‘Liberalising visa process is good, but we have to target some countries’

Muda Yusuf

Director General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Mr. Muda Yusuf, spoke to DEBO OLADIMEJI on the new visa-on-arrival policy for Africans recently announced by the federal government.

How do you see the new visa-on-arrival policy and how can it be implemented without compromising national security?
One of the best ways to facilitate trade and investment is to make it easy for people to visit and meet their business partners and access the business environment and opportunities. It has a way of accelerating the inflow of investment into any economy.  
Many of the advanced economies of today have liberal visa policy, although targeted at countries that can impact their economies positively, in terms of injecting capital. Many countries, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also have a free visa policy. Most of the countries whose tourism sector is booming have very liberal visa processes. Some countries use it as a strategy to boost their economies.

One diplomat recently told me how the global Chief Executive of Guinness wanted to come to Nigeria for the commissioning of one of their plants in the Southeast, but couldn’t get a visa to Nigeria. This is just to let you know how difficult and frustrating it can be to get a Nigerian visa and how the country can easily lose investments and investors because of this visa thing.

We are for the liberalisation of the visa process, but it has to be targeted. You can identify countries that have very robust economies from which we can benefit and make it easy for those coming from there to get a visa. There is no reason why anybody carrying an American, Canadian, United Kingdom passport, for example, cannot just walk into Nigeria, because these are countries from which we have more to gain.

I am not saying that we should just allow anybody to come into the country; there will be checks and some documentation around it.  That is why I said visa-on-arrival, which we are already doing anyway, is not anything new. If you have a business partner now, you can arrange a visa-on-arrival for him or her.
 
I think what is just creating all these issues is that somebody announced that all the African countries can now just come in and take a visa on arrival. Visa-on-arrival does not mean that you can just walk into the country; you have to apply ahead electronically, do some vetting and approval has to be given for you before you can even come anywhere. There are some screening processes that will take place. It is not that the border will just be open for everybody to come into the country, as some commentators are saying. Things are not done that way and I am not sure that is the intention of the immigration authority. They are still going to do some due diligence.

I think the objective is to simplify the process. Beyond visa-on-arrival, I will even advocate for free visa facilities for countries we know that we can benefit from to boost investment and tourism. When you see countries whose hotel and tourism industry are booming, it is because they have a very liberal visa policy. We should target countries that have the capacity to spend and encourage them to come.

 
Regarding how it would not compromise national security, that is the job of immigration and security agencies. But visa-on-arrival is something that is highly desirable.

Some investors have to fly three to four hours to our embassies to process their visas. It is not that when you get there, you just pick up your visa; you have to go two or three times. Is that the way to attract investors?  We are not the best investment destination, so we should put all the incentives on the table for those who have the capacity to invest.

But won’t this lead to the inflow of terrorists to the country?
Even now, are we better off? We are all using the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Passport and people from ECOWAS countries come in freely to Nigeria. So, it cannot be worse than what it is. But we can modify the policy and target countries that don’t pose a security risk to us and whose people who can help boost our economy.

Do we have the infrastructure to cope with the inflow of visitors that we are expecting due to such a policy?
That is why I said we have to define what type of countries we are liberalising access to; it cannot be for every country.

It is a fantastic principle, but the way the story was put out there is like we are asking all African countries to come in. Some are even saying it is part of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.  This one has nothing to do with the agreement; it is about simplification of a process to allow investors to come in.

People say the government is closing our land borders and at the same time encouraging visa-on-arrival. How do we marry the two?
It is a question of strategy. As a country, we should know what we want and what type of strategy we want to use. When we know that this country is a problem for us, we exclude the country from our list. That is what other countries do. If they know that you are going to add value to their economy, for goodness sake, they will even roll out the carpet for you to come in.

If there is any country that needs that type of thing, it is Nigeria. We need a lot of investments and capital. We need to encourage those who have it to come. I am not talking about fellow African countries; I am not saying that you should exclude them, but we should use this policy to promote the inflow of capital.

People are asking why the President should go to Egypt to announce, instead of at home?
Visa-on-arrival is not new; it is just that the President announced it. So, I don’t know what the whole alarm is all about. It was just the way it was reported as if everybody in Africa is free to be coming to Nigeria. I don’t think that is what the immigration people have in mind. That is not their intention and that is not what they are doing.

Is it that the government did not carry stakeholders, like you, along with or what is really happened?
I think it is a question of the way it was said and the way it was reported. Sometimes when you have a media report, it can come in a way that conveys a completely different meaning. There was no sufficient clarity for people to understand what the intention is. But visa-on-arrival has been on for close to two years.

We need to improve our communication strategy. Immediately people heard the news, I expected either the Ministry of Information or the President advisers to quickly elaborate and clarify things because the President normally will not go into details of how these things will work. When they say visa-on-arrival, it is like people from everywhere in Africa can just come in.

But even the free movement we have in countries is already in ECOWAS anyway, as far as security is concerned. It is even bigger than the visa-on-arrival that we are talking about. With ECOWAS protocol, anybody can move around and spend a maximum of 90 days and there is even bigger risk in that than an investor coming from Australia or Germany, etc.

For goodness sake, there are other countries waiting for investors, where things are easier and they have a far more liberal visa policy. That is why their tourism industry is booming.

What do you see as the way forward to the border closure and the visa-on-arrival policy?
We hope to see better consultation with the private sector because there is no way we can know what the government wants to do. If there is no consultation, how do you know what they want to do? If you don’t know what they have in mind, how will you advise them?

Sometimes when you advise, there is this perception that you are advising for selfish interest. Because we are business people, they feel we want to make money and don’t like consulting us. But consultation is a good thing.

We used to have a quarterly business dialogue with the vice president when we had the economic management team. Now that the team has been disbanded, we now have the presidential advisory committee and the kind of interface we used to have with the vice president is not there.

The message is that the government needs to deepen consultations with the private sector so that we can enrich the quality and the content of its policies.  

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