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FG puts retaliation on hold as row with UAE gets messier

By Wole Oyebade (Lagos), Nkechi Onyedika-Ugoeze and Terhemba Daka (Abuja)
14 December 2021   |   3:54 am
In an anti-climax of the sort, the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) on COVID-19, which had been primed to affirm a retaliatory travel ban imposed last week on Nigeria by the United Kingdom...

Govt: We are initiating diplomatic steps to resolve restrictions with UK, Canada, Saudi Arabia
• UK to reduce travel restrictions, scrap red list this week
• Consider the impact of reciprocity actions on businesses, SMEs, Yusuf advises FG
• Fully vaccinated South African President tests positive for COVID-19 after a visit to Abuja
• Buhari sends get-well-message to Ramaphosa, urges Nigerians to get vaccinated 
• Britain reports first Omicron death, 496 Nigerians receive booster shots

In an anti-climax of the sort, the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) on COVID-19, which had been primed to affirm a retaliatory travel ban imposed last week on Nigeria by the United Kingdom (UK), Canada and Saudi Arabia, yesterday, deferred its pronouncement until its next meeting on Monday, December 20.

The Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, had at the weekend, made the disclosure that the Federal Government would place the UK, Canada, Saudi Arabia, among others, on a red list, banning both airlines and their citizens from coming into the country to reciprocate the earlier ban on Nigerians over the spread of Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The sanction, which had been recommended to the PSC by the Ministry of Aviation, was to take effect today; but at its weekly briefing yesterday, the PSC said it is working with mandate ministries to address the issues surrounding the restriction imposed by some countries on travellers from Nigeria.

Chairman of the PSC and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, said: “While each country is entitled to put in place measures to protect its citizens, Nigeria has similar responsibilities. However, based on existing relationships, Nigeria has initiated diplomatic steps to make these countries reverse their course. This is ongoing in the interest of all parties concerned and we expect that positive results would emerge within the next one week.”

Represented by the Aviation Minister, Sirika, the SGF said the PSC also evaluated the developments on the relationship between Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) “and we are pleased to inform you that the position of the Federal Government is in line with established ICAO Protocols and the spirit of the BASA signed with the UAE.

“Our sovereignty remains paramount and mutual respects shall be our guiding principle in as much as it should be in the best interest of Nigeria. The PSC will at its next regular briefing on Monday, December 20, brief you fully on developments.”

THE diplomatic row between Nigeria and UAE took a new twist yesterday, as the UAE reportedly banned foreign airlines from airlifting Dubai-bound Nigeria passengers.

 
To this effect, Etihad, Ethiopian Airlines (ET), Egypt Air, RwandAir and Turkish Air, yesterday afternoon, rejected a number of Nigerian travellers at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) boarding gates.
 
The Federal Government had at the weekend reduced Emirates Airlines’ 21 slots weekly to just one, a reciprocation of similar treatment meted out to Nigerian flag carrier, Air Peace airline, that requested for three slots weekly but got only one. In response, Emirates Airlines pulled out of the Nigerian route indefinitely.
 
Yesterday, scores of Nigerian travellers that had sought alternative foreign airlines to reach Dubai or transit through the corridor were offloaded in Lagos amid claims that the UAE has stopped all airlines from flying Nigerians to the Arab country. No official word has come from the UAE at press time.
 
Ethiopian Airlines, The Guardian learnt, deplaned about a hundred passengers, causing confusion just before take-off.
 
“UAE says no entry for Nigerian passengers from any airline. Ethiopian Airlines just offloaded all passengers heading to Dubai. We are voiding Dubai-bound tickets,” an official of the airline said to passengers.
 
The political tit-for-tat between Nigeria and the UAE has been rumbling on for about nine months. Caught in the middle are the UAE’s flag carrier, Emirates, to whom Nigeria is an important market. Also suffering is Nigerian airline, Air Peace, which is keen to restart its itinerary to Sharjah.
 
Emirates has struggled to service Nigeria for many months. A row over testing protocols erupted in February, culminating in Emirates being banned from the country by the Federal Government in late March. Efforts to resume flying were unfruitful, as the UAE added Nigeria to its ‘red list’ of travellers.

A passenger, who was to travel via an Emirates flight on Monday, had to explore an alternative airline, paying over N500,000 to travel via Lufthansa. Among those stranded are businessmen, students and others said to be going for medical reasons.
 
“I had to book another flight on Lufthansa travelling through Brazil just to connect Dubai because the various restrictions across the world have made travel very difficult for everybody because you have to travel via a destination, not on the red list.

“But I must be in Dubai by all means and that has cost me an extra N500,000. How many people can afford this,” a student who preferred anonymity, said.
 
The Vice-President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Abuja Zone, Adeshola Kayode, lamented that millions of naira have been lost and businesses affected as a result of the current imbroglio.
 
“We have lost millions, clients have started requesting refunds and some of these tickets are not refundable and for those that have refunds, it will take time to process,” he said.

 
He, however, said the Federal Government’s decision was a welcome development to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the country.
 
A former president of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Engr. Isaac Balami said Emirates and other foreign airlines should begin to respect Nigeria.
 
“They should begin to take us seriously. When they didn’t fly into the country, we did not die. They must begin to respect Africa, most importantly Nigeria.”

ON what will be done if the two countries fail to lift the restrictions imposed on Nigeria and Nigerians, Mustapha said: “We have followed the normal diplomatic route to ensure that the problem is resolved, if they refuse to delist us, we will come back as PSC and take a decision on the next line of action.

“Our actions were based on the provisions of Article 2 of the BASA agreement between Nigeria and UAE. We are making this briefing to enable Nigerians to understand what we are doing and why we are doing that.”

This is coming as the UK is set to reduce travel restrictions and scrap the infamous red list. According to a UK newspaper, Daily Mail, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, had been able to convince his colleagues that the restrictions should be replaced with testing for the fully vaccinated.

There has been outrage from countries placed on the red list, many of which are African countries since the British government instituted the fresh restrictions.

After the backlash, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had last Wednesday promised to re-examine the UK’s policy following claims that it was unfair and ineffective, with the likelihood of scrapping the red list for the quarantine option for fully vaccinated travellers. The proposal to reduce the travel restrictions is expected to be approved this week, according to the report.
 
The UK also hinted at the plan to ease the chaotic hotel quarantine for travellers arriving in the country. The emergence of Omicron forced thousands of travellers into hotel quarantine at a cost of £2,285 per person for 10 days.

 
Earlier, explaining reasons the UK added Nigeria to the travel red list, the British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, said the UK made the decision to protect the public health of its people while the government tried to understand the new variant.

She noted that despite the ban, the British government would work closely with the Nigerian authorities as the world faced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Laing further explained that the decision would be reviewed at the three-week review point on December 20.

IN its reaction to recent reciprocity actions by the Ministry of Aviation, CEO of the Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise (CPPE), Dr Muda Yusuf, said though the principle of reciprocity is a common response strategy to express approval or disapproval of international relations, this should be guided by the realism of the costs and benefits of such an action.

“Of course, issues of nationalism and assertion of our sovereignty are evident manifestations in the current face-off. However, there is a good chance that the cost to Nigeria of recent wave of reciprocity actions would be disproportionately higher, especially for SMEs involved in international trade, families with loved ones outside our shores, Diaspora Nigerians and foreign investors.

“The hospitality and travel industry, which is yet to recover from the shocks of the pandemic and the lockdowns would also be a major casualty.

“The nationalistic and sovereignty arguments are valid and legitimate. But the economic, business and diplomatic ramifications need to be considered in the invocation of the reciprocity theory. These are consequences that transcend the jurisdiction of the Aviation Ministry.

“This underscores the need for robust consultation and inclusion in deciding the appropriate and strategic course of action. The issues are fast degenerating from a health issue to a diplomatic or political narrative.

“In all of these, we need to recognise the vulnerabilities of the Nigerian economy. Economic growth remains fragile. Many small businesses are still reeling from the shocks of the pandemic and the associated recession. Investors are still grappling with headwinds inflicted by macroeconomic and regulatory shocks. There is little headroom to absorb further shocks. The risk to the economy and small businesses (particularly those that are active in international trade) is quite high.

“The nationalistic passion expressed by the Minister of Aviation is understood. But the economic, business and diplomatic consequences should be adequately taken into account. The Foreign Affairs Minister and the Industry, Trade and Investment Ministry should also weigh in on this matter. A strategic and inclusive approach in dealing with the issues is imperative to minimise the disruptions, dislocations and costs to the businesses and the economy, without compromising our sovereignty and national interests,” he noted.

MEANWHILE, Nigeria will no longer accept vaccines with a short shelf-life, as they exert undue pressure on both the healthcare worker and the people.

The Executive Director of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr Faisal Shuaib, said over one million vaccines, which expired in the country were withdrawn before they expired, adding that the agency is working with NAFDAC to fix a date for the destruction.

“We received vaccines with short shelf life and deployed them immediately, otherwise Nigerians would have been left without any vaccine. But as soon as we started receiving more vaccines, we flagged off the mass vaccination and right now we have enough vaccines.” 

Faisal noted that as of December 13, 7,894,068 eligible persons have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria, representing 7.1 per cent of the eligible population required to be vaccinated, while the number of fully vaccinated eligible persons in Nigeria is 3,969,325, representing 3.6 per cent of the eligible population. Already, 496 persons have received their booster doses.

He said: “In recent times, we are beginning to see an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases globally due to a new Omicron variant. Mutation of COVID-19 occurs when the population remains unvaccinated. An unvaccinated community allows the virus an opportunity to thrive, grow and build up more attack mechanisms against our immune system.

“In Nigeria, we are now beginning to see an increased number of cases due to the fact that most of our eligible population have not presented themselves for vaccination. With increasing travels and interaction these ember months, the virus is still thriving and spreading within the communities because our eligible population has remained unvaccinated. 

“The COVID-19 is unable to replicate and cannot survive for long in a vaccinated individual. Our unvaccinated eligible population is therefore providing an environment for the virus to thrive and mutate. The vaccines are available in all our designated public, private, secondary and tertiary health facilities.”

PRESIDENT Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa has tested positive for COVID-19, two weeks after visiting Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari welcomed his South African counterpart to Nigeria for the 10th Session of the Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission, on December 1.

The visit took place on a day Nigeria confirmed three cases of the Omicron COVID variant that is causing ripples across the world at the moment. At the end of the meeting, Buhari had said: ”Despite the scare generated by the new COVID-19 variant, we have been able to hold successful meetings, while observing strict COVID-19 protocols, through fraternal cooperation and understanding.”

President Buhari subsequently proceeded on a trip to the UAE for Dubai EXPO 2020 while Ramaphosa headed for neighbouring West African nations.

According to a statement issued by the South African presidency, Ramaphosa ended his trip to West Africa five days ago. The statement said the president and all those who accompanied him were certified COVID-free during the trips and even when they returned to South Africa.

Although fully vaccinated, the South African president started feeling sick after attending the memorial service for former deputy president F W de Klerk in Cape Town. He is said to have shown mild COVID symptoms and he is currently being treated.

Ramaphosa, who would remain in self-isolation in Cape Town, has delegated all responsibilities to Deputy President David Mabuza for the next week.

The statement quoted Ramaphosa as saying that his own infection served as a warning to all citizens of the importance of getting vaccinated and remaining vigilant against exposure. “Vaccination remains the best protection against severe illness and hospitalisation,” the statement said.

“People who have had contact with the president today are advised to watch for symptoms or to have themselves tested,” it added.

President Buhari has sent a get-well message to his South African counterpart, who tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement yesterday, President Buhari said: “My heart and prayers are with Mr Ramaphosa of South Africa at this difficult moment of health challenges, and I pray for his speedy and full recovery.

“Mr Ramaphosa is a friend of Nigeria and an important partner in our joint continental efforts to tackle Africa’s social, economic and political difficulties. The coronavirus pandemic is a reality and no respecter of persons.”

President Buhari particularly reminded Nigerians “to disregard the allegation that the pandemic is a foreign creation to depopulate Africa and boost the financial interests of western pharmaceutical companies through vaccine production.”

He warned that “lack of attention to medical advice and apathy is damaging to the government’s efforts to contain the spread of this deadly viral disease.” The President, therefore, advised Nigerians to come out fully and get vaccinated.

BRITAIN, yesterday, confirmed what is thought to be the first confirmed death after infection with the Omicron variant, as the country launched an ambitious COVID-19 booster shot programme to stop the virus spiralling out of control.

On a visit to a vaccination centre in west London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Omicron accounted for about 40 per cent of the cases in the British capital, and hospital admissions were rising.

“Sadly, at least one patient has been confirmed to have died with Omicron,” he told reporters, a day after warning that the country faces a “tidal wave” of infection.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) told AFP: “It appears indeed that this is the first confirmed Omicron death.”

But the centre said many cases around the world were not genome-sequenced, so it was “impossible to know whether this is the first Omicron death.”

In South Africa, where the virus mutation was first identified, no deaths linked to Omicron have been officially announced, the department of health said.

The UK Health Security Agency said there were 4,713 Omicron cases on Monday, up 1,576 in 24 hours. Vaccination rates are high in Britain, with more than 81 per cent or 46.7 million of those aged 12 and over having had a second jab. Some 23 million or 40 per cent have so far had a booster.

The new measures come after face masks were made compulsory in indoor public spaces last Friday, and new testing and self-isolation rules for contact cases began on Monday.

Workers were also told to stay at home, leading to a drastic reduction in cars on the road and passengers on public transport, travel and transport firms said.

Vaccine passports for certain crowded settings, including at football grounds, are due to be enforced across England from Wednesday, with separate rules set by the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.