At last, Nigerians stranded outside the country as a result of the COVID-19 challenge and had been anxious to return home can now do so from Wednesday when the first evacuation from the United Kingdom would commence. Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama dropped the hint on Monday in Abuja at the daily media briefing by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19. Onyeama who enumerated the challenges he had faced in achieving this, said about 4,000 Nigerians were in different parts of the world waiting to be evacuated home. He said the biggest constraint in the evacuation process was where to quarantine them in terms of bed space.
Giving an update of his activities, the minister said “Some weeks ago, I indicated some of the challenges that we are facing with regards to evacuating our nationals in various countries across the world back to Nigeria and gave the date and target. I did say it was absolutely important for us to pin down the date and work towards it. And I did say that today, we really hoped to start. We gave a date; the minimum requirements we were able to put in place, and proposed to an airline. As I pointed out to you the last time the Emirate Airline had a flight that was cancelled a couple of weeks ago because we were not ready to receive the flight. And that was the lowest hanging fruit that we could start with. So, they indicated that the flight from Dubai that they would be able to operate, not today, but on Wednesday. So, by God’s grace, on Wednesday, we will start the process of repatriating our nationals from outside the country… So, the first flight that we hope by God’s grace to have on Wednesday, Emirate, would be to Lagos”.
According to Onyeama, “There are about 4,000 Nigerians wishing to come back home. If we had our way, we would bring them all back immediately and all at once. But there are various constraints, and the biggest constraint is where to quarantine them; the beds. So, we’ve done everything we can to get beds here in Abuja and in Lagos. In Lagos, we have now about almost 300 beds available and I’ll like to just take time out to again express our profound gratitude to the governor of Lagos because without his very personal engagement, it would have been even more difficult for us in Lagos. But he’s taken time off his very busy schedule and done everything that could possibly be expected of him to help us to secure beds in Lagos and supported the process in other ways”.
He said the government had also struck a deal with a British Airways flight which would be coming to Nigeria from the UK on Friday to evacuate some British nationals to also convey some Nigerians home since it would be coming empty. “So, we are hoping that on Friday, we would be able to evacuate from the UK anything up to 300, possibly a bit less Nigerians from the UK. Ideally, we would have liked that flight to be coming to Abuja because we have been able to secure more hotel rooms in Abuja than we have in Lagos; almost a thousand. But they’ve let us know that unfortunately, that plane cannot come to Abuja; that it’s only Lagos. So it’s going to put quite strain on our capacity in Lagos because, in addition to just getting the rooms, the port health authority and the NCDC would have to monitor each and every single one of those evacuees on a regular basis”.
He said more evacuees from the UK may also be coming into the country on Saturday on board Air Peace. “Air Peace has been chattered for a medical evacuation of a Nigerian couple here to take a family member to London and Air Peace informed us and said that they would have an empty plane coming back from London; and so, we’re also trying to do a deal with Air Peace to have another UK flight come in probably on Saturday”.
Onyeama said the security element has to also be in place as well as all the other support services, adding that they are not only available for the evacuees, “as you can see, as you’ve listened to previous speakers, that the numbers are going up in our country. And generally so, a lot of resources, human and material, are being drawn to address real challenges we are facing within the country. We just don’t have so much to spare for the evacuees coming in in such large numbers. So, we have to make do with what we can. And those others out there just have to bear with us. We are really doing everything, stretching it possibly even beyond our capacity to try and get our people back because we know how long they’ve been out there; we know all the challenges they’ve been facing”.
The minister said concerning those in the US, the federal government had also been working with its Missions there in getting Nigerians out of there. “We’ve told them if there are any flights available, do a deal with them and try and get them to bring our people back. We are at the same time trying to see what we can with the other airlines we had made arrangements with but we cannot wait for anybody because time is really of the essence. So, our people in the US are telling us, and they’ve done a fantastic job – our Missions in New York, in Washington, and in Atlanta – that Ethiopian Airlines thus have a regular commercial programme out of the US. So, we’re hoping that Monday next week, we’re trying to do a deal with Ethiopian Airlines to also bring back a significant number of Nigerians”.
Explaining the intense pressure his ministry had been undergoing since the outbreak of COVID-19, Onyeama said “I am getting messages all the time from different parts of the world of Nigerians waiting to be evacuated. As I said, if we had our way, we will evacuate everybody yesterday. But there are these real capacity issues. And we’re even driving our medical people crazy. NCDC is telling us look, there is a limit to what we can cope with. So, we’re trying very hard to work within those limits. China of course, is a huge crisis and we are trying to see if we can get a plane quickly to go and evacuate also. There are a large number of our people there who have additional challenges and so, we are also trying to get out there to bring them back. We would like, ideally, to do that as quickly as possible. It has not been as easy in terms of getting a plane for that; but we are hoping to have an agreement with one of the carriers and maybe within a week or two weeks, we will be able to also move into China and bring our people back from there. South Africa, there are also people waiting; in India, in France. So, I think that we will have to be patient. It’s not easy but we are doing everything possible to start getting our people back. But for us, it was always very important for that first evacuation and by God’s grace, we will have that on Wednesday”.
Onyeama hinted that the federal government would be subsidizing the cost to getting the stranded Nigerians back home. Noting that the evacuations are very costly endeavours “and we know also the real financial challenges that a lot of our compatriot brothers and sisters are facing”, the minister said “and so the government, with the kind support of the chairman of the PTF, has been engaging with the Emergency Management Agency, NEMA to see to what extent that the government can also subsidise and make the financial burden that these evacuees have to face as light as possible. So, we are working really overtime and trying to source funds from wherever we can find it because they really are scarce; and to also help to support these compatriots of ours”.