It has increasingly become customary for the West, especially the US and the UK, to issue threats of visa ban/denial and other gradations of sanctions on perceived election riggers in Africa. The latest of these threats was issued shortly before and after the 2023 general elections in Nigeria. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, announced that such individuals will be ineligible for visas to the US. By the same token, the UK’s Minister of State for Development and Africa, Andrew Mitchell, stated that the UK is prepared to take action, including visa bans, against those who engage(d) in or incite(d) electoral violence and other anti-democratic behaviours. Reinforcing the above, the British High Commission in Nigeria also averred that perpetrators of vote buying, voter intimidation, destruction and hijacking of election materials and the general disruption of elections in Nigeria will face visa bans from the UK. Given that general elections in Nigeria, and indeed several African states, are often fraught with irregularities, the threats of travel bans proposed by the US and the UK are considered salutary in some quarters. However, these threats are highly problematic for various reasons.
For starters, the US-UK threats of visa sanctions on alleged election riggers and anti-democratic elements in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa align with the pursuit of their self-imposed posturing as the global policemen with a moral obligation to champion democratic rights across the world. That the US and UK which are disreputable for not only interfering in the internal (political) affairs of many sovereign states but also toppling properly constituted authorities across the world should be morally burdened to assume the role of global democratic rights crusaders is simply laughable. Their threats are nothing short of mere diplomatic grandstanding.
Second and as a corollary, the US’ electoral history is considerably fraught with irregularities. In 2000, for instance, accusations of vote-rigging and outright theft characterised the Florida presidential election result between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Needless to say, the disputed election result which took five weeks to be recounted and eventually adjudicated by the Supreme Court tore the veil off the dysfunctional electoral system in the US. Twenty years after the Florida electoral heist, Donald Trump and his allies did not only refuse to concede defeat to Joe Biden but also demanded recounts of the presidential election results from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada. Given this prevailing culture of electoral irregularities in the US, it is hypocritical for the country and its allies to remain obsessed with alleged electoral malpractices in Nigeria and elsewhere. Charity begins at home.
Third, the threat of visa bans against those allegedly undermining democracy is part of the agenda to sustain the erroneous thinking that democracy is inherently about elections. Hence, perceived threats to periodic elections are viewed as an act of democratic reversal even when democracy involves much more than elections. This reductionist and largely epistemologically circumscribed conceptualisation of democracy has accounted for the West’s undue promotion of voting rights over and above the fundamental essence of democracy that border on eradicating poverty, ignorance and diseases through people-centric economic reforms and empowerment programmes, functional and well-equipped educational and health facilities.
Fourth, the threat of visa bans as a solution to electoral violence is illusory because direct perpetrators of election rigging and violence have little or no interest in travelling out of their home countries. Indeed, the foot soldiers who perpetrate election day violence are mainly touts and hooligans without any notable social standing or intention of travelling outside Nigeria. The political thugs who are deployed for such despicable acts are mainly the social urchins who are hardly aware of the existence of such visa ban policies. Conversely, sponsors and beneficiaries of election rigging and violence are well-integrated into the elite circuit of the international political economy, sometimes with monies stashed in foreign bank accounts. Hence, the West is usually more interested in maintaining its friendship with such politicians instead of imposing visa denials or bans. A clear case in point is the European Union’s ambassador’s declaration that he would work with Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s president-elect, whose election victory is being challenged in court because the electoral process was allegedly marred by brazen violence and other irregularities in Lagos State and elsewhere.
Furthermore, the fact that many Nigerian politicians possess dual citizenship makes the proposed visa ban on alleged perpetrators of electoral malpractice ineffective.
Most importantly, it is meddlesome neo-colonial thinking to consider visa denial as the ultimate solution to electoral malpractice in Africa. If anything, threats of visa bans are a veritable distraction to a more sustainable option of strengthening and enforcing the domestic laws against electoral malpractices. There are sufficient provisions in Nigeria’s electoral laws to sanction perpetrators of electoral violence and fraud. Hence, it would be disrespectful to Nigeria’s sovereign integrity for Western authorities to sit in judgment over the conduct of Nigerians and apply punitive measures such as travel sanctions, unilaterally. As dysfunctional as the institutional capacity of Nigeria’s election management body and other relevant authorities seems, it is more dangerous to outsource their responsibilities to external police which cannot be held accountable and whose interests we cannot readily dictate.
As a veritable alternative, conscientious efforts should be made to strengthen local mechanisms of curbing entrenched electoral malpractices in the country.