By OBINNA EZUGWU
By the time the dust settled on what had been days of diplomatic tit for tat between Nigeria on one hand, the United Kingdom (UK), Canada and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the other, in the wake of the detection of Omicron variant of Covid-19 in South Africa late last month, Africa’s most populous country had proved a point, that it could well stand up to bullies.
Battered by intractable security challenges and worsening economy, Nigeria has variously been described as a failed and failing state with disorientated populace, but after days of diplomatic row with its colonial master, the North American country and the Gulf nation, all of which ended ultimately with Nigeria claiming bragging rights last week, Nigerians have found a reason, even if momentarily, to feel a sense of pride in their country.
“United Arab Emirates backed down from the diplomatic row over airlines slots. United Kingdom backed down from red listing of African countries. You might not link these together but I am glad Nigeria fought back,” wrote an elated public affairs commentator, Dipo Awojide, @OgbeniDipo. “Again, I say, you can be small and fight when being bullied.”
It’s hard to concede that in comparative terms, a country of over 200 million people could be said to be “small” or an underdog in a fight with UAE, with approximately 10 million people and the United Kingdom with a little more than 67 million population, a combination of which is less than half of Nigeria’s total.
But in global geopolitics, economic power lies real strength. And obviously a country with GDP Per capita of $5,280 pales into insignificance when compared to UAE’s $70,441 and UK $48,693.
Regardless, what Nigeria lacks in economic strength, it proved it could somewhat make up for with its population, and in the last few days, it proved, when push came to shove, that it could count on its people.
The detection of Omicron late last month in South Africa led to hasty slapping of travel bans on the country and other African countries by the United Kingdom, U.S. Canada and a host of other western and Asian countries, a move that triggered continental fury. Many alleged it was informed by racism and politics, not science.
Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations condemned the bans as travel apartheid, but undeterred, UK would fortnight ago, add Nigeria – among other African countries, including Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe – on its red list, a decision that left many stranded at Abuja airport, as they were yanked off British Airways which cancelled its flight from the country.
Coming few days after Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa visited Abuja – what was in a way, calling the bluff of the UK, which had earlier slammed travel ban on South Africa and other countries in the sub-region after Omicron was detected – the UK decision was interpreted in some quarters as trying to punish Nigeria for showing solidarity with a brother African nation, an interpretation that further inflamed passion.
From Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), to former president of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and the Federal Government of Nigeria, and indeed everyone that mattered, the reaction to the ban was that of indignation.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, in an address on December 6, argued that the decision by the UK to put Nigeria on the red list, just because of less than two dozen cases of Omicron which, by the way, did not originate in Nigeria, is unjust, unfair, punitive, indefensible and discriminatory.
“As the Spokesman for the Federal Government, I can say, without mincing words, that the decision by British government to put Nigeria on the red list, just because of less than two dozen cases of Omicron which, by the way, did not originate in Nigeria, is unjust, unfair, punitive, indefensible and discriminatory. The decision is also not driven by science,” Mohammed said.
Amid the outrage on December 8, an obviously rattled British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mrs. Catriona Laing appeared on Channels Television to fight off what had developed into a raging storm, an indication that her country had gotten the message.
“The decision (to add Nigeria on the red list) is not discriminatory,” she argued. “When the UK was the epicenter of the Alpha variant, we took some tough measures to essentially cut ourselves off.”
She went on: “In the earlier stages of the Delta variant, we were red listed by Austria, France and Turkey.”
To further make the point that contrary to widely held views in Nigeria, the decision to impose the ban was informed by certain biases, Laing emphasized that UK had added France and Pakistan when it first decided on the idea of coming up with travel red list.”
Mrs. Laing insisted that the decision to draw up the red list was not discriminatory as alleged, but based on “individual deep dive assessment of an individual country.”
Mrs. Vicky Ford, Minister for Africa, followed up by visiting Nigeria’s High Commissioner to UK, Ambassador Sarafa Isola, who had himself called on his host country to reverse the travel ban, describing same, like the WHO and UN had done, as travel apartheid, and afterwards, tweeted that “Nigeria is very important to United Kingdom,” and that her country is committed to “a strong relationship” with Nigeria.
‘’We discussed science behind current red listing as a significant number of Omicron cases linked to travel from Nigeria,” she wrote, concluding that the ‘Restrictions are temporary.”
But the appeals and explanations failed to dissuade a Nigerian government determined to make a point.
Last weekend, Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika announced its own reciprocal red list, slamming travel bans on UK, Canada, and Saudi Arabia with effect from Tuesday, December 14.
Sirika who announced the decision on Sunday in Lagos, explained that it was to reciprocate restricted flights from Nigeria into those countries over the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron.
“There is also the case of Saudi Arabia that put Nigeria on the ban list. On Sunday, I participated in a meeting with the COVID-19 task force,” he said. “We have given our input that it is not acceptable by us and we recommended that those Canada, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Argentina also be put on the red list. As they did to us, if they do not allow our citizens into their countries; who are they coming, as airlines, to pick from our country?”
The Nigerian government’s decision had sent sufficient message. Same Tuesday the restrictions took effect, UK’s Covid operations cabinet committee, which had said the ban would be reviewed on December 20, held a meeting and approved the decision to remove travel restrictions, starting from 4am on Wednesday.
The UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who had announced the travel ban, said the Omicron had spread so widely that the rules are now less effective.
Laing, on her part, would issue a statement to explain that the decision to remove Nigeria and other African countries from the travel red list was based on “scientific and public health data.”
According to her, “On Tuesday 14th December, UK Ministers made the decision – based on scientific and public health data – to remove Nigeria from the UK’s travel red list. The emergence of the Omicron variant is a reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and like all countries around the world the UK has had to take difficult decisions to protect public health.
“We took this necessary precautionary action to give us time to understand the challenge we and others faced, and to slow down the spread of Omicron while scientists urgently assessed what impact the variant has on vaccines, treatments and transmissibility. When we announced the heightened restrictions we made clear that we would remove them as soon as we could, and that is the decision Ministers have taken today.
“I know this will be welcome news for students, tourists, businesses and families in the UK and Nigeria, although I recognise the impact that these temporary health measures have had.”
But for many Nigerians, the move was most likely necessitated by the reaction of Nigeria, especially given that Omicron is fast spreading in the country.
“They knew that if the row continued, they were going to lose,” said Dr. Bongo Adi, senior lecturer at Lagos Business School. “How many flights do British airways do into Nigeria on a weekly basis? How many Nigerian airlines take people to Britain on a weekly basis? None, so it is British Airways and Virgin Atlantic that were going to lose.
“The impact would not have been much on Nigeria. Those it would have affected are the elite who send their children to school abroad and who obtain health care from abroad.”
Adi said remittances would not have been affected, as according to him, there are channels for sending money home.
“It would not have affected remittances because anybody who wanted to send money home against Christmas would still have she sent money home without coming home,” he said. “By the way you don’t carry money when you are traveling. You can’t have more than a few thousand dollars. If you do that, you would be arrested.”
The UK would subsequently on Thursday, lifted the suspension on processing visitor visas in Nigeria, and all countries previously on the red list.
Canada Lifts Travel Ban
Canada, which in recent years, has become a popular destination for middle class Nigerians seeking greener pastures or just to escape the chaos at home, had on November 26, slammed travel ban on Nigeria, as well as a number of other African countries, including South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia, Malawi and Egypt.
The decision equally generated outrage, given that only African countries were affected by the ban. This had informed the decision of Nigerian government to include Canada in its own travel restriction list, and on Friday last week, the government of Canada lifted the travel ban.
A statement by the Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos on Friday said Canada is lifting the ban starting December 18 at 11:59 p.m.
He said Canada will also re-introduce pre-arrival tests for all new incoming travellers.
The ban was originally set to expire on January 31.
…Tit For Tat with UAE
While the row with UK and Canada over Covid-19 restrictions raged, Nigeria was engaged in similar tit for tat with the UAE over travel slots.
Nigeria’s diplomatic scuffle with the Arab country had started in September when it decided to stop issuing visas to Nigerians. The federal government responded by banning its airline, Emirates from entering the country.
The ban was eventually lifted in late September when the UAE wrote to state that it had agreed to issue visas to Nigerians.
But following the lifting of the ban, Emirates used Covid-19 as pretext to subject Nigerians to all manner of inhumane treatment, and the federal government slammed yet another ban on the airline.
About two weeks ago, however, the federal government once again, lifted the ban, following which Emirates applied to the Federal Ministry of Aviation for approval of its winter flight schedule, consisting of 21 weekly passenger flight frequencies to Nigeria, a request that was granted by Nigeria in the spirit and intent of the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) between both countries.
But another problem arose. Air Peace Airlines, the only Nigerian airline that operates passenger flights to Sharjah International Airport in UAE, requested three weekly passenger flight frequencies but was granted only one.
The action of UAE authorities prompted a decision by Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to also whittle down Emirates flight into the country to one per week, a move that sparked an intense diplomatic row.
Following the decision of NCAA, UAE Minister of Economy, Abdulla Bin Touq Al Marri, who doubles as the chairman of the General Civil Aviation Authority wrote to Sirika, justifying the decision to grant Air Peace only one slot.
He accused the Nigerian carrier of abandoning the Sharjah Airport, where it had slot, to fly into Dubai airport, before returning to the Sharjah, an airport distance away from Dubai.
“The GCAA has the honour to highlight that such a decision by the NCAA is totally unjustified especially, as it has come to our attention that their action is being taken against the background of Air Peace not securing all 3 slots at Sharjah Airport which they desire. Air Peace initially operated at Sharjah Airport, shifted to Dubai Airport and then returned to Sharjah airport.
It would be unreasonable for an airline to expect any airport to maintain their slots when they ceased operating at that airport. In this regard, we wish to kindly advise you. that Sharjah Airport is currently operating at 140% slot capacity, but with goodwill and tremendous effort on their Side, this Airport was able to accommodate Air Peace with 1 of the 3 slots that this airline requested,” he wrote.
“The GCAA wishes to stress that the action being taken by the NCAA is obviously not in line with the spirit of the agreed air services arrangements between our two Nations. As we are both aware, the relations between our two brotherly countries are vintage in nature, one hallmark being the recent visit of the President of Nigeria to the UAE, which certainly mirrored the status of these positive relations.”
But Air Peace in a swift response described the claim by Marri that it operates from another airport other than Sharjah Airport as falsehood calculated to damage on its brand.
“We did several evacuation flights out of Sharjah. So, we never left Sharjah Airport nor did we at any time “shifted and operated out of DXB (Dubai Airport”. The letter deliberately painted us as unserious while at the same time, suggesting that we look for other airports in the country to operate from,” Air Peace said in a letter to Sirika.
“After the restriction of scheduled flight operations between UAE and Nigeria was lifted towards the last week in November 2021, we approached the Sharjah Airport and GCAA with a request to allow us to operate a charter into the UAE on December 01, 2021.
“To our surprise and, despite the lifting of the ban on flight operations between both countries, they refused. They said they would not allow charter but scheduled flight operations.
“However, we then, in obedience to their demand, announced resumption of scheduled operations beginning from that date and we opened our sales to the public.”
According to Air Peace, three days to departure, the GCAA was yet to approve flights and came back 48hours to deny them of slots to operate flights. They were later told that Air Peace would only be accepted if only it brought a small aircraft.
“On our request to continue with the scheduled operations after this present flight, we were turned down using lack of slot as excuse. Meanwhile, Emirates had started operating three flights daily into Nigeria while Air Peace was totally turned down!”
Air Peace said the one slot was only given to them after the NCAA had made threats to withdraw Emirates Airlines ministerial approval.
“Then, at your threat of going to stop them if Air Peace was not allowed a meagre three flights weekly, THEY QUICKLY DID THE UNTHINKABLE. THEY GAVE US ONE FLIGHT ONLY PER WEEK! They also added that it must be operated only on Thursdays at a time that they chose themselves,” the airline said.
But the UAE authorities were in the mood for muscle flexing, and on Monday last week, barred all airlines – including Egypt Air, Air France, KLM, Ethiopian Airlines, Rwanda Air, Etihad – from conveying Nigerian passengers to the country.
Same Monday, many Nigerian passengers who board Ethiopian Airlines heading for Dubai were sent off the plane.
The move attracted outrage in the country, with many encouraging the Nigerian government to stands its ground.
“The law is very clear on the BASA agreement,” fumed retired Nigerian diplomat and former Permanent Secretary Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Joe Keshi on Arise TV last week.
“The federal government’s argument is very simple: Give us what is in the books, don’t dictate to us. How can you say that you will take 21 flights but will give us one? It’s an insult on this country, and we must face the reality. So let nobody cry over the fact that they not going to spend the holidays in Dubai.
“Let’s support this government to teach these people a lesson. At the end of the day, yes some Nigerian would suffer, but they would also lose financially. How many people from UAE come to Nigeria? Very few if any, but a lot of Nigerians travel to the UAE and so they make huge sums of money from Nigeria, which if they continue with the diplomatic row they would lose, especially this Christmas season.”
The UAE, would, however, soon back down. In a letter dated December 13, 2021 and addressed to Chairman of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA), said it has given Air Peace weekly flight slots in Dubai, emphasising that in order to maintain good relations between both countries, it had offered to block some slots for the Nigerian carrier.
In the said letter signed by the DCAA Director General, Mohammed Ahli, titled, “Operation of Air Service between Dubai and Nigeria,” the Dubai authority said, “The Dubai Civil Aviation Authority presents its compliments to the honourable management of Air Peace, Nigeria.
“Your Excellency, relations between our two countries go a long way back and we value these relations immensely. We surely wish to facilitate easy and safe travel for the people, between our two brotherly countries.
“We write in reference to Air Peace’s possible/intended operations to/from Dubai Airport (DXB)-Terminal 1 and as a gesture of goodwill and in support of UAE and Nigeria relations, in case Air Peace wishes to start flights, slots have been blocked by Dubai Airports as detailed below:
“Slots available and blocked for Air Peace are the following: A0540LT D0800LT-All days and A0510LT D0800LT- without day 6.
“As these slots cannot be blocked indefinitely, we would highly appreciate if Air Peace could kindly reach out to Dubai Airports-ACL and inform them of their intentions to operate by Thursday December 16, 2021 and accordingly confirm the blocked slots.
“Dubai airport has also confirmed that dnata-the ground handling agents at DXB have sent the ground handling quotation to Ms. Reham Mustafa-Country Manager and also, Emirates Flight Catering is working on the quotation and should send it out latest by tomorrow morning.
“For landing permissions, they could contact our Air Transport Section as detailed below: Landing Permission: [email protected]”
The letter added, “Dubai Civil Aviation Authority avails itself of the opportunity to renew to the honourable management of Air Peace, the assurances of its highest consideration and reiterates its support at all times.”
Nigeria had pulled it’s weight, proving that it could stand it’s ground when push comes to shove. And for many, it’s a sign that the country can indeed be great when it gets it act right.
“Air Peace stood for its Citizens during Covid-19 and now Federal Government and its Citizens stood by them,” noted Mohammed Jammal, @whitenigerian. “If we can do a case study on this and henceforth stand by all business men and women to succeed, Nigeria will be a better place!!”
However, the decision, last week, of UAE to stop Nigerian athletes from participating in the 15th World Swimming Championships 2021 holding in Abu Dhabi, suggests that country is still targeting Nigeria.
Nigerian athletes and their representatives who arrived the Arab nation from different parts of the globe to participate in the games claimed that they were denied access to participate in the competition by authorities of the UAE on Thursday.
The Nigerian government is yet to react to the latest development.