizure of 1,069 kilos of heroin from a vessel in the Indian Ocean which was initially spotted west of its island, Mahe.
Coming back to Nigeria, two things stand out in light of the foregoing. Firstly, the quantities of illegal substances found on Nigerians who have been intercepted pale in comparison to the quantities coming in from other nationalities bringing drugs into Seychelles. In fact, the drug mules Seychelles says it has intercepted from Nigeria could not possibly bring in the quantities that have wreaked havoc on Seychelles, as most of the drugs have come in by boat. Secondly, it is important to emphasize that Seychelles’ drug problem is largely a heroin problem, and from most accounts, that does not look to be what Nigerians who have been caught were bringing into the country. Also, there doesn’t appear to be any restrictions against Afghanistan that is as close to the treatment Nigeria has received.
Around the world, in similar situations, restrictions have been placed on individuals and networks, not an entire country. Seychelles isn’t the only country to have experienced an influx of drugs from a foreign nation. One of the most famous cases involved America and Colombia during Pablo Escobar’s infamous reign during the 1980s and early 90s. Escobar’s Medellin cartel was responsible for bringing in an estimated 70-80 tons of cocaine into the United States monthly through air shipments, maritime shipments, and land routes. In response, the US intensified efforts to intercept vessels and vehicles smuggling the drugs, working with the Colombian government to combat the challenge on Colombian soil, and targeting the financial networks supporting the trade. It also implemented sanctions and restrictions, specifically against individuals and organizations involved in the trade. A key feature of this effort was the extent to which the US worked with the Colombian government on countermeasures, including extradition agreements that allowed the US to prosecute offenders within America.
Tackling a problem like drug trafficking requires cooperation between the trafficking nation and the traffic destination especially as legal points and routes of entry are not always the only options for those who are carrying out illegal activities. Cutting off access to legal entry points is not a guaranteed means of eliminating the problem, as it may encourage further exploitation for illicit routes of entry. While there are of course nations which have banned the entry of all people holding passports from certain countries this has mostly been for reasons pertaining to war between states, squabbles over ownership of territories, and non-recognition of statehood. For example, Azerbaijan has a ban on Armenian citizens because of war between them, and Israelis are banned from several Arab countries that do not recognize its statehood. There isn’t an instance where a total ban on a country is linked to crimes perpetrated by individual citizens of the banned state.
THE NIGERIAN RESPONSE THUS FAR
Nigeria’s House of Representatives resolved to conduct an investigation into the ban on Nigerian passports by Seychelles, mandating ‘its committee on foreign affairs (when constituted) to investigate’ the matter. Thus far, this has been the only public government response to the ban, and it remains to be seen what this effort will yield. Until then, Nigerians will have to wait and see whether there will be a decision reversal or reduction in the severity of the travel ban.
The prevalence of Nigerian drug trafficking occurrences reflects so intensely on the image of the country. To the extent that it increases the level of difficulty faced by Nigerians who travel internationally and reduces their access to the opportunities available in a globalized world. Nigerians have reportedly been denied consideration for jobs they were technically qualified for because of their nationality in other countries. The country’s present fraying relations with Seychelles demonstrates the harsh reality of what a negative national image can mean for individuals.
In a world where trans-border and borderless engagements are key to survival, we should be worried about the ease with which some countries are denying Nigerians access to cross their borders, whether in pursuit of leisure or work. Especially as Africa works towards implementing the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which aims to create ‘One African Market’ and is expected to generate a $450 billion income boost on the continent by 2035, potentially lifting 30 million people out of extreme poverty. Free trade areas like the AfCFTA’s are proven growth and development strategies, as well as precursors to regional integration, as evidenced by the European Union. The union not only brought peace to Europe in the 20th century, it also created the world’s largest trading bloc and single market, an economy ranked alongside America and China, with a collective GDP of almost €16 trillion as of 2022. It is also the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods and services and the largest export market for 80 countries. Bi-lateral travel restrictions like Seychelles, threaten the desired outcome of the AfCFTA, expand the growing perception of Nigeria’s weakened image as Africa’s giant and undercut Nigeria’s regional leadership ambitions.
Between an established reputation for online fraud and drug trafficking, and more recently international perception of the 2023 elections, Nigeria has a huge image problem. Some of the discourse surrounding the Seychelles ban makes reference to reports linking the country’s new president to drug trafficking as a determining factor in the decision. Prior to the inauguration, there were concerns about how these allegations would reflect on Nigerians, especially in their interactions with the outside world.
ON THE WAY FORWARD
It is not sufficient to say Nigerians simply need to behave better when they go abroad. People do not ‘behave better’ simply because they are asked to or because they care about how they portray others where they are from. Instead, it is important that the government prioritizes tackling domestic issues that spill abroad, and more proactively and effectively wields diplomacy and foreign relations in ways that protect and serve the interests and rights of its citizens.
Seychelles’ travel ban on Nigerians presents a big question about the current state of relations between African states and how they affect the lives and aspirations of Africans. There are millions of Nigerians abroad who contribute meaningfully to the societies that they live in. One would recall well-known facts including that Nigerians are some of the most educated immigrant population in the US, to the reported £1.9 billion contribution Nigerians make to the United Kingdom’s economy, and the tens of thousands of skilled Nigerians that make up Canada’s workforce. In fact, there are Nigerians resident in Seychelles on work permits aimed at filling its labour gap.
With the progression of globalization, defined by the unprecedented movement of people across borders and by advancements in information and communications technology, diplomacy as the practice guiding the relations between states, no longer depends solely on the actions of formal government representatives. The tools available today allow for the amplification of Nigerian voices and for the intentional development of an image worthy of international standing. It of course requires ‘good behaviour’ to hold up, but that already largely exists. There are opportunities to do so through coordinated group, and even government-backed, efforts, as more Nigerians take on the role of the citizen diplomat.
While the sovereignty of nations is an established fact that must be respected by all, the heightened interdependence between countries today is another one that must be acknowledged. When countries make decisions on issues that involve nationals of as well as their relations with other countries, it is essential to consider not just the national interest but also the international implications those decisions have. One could argue that the latter has a strong bearing on the national interest. No country is an ‘island’, not even the ones that geographically are. This is true for Seychelles, Nigeria, and all countries of the world. It must be top of mind for African states especially, as they work collectively to implement an agreement that would push forward the core mission of the African Union. Free trade, and its benefits, cannot happen without the free movement of people—a challenge that African governments have to deal with not just on bilateral or regional levels, but also continentally⎈
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