Nigerians were recently agitated by the British Government’s proposed demand for a £3,000 bond as a prerequisite for the issuance of a six-month visa for visitors from Nigeria, and five other Commonwealth countries to the United Kingdom. Expectedly, this development has also been widely condemned by the government and members of the National Assembly, who have unanimously urged the British authorities to recognise the value of our intimate historical and economic ties, and reconsider the adoption of such an offensive and hostile policy towards Nigeria. The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Dr. Andrew Pocock, on his side, noted that the financial bond was a way of tackling abuse of the UK immigration system. In an attempt to assuage the concerns expressed, the UK mission advised that the bond would only affect a small number of the highest-risk Nigerian visa applicants, and those who do not violate the original terms of entry would receive a refund on return to Nigeria. However, critics observe that the Conservative Party in the UK hopes to reap political, security and financial benefits from the “visa bond” policy, when effected.
In recent years, the results of elections in several European countries have been critically influenced by a swelling demand by the electorate for tougher immigration policies, as indigenous European populations become seriously concerned about what they consider as the threat of liberal immigration policies to their culture and social welfare. It is also expected that the requirement for a visa bond would enhance security by selectively reducing entry to potential fundamentalists and terrorist materials. It is noteworthy that with the exception of Ghana, the five other targeted countries, i.e., India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nigeria have predominantly non-Christian populations. Third, critics also see a parasitic financial benefit in the proposed policy. For example, the British High Commission confirmed that over 180,000 Nigerians apply to visit the UK annually; in reality, with current visa fees of about N20, 000, this would translate to over N3.6bn annually; i.e. a sizeable revenue source that may, in fact, be adequate to run the UK mission in Nigeria!
Incidentally, in addition to the official visa levies, applicants are usually further oppressed with other fees often in excess of N50,000 from local agents, who are officially recognised as facilitators of the visa process. Indeed, if each visa applicant pays the new bond price of £3,000, the British treasury will forcibly collect over £540m from Nigerians alone. Furthermore, if only 10 per cent of the applicants pay the £3,000 bond, this would still mean an interest-free loan of about £54m from economically-beleaguered Nigerians, just for the joy of visiting a Commonwealth nation, which arguably became sumptuously endowed from the sweat of the people and wealth of its former colonies. Curiously, francophone countries, from which the British derived minimal capital, and indeed, other politically more volatile Arab states have been exempted from the visa levy. Incidentally, there is no indication that the bond refunds would earn any interest for the six months “loan” to the UK government by visa applicants. It is also not yet clear what currency the High Commission will demand as settlement for the £3,000 visa bond.
Currently, several foreign missions are very clear about the quality of naira denominations that are acceptable for settling their receipted fees. Not unexpectedly, both the Nigerian and Indian governments have cautioned the UK about the implications of retaliatory measures; Ambassador Gbenga Ashiru stressed that Nigeria might also impose the £3,000 visa bond on British visitors. However, the Nigerian threat may not bring much comfort to long-suffering Nigerians, who have witnessed dramatic government somersaults on such issues in the past. For example, since the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah, threatened fire and brimstone over the oppressive airfares charged by British Airways between Nigeria and Britain, regrettably, nothing more has happened, and the initial yell of protest has become less than a whimper. Meanwhile, Nigerians continue to pay what some describe as selective extortionist rates to British Airways! The threat is that if the UK succeeds in its bid, other countries may also demand visa bonds from Nigerians. Instructively, however, even if Nigeria also makes good its threat to reciprocate the £3,000 bond, visa applications from British citizens, the revenue inflow will still be a far cry from the payment by over 180,000 Nigerian applicants for the UK visa. Readers will recall that Nigerians have not always been unpopular visitors to the UK. For example, before 1985, I embarked on at least two visits to the UK without a visa issued in Lagos; the visas were ultimately issued without any fuss or harrowing demands at the point of entry at Heathrow Airport. Curiously, on one occasion, the immigration officers were alarmed that I wished to spend only a week in the UK, and therefore encouraged me to spend longer time and enjoy their “beautiful country”.
Surprisingly, despite my reluctance to extend my visit, I was still given a six-month visa. Curiously, even when Nigeria was a pariah nation due to military rule, Nigerian visitors were still gladly welcomed because the big spending appetite of our people was sweet music on British High streets! (Incredibly, our foreign reserves were below $5bn then, but naira exchanged almost at par with the British pound sterling, and wage levels and job opportunities in Nigeria were relatively better than elsewhere!). Not surprisingly, the commercial bond of friendship gradually began to wane as naira exchange rate literally crashed on the adoption of the IMF-sponsored Structural Adjustment Programme, and several industries closed shop as raw material costs escalated; evidently, the popularity of the Nigerian tourist has over time become negatively adjusted in consonance with our ‘sick’ naira! The collapse of the Nigerian economy and abiding double-digit inflation rates over many years have led to reduction in job opportunities and ultimately opened the floodgates for Nigerian job seekers, some of whom embark on suicidal journeys across deserts and oceans to the UK and elsewhere. Paradoxically, we are encouraged to celebrate the cash inflow that comes as personal remittance from the employment of Nigerians in the Diaspora; whether or not this cash inflow compensates for the attendant antisocial impact of brain and manpower drain on the economy is another question entirely.
Painfully, also, according to a report credited to Governor Olusegun Mimiko, Nigerians still spend over N80bn ($500m) annually, to train our young ones in the UK educational institutions. Worse still, the beneficiaries of this sacrifice will remain reluctant to come back to Nigeria after the completion of their studies, because of the scarcity of jobs as well as the foreign exchange valuation of the existing wage structure.