Barring any last minute change, all eyes are on the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) on COVID-19 to announce the Federal Government’s placement of the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, Saudi Arabia, among others, on a red list, banning both airlines and their citizens from coming into Nigeria
The action, which is to reciprocate the earlier ban on Nigerians, is the Federal Government’s way of protesting against blanket restriction on Nigerian citizens over the spread of Omicron variant of COVID-19.
This is coming after what seemed a week of wait, political tinkering and cautious study of events.
Last week, the government, in its immediate reaction through the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed and Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK, Sarafa Ishola, rejected Nigeria’s placement on the red list, describing it as ‘travel apartheid’, but chairman of the PSC and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, had said the country won’t be hasty in taking any decisions as it was still reviewing the sanctions.
With increasing condemnation of the travel ban and growing calls for retaliation, The Guardian, yesterday, learnt that the Ministry of Aviation has already recommended to the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 the ban of UK, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Argentina and Singapore for as long as they keep Nigeria on their red list. The Taskforce is due to make the announcement today.
Similarly, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, has justified the reduction of Emirates Airlines’ Winter Schedule from 21 to one flight weekly. Sirika said it was in prompt response to United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) denial of three weekly slots requested by Nigerian flag carrier, Air Peace airline.
World airlines have faulted the UK and Canada, among others, over restriction of travellers, saying flight ban had proven incapable of preventing virus spread.
Following the detection of about 17 positive cases of Omicron variant among Nigerian passengers to the UK, the British government had placed an indefinite restriction on all Nigerian citizens, though it does not foreclose both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic from ferrying UK passengers to Nigeria. Canada, Singapore and Saudi Arabia also followed suit.
Sirika, in a notice to aviation professionals, yesterday, said it makes no sense for those countries to declare Nigeria a red zone with Nigerians unacceptable in their country, yet keep flying into Nigeria for economic reasons.
He said: “We have given our input (to Presidential Taskforce) as civil aviation and we have recommended that those countries should also be put on red list like they have done to us. If they don’t allow our citizens to come to their country, who are they coming as airlines to pick in our country?
“So, by Monday, all those countries will be on our red list, which means their airlines too are banned in Nigeria. I’m so sorry we are going through difficult moments but we have to do it in the interest of our country,” Sirika said.
The minister had earlier described UAE’s approval of one slot a week to Air Peace Airline while expecting 21 weekly flight into Nigeria, as an insult on 200 million Nigerians. He said their rationale runs foul of the principles of Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) and completely unacceptable to Nigeria.
“We have had a meeting with them (UAE) here in the United States and they insisted on giving Air Peace just one out three weekly slots requested. We told them that we will also review our 21 weekly slot already granted them because by BASA, if you fly 21 times into my country, I should be able to fly into yours 21 times into your country as well. So, they wrote us a letter, a very insulting one, on why they had to give one slot as the best they could do.
“This is very insulting and not acceptable by international treaties. Therefore, I directed that they should also be given just one frequency a week and into Abuja only, beginning from December 13 (today). So, they can only fly into Nigeria on Thursdays. I know they cannot bear the pressure because they have already lost a lot of money. By not coming into the country, we are also loosing the service that they provide and some economic activities.
“But the sovereign of 200 million people is too important to toil with. It is not grandstanding but simply the way things are in civil aviation. It was because we stood our ground for those eight months, that is why they reviewed their operations to come back in obedience to what Nigeria agreed with them ab initio.”
The UAE national carrier only penultimate weekend made a return to Nigerian routes after about nine-month hiatus over disagreement on COVID-19 antigen test between the two countries. Following reconciliation, the FG had approved 21 weekly flights (14 into Lagos; and seven for Abuja) for the UAE carrier.
Director General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Willie Walsh, said it was not in any country’s interest to keep imposing travel restrictions.
Walsh said after nearly two years with COVID-19, the operators know a lot about the virus and the inability of travel restrictions to control its spread.
“But the discovery of the Omicron variant induced instant amnesia on governments, which implemented knee-jerk restrictions in complete contravention of advice from the WHO—the global expert,” Walsh said.
Emirates Airlines has in turn suspended all its flights to Nigeria indefinitely. Emirates in an update on its website said all its flights to Nigeria would be suspended until the issues between UAE and Nigeria are resolved. It said the action took effect from yesterday (Sunday).
The airline said: “With the recently imposed directive limiting Emirates to operate one flight per week to Nigeria via Abuja, Emirates will be suspending its flights between Nigeria and Dubai from December 13, until the UAE and Nigerian authorities work on a solution to the ongoing issue.
“The last flights to operate on December 12 are EK 783/784 to/from Lagos and EK 785/786 to/from Abuja
“Customers holding tickets with the final destinations Lagos and Abuja will not be accepted at the point of origin. Affected customers do not need to call us immediately for rebooking. Customers can simply hold on to their Emirates ticket and when flights resume, get in touch with their travel agent or booking office to make new travel plans.”