COVID-19: Intrigues of Evacuation of Stranded Nigerians in Foreign Land

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ANALYSIS: Following the efforts the House Committee on Aviation and other stakeholders in the nation’s Aviation and Travel industry is making to ensure the Federal Government supports local (Nigeria) airlines especially in the evacuation of stranded Nigerians in foreign land amid the Coroavirus pandemic, (journalists raised hell for the local airlines to get the business), Air Peace appears to be the preferred airline in the evacuation affair after the month-long intrigues. Justina Okpanku writes
About 200 Nigerians stranded in South Africa were evacuated home, Thursday. The Federal Government made an effort to make it happen. That the world has been battling coronavirus pandemic which is threatening the human race is enough to worry everyone. There was panic when thousands started dying from the pandemic so much so that governments around the world started to evacuate their nationals from places the disease is prevalent. The federal government was no exception.
There was a problem. Criticisms trailed the evacuation process after a few evacuation exercises. So, not much was going on except what other countries are doing here. The stranded Nigerians citizens, meanwhile, must have been organised, made their travel arrangement; part of it was a payment of $840 for Economy Class and Business Class for $1,350 from South Africa, it was learnt. They waited and waited and the waiting took a long while. It was bad news indeed. But right now, the returnees from South Africa were able to touched down …using Air Peace Limited, a Nigerian airline that was at the centre of the evacuation saga. The stranded Nigerians in Canada are not as lucky even after paying more money. It is gathered that Ethiopian airline (ET) charged $2,500 per person while Air Peace charged only, $I, 350.
Politics
A lot of politics was involved. Not a few have expressed concerns over the attitude of our government officials who are accused of backing foreign airlines, relegating the local airlines. The evacuation process was dogged with challenges and accusing fingers have been directed pointedly to the power players in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Abike Dabiri Erewa’s National Diaspora Commission. For instance, stranded Nigerians from Canada were said to have paid and still “no show.” Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said Canada denied landing rights to Air Peace which was scheduled to evacuate the 200 stranded Nigerians from Canada. But Air Peace recently airlifted Indians from Lagos. Pundits said the evacuation of stranded Nigerians amid the coronavirus pandemic is politicized.

One of them said, ”The recent drama involving Air Peace airline and Canada over evacuation of stranded Nigerians from Canada is an eye-opener. It is perhaps this reason the National Assembly (NASS) gave a marching order to the aviation stakeholders to meet the committee in Abuja in order to thrash out the knotty areas. The lawmakers had warned that they would be thorough. Ethiopian airlines, meanwhile, which was accused of complicity in the evacuation of returnees from Canada was quick to exonerate itself from the matter and restated its commitment to the Nigerian government.
Ethiopian Airlines announced that the airline is not yet contracted to evacuate Nigerians from Canada, pointing that the onus remains the responsibility of the Nigerian government and its Agencies to choose partners for such evacuation.
The airline however stated that they are ready to operate any flight as an evacuation when requested by the respective government and agencies. “As at now the airline has already operated such flights and is having an ongoing discussion to evacuate Canadians and Canada resident permit holders from Nigeria.
What is making the rounds however is that the foreign airline, ET got “ support from some Nigerian officials while they ghosted them when things started to go wrong.” A government insider in Abuja said, “The Canadian government said they don’t know Air Peace and won’t allow the airline to evacuate stranded Nigerians from Canada since Nigeria didn’t present Air Peace initially.”
Another source close to the NASS Committee on Aviation who was visibly angry then said: “Tell me why our government people should position a foreign airline over Air Peace? We have three solid airlines that can deliver. For many weeks we have been going round and round in a circle. Where is Abike Dabiri-Erewa now that evacuation plans is in tatters?”
Did the Federal Government bow to pressure to support local airlines?
The outcome of the meeting with NASS Committee on Aviation is not clear. Aviation gurus rightly pointed out that airline business is survival of the fittest. Still Nigerians want the local airlines to have a slice of the cake pointing to the global practice. Did government bow to pressure from the travel industry?
The federal government allegedly preferred to engage the services of foreign airlines to evacuate Nigerians abroad when there are three Nigerian carriers that have the capacity to do that. According to a schedule released by the Foreign Affairs Ministry the first batch of evacuees of 265 from Dubai would arrive Nigeria Wednesday, May 6, 2020, another 300 are to arrive from London on Friday May 10 on British Airways and on Monday, May 11 Ethiopian Airline will airlift those coming from United States of America. The question was, where are Nigeria airlines in the picture?

Onyema, Foreign Minister.

Nigeria has airlines. Leading Nigeria airline, Air Peace has three Boeing 777 and Max Air has four Boeing 747 and Azman recently acquired Airbus A340-600 series which can be deployed for these charters. Air Peace apart from the operations it did to evacuate Nigerians from South Africa during the xenophobic attacks last year has handled two special charters this COVID 19 period to China for medical evacuation and to Israel to evacuate Israeli National out of Nigeria and Max Air has been operating in Hajj without hitches.

There’s need for alarm
Then the question is, “Why can’t we for once begin to believe in ourselves, why must we look outside for everything? “ Industry operators took to the Social media to mount pressure. Right thinking individuals also started expressing their views in the main stream media. One of them said: “These foreign airlines are not going to create jobs for our teeming youths. The federal government has made a call to employers not to sack their staff in the face of the current economic crunch caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, but how can the airlines cope when the opportunity for them to make money and pay their workers were taken away and given to foreign carriers?”
Another said: “British Airways cannot provide jobs for Nigerians, Emirates cannot provide jobs for Nigerians, Ethiopian Airlines cannot provide jobs for Nigerians; it is our airlines that can do that. But the support they need is being taken away by some government officials and given to foreign carriers from whom we don’t gain anything, except landing charges of about $2000.”

But there was no clear voice

Journalists, especially Aviation and Travel journalists took the bull by the horn. Some of them were said to have contacted the Chief Executive of Air Peace Airlie, Barrister Allen Onyema who was said to have refused to give interviews. One journalist said Onyema said “his airline was interested in the evacuation but complained that Air Peace has since been schemed out.” At one point media interest shifted to the regulator and industry pressure group. Thus, the House of Representatives Chairman on Aviation came to the rescue.
House Carpets FG on Use of Foreign Airlines
The House Committee on Aviation condemned the decision by the Federal Government to engage the services of foreign airlines to evacuate Nigerians abroad when there are three Nigerian carriers that have the capacity to do that. The lawmaker frowned at the engagement of foreign airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, British Airways and Emirates, to airlift stranded Nigerians from Dubai, London and America by the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Presidential Task Force, (PTF) on COVID19.
Chairman of the committee, Hon. Nnolim Nnaji therefore called on the federal government to revert to capable indigenous operators to carry out the evacuation exercise.
Nnaji called for the immediate cancellation of the contracts and the reversal to the capable domestic operators noting that America and Britain recently evacuated their citizens from Nigerian without the use of other countries’ carriers.
“The action of those responsible for this action is not only a disservice to the local airlines which have done their best to provide patriotic service to Nigerians but equally detrimental to our national pride and dignity,” Nnaji stressed, urging the Aviation Minister to revoke the landing rights already granted the three airlines.
Nnaji, who represents Nkanu East/West Federal Constituency in the Federal House of Representatives, said he strongly believed that there are capable Nigerian operators with long haul aircraft that can handle the operations that should have been engaged by the Task Force.
More pressure on government
The Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) also frowned at the Federal Government for patronizing foreign airlines for the evacuation of Nigerians abroad. Aviation insiders said countries use their airlines to do evacuation, but it is ironic that despite the fact Nigeria has the capacity, it decided to engage foreign airlines.
The body said that government’s action is disappointing after it had made earlier statement that it would engage two domestic airlines to carry out the evacuation exercise.
A schedule released by the Foreign Affairs Ministry said the first batch of evacuees of 265 from Dubai would arrive Nigeria Wednesday, May 6, 2020, another 300 persons are to arrive from London on Friday May 10 on British Airways and on Monday, May 11, Ethiopian Airline would airlift those coming from United States of America.
In a statement signed by the Executive Chairman of AON, Captain Nogie Meggison, the body said that Nigerian airlines have the capacity to bring their countrymen and women back to their fatherland and expressed shock that despite the fact that Nigeria does not have the resources now due to low oil price and despite the fact that airlines are struggling to keep their workforce due to huge loss in revenues occasioned by the COVID-19 lockdown, a government agency would engage foreign airlines to evacuate Nigerians when the country has airlines that are capable of doing that.
“AON is shocked and disappointed by the decision taken by the federal government to evacuate Nigerians back to our country with foreign airlines. So we are calling for government to identify those officials who took such decision. At a time government is searching for ways to boost its revenue, some officials are giving away the country’s meager resources.
What has changed?
What happened was that NCDC finished training the Air Peace cabin crew that would airlift the Nigerians that arrived from the UK to Abuja in May 2020. NCDC also insisted that the cabin crew would be kitted in full gear before they would interact with the passengers. So the kits have to be made available to them to ensure COVID-19 does not spread in the evacuation process. The waiting game continued until June 25, 2020 when the Daniel came to judgment. More evacuation is expected to follow suit as more stranded Nigerians in foreign countries still want to return home.
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