Many African governments have, in the past few years, made it easier to travel across borders on the continent. But, as a South African, it is often easier to travel to other African countries than it is for other Africans to pass through our borders.
Among the governments that have made it easier to travel is Nigeria. Although that country has had a reciprocity policy with other African states, South Africans had to apply for visas in advance. In the past two years, however, getting a visa on arrival is now possible. Last year, because I doubted that the system would work, I got a visa from the Nigerian embassy in Nairobi before departure.
This year, I decided I would not call a friend as I had done the previous year. I would walk through the process with other South Africans who had also been invited to attend the Aké Arts and Book Festival. We would be travelling together from Kigali to Lagos.
With us was a Kenyan passport holder, Peter Kimani, the author of Dance of the Jakaranda. Unlike previous festivals, this time we had a protocol officer.
A protocol officer is a Nigerian insider hired to smooth the way for important people. A protocol officer is not the person who meets you at arrivals. At Lagos’s Murtala Mohammed International Airport and Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana, the protocol officer meets you immediately after you have disembarked from the plane and before you reach immigration. They are the people who make you believe that, if they had your passport number and other details beforehand, they would have filled out your landing card for you. I had experienced them on previous occasions when I was a juror for a now defunct literary award and in Ghana when on an official visit. Never for a literary festival. Aké, having moved from Abeokuta to the commercial capital of Nigeria, Lagos, gave us the protocol officer.
Our flight arrived the same time as an EgyptAir flight, at a little after 1pm. There were no other flights so immigration was not as busy as I have experienced on previous visit to Nigeria. Our protocol officer was there waiting for us. It should have been smooth, but it wasn’t.
Soon after we got to where they process visas on arrival, some official spoke out: “Anyone here with a Kenyan passport?”
Peter walked over. In less than 20 minutes, he had paid his visa fee of $20 and received his visa. Thereafter, he stood around waiting for our visas to be issued. It took so long that the airline officials asked us to retrieve our baggage so it would not be stolen. Two hours later, a flight from the United States arrived, bringing with it Kenyan Mukoma wa Ngugi, a writer like his father Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
We were all annoyed about the delay, with at least one of our party of five South Africans visibly so.
When our protocol officer asked why the system was so slow, he was grabbed by the collar by another senior official. “You are asking me stupid questions, heh? I will beat you. Who are you to ask me questions? You are trying to embarrass us in front of foreigners,” he told our protocol officer.
In a country that sometimes emphasises rank over human dignity, a lower-ranking official who should have been filling in the paperwork came from behind the desk and pushed our protocol officer, saying: “Yes. Why are you talking to oga like that?”
Mukoma rushed to the rescue and our protocol officer left. Then Mukoma handed over his passport.
“You are Ngugi wa Thiongo’s son? The Ngugi? I studied A Grain of Wheat in high school,” said another immigration official.
When they found out Mukoma was a writer in his own right, he was no longer a rock star. He was a demi-god. And he quickly got his visa.
The protocol officer had suggested that we all wait for everyone to get their visas, but after two hours, we suggested that Peter and Mukoma should go ahead. As they bade us farewell they said they would see us at the hotel.
I was tempted to claim that I was Zimbabwean author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga’s sister or Senegalese author Aminata Sow Fall’s daughter and also a writer so that I too could leave. I did not. Instead, I counselled myself to be patient. I have heard more horror stories from Nigerians about dealing with South African immigration officials than we were experiencing.
To stop the grumblings, I told some of these stories to my compatriots. One writer friend has refused to attend any literary festivals in South Africa because he was put through hell during the visa process and ended up having his passport withdrawn. Another friend had a full scholarship to study in South Africa, but missed a month of study because, despite applying for her visa timeously and having submitted all the paperwork, our consulate insisted it needed a police clearance from the United Kingdom where she had done her master’s. Yet another friend had to attend a wedding in the Western Cape winelands without many of her family members because South Africa would only issue visas to her parents and one sibling. And so the stories went.
Four hours after our arrival in Lagos, the immigration officials must have felt they had sufficiently flexed their muscles and proved to us that they were more benevolent than South Africa’s immigration officials. They then processed our visas within 20 minutes and we left the airport at about 6pm.
Fortunately the festival was so memorable that, although the treatment at immigration cannot be forgotten, it almost seemed worth it.
When Kenya decided on visas on arrival for Nigerians, there was an uproar from some Kenyan citizens. But numbers from Nigeria to Kenya and vice versa have not increased significantly. Perhaps this is something that Sub-Saharan Africa’s two biggest economies should consider easing up on. It would be a pity of our arts, which have collaborated so well, do not go beyond where they are because artists cannot collaborate because of these unnecessary restrictions.