By Henry Boyo
IN the wake of the recent dastardly xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the first batch of Nigerian evacuees arrived in Lagos on September 11, 2019, i.e, a week or so after native South Africans burnt and looted shops and properties belonging to several African immigrants, who wished to make a home in that country.
Although well over 600 Nigerians, initially, indicated their desire to return home, unfortunately, the first flight from South Africa was delayed for days and could only fly with about 187 passengers, because of the unexpected bottle-necks deliberately created by South African officials to prevent the evacuation. According to reports, “the South Africans did not want us to evacuate and pleaded with the Nigerian High Commission, not to do it;” but, the Consulate, apparently, responded that “they do not have the power to stop private citizens from expressing their wish to return home.”
Consequently, the contrived delay in departure, compelled the Airline cabin crew, to also remain on their feet for 24 hours, when departure was delayed for about 15 hours. A week later, another batch of 314 Nigerians were also picked up by the same private Nigerian airline, which arrived in Nigeria on September 18,2019. There are, suggestions, however, that the number of voluntary evacuees may exceed 800 Nigerians citizens. Consequently, at least one more trip may be required to complete the return of hundreds of Nigerians who were stranded at the airport and the Nigerian Consulate in Johannesburg.
We are left to wonder what would have been the fate of these hapless Nigerians, who were traumatized by the threat of mob lynching if, per chance, the opportunity to return home for free was not available. Notably, prior to the offer for free evacuation, the Nigerian ambassador was recalled while the Nigerian Consulate, in Johannesburg, was already under siege by distressed Nigerians. Furthermore, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama and other Government officials, including the Commissioner for Diaspora Activities, seemed to merely huff and puff at the unfolding drama of blame trading with various officials of the South African Government.
Incidentally, all returnees interviewed in Lagos by the Press, vowed never to return to South Africa, even though some of their spouses had remained behind to see how things go. Arguably, however, the offer by Air Peace, to evacuate these desperate Nigerians for free, was probably the silver lining in the xenophobic attacks on Nigerian immigrants, particularly, those who owned small businesses and shops and those others, who were also struggling to eke out a living, away, from their Fatherland. Notably, the usual in-your-face and stupendously wealthy political thieves and opulently successful Nigerian businessmen, most of whom made their wealth from Government patronage, simply kept mute, while the uncertainty and inter-governmental acrimony lasted.
Expectedly, also, the Presidential Special Envoy to South Africa and the return visit by the South African delegation headed by Jeff Radebe, have not really made much impact, as guarantee of the safety of Nigerians and other African immigrants in South Africa; furthermore, there is still no reported discussion on the value of compensation for those Nigerians who lost properties in the wake of the September xenophobic attacks. It is improbable that the South African authorities will ultimately pay any meaningful compensation, especially if the Nigerian Government is not, also, directly involved in determining the value of total loss by Nigerian victims of xenophobia. Arguably, the cost also incurred by the airline, Air Peace, to evacuate these Nigerians should be factored into the total compensation.
It is indeed distressing that there was no Nigerian national airline, which could promptly step in, to perform the noble role, as Air Peace did, in this matter. In retrospect, we recall former President Obasanjo’s lamentation, years back, that the almost 30 strong Nigeria Airways fleet that were operational in 1979, when he handed over government as a military head of state, had incredibly, all disappeared, by the time he returned to power in 1999 as Civilian President!
As usual, there has been no serious postmortem of the collapse of Nigerian Airways, and regrettably, also, no account of the substantial properties owned by the Nigerian flag carrier, in choice locations in several cities in West Africa and overseas.
Consequently, Foreign Airlines have continued to dominate the aviation sub-sector; furthermore, the African Free Trade Agreement with its open skies policy will ultimately, create serious hurdles to thwart the growth of indigenous entrepreneurs in Nigeria’s aviation sector.
In addition, despite the over N50bn reported revenue from out-bound passengers from Nigeria’s airports, the quality of infrastructure and services still remain archaic, and passenger-unfriendly, while the commissioning of the new Murtala Muhammed International Terminal still remains uncertain. Thus, in view of the shambolic state of Nigeria’s Aviation subsector, it is a source of pride and relief that we still have a “human saviour,” in the guise of Allen Onyema of Air Peace, to minimize the pains and douse the national disgrace that would have belittled our claim as the Giant of Africa, if almost 1000 beleagued Nigerians were to remain stranded in South Africa.
Clearly, Allen Onyema and the 18-man air crew of Air Peace, who also returned their out-of-station allowances, as their own sacrifice to their Fatherland, in locked step with the charitable inclination of their Chairman, surely deserve our commendation. Although, there has been no direct commendation by President Buhari and other senior government officials, Members of the House of Representatives, have lately on their own, expressed their gratitude, on the House floor, to Allen Onyema, the Air Peace Chairman! Nonetheless, according to Onyema, “we are still ready to go into South Africa as long as there is one single Nigerian remaining in that country to be evacuated for free”.
Indeed, in his commendation of the Airline boss, Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Addo Dogwua, (APC-Kano) noted that what he (Onyema) did was “an exhibition of selflessness, risking his business interest to save the life of Nigerians in the face of war”. Dogwua concluded that Onyema saved Nigeria from embarrassment and “our gratitude today, is on behalf of 360 constituencies of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to say thank you.” Ultimately, the House, unanimously, recommended that Allen Onyema should be given an important National Award.
However, in his own response on the House floor, Allen Onyema, warned Members that “if Nigerians continue to fight one another as against fighting for one another, there will be no nation.” Onyema also declared that “I believe in nationalism as against sectionalism” and further noted that “Nigeria was blessed with 370 ethnic nationalities which should actually be a recipe for strength.”