Thursday, February 21, 2008



By Jerry Okungu
Dakar, Senegal

My friend Hamadou Tidiane from Senegal complained about it the other time I invited him to Nairobi five months ago. He had just discovered that for him to travel to Kenya, he would not board the plane without a Kenyan visa issued in Dakar his home town! Yet Kenya is an African country and a member of the African Union just like his native country Senegal! And that was not all; Hamadou had a few surprises coming his way.

On trying to find out the location of the Kenyan Embassy in Dakar, he discovered that Kenya actually had no Embassy in his city and had no intention of having one in the foreseeable future!

So where was he to get the cherished visa in order to travel to Nairobi? A Good Samaritan at the Senegalese Foreign Office directed him to, of all the embassies, the British Embassy, Kenya’s former colonial masters to issue him with a Kenyan visa! And even when he went there, he had to cough his precious sixty Euros (Ks 6000) and wait for three days to get a three day visa.

The most annoying bit of the whole affair for him was the list of requirements that a Senegalese national needed to fulfill before his visa could be approved. These included a passport that must be valid for at least three months, a letter from the employer indicating that he was gainfully employed, three months of bank statements, a bank statement indicating he had enough money in the bank, a fully paid return air ticket as proof that he would return to Senegal, an invitation letter from the organization in Kenya that had invited him, two passport photographs and where he would stay in Kenya together with the full address and telephone numbers. All these for just a three day workshop in a fellow African country!

Despite his protests to me over the phone, I persuaded my friend to just go through the motions and come to Nairobi because his presence was crucial to my meeting. As an incentive, I promised to reimburse his visa and miscellaneous expenses and make his stay in Nairobi as comfortable as possible.

That was five months ago. This time around, it was my turn to go through the same annoying if not irritating experience at the French Embassy in Nairobi. Like Kenya, Senegal has for over forty years of our independence never seen the need to open an embassy in Nairobi despite Nairobi hosting a number of UN Agencies in Sub-Sahara Africa.

It is interesting to note that many African countries that became independent many years after the OAU had been founded readily opened embassies in Nairobi but not founder members like Senegal. The same can be said of English speaking East African countries not bothering to open their embassies in countries like Senegal.

The harrowing and humiliating experience I received at the French Embassy in Nairobi just to travel to Senegal for an African meeting left a very bad taste in my mouth. I was issued with a visa that the French normally issue to travelers going to the European Union yet I was traveling in Africa to a fellow African country. It took me nine days to get this visa out of the French Embassy!

And even when I did, it took me five hours of sitting on a hard plastic chair watching a French woman twitching her fingers at the counter, endlessly talking on the phone and munching French sandwiches as we miserable Africans twisted and turned in our seats. For those five hours, we were not allowed to receive or make phone calls because that was against the Embassy rules and regulations!

I would have not minded if Kenya and Senegal asked another African country to handle their visa requirements as part of the recognition that they both belong to the African Union, a body that is contemplating an African federal state in our life time. I think it is morally wrong for African governments to allow former colonial masters to continue exploiting and humiliating their citizens half a century since attaining our independence, some of which were pretty bloody if one remembers the Algerian, Kenyan, Zimbabwean, Namibian and South African freedom struggles. This very painful memory should be reason enough to have our leaders rethink their relationships with one another.

Since 1963 Kenya has had cordial relations with seven African countries where nationals of these countries have had no visas requirements when traveling to Kenya and likewise Kenyans traveling to the same countries. When we travel to South Africa, we get free visa in Nairobi. A trip to Mozambique will require no prior visa in Nairobi. Both countries have agreed to issue it at an affordable fee of US$ 20 on arrival. These good examples can be emulated by the rest of Africa if there is political will among our current rulers.

In my opinion, this nonsense about cross border travel in Africa has been going on for too long because the African journalist has been too busy fighting for press freedom at home while forgetting an equally important freedom of movement across our African borders. The right for ordinary Africans to move freely across our borders on our continent should not be seen as a privilege that must be left at the mercy of our rulers who, for diplomatic reasons do not suffer the humiliations we ordinary Africans go through.

It is time the media, the private sector and the civil society made plenty of noise and forced African governments to see the logic of granting citizens of this continent this last freedom that they were denied by colonialists and perpetuated by our new black rulers.