If Africa is to realise its potential, much needs to be done.  Not least, there needs to be less of a reliance on exports to other continents, and more on inter-African trade.  Incredibly, African countries’ trade with their neighbours is just 11 per cent of the total, compared with 70 per cent in Europe.  On his recent visit to Tanzania, President Obama remarked that it is easier to sell coffee to Europe than across the border.

Travellers around Africa will know that it is not just goods that are difficult to move around, it can be a serious challenge also for people!

The whole system of visas can really do one’s head in.  What’s the problem?  Well, before I give examples of the problem, let me give the solution – a single visa for a region, or (and this needs a real – and naïve! – stretch of the imagination) for the whole of Africa.

It’s been done before.  Before 1990, Europe had some of the most stringent border controls, specifically between East and West – getting into Czechoslovakia was not that easy in those days.  Now, almost 30 of Europe’s countries, well over half, are in the Schengen area, which function as a single country in terms of visas – a visa for one allows (mostly) unrestricted travel to all the others.

Here in West Africa, visa-free travel does exist – but only for nationals of one of the countries of the region.  A Nigerian passport holder can travel throughout all of the ECOWAS states without a visa.  Indeed, it is possible to get an ECOWAS passport, valid for travel only within the regional bloc, same day, no biometrics, no security check, just proof of identity – like a utilities bill.  Pretty simple stuff, if you are a national of an ECOWAS country.

But between East and West, North and South, visas are required by Africans, are difficult to obtain, and often refused.  In recent years, frequent political spats between Nigeria and South Africa have meant increased refusals of visas, a “shortage” of visa stickers, and, in the Nigerian High Commission in South Africa,  a rejection of invitation letters signed by anyone with a non-Nigerian name (e.g. me!).

Ah yes, invitation letters.  To get a visa for most African countries, you need to be invited by someone.  For Equatorial Guinea, that someone has to be the government.  So no spur of the moment trips – that letter can take “a while”.

Granted, some countries in ECOWAS allow any traveller from outside the bloc to obtain a visa on entry – Senegal, The Gambia, Mali are the ones I have experience of that do that.  Sierra Leone has an on-line system run by a local tour operator, with a visa produced on arrival.  Others, like Ghana, also allow a visa on entry – provided a letter has been obtained from the

Ghanaian authorities, by someone in Ghana, who has enough clout to obtain said letter, and the letter is there, at the airport, when you arrive.  But, this being Africa, it is not as simple as that.  Because, as happened to my colleague recently, he was denied boarding in Lagos for the Accra flight, because they wouldn’t accept the copy of the letter he had with him as sufficient evidence that he would be allowed into Ghana.

As an official and long-term resident of Nigeria, you would think that I might be afforded the same rights as a national, at least for travel within ECOWAS?  No, I have to obtain visas like any other foreigner.  With the exception of Angola (and Angolan visas are soooo difficult, I am not going there in this piece!), I am not aware of a single southern or Eastern country for which I require a visa – I get one on arrival.

And by “get one”, I mean “buy one”.  Because that’s what it’s all about, that’s why the visa regimes in Africa can be so difficult, for Africans as well as for foreigners, that’s why doing a multi-country trip can be well nigh impossible, because it would take so long to get all the visas required, that’s why introducing a Schengen-type visa in Africa (or abolishing visas altogether, ECOWAS-style, but for all travellers) is a pipe-dream, that’s why the visa system in Africa seems, at least to me, to be getting more and more onerous.

It’s all about money.  Visas obtained on entry are not a visa, per se, they are an entry tax.  Fine, I have no problem with that.  Governments have to raise money somehow, and a modest entry tax is one way of doing it.  I certainly don’t believe that all this wahala involved in getting a visa in advance is anything about security, keeping out undesirables, it is about collecting money, but in a darn sight more difficult way than charging an entry tax.

Three examples – Turkey, one of the world’s greatest success stories in terms of the growth in its tourism industry, as well as growth in its economy through its export trade, has an on-line system, where nationals of most countries, including most African countries, can apply and pay for their visa.  The one condition of using this system is that you hold a valid Schengen, UK or US visa – because the Turks are saying that if they have already done their security checks, which should we do the same?

The second example is the old chestnut of the EAC visa, which is “prioritised” by government for implementation every single year, but cannot be implemented because they cannot decide on how to share the revenue.  Nothing about security concerns, it is all about money.

Finally, and fellow travellers will share my pain on this one, have a look at the road border at Seme between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin.  The previous dreadful border posts are “under renovation”, and the border now comprises a dirt track between porta-cabins and wooden shacks (I kid you not).  The words “medieval” and “primeval” (reference the mud) come to mind, as you

pick your way between the various officials demanding to see your passport, and writing your details in old ledgers, as you avoid the piles of garbage and the animals rooting around in them (I still kid you not) – and as a constant stream of people on motorbike taxis goes unimpeded through the border, “visa” and ID free, having caused the officials to suffer temporary loss of sight through a “handshake”.

It’s all about short-term, now-now money, without any thought to the advantages of opening up the borders to people, and their trade.

Trevor Ward

W Hospitality Group, Lagos           

trevor.ward@w-hospitalitygroup.com