On Tuesday, perhaps partly buoyed that he was finally able to be sworn in for a second five-year term and one of the longest presidential election dramas in Africa, President Uhuru Kenyatta threw down bold announcements.
First, citizens from all African countries now are eligible to apply for visas on arrival in Kenya.
A handful of African countries had beaten Kenya to it. In East Africa, Rwanda went that route some years back, and countries such as Ghana and most recently Benin, grant visas on arrival to all Africans.
Rwanda recently also went several steps ahead, announcing that citizens from every country in the world could now get visas upon arrival.
With that, it became only the fifth African country where that is possible. The others are the Seychelles, Madagascar, Togo, and Mozambique. Globally, the list had been about seven.
What made Uhuru’s announcement far more significant was that he also said other East Africans (like this columnist) would now need only an identity card to live and work in Kenya, and to get married to a Kenyan.
This had many people confused, because they thought it was already possible to do that.
Yes, East Africans can travel freely to Kenya. But to live here legally you need a resident permit, and to work you need a work permit, which since the Mwai Kibaki years has been free.
While Kenyans have married other nationals freely, love wasn’t enough. Your wife or husband still needed to get a permit to live with you in Kenya.
Being Kenya, while there has been support, sceptics and critics have scoffed at Uhuru’s move.
After all, “many Kenyans are not treated like Kenyans” in their own country. And, also, hundreds of thousands have no jobs.
What sense does it make to open up a job market where there are no jobs, and to subject Kenyans to further competition for the scraps?
Some of these are legitimate concerns, and if not properly addressed they can lead to the insanity of xenophobic attacks against foreigners that we have witnessed in South Africa.
Some economists disagree that foreigners take away locals’ jobs, but if even they did, I think Kenya needs it.
If other East Africans in the long term get Kenyans to unite against them, rather than fight the bitter ethnic-political feuds it does with itself, then that is a good.
Kenya really needs an external enemy.
Secondly, countries that build their competitiveness around being good to foreigners, like the United Arab Emirates, in the process do good by their people, too.
If you built a police system that cracks down hard on street crime in Nairobi, it will not stop a pickpocket only from snatching a Ghanaian’s wallet. Even the Kenyan woman’s handbag won’t be grabbed.
The bigger fact, though, is that people don’t rush to a country because it is easy to get in.
From our early list, only Mozambique seems to enjoy a small advantage in attracting foreign visitors because of its visa regime.
Tourism is miserly in Togo and, comparatively, Madagascar.
Indeed, the top four tourist destinations in Africa today — Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia, Algeria — still do have relatively backward visa regimes.
Some natural attractions you can’t do anything about, you can’t do anything about the ancient caves in Tangiers, mountains, sand dunes, and the scenic valleys of western Uganda.
But most, you can. A liberal visa policy, therefore, requires some initiatives.
Millions travel to Paris and London for the museums. To New York to watch great theatre, among other things.
Millions of people also flock to Dubai to see the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. And, to buy cheap goods.
China, too, gets hundreds of thousands of people visiting for cheap goods. But they also visit Dubai for the most expensive goods on Earth.
Tax policy enables cheap — and expensive — goods.
But God wouldn’t approve of the most successful policy for attracting foreigners: It’s by monetising sin.
Las Vegas is the world’s gambling capital, and mints great fortunes every day.
Amsterdam and places like Bangkok, also sell sex. (Some say Rwanda hasn’t cashed in enough on its open visa policies because it ‘doesn’t have enough sin’).
As a colleague at Nation Media Group used to say, people don’t go to a theatre to see the theatre. They go for the play.
However, your play will rarely be seen if there is no theatre to stage it in.
You could say on this visa thing; Uhuru has built the theatre.
The author is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]