Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My ‘Terminal’ experience at Nnandi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja, Nigeria

One of my favorite movies is "The Terminal". The central character in the movie, played by Tom Hanks, is stranded at a New York's JFK Airport after a revolution in his country leaves him stateless, as a result of which he is refused entry into the United States by immigration authorities. However, unable to return to his home country, Hanks' character spends a couple of months living inside the airport terminal, finding lots of unique ways to survive, making friends and falling in love. Eventually, the situation in Hanks' country gets resolved and he is now allowed to enter the US before eventually returning to his homeland.

I have been thinking a lot about The Terminal movie of late after personally going through a similar experience at Nnandi Azikiwe Airport in Nigeria's capital of Abuja. Transiting from Cotonou, Benin, en-route to Accra, Ghana, I was refused boarding on a Delta Airways flight at Nnandi Azikiwe Airport because the officials insisted that I present to them a copy of my Ghanaian Visa, which had been processed for me by my Ghana colleagues to pick up on arrival at the Airport in Accra. Unable to proceed, I was caught in a state of "statelessness" – unable to board my flight or get out of the airport as I did not have a Nigeria visa either.

Thanks to the outstanding service of Cathy Witchel of Passageways Travel, I was rebooked on a different flight from Abuja back to Michigan through Amsterdam (Cathy has really been exceptional in planning my travel bookings, which often require stops in multiple countries, and complicated by requests for last minute changes). The only catch was that the new flight was leaving Abuja almost 30 hours later. This meant having to spend all of Thursday night and almost all of Friday within the immigration hall at Abuja Airport. Tough, but the Nigeria immigration staff were kind. They allowed me to make phone calls to reach my Travel Agents back in the USA and also to reach my colleagues in Ghana and the US to alert them of my predicament.

In hindsight, I should have made sure I had the Ghana visa sorted out before changing my original itinerary. But as the French say, c'est la vie. We live and learn. It is a lesson to others though that always have the right documentation or else you are forced to tough it out and have your own 'airport terminal' experience!

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While the Immigration officials at Abuja Airport were in no way to blame for my predicament, I must say my recent travels across Africa have demonstrated to me how very archaic some of our immigration rules are. Apart from the high travel costs around the continent, most of our countries have some of the most restrictive visa rules, especially for fellow African travelers. I recently had to cancel plans to travel to Cameroon over very cumbersome and lengthy rules for getting a visa to travel to the country. A colleague of mine from Uganda also encountered similar challenges in acquiring a visa o travel on business to Nigeria. These episodes also reminded me of a journey to Namibia some four years ago, when the immigration officials at Hose Kutako Airport in Windhoek refused to issue me a three week visa insisting instead that I provide a work permit to conduct research in the country.

In all these cases, immigration/ visa officials were simply enforcing existing rules and in no way were they to blame. The common theme though is that most of our countries have unusually very difficult and unreasonable visa rules that are ultimately detrimental to the countries themselves. In today's globalizing world, we should be seeking ways of making entry to our countries as easy as possible – granted without sacrificing issues of national security. As things stand, one gets the impression that visa rules are based on the wrong perception that there are many people desperate to enter our countries and take away our resources.

It is sad that it is perhaps relatively easy for me to travel to Europe and the Americas than to many of our African countries. That said, it is not all countries that have these crazy and cumbersome immigration rules. Coincidentally, those countries with relatively open immigration rules are among those that are the most attractive international destinations. Ever wondered why countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, Ghana to give but a few examples, are very popular international destinations?