A former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Prof Bola Akinterinwa, speaks with FEMI MAKINDE about the visa restrictions imposed on immigrants from Nigeria by the United States, border closure, the visa-on-arrival policy of the Federal Government and other issues
What step do you think the Federal Government should take for the US to lift the visa restrictions slammed on immigrants from Nigeria?
The visa ban is an expression of political sovereignty which the United States has. The US Government has the right under international law to determine who can come to the United State, who to be granted visa. Visa has a specific meaning. It means an acceptance or an approval of a request which is normally given the country issuing a passport. When you hold the passport, like Nigerian passport- the meaning is that the issuing authority that is the Nigerian government is recommending the holder to another country whose government is represented in an accredited nation. The embassy of the United State in Nigeria is representing the government of the United States here in the country. When you hold a passport, it is believed that the holder of the passport has been investigated, has been cleared of any criminal records. So when you take your passport to an embassy, you are going there on the basis of an introduction by the government of Nigeria. So, it says that you are a citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. On this basis, the government to which you are presenting the passport will now look at the recommendation and the holder and check, is the holder of the passport good enough? Should he be given visa? When you are granted visa, it is an approval of the recommendation of the country that issued that passport.
Now when you bring this into the travel ban, you now have to ask yourself a question, why did the United States take the decision it took on visa? The United State has on the basis of its political sovereignty decided that anybody who is not properly identified will not be allowed to enter into its country.
The second thing is that the United State is asking the government of Nigeria to share information on terrorists. On the basis of these two conditions i. e proper identification of immigrants and sharing of information on terrorism and the government of Nigeria has not responded and has not been cooperating with the Washingtonian authority.
The US has exercised its right as a sovereign state to say if you are not properly identified, and your government is not sharing information on terrorism to know whether you, the holder of the passport you are a terrorist, then why should we give you the privilege of coming to our country? Just stay where you are.
Why has Nigeria not been sharing information on terrorism with the US?
Well I don’t know. But you cannot say whether Nigeria is also exercising its sovereign right because international relations is guided by the principle of sovereign equality. That means this country is not superior to this so you can’t be asking me to do anything you required. But the fundamental issue that is raised is conflict of interest in sovereignty.
What is the way forward to get Nigeria delisted from the list of the affected countries now?
It is easy with what I have listed above. The US is directly accusing Nigerian government of ineptitude, inefficiency and nonchalant attitude and it’s now challenging public administration in Nigeria. The US has made it clear to Nigeria that it is interested in having information on situation of terrorism and if Nigeria is not ready to provide such information, nothing is stopping it from saying this is the situation. Even if you have information and you don’t want to share it, you can say you do not have such information. This is the beauty of diplomacy. Why are you not giving information about immigrants? If you have any reason why you don’t want to do so, there are many ways to communicate it in very beautiful language what you do not intend to do. That is why you have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Or you tell them that you would communicate to them tomorrow and the good thing is that tomorrow will never end.
Now, my position is, the government of Nigeria should find out what its public officials have done. Why they have not responded to the provision of the requirements. Terrorism is not the business of Nigeria only, it is an international question and everybody wants solution to it. So, why is it that our own government, our public officials have not been able to provide answers to the questions raised and the observations made by the government of the United States?
The government has raised a committee on the matter…
(cuts in) The government has set up a committee headed by the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola. But why do we have to wait until sanctions are given? This is most unfortunate. Why is it that we need to be sanctioned before we will learn how to behave? Here in Nigeria when you write letters to the government, do they respond? Do they acknowledge? Public administration in Nigeria, unlike other climes, is not accountable to citizens; it is not responsible to citizens. It’s only in Nigeria you have special advisers; special assistants who do not read newspapers, who do not know things happening even in their sectors. How will they be able to communicate what the people are saying to their principals? In this case, the first thing the government of Muhammadu Buhari should do is to find out why we have not been able to respond. When you do that, the next level is to appropriate sanctions as required. We need efficient public service, we need effectiveness. Not providing efficiency, effectiveness and accountability in public service is an act of corruption. Mr Buhari who is fighting corruption should begin the fight at the level of his officials. After, establishing what is wrong, follow by sanctions against the negligent persons, that in itself will please, not only the United States but other countries of the world. They will know that we want to operate as a civilized nation and I believe that Donald Trump will be glad to cooperate with us.
But to set up a committee to go and plead with the United States Government is to ridicule ourselves the more. To plead? For what? That is too shoddy a mandate. It doesn’t show any wisdom or good direction if we go to beg.
Will you say the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to blame for this or who?
We should blame the government of Nigeria, whether Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Interior or any ministry. This is a matter that should have been appropriately handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the Ministry of Interior since we are talking of security. Ministry of Interior is to link the international community through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Who is to blame? It begins at the level of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I have always said it that our Foreign Ministry does not have any focus. The ministry only reacts to international events. Now that the United States has sanctioned us, government is running about. Foreign policy strategy should be very programmatic. You need to list out what you want to do and take them one after the other. It is not just to attend meetings and you share briefs and react to events.
With the visa restriction from the US, don’t you think other serious nations may want to sanction Nigeria based on this same issue of not sharing information on terrorism?
It all depends on what constitutes priority to each country. Nigeria, for example, has a tripod of policy system, according to Buhari. He wants to revamp the economy, fight corruption and to maintain security. Those are his priorities. A country like the Switzerland will not bother about security. But countries that are challenged by terrorism will likely make security their priority.
Don’t you think the US is more concerned because of threats from Iran after killing its military commander, Qassem Soleimani?
The United State is concerned about terrorism because it is daily targeted. The assets of the United States in Nigeria, for instance, are targeted. After the US consciously killed Soleimani in Iraq, Iranians are planning how to hit America hard. America does not know how, when and where so it has to take precautionary measures on a permanent basis as if the attack will come the next minute. Other countries may also want to sanction Nigeria if their interests are threatened, they may compel Nigeria to say you have to do this and do that. For instance, if we have sophisticated equipment that will check when you are just coming in, things will be better. This entire hullabaloo you see at the airports is not there. You just pass and their camera will screen you from head to toe and it will detect if you hide the smallest contraband.
But the current challenge now is that terrorists do not carry weapons again when they travel. When you travel nowadays, nobody will give you a metal fork or knife so that you do not suddenly take the cutlery to attack anybody. Apart from the passengers in the First Class and Business Class who they believe cannot just suddenly become terrorists who they give metal cutlery to. Nowadays, terrorists are sophisticated people, they are knowledgeable, and they don’t carry anything when traveling. They get to their destination before they make their bombs, so there is nothing for the cameras to detect. Cameras have not developed to the extent of measuring cerebrum to know what you are going to do. It can’t detect whether you are going to prepare bombs later. This is why the United States cannot be blamed for demanding to know the history of any individual of anybody that wants to migrate.
You know this visa ban is only for immigrants. That is those who are leaving to go and settle permanently. Those are people who are traveling to a country to become landed immigrants. If the United States says it wants information on such people, why should we not provide it?
But why can’t Nigeria provide such information?
You see, that is why the President set up a committee headed by the Minister of Interior. The Minister of Foreign Affairs should naturally head such a committee but since it is security-related, the minister chosen to head it is in order. They need to establish the hard fact. I don’t know if that is part of their mandate. The mandate which we were told was that they should go and plead with the US to delist us.
Won’t that be a waste of time, especially if we do not comply with their demands?
Certainly it will be a waste of time if we only go to plead. You don’t expect the United States to now dance to their tune, no. The ban is to pressurize Nigeria to do what is necessary. The ban affects only those who are relocating to the US, those who want to go there to stay permanently. Other categories are not affected. The issue is that Donald Trump has a critical disposition towards immigration. He believed that the moment anybody is given immigrant visa, it will be difficult to eject them once they have been proclaimed Americans. Those given immigrant visa become Americans and some of them become terrorists. So, I do not see anything wrong in the policy of the United States. What is wrong is that our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has no strategy and at the end of the day they only react to international events.
There are claims in some quarters that the newly inaugurated visa-on-arrival policy of the Federal Government will worsen insecurity because some terrorists may use the opportunity to come into the country. Is this correct?
I believe that insecurity cannot but increase simply because there wouldn’t be much time for Nigeria Immigration Service to go through the information in the data. There are two ways to look at it and NIS has said that the applicants must have applied before arrival at the entry point and must have been cleared. They will only get to the point of entry to pick their visa. What we know is that in between the time of application for visa and the time of arrival there could have been a situational change which will be very difficult for the Immigration officers at the point of entry to ascertain and that is how there can be problem.
Government claims that they have different categories of visa but the problem now is that you will make visa issuance more physically complex. In this case, the conditions for each category of visa cannot but vary. So, if you are making different categorisations, it means the conditions for visa must be different. When a tourist arrives at the airport, there will be the need to look at the category and find out whether the applicant will be eligible. They can’t have time for all these. There are 39 categories of visa but when a candidate does not make it in the category in which they fall, how will you be issued visa? All these categorizations will not only make the objective of security difficult but will also make room for extortion and corruption. So, I think the argument and the observations of those who argue that the visa-on-arrival policy will worsen security situation are valid.
Look at how that Pastor Andimi Lawan was beheaded. The killing was gruesome and we were told that these Boko Haram and herdsmen are not Nigerians and they admit that these people are not Nigerian. Is this now the time to ask people to come in and take visa at the point of entry? Is this the time to encourage intra-Africa migration? No. we are told that there is an inflow of foreigners there and these people settle down quickly and engage in trading. These are Nigeriens, Chadians, Cameroonians, Guineas and Malians. Some believe that efforts are being made to make Nigeria the homeland for all the Fulani people in Africa. With this, there is no way the opening of our border either through visa-on-entry point or otherwise or the way President Muhammadu Buhari in his own Good Samaritan way decided to forgive illegal immigrants residing in Nigeria will not have negative effect on security.
If criminals have come to the country and you ask them to legalise to stay, then it means you have fully legalise their criminal disposition. In this case, I think something is fundamentally wrong with our foreign policy. This thing started under the administration of former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. He was the one who said ‘let’s give Africans free visa entry for two weeks and within that time they should regularise and get the normal visa.’ It is different from this current one.
But to allay this fear, the Minister of Interiors said Migration Information and Data Analysis System has been deployed at our airports and with that anyone with criminal record will be exposed to the Interpol. Will this not prevent terrorists from trooping to the country?
I will give this analogy, a person called Victoria Angel in the morning then in the afternoon, she undergoes a plastic surgery and her name is no longer Victoria Angel but has changed to Angel Franca. Then in the evening she changes nationality and now she is married to Mohammed Ali and with the plastic surgery, she was single but now in the evening she is married. Your equipment at the airports is a matter of garbage-in Garbage-out. Those countries where the equipment you are going to use were manufactured are still finding it difficult to prevent the influx of terrorists into their countries. For instance, Donald Trump is quarrelling with Nigeria because Nigeria has not been cooperating with the United States at the level of ascertaining the true identity of people asking to be granted visa to the US. The second reason is that the US is accusing the government of Nigeria not cooperating with it at the level of information sharing. The grouse of the US is at those two levels. The US believes that there are many terrorists in Nigeria and they do not want to give visa to any terrorist. The issue now is that while Nigeria has visa on arrival, why is UK, US, Germany, China and other big powers not encouraging visa at their entry points? It can take you six months before you get visa to Canada. When you apply for Canadian visa, they will ask you to provide all the pages on which visa had been issued. You must provide all pages where visa was given. When I applied I had to photocopy 10 passports since on the average, I use three passports in a year. They have to make inquiries and that is to tell you the seriousness which Canada and other countries attach to who they give their visas to. They don’t just give visas anyhow. A criminal who has changed name, done plastic surgery and change nationality, it is not country like Nigeria that can easily detect that.
Do you agree with those who said foreigners come to Nigeria to collect Nigerian passports and use it to travel to other countries?
That is what is happening and that is why Americans are afraid of giving visa to immigrants from Nigeria. They say Nigeria’s borders are very porous. If you say the borders have been closed, are the borders closed in the North? Even when they are closed, there are many illegal routes into the country, people from other countries just come in and they get Nigerian passports to travel out to other countries where they go and train as terrorists. That is a problem. The President of Nigeria may have innocent objective of promoting regional integration with his policies, but to the detriment of who? We are saying the insecurity we are facing in Nigeria now is brutal.
Are you now saying the border closure has not achieved its objective?
The government is saying the border closure has enabled farmers growing rice to increase their production. Border closure has merits and demerits. Those gaining from it will support it but when you look at ECOWAS Protocol on free movement, right of establishment, you will now see that the purpose of this unity and integration has failed. So, it all depends on how you look at it. But for now, border closure has not stopped insecurity.