Monday, August 20, 2012



The AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
August 14, 2012

A small matter of visa denial to my colleague Tony Gachoka got me thinking. Tony was to travel to The Hague where he was supposed to go and present documents to the ICC to prove that the Prime Minister of Kenya should equally be tried for crimes against humanity.

The merits and demerits of Tony Gachoka’s claims are not the subject of this article. Those will be for the courts to decide- whichever courts Gachoka ends up in.

This article will confine itself to the burning politics of foreign visas to the European Union, the USA and Britain. It will also touch on the irritating multiple visa requirements when one travels within the continent of Africa.

I know that as a well travelled Kenyan, any nation on earth has the sovereign right to decide who enters its borders and who does not. That is why when one applies for a visa to a particular country, one is given a long list of things that one must declare.

Some of these have to do with health issues, domestic violence, criminal record, dealing in drugs, money laundering, substance abuse, child trafficking, piracy, bankruptcy or membership of a terrorist organization among others.
That is why when a person’s visa application is rejected; it is a humiliating and humbling experience that deserves a candid explanation so that the affected individual understands why such a drastic decision was made against him.

Countries that house UN and other international agencies such as Kenya, Italy, Switzerland, the USA, Ethiopia and The Netherlands, have an obligation to appreciate the high international traffic that will arrive on their borders either on tours of duty or simply attending conferences, assembly meetings or as in the case of The Netherlands, court proceedings at the ICC chambers.

This is the reason the Geneva Convention devised a better way to distinguish international public servants and persons in diplomatic service from ordinary passport holders.

However, the politics of visa issuance has always favoured European, American, Canadian and now Japanese and Chinese nationals. It is easy for Americans, Europeans and other G8 nationals to jump into a plane and arrive at our borders and get a tourist visa at our airports. In some cases, overenthusiastic Tourism Ministers have lobbied hard to waive visa fees for incoming tourists- that is foreigners who intend to stay around for 90 days or less.

Unfortunately this African hospitality that Kenyans are known for, where back-rack tourists- the poorest of the poor are accorded royal treatment at our airports and hotels is never reciprocated. Whereas our Tourism Ministers are ready to dance their legs lame for a few tourists landing at our airports, we have thousands of Kenyans queuing at foreign embassies parting with fortunes in search of visas to the UK, EU and the USA with many of their applications rejected on flimsy grounds and their hard earned dollars and swallowed by the same embassies.

The reason any young Kenyan will go through hell to get a visa to the USA, Canada or UK is simple. The mindset of a visa officer is tuned to suspect that any Kenyan travelling abroad is a potential economic refugee who is not likely to come back once the young person lands in the final destination. This assumption is standard procedure whether you have a well paying job, wealthy parents or a renowned professional. It is the reason the visa application forms are designed to annoy rather than help in assessing the character of an individual.

However, of all the embassies based in Nairobi, the most user friendly and courteous consulate is the American Embassy. In this embassy, there is an easy appointment form that one fills online and is given an appointment on a chosen date. Once in the embassy, it will take an hour to evaluate you and within 48 hours, you are likely to have your visa if you have a clean record. Not with other European countries and certainly not with the UK. As for the UK, you will be lucky to hear from them in two weeks with a very high probability of receiving regret with no explanations.

Travelling across the African continent in the company of an American national can be humiliating. While an African will be subjected to silly questions and embarrassing searches together with mandatory visas for every country entered, the American colleague will be saluted as he is shown the exit. It happened to me in Abidjan, Dakar, Maputo, Lome, Burkina, Bamako, Khartoum and many other cities in Africa. The only countries that have accorded Africans their due dignity are Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda. In these countries, they recognize the value of African travelers.

The question to ask is this: Why can’t the African Union take up the issue of reciprocity with the European Union and North America if indeed we all live in a global village? Why passively remain silent while citizens of the continent are humiliated even in their own countries the way the Dutch embassy humiliated Tony Gachoka? Why write a regret letter to Tony Gachoka in Dutch knowing full well that Gachoka never learnt Dutch at school? How more arrogant can a consulate be?

However, before the AU gathers the courage to confront the West on this visa issue, can we put our house in order first. Can the AU open its borders and facilitate free movement of goods, persons and services the way North America and the European Union have done to their citizens? If the AU did this, even the super powers would begin respecting citizens from Africa. If not, Africans will continue to be the doormat on which other races will wipe their feet for eternity.