As part of new visa restrictions by the Trump administration, the US will no longer issue immigrant visas to Nigerian applicants.
While Nigeria is not the only country affected by the “ban” (Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar will also face similar restrictions while Tanzania and Sudan have been excluded from the United States’ popular visa lottery scheme), it is, by far, the most high profile country affected by what the Trump administration describes as a penalty for unsatisfactory security and information sharing standards.
While focused only on immigrant visas, the net impact of the newly issued restrictions is far-reaching, from splitting families to hobbling employment opportunities. But there is also the general sentiment that there will likely be increased scrutiny on non-immigrant visa applications by Nigerians—as anecdotal data already suggests.
And this presents a unique problem for Nigeria’s fledgling tech ecosystem, industry insiders say.
“More than anything, it’s the kind of thing that sends the wrong signal to people that are interested in Nigeria.”
“More than anything else, it’s the kind of thing that sends the wrong signal to people that are interested in Nigeria,” says Seni Sulyman, vice president of global operations at Andela, the developer outsourcing firm which has raised around $180 million in funding mostly from US investors. Visa restrictions and the negative connotations they often imply “creates extra skepticism among people that might be interested but are not already involved,” Sulyman says.
The visa restrictions come at a time when Nigeria’s tech ecosystem has grown into being the continent’s most dominant. Over the past decade, global tech companies including Google and Facebook have looked to deepen their roots in Africa’s largest internet market. Nigeria is also increasingly bagging more startup funding—most of which has so far come from US-based venture funds—than any other African country. With the growing number of startup success stories over the past decade, renowned accelerator programs like Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator have also become a lot more recipient of applications from Nigeria.
But increased scrutiny on non-immigrant visa applications could inadvertently impact progress on these fronts. “We were just starting to find our stride in terms of foreign venture capital funding and inclusion in all of these opportunities like accelerators and speaking engagements,” says Odunayo Eweniyi, co-founder of PiggyBank and speaker at the World Bank fall meetings in Washington D.C. late last year. “I think it will certainly make it harder to take advantage of opportunities in the US. There’s a lot of good being done here that needs outside attention and amplification, I’m worried about what this means for that,” she tells Quartz.
Those fears are supported by recent data too. Last year, Nigeria recorded the largest global drop-off in visitors to the US.
In fact, the string of visa clampdown measures imposed on Africa’s largest economy last year have already impacting tech industry personnel, says Iyin Aboyeji, co-founder of Andela and Flutterwave, a Nigerian fintech giant. “We’re already seeing the impact with increased vetting and longer wait times.” Aboyeji says a number of tech industry stalwarts had to “intervene” with recommendations for visa applications for a recent batch of Nigerian startups accepted to Y Combinator’s program.
As the visa restrictions pretty much eliminate the chances Nigerians have of receiving green cards, there is a particular demographic that might particularly feel stuck in limbo: US-based Nigerian holders of H-1B visas. “Nigerian talent in the US has grown tremendously but with this they may need to start thinking of coming home in the next one or two years,” says Aboyeji who has been working on projects in and around Silicon Valley in recent years.
With Nigerians being the most educated immigrants in the US, there’s been a swelling of talent in business and professional circles, including some of the world’s biggest companies. It follows a long history of the US as a popular destination for Nigerians seeking tertiary education (economic spending of Nigerian students in the US last year reached $514 million) with the aim of getting employed in the US and, possibly, resettling there after obtaining green cards. “That path no longer exists but, for me, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing,” says Aboyeji.
One possibility could see an increase in returnees to Nigeria and possibly working remotely for US employers but there’s a more intriguing prospect for Nigeria’s tech ecosystem. “Some of these people can also decide to come and work for high growth African companies,” Aboyeji says. “That could be critical for the ecosystem going forward.”
For its part, the Nigerian government has set up a committee to ensure that US security and information sharing standards are met in a bid to get the restrictions lifted. But ultimately, it’s a reaction that reflects the government’s inability to meet those standards and lobby ahead of the ban, like Belarus did. It also suggests a lack of diplomatic chops perhaps unsurprisingly given Nigeria’s ambassador to the US—one of its most important Western allies—is an 84-year old former judge with no diplomatic experience.
Nigeria can look to neighboring Ghana for some hope though: after initially being slapped with visa restrictions for failing to accept its deportees from the US, Ghana had the restrictions lifted two weeks ago.
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