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Thursday, April 07, 2005

PrepCom-2; Between NGOs, visa racketeering

Features of the week:

On the road to Tunis 2005, the second Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom-2) for the phase-II of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS-05) recently ended in Geneva, Switzerland, with the re-occurring suspicion of visa racketeering by some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the prowl, reports REMMY NWEKE.

Today marks 41 days after the second Preparatory Committee Meeting (PrepCom-2) for the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS-2005) which ended in the Swiss capital, Geneva on February 25, but the exploits by some Nigerian-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs), otherwise referred to as civil society groups during the exercise are still reverberating.

PrepCom-1 for this phase was held last June in Tunis, the host country of the WSIS-05, slated for November this year. Prior to the second phase of PrepCom-2 held between February 17 and 25 this year, a Save-Our-Soul (SOS) letter was distributed online to some stakeholders, precisely on February 11, by a group identified as “Concerned Nigerian Delegates to the WSIS PrepCom-2”.

The letter was addressed to the Chief Travel Section, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretariat in Geneva and read thus:

“Your Excellency,

RE: PREPCOM-2, GENEVA

URGENT ASSISTANCE FOR SWISS ENTRY VISA

We, members of the civil society accredited to the World Summit on the Information Society want to thank you immensely for facilitating our participation for PrepCom-2 of the Tunis Phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, Geneva 17-25, 2005.

In spite of the letter of support your office sent to the Swiss Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria to ensure our participation, the embassy refused to issue visas to our delegates with the excuse that they have not travelled to Europe before. All our attempt at explaining to them the importance of our participation especially as one of the key import of the conference is to bridge the digital divide between the South and the North was of no avail.

It will be recalled that the Republic of Ghana in West Africa issued visas to all accredited participants worldwide (Europe inclusive), even at the port of entry during the WSIS Africa Regional Conference. Please note that the denial of our delegates to participate in the meeting underscores Africa’s active participation and input on the outcome of PrepCom2, more so that Africa is hosting the Phase 2 of the World Summit in November (Tunis).

Even a few individuals who were privileged to be granted visa (due to the fact that they have travelled to Europe before) are completely unease about this development and may boycott the event if fellow delegates’ plight at the embassy is not immediately and adequately addressed by your office. Please, as a matter of urgency, kindly communicate with the Swiss government on this issue and get back to us on E-mail: concernigerians4wsis2005@yahoo.com, so as to adequately ensure the participation of our delegates. We await your URGENT response”.

It was endorsed by the duo of Prince Goodluck Obi, Country Co-ordinator United Nations of Youth, Nigeria and Mr. Michael Nwafejoku, President, International Foundation for African Children.

However, travelling in this era of evolving Information Society (IS), depending, may not be vital, but where the traveller meets all the requirement, entry visa should not be denied whether they are absconding or not, according to industry watchers. They, however, noted that one may not be advocating what is known in Nigeria as ‘Andrew check-out’ syndrome. Other analysts opined that the purpose of Information Society would be defeated where such denials occur, which often affects genuine travellers, who are not even ready to spend a night outside the official requirement on any shore outside their father land, Nigeria.

But the fact remains that most of these NGOs, have some ‘hidden agenda’ whenever such an international event is organized in any part of the world especially in Europe; to do brisk business through ‘organised’ travel, which paves way for some of the so-called delegates to break-out as soon as they touch down at destination.

Another worry, for stakeholders and particularly Nigerians as far as WSIS processes are concerned is that the number of visa applicants in the name of civil societies were reported to be about 300, hence some analysts took the figure with a pinch of salt, saying it could be above 100 but not 300.

According to the director, Nigerian Office of Heinrich Boll Foundation, Dr Axel Harneitt-Sievers, who intervened, “it also appears that the Swiss embassy in Abuja was simply overwhelmed by the number of applications … the visa department mentioned that they had received about 300 Nigerian visa applications to visit the Geneva WSIS PrepCom”.

Dr. Harneit-Sievers, also noted that apparently, “such a number alone makes it difficult to filter out genuine applications”.

At Geneva, during the civil society plenary session, the WSIS Executive Director, Mr. Charles Geiger, made some comments reportedly depicting condemnation of African NGOs’ quest for visa, with particular reference to the Nigerian delegation most of whom were later granted entry visas.

The explanation, Champion Infotel gathered, was that when some of the NGOs applied for accreditation, they were asked for papers, including annual reports, budgets and financial reports, which showed some, may have forgotten what they supplied as information. This, Mr. Geiger, noted was a purported tiny NGO bodies with very modest budget lines.

Unfortunately, thereafter, same NGOs without fellowships were registering a team of 10 and above participants for the events and were asking for visas. Hence, it was concluded that an NGO with the kind of budget that was submitted could not just fund that kind of a team unless it’s aim is migratory. However, this may not be the case of everyone.

But reacting to this development, a concerned Nigerian, Mr. Ayo Oladejo, wondered the possibility of writing boldly on individual forehead “we are truthful and honest citizens of Nigeria,” saying such should have been very good. Though it’s not possible, he guessed it’s a cross every Nigerian has to carry until a change is made on the situation of the country, socio-economically.

He stressed that Nigerian leaders brought this on the citizens, “when out of their selfish and personal agenda they made Nigeria a country without a future for her youths”. It was argued that if Nigeria was economically stable, “most of these young people would not have to leave Nigeria, their country for anywhere they have neither relations or friends”.

He agreed it is a big challenge for citizens, but “we need to start thinking of ways to correct this ugly trend of leaving an impoverished country for the next generation”.

Pointing out that in spite of the foregoing, embassy
officials are paid to distinguish between illegal and legal immigrants. He
argued that they should not look down on Nigerians, in view of the fact that not
every Nigerian is corrupt. Mr. Oladejo hopes this ugly experience will not
repeat itself during the main summit in Tunis later in the year.

Although he expressed sadness over the visa incident, he stressed that in the 60s, visas to the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) were not what they are today, as most of the people who travelled out then went to school and they were even begged to go.

He pointed accusing fingers at leaders, saying they need to be actually questioned for allowing the nation to degenerate and make consular officers to abuse Nigerians and treat them like animals; making visa applicants to sleep over in embassies, among other unsavouring treatments.

Membership Coordinator, Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO), Mr. Oyebisi Oluseyi, while decrying the situation said that the absence of Africa in such a forum like the WSIS Prepcom and main summit, will amount to other developing countries planning for Africa in the absence of Africans.

Thus, he declared that enough is definitely enough on the marginalisation of Africa and indeed Nigerians in the development of the “world” which belongs to all and called on developed countries to be sincere on the plight of Africa and Africans, amidst other developing continents.

“With most government of the developed world’s mere rhetoric to the African plight, we cannot but keep experiencing this,” he lamented.

It was also gathered that during the Women Conference in Beijing, Nigeria alone sent hundreds of women to the conference and till date, not much impact of their participation is visible.

An issue, however, for evolving Info Society is that of freedom of movement across the borders. Though, this adds to tourism returns to the visited country economically, which also affects the origin of the visitor, mostly in developing countries adversely.

For instance, if 300 delegates were to come from Nigeria and spend an average of $900 for a 10-day event per person, that is a handsome income for the hospitality industry in Geneva.

Therefore, as much as many Nigerians condemned the suspected visa racketeering by some NGOs, decorum must be implored in dealing with visa applicants in the continent and Nigeria precisely.

This is because, despite the bad name engraved on Nigeria by some Nigerians, majority are proud Nigerians, who believe in the role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools at this time of the century, position of the leaders on corruption and anti-corruption notwithstanding.

It is time to rethink on how to move the nation forward. Before then, like the recent “Commission for Africa” report launched March 11, 2005 in London and chaired by Prime Minister Tony Blair, in its page 20, stated, “... The first responsibility for change and improved governance lies with Africans themselves, in which the rich world has a moral duty - as well as a powerful motive of self-interest - to assist”.