AfricaWhen I received an invitation to attend the Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS) annual African Youth Dialogue at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe from August 7 – 8, 2015, I was initially excited. That is until I received my itinerary and  was asked by the organisers to apply for a Zambian visa and Zimbabwean visa. My flight route included two additional stops in Addis Ababa and Lusaka, and once I arrived in Livingstone I would travel by road to Victoria Falls. I became less optimistic., but applied for the Zimbabwean visa online and sent in my application for the Zambian visa at the Zambian High commission in Abuja. I was told it would take 5 working days to process my visa; with 12 working days to my departure date I believed I could rest easy..

After the 5 working days, I called the embassy and discovered my visa wasn’t yet ready. I called daily until my departure date – , the Zambian visa still wasn’t ready. At this time, my Zimbabwean visa had been issued and my bags were packed. This wasn’t a meeting I was going to miss. I checked online and discovered that the Zambian immigration issues visas on arrival, so I decided to take a chance and jump on a plane.

The journey was uneventful until I landed in Lusaka. I joined the queue and as soon as I noticed several persons receiving their visas on arrival, I became calmer. When it was my turn, I presented my passport and then began the questions.

“What are you in Zambia for?”

 I responded: “I’m here on transit, I am actually going to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to attend a meeting”.

 “Why didn’t you fly directly to Zimbabwe?”, he countered.

 “Well, the ticket through this route was cheaper and takes less time”, I responded.

 “But you don’t have a visa?”

 “Well, you can issue me a transit visa and I’ll go through”, I answered.

He asked that I wait while he attended to other persons and sent my passport to his superiors. I watched non-Africans pass through by simply stating how long they intended to stay and paying a visa fee.

After 20 minutes, another official arrived and told me that they called their boss and would have to deport me because I didn’t have a visa.

“We’ve checked, the Ethiopian Airline that brought you here is still on ground, so we will put you back on the plane”, he told me.

I told him that wouldn’t be necessary and showed all my documents. All my pleas fell on deaf ears. When I asked to speak to the boss myself, I was told it wasn’t possible. After 15 minutes of arguing, another senior immigration official intervened and listened to my story.

I showed him all my documentation, the visa letter I had used to obtain a Zimbabwean visa, hotel bookings, flight tickets from Lusaka to Livingstone and my return ticket via same route. He took all the documents, checked them and called someone. He told me to sit and wait for him while he disappeared into an office with my documents. At this time, all other guests in the arrival lounge had been attended to and I was left alone with the immigration staff.

Over 40 minutes later, he returned and told me that their boss had approved a transit visa for me. I was super excited, but very aware of the fact that it had taken over over 2 hours to convince the Zambian immigration authorities to issue me an entry visa!

The experience left me thinking about Africa’s much-touted regional integration and how our borders are still designed to lock out Africans but allow non-Africans easy access. In a statement endorsed by the Africa Development Bank President Donald Kabureka, Africa’s richest man Alhaji Aliko Dangote and the Presidents of Rwanda and Kenya, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum for Africa in Abuja in May 2014, the four men argued that easing visa constraints and removing other unnecessary barriers would contribute to boosting the continent’s economies. They went further to say that “true integration will take place only if people are able to move freely across the continent, and leaders need to take action to make this happen”.

It is instructive to note that Rwanda has led the way in ensuring all Africans entering the country can receive a visa on arrival. In an official statement released in December 2012, the Government of Rwanda stated that “Nationals of all African countries traveling to or transiting through Rwanda obtains a entry visa upon arrival without necessarily making prior application and will pay for a visa ($30) where applicable”,region

We need bold ideas and visionary leaders to integrate the continent. Ideas such as allowing entry for nationals from a different sub-region in Africa with a visa to a country in the region of the country in question will help to deepen regional integration. For instance, if anyone from Zambia who obtains a visa into Ghana could also visit Liberia, Senegal and Nigeria on the same visa, it would help to ease the difficulties in obtaining visas to several countries.

The time to act is now!

First published on the afrik4r blog

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Rotimi Olawale, co-founder of is a youth development expert. For more than six years he has been involved in leading youth advocacy efforts mainly around the Millennium Development Goals. In 2006, he represented Nigeria as a youth ambassador at the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit held at the UN Headquarters in New York. Rotimi has held several global leadership positions including; member, UNFPA Global Youth Advisory Panel for 2 years; member, African Youth Panel. Rotimi is currently involved in shaping local, national and global policies to benefit youth and also leverage opportunities for young people. He was listed by the Nigerian government as one of 15 Nigerian youth on the world stage in 2008.