A new U.S visa regime announced by the Trump government on January 31 2020, which will restrict citizens of Nigeria and five other countries from obtaining certain categories of American visas, has been generating intense conversations among Nigerians. The U.S. government said it decided to impose new visa restrictions on the affected countries for their failure to meet minimum security requirements for verifying travellers’ identities and individuals who will pose a national security threat. The full report of the restrictions entitled ‘Proclamation on improving enhanced vetting capabilities and process’ and available on www.whitehouse.gov, further stated that “Nigeria also presents a high risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States. Nigeria is an important strategic partner in the global fight against terrorism, and the United States continues to engage with Nigeria on these and other issues.”
Under the new rules, which are due to take effect on February 22 2020, the six affected countries – Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar – will face various visa restrictions. While Sudanese and Tanzanian nationals are banned from participating in the diversity visa lottery, visas which lead to permanent residency will no longer be issued to Nigerians and Eritreans.
Though the visa restrictions for Nigerians do not affect tourist and business visas, an increasing number of Nigerian applicants in these categories are turned down on grounds that too many visitors from the country overstay their visas. The US says it targets immigrant visas because people with those visas are the most difficult to remove after they arrive in the United States
The U.S. travel restrictions come at a time of growing insecurity in Nigeria, especially with a resurgent Boko Haram, the increasing wave of rural banditry in the north as well as herdsmen attacks and kidnapping for ransom across the country.
Surprisingly, Nigerian government’s responses to the visa restrictions have been measured and mature – unlike the raw threats and playing to the gallery that had been the wont of President Buhari’s aides whenever the government’s policies are criticised by a Western government or institution. Following the announcement of the visa restrictions, the government pledged to address the security issues cited by the Trump administration as the reasons it put a temporary stop in the issuance of immigrant visas to Nigerians. The government in fact announced the setting up of a committee to “study and address the updated U.S. requirements”. According to the President’s SSA Media, Femi Adesina, the committee “will work with the U.S. government, Interpol and other stakeholders to ensure all updates are properly implemented,”
There are two ‘extreme’ interpretations of the ‘real’ reasons for the visa restrictions. There are those who see it as motivated by racism. According to this perspective, the issue at stake has nothing to do with fighting terrorism but everything to do with racial profiling which, they argue, has over the years underpinned the tightening of US immigration rules to countries from Africa and the Middle East, especially under Donald Trump. People who believe in this thesis wonder why immigrants from Nigeria, which according to US Census Bureau data outperform other US immigrant groups on many socioeconomic metrics should be targeted for a ban on immigrant visa. According to official data, over 29 per cent of Nigerian Americans over the age of 25 hold a graduate degree, which is significantly higher than the rest of the US population, where only 11 per cent of Americans hold a graduate degree.
The Democrats are among the groups pushing the racism argument. According to the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, the “sweeping rule, barring more than 350 million individuals from predominantly African nations from travelling to the United States, is discrimination disguised as policy.”
Another ‘extreme’ perspective is that the Trump administration simply wants to have access to the security database of African countries. For people who argue from this perspective, if the U.S really wants to be partners with African countries in sharing security information, it must also be willing to share their own security information – not just to demand that African governments hand over their security databases to them.
Beyond these ‘extreme’ views – or conspiracy theories if you like – there are a number of issues and lessons raised up by the visa restrictions:
One, whatever may be the real motive for the visa restrictions; it is a wake-up call for the country to take more seriously its identity card management. Though the country has a National Identity Card Management Commission which was set up in 2007 in a bid to unify identity databases, this has largely not happened. At present what can pass for national identity database is being managed by different centralized organizations including the National Identity Management Commission, Nigeria Immigration Service and some financial instructions. These need to be streamlined. There is also no reason why local authorities cannot demand that people who move to their areas must be captured in their own local databases to help them in fighting crimes and providing social services. At present there is simply no reliable record of our citizens, making it possible for anyone who has the means to procure a Nigerian passport and claim to be Nigerian.
Two, the visa restriction is unwittingly an opportunity for Russia and China, which have been striving to strengthen their relations with Africa – to make further in-road into the continent – at the expense of America. Already there are a number of Universities in the country setting up various Confucius institutes. The Chinese government and organisations often fund some of these institutes, including providing scholarships for further studies in China. Again with last year’s first Russia-Africa summit, in which Kremlin unveiled plans to double trade with African countries to $40 billion per annum, the opportunity presented by this will not be lost to them – and to America too. The question is whether Nigeria can skilfully play the ‘game’ to be able to maximally harness the opportunities that will open up as a result of those visa restrictions.
Three, in the short term, the visa restrictions may affect the remittance economy from America. According to Pew Research, people in the U.S. sent $6.2 billion in remittances to Nigeria in 2017 alone – more than was sent to any other African nation. The fear is that as many Nigerian legal residents in America are unable to bring their spouses to join them – something that is already a challenge – it may not only affect future remittances but may actually discourage immigration to the USA. It may also lead to people choosing other countries that may be easier for them to bring their spouses or family members to join them.
Four, in placing the visa restrictions, the U.S suggested by innuendo that Nigeria has become a terrorism exporting country. One of the reasons given for the visa restriction is that “Nigeria presents a high risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States”. This calls for a more concerted action in dealing with Boko Haram and its splinter faction, Islamic State West Africa Province. With the activities of herdsmen, rural bandits and kidnappers, it is understandable if the U.S feels a need to pre-empt a huge influx of immigrants from the country – especially as Nigeria’s security, political and economic problems appear to remain intractable.
Five, there is also another innuendo in the report of assistance provided, which has not changed anything. According to the report, the “Department of State has provided significant assistance to Nigeria as it modernises its border management capabilities, and the Government of Nigeria recognises the importance of improving its information sharing with the United States.
“Nevertheless, these investments have not yet resulted in sufficient improvements in Nigeria’s information sharing with the United States for border and immigration screening and vetting.” This innuendo feeds into the narrative of a country where leaders are both incompetent and crassly corrupt – in tandem with Trump denigration of ‘shithole countries’ to be allowed into the USA.