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Inexcusable suspension of evacuation of Nigerians

The Federal Government, last week, suspended evacuation of Nigerians stranded abroad until new protocols on testing for COVID-19 are put in place. This was announced in Abuja by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, at the briefing of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19.

Onyeama said, “The issue of quarantining in hotels would no longer be feasible. The evacuation was suspended to give room for new measures that would require citizens returning from overseas to get tested and self-isolate at home rather than in designated hotels.”

Explaining further, Onyeama said Nigerians awaiting evacuation shall first of all undergo a test from the countries they were coming from; at least five days before travelling and not later than nine days earlier, noting that, “That will be a pre-condition for boarding flights to Nigeria. And if they test positive, they will not be able to board the flights.”

On arrival in Nigeria, samples would be collected from incoming passengers and their passports would be retained. Passengers would thereafter be allowed to go home, not into hotels, to self-isolate. Results of samples taken from passengers shall be ready within a day or two, and those who test positive for COVID-19 will then be taken into isolation.

According to Onyeama, quarantining in hotels will no longer be necessary; adding that more people can come back more frequently. He said, “What we have been asked to do is to cease or suspend all evacuations for now until this new structure is put into place. We are very hopeful that maybe by next week, we should be able to commence evacuation.”

It would be recalled that after several calls and cries, Nigerians stranded in the United Kingdom and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates were early last month evacuated back to Nigeria through the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos. While we commend government for evacuating Nigerians stranded in these two countries, it generally failed to show significant commitment in responding to the plight of Nigerians waiting to be evacuated back home from other countries around the world.

While countries that have strong mechanisms for emergencies promptly evacuated their stranded citizens across the world, it is taking Nigeria too long to plan for the evacuation of its stranded nationals abroad. Government has spent so much time advancing one excuse or the other to explain its non-pro-activeness. At a point, government said it was negotiating with local airlines to evacuate Nigerians.

After sometime, it said it had no money to provide hotel accommodation for the prescribed mandatory 14-day period of isolation on the arrival of evacuees in Nigeria. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) jointly accepted to provide the N1bn, which the PTF on COVID-19 said it required to feed and accommodate evacuees for 14 days after their arrival.

It came as a great surprise to Nigerians that this huge intervention was followed by a pronouncement which suspended evacuation matters. The suspension coming only after CBN and NNPC had offered to assist further exposes government’s insensitivity to the predicament of Nigerians even when they need special attention. It discreetly suggests that funds were not really part of government’s challenges; making the suspension inexcusable. Allowing evacuees to go to isolate in their homes also defeats its purpose.

Suspension of evacuations is one most unfortunate response in Nigeria’s fight against the spread of COVID-19. Yet, it leaves much to be desired that the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) is not noticed anywhere in the management of the COVID-19 emergency.

A number of the stranded Nigerians are non-resident visitors in the countries they are at the moment. Many of them had travelled abroad for medical, business, conference or official reasons that were supposed to last for a week or two. They were unfortunately caught up in the web of the global lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.They have now spent close to three months; often making distress calls to their families in Nigeria.

While we call for the quick evacuation of all stranded Nigerians abroad, we advise government to strengthen its response mechanisms in exigencies.

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