A total of 292 Nigerians who had been stranded in Saudi Arabia due to the restriction of movements caused by the rampaging coronavirus disease, on Tuesday, landed in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory.
They were the first batch of the 11,600 Nigerians the government of Saudi Arabia had expressed its intention to airlift back home.
The evacuees, according to Nigeria’s minister of foreign affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, include nursing mothers and children.
In a post shared on his Twitter handle on Wednesday morning, the minister said the whole 292 returnees have been accommodated in hotels in Abuja to observe the mandatory 14-day-quarantine.
He said; “We received 292 evacuees stranded in Saudi Arabia yesterday. The Saudi Government transported them to Abuja. A large number are nursing mothers and children and they are all comfortably settled in hotels under the mandatory 14 days quarantine.”
PREMIUM TIMES’ findings revealed that some students of various universities in the kingdom were part of the returnees. They are students on scholarships sponsored by the Arabian country, who had just completed their 2019/2020 academic session.
The students who made the trip are from about six universities including the University of Qosseem, University of Dammom, University of King Abd Azeez, among others.
But some of their colleagues who could not make it have blamed the development on the poor response to their request for pass from Nigeria’s embassy in Saudi Arabia.
Findings by this newspaper revealed that a total of 149 students from Islamic University, Medina, who had earlier been scheduled to join the first flight could not make the trip because they could not travel from Medina to Jeddah due to the ban on intercity movements.
But the embassy has denied the allegation, saying there was no official communication between it and the universities over the matter.
In a phone interview with our reporter, the president, Nigeria students’ union, Islamic University, Medina, Saudi Arabia, Adegbeye Abdul-Kabeer, said they could not meet up with the flight because both the university and the embassy failed to secure the pass for them.
“We weren’t able to make the trip due to lack of interstate permits which were supposed to be applied for either by the university or the Nigeria embassy from Saudi foreign affairs ministry. But none of both followed the due protocols they were supposed to follow,” Mr Adegbeye said.
Apart from the 149 who failed to make the journey on Tuesday, there are numerous others, who claimed they had earlier been scheduled to be airlifted home on Friday but are now having difficulties accessing the relevant document that could help them make the trip.
According to one of them, who asked not to be named, the individual universities are ready to procure their flight tickets to join the Saudi Arabia airline, but these institutions had required them to get letters that could void all possible hindrances upon landing in Nigeria.
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, informed the embassy 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.”
Embassy denies allegation
Some officials of the embassy who asked not to be named as they were not permitted to speak to journalists, said what the students demanded was not their responsibility.
In separate telephone interviews with our reporter, they said the protocol in Saudi Arabia is that the sponsor of every traveller should be responsible to request for pass.
“And apart from that, we do not have any official correspondence addressed to the embassy from these universities. So how do we present such an issue to the country where it is mandatory that we seek clarification and approval for all actions on such matters like this,” one of the officials said.
Another official queried if the embassy ever provided any pass for those who made the trip.
“So just ask them if the embassy gave a pass to those who made the trip. The universities that provided tickets are supposed to get a pass for them. We are not the sponsor of their journey and we don’t have the details of which aircraft is taking them, what time is their flight and how did they make the arrangement? These are critical issues that can only be addressed by their sponsors,” the second official added.
Meanwhile, the spokesman for Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry, Ferdinand Nwoye, also refuted the allegation by the students, saying the ministry and the country’s missions globally have been very committed to protecting the interests of Nigerians in the diaspora.
According to Mr Nwoye, there is a need for synergy on the part of both the embassy and the government of Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Nwoye said; “We understand the urge to return home by every stranded Nigerian abroad but there are protocols to be observed. Without these protocols followed, efforts might not yield the desired result. So let’s understand that the situation on our hands demands special arrangements.”