Conversations with fellow Africans about travelling abroad always end in how tough it is to get visas to travel to Western countries. Many who have applied have experienced moments of feeling humiliated or being treated with suspicion.
Of course, some Western embassies handle applicants with due sensitivity. You go there, you are looked over by security, and then you walk right in. For others, however, it’s like going to heaven through the eye of a needle.
But then again, the suspicion with which applicants for visas are treated is not entirely without good reason either. Large numbers of Africans are dying to go to the West and remain there, even illegally.
One thing that rarely features in these conversations is what Africans experience applying for visas to travel in Africa. Perhaps it’s because more Africans travel or seek to travel outside Africa than within it. But even limited intra-Africa travelling opens up avenues for learning about the visa regimes of certain countries.
Applying for visas to go to some African countries can be as nightmarish as applying for a visa to go elsewhere. I have had five experiences that typify what the average traveller goes through.
One entailed getting a visa to go to Niger. I had to apply via its embassy in Paris. Had I not known someone in Paris who carried my passport to the embassy and thereafter sent it back by courier service, I probably would have given up.
On another occasion, to visit Cameroon, my prospective host applied for a visa two weeks before I was supposed to travel. It was too late. The process required at least one month. I gave up, but I had learnt my lesson.
The next time I had to go, we applied two months in advance. Intrigued, when I landed in Douala, I felt compelled to ask an immigration officer why on earth an African needed to apply two months in advance for a visa to visit another African country. For security reasons, he said.
However, my worst experiences have been with one particular country in this region, but whose name I shall keep to myself. One morning, having failed to find the information I needed on their website, I called the embassy to ask about applying and about the visa fees. I was given the information I needed.
I then asked if it was admissible to apply from another country rather than Uganda where I was ordinarily resident. It was. Upon going to apply in the third country, the required visa fee was twice the amount I had been told in Kampala.
I then learnt that I could also apply on arrival. I asked someone there to confirm this. Yes, I was told, I could get a visa on arrival, but for three times the amount I had been told in Kampala. So there it was: three different amounts for the same category of visa to visit the same country. I gave up. The next time I wanted to go there, I applied at the embassy.
I did get my visa in the end, but after spending much time going back and forth and being told to “wait” with no explanation as to why I had to wait.
At one point I asked why. I got the same response: “Wait.” Meanwhile, during one of my waiting episodes, a group of Chinese came in, applied, and got their visas quite quickly, leaving me there to continue waiting. And when the passport with the visa was handed back to me, no explanation was given for keeping me waiting for as long as I had done.
And then one day I had to go back to apply again. This time I had an easier time of it. Don’t ask me what happened.
These experiences came to mind last week when the government of Rwanda announced a new visa regime. In furtherance of its open-door policy with regard to African travellers carrying African passports, it released a momentous statement.
For some years now, no one carrying an African passport has needed to apply for a visa in advance to enter Rwanda for whatever reason. And now, beginning in 2018, no one visiting Rwanda, from whichever corner of the world, will need to apply for a visa in advance.
All visitors needing visas will get them on arrival. And for travellers from several countries, visa fees have been waived altogether.
There are many things this decision proves about President Paul Kagame and the government of Rwanda. For Kagame, who has been advocating the removal of travel restrictions that interfere with freedom of movement and trade and exchange across the continent, it proves that he is a leader who puts his money where his mouth is.
About his government, it proves that when Rwandans say they aspire to work towards deepening African integration and to turn their country into a tourism and services hub, they are not talking for the sake of talking; they mean it.
Clearly, when it comes to promoting free movement, Rwanda is providing some much-needed leadership. The question is whether or when the rest of Africa will follow.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]