Saudi Arabia has identified about 11,600 Nigerians reportedly stranded in the country, many due to the coronavirus disease, and is making plans to airlift them back home, an official has said.
The Nigerian embassy official, who is privy to the development but asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to journalists, said the Saudi’s decision was contained in a letter addressed to the embassy a few weeks ago.
The source added that the list, according to the Saudis, includes Nigerians who had visited the country for umrah – a lesser hajj – and were held up by the movement restrictions introduced by Saudi authorities as part of containment measures.
The kingdom, which recorded its index coronavirus case on March 2, had initially imposed a travel ban on some neighbouring countries before extending it to include European countries and 12 others, on March 12.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, confirmed the development. He said Nigeria’s logistics challenge has been responsible for the delay in the repatriation.
Speaking on Tuesday shortly after taking part in the daily media briefing by the Presidential Task Force on COVId-19, Mr Onyeama told PREMIUM TIMES that some of the stranded Nigerians would have landed about a week ago, but that the country does not have enough facilities to accommodate them all for the 14-day quarantine period.
He said; “We are aware of this… In fact, they wanted to land last week, but they couldn’t because there was no arrangement to receive them.
“As you heard, we have a capacity we can absorb. The medical people have to monitor them for two weeks for quarantine. But there is only a certain number of port health authority staff who are able to monitor all these people as they come in.
“As the SGF said, we have to finish the ones we have, then allow some more to come in. We can’t allow everybody to come in because we don’t have the capacity to house them and also to monitor them medically.”
Saudi’s quoted figure surprises embassy
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the Nigerian embassy in Saudi Arabia was surprised by the huge number of Nigerians contained on the Saudi’s list of Nigerians to be repatriated, and has responded to the letter by seeking clarification on how the kingdom arrived at such.
Our source said in the letter, the Saudis noted that only 340 Nigerians have indicated their willingness to return home. The Saudi authorities, therefore, wrote to seek the embassy’s cooperation in the search “for the remaining 11,260.”
“The Saudi authorities officially stated that they will be taking charge of airlifting all Nigerians who came into the Kingdom for Umrah and or visit and got stranded here as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the official said.
He added that the embassy “has requested the Saudi authorities to furnish it with more detailed information on what they have to enable it know how to play its own role accordingly.”
Earlier, when contacted, the consular officer of the Nigerian mission in Saudi Arabia, Muhammed Aliyu, refused to speak on the issue.
In a message shared on WhatsApp with our reporter, Mr Aliyu said the embassy has no right to speak to the media on such matters.
He, however, directed this newspaper to Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry, saying the approval to communicate with the media would have to be conveyed in writing to the embassy by the ministry.
“Mr. Alabi, professionally, Embassy has no right to speak to the media directly or indirectly, except with express approval from MFA (ministry of foreign affairs) Headquarters in Abuja. The approval will be communicated in writing to the Embassy, with clear instructions,” he said.
Mr Aliyu, however, confirmed that every official correspondence received by the embassy has been forwarded to the ministry.
“The Embassy has forwarded every official correspondence received from Saudi Government to Abuja. Please, contact the appropriate department in the ministry for more information. Best wishes, please,” he added.
In his response on Tuesday, the foreign affairs minister clarified that those on the list as identified by the Saudi authorities are not only those who had travelled to the country for spiritual or tourism purpose.
The minister said they include those who are illegally living in the kingdom without having necessary documents.
“They are not just students but some people living there illegally and all kinds of people,” Mr. Onyeama said of the composition of more than 11,000 Nigerians on the list.
Stranded students seek intervention
PREMIUM TIMES has also learnt that Nigerian students studying in various universities in the kingdom have appealed to the Nigerian government to approve a waiver for a Saudi Arabia airline that is meant to bring them back home to be able to touch down in the country.
Hundreds of Nigerians who are mostly on scholarships sponsored by the Saudi government and who have rounded off their final examinations, have been asked to vacate hostels by their various university authorities.
In a letter addressed to the Nigerian ambassador in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a copy of which was shared with PREMIUM TIMES, the Association of Nigerian Students in Saudi Arabia, Imam University’s branch, noted that the institution’s department of scholarship has directed that they seek approval from the embassy to return home.
The correspondence, which was shared with our reporter by the association’s president, Abdul-Hakeem Adesokan, listed the required assistance needed from the embassy to include letter from the embassy addressed to Saudi Arabia’s foreign affairs ministry “voiding all hindrances and resistance for the safe return of the students back to Nigeria and carry out a COVID-19 test before departure.”
The letter, which was dated May 3, also requested; “A letter from the embassy directed to Saudi Arabia airline in order to conclude on a fixed date for the travelling.”
Ministry, PTF in charge of such matters –Diaspora Commission
When contacted, the chairperson of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said the commission is not directly involved in all matters relating to evacuation and repatriation due to the coronavirus disease.
In a short message to our reporter, Mrs Dabiri-Erewa said the foreign affairs ministry and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF), which is chaired by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, are in charge of such matters.
“All issues regarding the above will be handled directly by the minister of foreign affairs and the PTF,” she said.
Efforts in top gear
Although the Nigerian embassy in Saudi Arabia refused to speak officially on the matter, a senior official at the embassy told PREMIUM TIMES that efforts were being made to evacuate Nigerians willing to return to home.
According to the source, the Saudi authorities have, however, not notified the embassy of any separate plan to take the students back to Nigeria.
The source disclosed that as instructed by Nigerian government, the embassy had continued with the compilation of the lists of Nigerians willing to be evacuated home.
“As for the Nigerian students, we don’t know of any special arrangements made for them by the Saudi authorities. The students, we are aware, especially from Islamic University in Madinah; King Saud University, Riyadh; Imam University, Riyadh; King Khalid University; Dammam University, among others, all applied to be beneficiaries of the proposed evaluation being made by the Nigerian government for all Nigerians in diaspora who are willing to return to Nigeria within this trying time of COVID-19.
“In that respect, the embassy worked tooth and nail, day and night to get necessary data from those interested and is in communication with the concerned authorities in Nigeria for necessary lines of action.”
The official could not give the exact figure of the Nigerian students in the country, saying the universities do not go through the embassy in offering the students admission, “and so it is difficult to know the Nigerians studying in the country except few ones who have something to do with the embassy.”
“The Embassy has tried many times to get an exact figure of Nigerian students in the Kingdom, but due to the fact that these students are admitted directly from the Saudi government without any known recourse to aligning with the Nigerian end, we do not have the figure,” the source said.
“For your information, admission to Saudi universities are granted directly to the students after applying online through the individual university portal. However, we have roughly 200 Nigerian students willing to be part of the proposed evacuation exercise, and over a hundred of them are from Islamic University in Madinah, which has close to 500 Nigerian students studying in it in all levels of studies.”
Since March 2 when it recorded its index case, Saudi Arabia as of May 13, has recorded a total of 42,925 confirmed cases, which is reported to be the highest of the states of the Arabian Gulf.
The country has also recorded 15,257 recoveries and 269 deaths.
Apart from shutting down its airspace, the Saudi authorities have also embarked on massive evacuation of the country’s citizens across the world, while also seeking cooperation of other nations for the repatriation of their own citizens.