The Nigeria, United Kingdom visa quagmire

TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA writes on how stringent visa policies tend to hurt trade relations and slow down investment opportunities between Britain and Nigeria

The stories about what thousands of Nigerians go through to obtain visas of developed and developing countries have been well documented. But what many do not know is that Nigeria also has what some have described as “stringent regulations” for issuing visas to foreigners, which many analysts now blame for the drawback of the country’s quest for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

     This was the crux of a sidebar discussion at the United Kingdom (UK)-Nigeria Trade and Investment roundtable, held in London recently, and organized by the Nigerian London Business Forum (NILOBF), in conjunction with the Business Chamber Trade Association of the UK.

     The roundtable seeks to promote bilateral trade and investment relations, by bringing together business people from the two countries to establish, locate, renew and seek fresh investment opportunities. Besides, it hopes to develop long-term business relationships and finalize existing contracts.

     Nigeria’s ambassador to the UK, Dr. Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, set the tone for discussions in his keynote address on activities of the Nigeria High Commission (NHC) in the promotion of bilateral economic relations between Nigeria and the United Kingdom. According to him, Nigeria and the UK have continued to enjoy cordial bilateral trade and economic relations due to historical antecedents and shared ties in language, education and legal systems, which “have reinforced the robust relations and positively impacted on the economic prosperity of the two countries.”

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Immigration boss at Nigeria High Commission in London, representing the Minister for Interior, Aminu Muhammed; Director of Nigerian London Business Forum, UK, Dr. Chris Onalo; and British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Peter Carter, at the UK-Nigeria Trade & Investment Roundtable event, held recently.

 His words: “Presently, Nigeria is UK’s second largest trading partner in Africa after South Africa and it is 32nd largest worldwide. The drive for improved trade and economic relations made the leaders of the two countries, President Goodluck Jonathan and David Cameron, in June 2011, to set an ambitious goal to double bilateral trade to eight billion pounds by 2014. Nigeria and the UK are very well on the way to achieving and possibly, surpassing the ambitious goal set by the two leaders.

   “It is instructive to note that in 2011 when the goal was set, the volume of bilateral trade was about four billion pounds and rose to seven billion pounds. There is also a conscious effort on the part of the two countries to diversify and shift focus from oil, financial services and food products, which had dominated Nigeria-UK trade relations in the past to the non-oil sectors, including agriculture, infrastructure, creative industry, information technology and retail business.”

     However, one of the organizers and member of the NILOBF Board of Directors, Dr. Chris Onalo, in a chat with The Guardian in Lagos, said it was shocking to participants at the conference when some UK businessmen revealed that Nigeria’s stringent visa policy, based on the doctrine of reciprocity, may hamper the realization of the eight billion pound trade volume target set by leaders of the two countries.

     He said: “We recognize that the operating instrument between Nigeria and other countries of the world is based on the basic doctrine of reciprocity. Sadly, Nigeria has not yet come to the level where we can demand such from the international community. And because we are a consuming population, we tend to depend solely on other countries for most of what we consume. We have not engaged ourselves in a constructive direction that can position us to reciprocate whatever foreign policy other countries throw at us.

     “Singling out Nigeria and United Kingdom for example, at the recent business forum where issues that would promote bilateral relationship between the two countries were discussed, a lot of the issues centred on the visa requirements. I realised that the immigration policy of Nigeria to the UK is even much more stringent than the regulation of the British to us.

     “I was shocked. These stringent conditions for issuance of Nigerian visas to British business visitors will not help the growth of bilateral relations between the two countries. The response from the Nigerian delegation was that, in the international diplomacy, it is more about reciprocity. It does not make sense that as a British businessman, I apply for a type of visa that allows me (only) 24 hours access to Nigeria.

   “It was strange to us that such treatment exists in this age. Issuing 24-hour business visa to citizens of countries not blacklisted or under any watch list? No businessman would come here and refuse to go back to his country, especially not a British,” he concluded.

     Applicants for Nigerian business visa are required to pay visa and processing fees totaling over $200. For expedited action, an additional $85 is required, alongside an invitation letter from the host company in Nigeria, which would accept full immigration and financial responsibility; a letter of introduction from applicant’s company; proof of legal residency and copy of airline ticket or flight itinerary.

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President Goodluck Jonathan (right) with Merkel, Obama and Cameron

Participants at the roundtable noted that apart from the advertised official rates, Nigerian consular officials also create unnecessary bottlenecks for applicants; a situation which, they argued, encourages corruption. It is also seen by some as a subtle retaliation for the “jungle of regulations and visa rules” the British Home Office institutes for immigrants to the United Kingdom from Nigeria.

     Efforts to get an official response from the Nigerian High Commission in the UK were unsuccessful as enquiries sent to the commission’s e-mail address got no reply and calls made to the Second Secretary (Trade, Industry and Investment), J.D. Pam, were not returned last week.

     An official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the ministry remains committed to protecting the interests of Nigerians by constructively engaging the diplomatic and consular missions in Nigeria, especially on visa matters.

     “As we demonstrated in our swift and effective response to the deportation of Nigerians from South Africa over the issue of yellow fever cards last year, we have made it clear that Nigeria would not tolerate the maltreatment of its citizens at home and abroad. We hold no responsibility for how citizens of other nationals are treated.”

     Last year, the Federal Government announced the introduction of a new Visa Policy, applicable to expatriates seeking to visit or invest in the country. The new policy seeks to transform the visa issuing process and guarantee easy access to immigration facilities by genuine visitors and foreign investors.

     Under the new regime, the five categories of visas are: Visa at Points of Entry, Short Visit Visa, Temporary Resident Visa, Employment Based Visa, and Scarce Skills Transfer Visa.

     The new policy also allows the issuance of a visa at the entry point, removing the barriers that currently prevent business people, tourists, and government delegations from visiting the country at short notice. Those visiting from countries where Nigeria does not have an embassy can now obtain visas at the port of entry.

     Also in the new policy aimed at boosting tourism, attracting foreign direct investments, opening up the economy for employment opportunities and securing Nigeria’s borders, the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) will now issue a 30-day non-extendable tourist pass at the port of arrival. This will apply mostly to visitors from countries where Nigeria does not have Foreign Missions.

     Furthermore, Nigerian Foreign Missions will henceforth issue one-year multiple entry permits/visas to all genuine visitors and tourists who wish to visit Nigeria. Visitors who are in Nigeria for investment purposes are eligible to be issued 10-year visas where they meet laid down criteria.

   Foreign investors, with as much as $10,000,000 investment prospects, may be given up to a 25 per cent employment quota without sacrificing employment opportunities for Nigerians.

       The UK business visa requirement is similar to those requested from British businessmen visiting the country. In fact, one requirement that stands out is the UK Home Office’s insistence on copies of bank statements from the past three months, which must be well funded to the satisfaction of the issuing official. The official rate, though, is USD 136 for business visitors.

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Tafida, Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom

Last year, Britain had planned to force visitors from six “high-risk” countries including Nigeria, to pay a cash bond of £3,000, but it was reversed after diplomatic consultations. According to a Conservative peer, Lord Howell, the UK’s visa rules are creating a “nasty” impression of the country and leaving many people “in despair.”

     He warned that tighter immigration controls could damage the economy. “We are concerned that the visa system is keeping out genuine business people and students. A new report by peers is urging ministers to make sure legitimate visitors get visas quickly, easily and cheaply. Also, the government’s language on immigration do not discourage those who would add to the UK’s prosperity from coming to the UK and supporting its businesses,” he noted.

     But Home Secretary, Theresa May, has rejected such claims, and launched a number of initiatives aimed at attracting wealth creators to the UK, including an invitation-only, fast-track visa service for top business people.

   New restrictions on graduate’s ability to remain in the country after finishing their degrees have seen the number of students coming to the UK fall. The move is part of a clampdown on so-called “over-stayers” – those remaining in the country after their visas expired.

     On the flip side, a Nigerian and member of the NILOBF, Patrick Ochuba, was denied visa to the roundtable after he had submitted all the relevant documents

   He narrated: “The visa officer wasn’t sure if I will return to my country of residence despite being a businessman and managing director of a thriving firm in Nigeria. I was made to understand that the stringent requirements or standards are mainly applied to visa applicants in countries with economic deficiencies who pose a risk to immigration rules.

   “Though, it is a general requirement to provide bank details with six months statements, but as an applicant who is legally residing in the USA or UK, you should be fine with one of three months provided the Visa Officer (VO) is satisfied in other aspects.

   “Furthermore, your travel history will put you in position of advantage, but each application is treated on its own merit, therefore, the requirements must be fulfilled. I was, however, pained that my application was rejected despite fulfilling all requirements and even providing the covering note from organizers of the event, which was endorsed by the Nigerian High Commission in the UK.”

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