By Zainab Usman
In case you missed it, Nigeria is one of six countries to be included in the latest iteration of a US visa and travel ban. According to the new restrictions, the United States will no longer issue immigrant visas that offer a path to permanent residency (Green Card) and possibly citizenship to Nigerians.
Although Nigerians can still apply for non-immigrant visas for tourism, business etc., the reality, as we all know, is the refusal rate for these visa categories is extremely high.
I find this development very humiliating, because it speaks to a complete lack of leverage by Nigeria on U.S. policy due to a complex interplay of domestic and geopolitical factors. Why do I say this? I’ll mention just three reasons:
1 – Nigeria has many internal security challenges but it is not an exporter of terrorism to the USA. Other countries whose nationales have been engaged in terrorist attacks are not subject to visa and travel bans. Countries muzzling and jailing journalists enmasse, killing protesters (remember the country from an ancient civilization that mowed down 500+ protesters after a military coup? Yeah, its not subject to travel restrictions), and grossly violating human rights etc., having higher numbers of birth tourism to the U.S. are not experiencing travel restrictions. These countries have leverage and have the lobbying firms on K-street on retainer to engage in high diplomacy to pre-empt this kind of decision. Nigeria is caught on its back foot. We clearly are unable to translate “Africa’s largest economy and the world’s most populous black nation” into effective tools of state craft within and beyond Nigeria’s borders.
2 – Nigeria’s ambassador to the U.S. is an 85+ year old man called out of retirement to take up that position. He is a retired justice of the Nigerian supreme court who had a very distinguished professional career. However, I do not think an octogenarian is the best person to do the running around, coordination and politicking at a crucial time like this for the country. Nothing against him personally, but we need to be serious. Is this really the best we can do to represent our country in the world’s superpower? People’s lives are at stake. Families will be torn apart – I know at least three people whose spouses and other family members are smack in the midst of processing their immigration documents.
3 – The super admirable achievements of individual Nigerians in the diaspora doesn’t seem to be translating into any kind of collective influence in D.C. From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, Hollywood, sports, Ivy League universities etc., are Nigerians excelling in various fields. Nigerian-Americans are one of America’s most successful immigrant communities: 29% over the age of 25 hold a graduate degree, compared to 11% of the overall U.S. population, according to the Migrations Policy Institute. Nigerians in the U.S. have a median household income of $62,351, compared to $57,617 nationally, as of 2015. Yet, these individual achievements have not translated into collective influence, comparable to say, the Indian diaspora. This is really worth reflecting on… beyond just celebrating individual achievements or the higher numerical values of remittances sent back home.
There’s really no other way of sugar-coating this, but we are not serious. This should not be happening – yes there are domestic political factors in the U.S. driving the swift changes in immigration policies, but the blunt end of these policy changes seem to be affecting countries with minimal leverage. This is the humiliation that I feel, that Nigeria is willingly rendering itself globally powerless and irrelevant. Maybe we need to unpack the concept of power and identify its sources (military, economy, geography), but that’s a task for another day…
This travel restriction may very well be reversed, with serious diplomacy and effective negotiations by the Nigerian government. Regardless, the larger perception issue around Nigerians, our value and the weight of our passport remains. I’ve been detained a couple of times at various airports around the world, shouted at, questioned intrusively and subjected to humiliating treatment for no reason than being Nigerian. We all have these stories… to be shared another day… It will therefore be a grave mistake to treat this visa ban as a one-off event, rather than a larger issue of a limited leverage in a world that is changing rapidly.
Nigeria is asleep and needs to wake up to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. I do hope the unmistakable grinding sounds of draw bridges being drawn up, snapping shut, across the world will motivate serious introspection in African countries broadly and Nigeria in particular. Our middle class is yearning to escape to “greener pastures” and indeed, I realize the irony of me typing this message from my keyboard in the cushy suburbs of northern Virginia. I have been away from home for about a decade now. Yet, collectively, we really need to some serious soul-searching to overcome our collective action problems, and make the country habitable enough for many of us to live decent lives and be treated with dignity around the world.