By Saturday, August 29, 2020, the Nigerian airspace will reopen for international commercial flights after five months following the lifting of a ban on such operations by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19.
The measure comes exactly two months after a similar step on domestic air operations on June 29. The ban was among safety measures which PTF introduced toward checking the spread of the novel coronavirus across Nigeria.
On Monday, August 24, the National Coordinator on COVID-19, Dr Sani Aliyu, warned that any airline that brought a COVID -19 patient into the country would pay a fine of 3,500 dollars.
He added that every international air traveller to Nigeria would present a PCR test result from their country of departure that was within seven days, adding that such test would be revalidated on arrival in the country.
Aliyu added that when a passenger arrived in Nigeria and presented a PCR negative result, the person would self-isolate for seven days before reuniting with their family members.
Mr Boss Mustapha, the Chairman of PTF and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, explained that it was necessary to re-validate the PCR test result because many test results brought in by Nigerians evacuated home failed locally and contributed to over 60 per cent of the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria in recent times.
Was the ban ever obeyed?
When the government announced the air travel ban on March 23, it stated that returning citizens and others entering the country must go into isolation or quarantine for 14 days to determine their health status before mixing with other members of the society to avoid spreading the virus.
Apart from the fact that the safety protocol was observed in breach, especially among influential members of the society, including the late Chief of Staff to the President, Mr Abba Kyari, Nigerians found a way round the guideline to live as they wished.
A HumAngle investigation revealed that citizens travelled in and out of the country in connivance with airlines, travel agents and other groups under dubious and suspicious circumstances, especially when the evacuation of stranded Nigerians abroad started in May using chartered flights.
For example, in July, a group of 58 Nigerian medical doctors was stopped by Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, from travelling to the United Kingdom (UK) to seek employment as NES healthcare workers.
The doctors, who claimed they were scheduled to attend a training in the UK, did not have visas and their mission was not known by the Federal Ministry of Health or NIS.
Information available about the trip showed that while the organisers were in contact with the doctors and the Nigerian Medical Association, the Nigerian government was not taken into confidence.
“I am the Recruitment Director with NES Healthcare and I will like to inform you of an important update.
“As you are aware, the TLSContact Visa centres are currently closed and there is no guardiance (sic) as to when they will be reopening. In addition, we are aware that there are no immediate plans to reopen Nigeria’s airspace to international commercial flights.
“We have therefore been in discussion with UKVI ( UK Visa and Immigration ) about a potential solution that would allow you to travel to the UK.
“With their agreement, we will issue you a visa waiver letter— this will enable you to travel to the UK and then apply for a visa once you are here.
“We are also planning to arrange for a private charter flight to the UK, leaving from Lagos w/c 6th July ( exact date to be confirmed but this will most likely be 10th or 11th July.
“The cost of the flight will be heavily subsidised by NES Healthcare so we will only ask for a contribution of £500 towards this.
“To put this into action, I do need the following confirmation from you by 9a.m. tomorrow morning ( June 19):
“You are able to join the flight leaving from Lagos w/c 6th July. You understand that you will contribute £ 500 towards the cost of the flight.
“The UK address that you will be staying at UK (this will be the address that we will use for your visa,’’ Vanguard Newspaper reported of the transaction.
HumAngle learnt that aside the doctors, influential and wealthy Nigerians connived with airlines and air travel agents to board flights deployed to various parts of the globe to evacuate stranded Nigerians home.
A parent told HumAngle that his daughter with others who completed their studies in Ukraine and wished to return home on a charter flight from Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, early in August, was stranded as the travel agent neither made proper arrangement for the trip nor informed the Nigerian mission in that country.
The parent said the daughter and others had travelled from the city of their school to Kiev on a five-hour flight but they were refused entry to the airport because they lacked the necessary authorization to enter the place.
He said the children had to stay in hotels for additional five days to enable the agent to make proper arrangements for them to travel on another flight.
“I am now suffering because of the wickedness of the agent because I have been sending money to keep her in a hotel for the five days as she cannot go back to her school,’’ the parent said.
A source also told HumAngle that a wealthy Nigerian whom he spoke with few days earlier in July called him (source) using Canadian telephone number few days later.
Returnees avoiding isolation
Apart from those who travelled on the evacuation flights, some Nigerians returning home also found ways to beat the safety protocol of isolating or going into quarantine for 14 days to determine their health status before joining the society.
HumAngle learnt that to avoid being quarantined on arrival into the country for 14 days, most returning Nigerians routed their flights to neighbouring West African countries with less stringent COVID-19 safety protocols and completed their trips by road through the land borders.
HumAngle learnt reliably that because neighouring Benin Republic stopped quarantining returnees, most returning Nigerians fly to Cotonou Airport where they are made to pay 200 dollars for COVID-19 test which result would be available in 48 hours.
Investigation further revealed that at Cotonou, Nigerians are separated from other returnees and asked to pay for the test but do not get tested but left to go after paying the charge.
At Seme, Nigeria’s border post with Benin Republic, returning Nigerians bribe port health and immigration officials who let them in without subjecting them to COVID-19 test or insist on their producing PCR test results, a reliable source said.
HumAngle learnt of a man who returned through Cotonou and while his test result was being awaited, he came into Lagos through Seme and boarded a flight to Sam Mbakwe Airport, Owerri, a day before his Cotonou test result would be out.
A local source in Badagry, Lagos State, promised the HumAngle reporter that he would help him to cross the Seme border post if he wished.
“It is difficult but I know the officials and they can help if you want. They insist that you produce a COVID-19 test result if you are travelling out but if it is just to cross to Benin, they don’t insist,’’ the source said.