Earlier this year, Nigerian Afropop star Yemi Alade’s application for a Schengen visa were denied according to a recent report by the Guardian. Visa denials against African professonals, including prominent personalities, with valid reasons for traveling to the West have become such a common occurrence that it is time Africa considers what options it has to prevent the humiliation of its people at Western Embassies.
For instance, Alade who has several world tours under her belt was also denied a Canadian visa in 2022 to attend the International Africa Nights Festival due to financial reasons and for fears that she and her group might not leave Canada. There are other specific reports of unfair travel restrictions for Africans travelling to Europe. For instance, the story of Emma Nzioka, a Kenyan performer and DJ (more popularly known as Coco Em) who could not make it to the long-awaited Terra Sagrada Festival in Cape Verde in December 2022 simply because she was told she could not board her flight unless she bought a return ticket with the same airline (she had one with another airline) to “prove” she would return home since she was transiting through Amsterdam. She had quoted the airline staff as saying “many people have gone to cause problems’ in Europe, claiming that they tear their documents, refuse to leave and would have to be deported.
In a similar fashion and arguably even more shocking, the acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma said that he was “mistreated” upon his arrival at Germany’s Frankfurt Airport on his way to attend the World Health Summit meeting in Berlin in October 2022. In protest, he decided to return to Africa and boycott the summit after an ugly encounter with “immigration personnel who presumed that he wanted to stay indefinitely and illegally in Germany.”
It is fair to argue that the West’s migration laws and visa policies are systems of institutionalized discrimination explicitly grounded in nationality but more fundamentally based on considerations of economic worth, cultural proximity and race. This has resulted in the discriminatory denial of access to the global mobility infrastructure, with nationalities in the Global North being able to circulate across the globe with minimal constraints, while the great majority of people in the Global South have minimal possibilities of free international travel.
In a 2019 report on visa problems for African visitors to the UK, for instance, practical and logistical barriers, inconsistent and/or careless decision-making, perceived lack of procedural fairness, financial discrimination in decision-making, perceived racial bias and lack of accountability or a right of appeal were identified as specific challenges faced by Africans in applying for UK visas.
These policies have discouraged many Africans like Emma Nzioka and Dr Ahmed who have entirely valid reasons and the necessary financial means to visit Europe, forcing them to choose not to do so and rather stay or return to Africa in protest against these persistent attacks against the collective dignity of Africans.
What should Africa do about it?
Denying Africans the possibility of free international travel through visa discrimination and unfair travel restrictions by the west is a serious human rights issue that the African Union through its bodies such as the African Commission on the Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights should find a legal and diplomatic solution to. The hypocrisy of those who purport to teach Africans about human rights while enforcing such abusive policies must be constantly exposed. It is also necessary to reflect on what retaliatory measures can be collectively imposed by African nations on those countries that refuse to rectify their wrongs.
It is also worth exploring how Africans living in the west and whose family members are being unfairly denied travel visas could challenge in court these discriminatory laws and policies which target individuals who from all indications pose no risk of public order or illegal immigration whatsoever to western countries. Such litigations will for one thing bring to the fore how the current visa regime especially in the European Union perpetuates global economic inequalities.
Africa must also put its house in order by ensuring that no African who wishes to travel to any country within Africa for legitimate purposes is denied entry or discriminated against. Therefore, it becomes important for all African countries to sign, ratify and implement the Free Movement of Persons protocol. In doing this, we would be promoting integration, improving science, technology, education and research, and fostering tourism on the African continent. As of today, the free movement of persons’ protocol has been fully ratified by only a few African states, including Rwanda, Niger, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Mali, which is far below expectation. Larger countries and economies in Africa like Nigeria, Egypt and especially South Africa must lead the way in relaxing their visa policies to accommodate all Africans without any form of discrimination. The credibility of Africa’s demands for fair treatment depends upon our ability to extend those rights to our people within our continent.
In the same vein and to strengthen our bargaining power, it is important that Africa diversify and strengthen its relations with other countries and economic blocks outside Europe and the rest of the west. For Instance, Africa should find means of building stronger ties with Southeast Asia, a relationship that should go beyond a burgeoning loan book for African infrastructure, to a regime that expedites freer trade and seeks fresh investment in African industrial and services sectors and promotes a mutually respectful international travel and migration policies. It is believed that Asia sees Africa’s youthful population as a source of labour for its manufacturing companies and a market for its consumer goods. Africa must take advantage of these new partnerships with Asia to ensure that we close the wide trade deficit that already exists between Asia and Africa where Africa continues to import more significantly than it exports. Breaking the shackle of international trade policies (that have for years been skewed against Africa) will accelerate economic growth within Africa and offer opportunities to negotiate better travel and migration policies for a more respected continent.
Closing the inequality gap between Africa and Europe will contribute to bringing to an end the latter’s current discriminatory visa policies that are, in part, premised on perceived economic disadvantages of Africa and the Global South.
But ultimately, creating shared prosperity on the continent will make Africa the best place for our people to pursue happiness and take a shot at a decent life.