...To All Who Have Tried Acquiring Visas....

I enjoyed the speech made by the British High Commissioner last week.

There was a colourful bit of the speech which particularly struck me with all the shame that His Excellency aimed at all of us. In trying to illustrate how we Ghanaians have no respect for structures and institutions, the High Commissioner recounted the constant requests for visas with which he is bombarded.

This is how he put it: “Almost every day, someone asks me for a visa, …for themselves, their spouse, child, brother, friend or neighbour and sometimes for their brother’s friend’s neighbour.”

“I’m already heartily tired of always saying the same thing: namely: “That if you comply with our immigration rules, you’ll get a visa, if you don’t, you won’t.”

“Knowing me or asking me for what is euphemistically called a personal meeting to lobby me won’t make a blind bit of difference; I can neither impose change nor reverse any visa decision taken by our visa experts in accordance with our rules.”

I suspect that all those who know the High Commissioner and have tried to get visas through him, on hearing or reading the speech, would say: “guilty as charged”. However, I am not at all sure if this very public naming and shaming is going to buy him any peace so that people no longer ask for his help in obtaining visas.

There is a word for it in Ghana, Your Excellency and if you haven’t yet heard it, we call it CONNECTION. It means shortcut, it means going through someone to circumvent laid down procedures. It means using unauthorised and unconventional methods to get something done.

It means getting something done faster than it would take through the approved channels. It often means paying more than the advertised rates for the service. It also means calling the High Commissioner to help you obtain a visa in a shorter period and without providing the catalogue of documents being requested. It also means influence peddling and it probably also means corruption.

I am a great believer in people going through laid down structures and this is because I believe this makes life easier for all of us. On the road I detest drivers who create new lanes to gain an advantage. This is because I am certain if everybody stays in the designated lanes we shall all make a faster journey.

Unfortunately, when the proper procedure is deliberately cumbersome and designed to frustrate, the temptation to take the CONNECTION route is very strong.

I am not one of those who have been harassing the British High Commissioner for visas; I haven’t met him and so the opportunity hasn’t come up. I have known quite a number of his predecessors and I can say with certainty that I have not asked any of them for help in obtaining visas. Not for myself, nor “for my brother’s friend’s neighbour.”

The humiliation that is involved in the process of obtaining a visa with a Ghanaian passport is such that I prefer as few intermediaries as possible. I am not sure what the current situation is, but I remember trying to book an appointment for a visa interview at the American Embassy and every day for the next four months was solidly booked and unavailable. In which case if I had a CONNECTION, should I not use it?

My nephew who is a French citizen came and got married to a Ghanaian lady here in Accra; we went through all the processes as meticulously as the law and custom demanded….. traditional marriage, under the ordinance at the Registrar General’s, and a church wedding. Five months into the struggles to get a visa for my nephew’s bride to join him, a kind gentleman told us the marriage under the ordinance should have been conducted at the French embassy and there would have been no problems getting the visa for the young lady.

I got a British visa recently; it took me a week to fill the forms and gather all the documentation that was required. This is for someone who has been getting British visas for more than 30 years and you wonder what happens to virgin applicants. Did I really have to provide proof I could afford fish and chips for a week’s visit and answer questions about all the countries I had visited in the past 10 years and where my father was born, when I have already established my nationality?

I quite understand that all of us Ghanaians are viewed as potential economic migrants who want to escape from our country and live in the United Kingdom or any European Union country, the United States of America or any other country near these places. Undoubtedly, there are many of us who belong in this category but there are some who are happy to live in Ghana and simply want visas to visit these countries and come back home. Unfortunately all of us are lumped into the same group; viewed with suspicion, treated with contempt and humiliated with abandon.

Is it any wonder that people harass the High Commissioner in the forlorn hope that they might get preferential treatment and escape routine humiliation? There is the added problem that in spite of our being told incessantly that CONNECTIONS don’t work at these embassies, we all get the impression that those who try to play by the rules are the ones who have to endure the difficulties and humiliations.

A side story of the now notorious Ruby cocaine case provides an interesting perspective. We learn that once the arrest occurred at Heathrow Airport, one of the two young ladies, said to have accompanied Ruby, left London the same day and went to France (she must have a Schengen visa, or was she also traveling on an Austrian passport?) and bought a ticket and took a flight to Togo from France. She obviously complied with the immigration rules and got visas. Oh, to be able to have such freedom of movement on a Ghanaian passport.

A long time ago when I worked for the BBC in London, we organised a competition which was won by a 62-year old Nigerian veterinary doctor, who had a private practice in Benin city. The prize was a four week trip to London to spend time with a news magazine. The British High Commission in Nigeria refused to grant the man a visa. His earnings from his practice, when converted into pounds sterling, fell short of convincing the “visa experts” that he earned enough not to be tempted to leave his wife and children and veterinary practice behind in Nigeria and become an illegal immigrant in the UK.

How I wish the High Commissioner had picked on anything but the granting of visas as an example of how their institutions work.

Source: Elizabeth Ohene/BBC