Xenophobic attacks: Air Peace suspends evacuation as South Africa arrests voluntary returnees


A major diplomatic rumpus between Nigeria and South Africa might be in the offing after South Africa frustrated plans to repatriate Nigerians that were fleeing xenophobic attacks. An Air Peace Boeing 777 left Nigeria and arrived at OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, to airlift the first of the two batches of 317 returnees prepared by the Nigerian High Commission in South Africa. “But the South Africa Immigration started causing problem by arresting Nigerians who were due to travel, demanding papers and accusing them of travelling without the right documents,” sources told Huhuonline.com


Air Peace chairman, Allen Onyema said the Boeing777 aircraft went to South Africa to pick about 320 passengers but the South African government, through its immigration officials, frustrated them. “The Nigerian High commission informed us that they had over 700 Nigerians registered and willing to come back home. So, we decided to do the first batch on Wednesday with 320 returnees. But by the time they registered only 20, they told us that their system broke down. He said: “l was told that they picked up some people and wanted to ask them how they entered the country in the first place. I thought these people (Nigerians) are now leaving your country and they should have been left to go home.


Indeed, some of the proposed returnees initially lacked valid travel documents, which forced the evacuation to be delayed till this week, while the commission prepared valid papers for them. “That already done and everything ready as at Monday, the South African Immigration still demanded to know how the Nigerians came into the country and began to arrest them. South Africa is bent on frustrating us,” the airline source said.


It took the intervention of the Nigerian High Commission for the South African authorities to make the procedure less hectic, but the rounds of clearance started taking a lot of time. “By 2:00 p.m. yesterday, only 182 Nigerians were allowed to board the flight, the rest were barred by the South Africa Immigration. They were frustrating the Nigerian High Commission too by re-arresting the returnees. They wanted to frustrate the airline and the Nigerian government.


“The aircraft (with some passengers on board) had been burning fuel since 4:00 am. They (South Africans) were not happy that Nigeria was evacuating its citizens. They did not want the world to know that a Nigerian airline and Nigerian government were evacuating them,” the official said.


Air Peace has said that the exercise would cost the airline about N300 million for the payment of passenger service charge, aeronautical and other charges in addition to the cost of operation. The Chairman of the Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, confirmed the development, saying the South African Immigration services had insisted on conducting another round of documentation on the returnees.


Dabiri-Erewa told reporters at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, that the situation had led to the delay in the take-off and late arrival of the returnees. She disclosed that 317 persons, comprising 231 males and 86 females, were already on the manifest to be airlifted.


On arrival, she said, the voluntary returnees would be profiled and given support in the form of fares that would take them to their respective states of origin. Dabiri-Erewa added that the government had mobilized the Bank of Industry (BoI) to work out skills acquisition and other social intervention programs for those who show interest.


Air Peace airline announced it has suspended further evacuations until the remaining voluntary returnees have been cleared and released by the host government. The chairman, Allen Onyema, said the airline would deploy staff and equipment to South Africa once it receives approval from the Nigerian High Commission in the country. Last Wednesday, Air Peace returned 187 out of a total of 640 Nigerians that submitted themselves for repatriation over the xenophobic attacks. The returnees were a shortfall from the 314 that had been expected that day.


Air Peace had disclosed that the exercise would cost the airline about N300 million. Onyema however expressed satisfaction with the humanitarian response. According to him, “I believe l cannot go to my grave with my bank account and fat wallet. But l can go to the grave comfortably and peacefully with my legacies. I want to implore all Nigerians to be their brothers’ keepers.


Meanwhile, the Senior Pastor of Omega Fire Ministry, Apostle Johnson Suleiman, has offered to airlift more Nigerians willing to come back home from South Africa. Reacting to the development on his verified Twitter handle, the clergyman said: “I just heard that 900 Nigerians want to return home from South Africa. I have asked for flight tickets to be bought for 20 Nigerians in South Africa, who want to return home. I will take care of the cost. Please, register at our church in Johannesburg. We will airlift more by God’s grace. God keep you all alive.”