Saturday, 30th September 2023

Sudan crisis: Hajj airline operators suspend agreement

By Murtala Adewale (Kano), Shakirah Adunola (Lagos) and Odita Sunday (Abuja)
05 May 2023   |   3:37 am
Airline operators selected to convey Nigerian pilgrims for the 2023 Hajj in Saudi Arabia, yesterday, suspended assent to a final deed of agreement, citing the conflict in Sudan.

Azman Air

• Generals unwilling to end fighting, UN chief discloses
• IOM: Over 1,000 arrive Ethiopia from Sudan daily
• FG: We need four aircraft to bring Nigerians back

Airline operators selected to convey Nigerian pilgrims for the 2023 Hajj in Saudi Arabia, yesterday, suspended assent to a final deed of agreement, citing the conflict in Sudan.

National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) had announced approval of seven carriers: Saudi-based Flynas, Max Air, Air Peace, Azman Air, Aero Contractors, Arik Air and Value Jet for both passenger and cargo services.

Addressing journalists at Hajj House in Abuja, NAHCON’s Commissioner (Operations), Magaji Hardawa, said the scheduled agreement signing ceremony could not hold, following complaints by airlines on implication of the Sudan crisis.

Hardawa said, although Flynas signed the agreement to go ahead with airlift, expected to commence May 21, representatives of other carriers hesitated, citing economic costs.

With outbreak of an internal crisis in Sudan, military authorities had shut the country’s airspace, making it difficult for countries, like Nigeria, to use the route to Saudi Arabia.

The airlines, which are now expected to journey through alternative routes, would spend about seven hours in the sky, as against the traditional four, whenever the Sudanese airspace is used.

Hardawa said Flynas agreed to sign the deal because of an existing Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) and “are conscious of their diplomatic status.”

He said: “The reason other airlines declined to sign the agreement is largely due to conflict in Sudan, and the situation is putting the airlines in a difficult position.

“Airlines are business entities, and we want them to be happy and profitable. They are reluctant to sign the agreements, not because they are greedy. So, we agreed with them to go back and consult further.”

The Commissioner said the airlines agreed to return Tuesday for the signing.

Chairman of the National Hajj Commision (NAHCON), Alhaji Zikrullah Kunle Hassan.

Meanwhile, NAHCON’s Chairman, Zikirullah Kunle Hassan, assured that Nigerian pilgrims would not suffer any pain or be asked to pay additional costs.

“The Commission has no intention of reviewing the Hajj fare upwards because of the situation at hand. We know intending pilgrims are not in a position to pay more. So, we will wear our thinking caps and find a better solution,” he said.

United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, has warned that the “will to end the fight still was not there” after speaking to Sudan’s rival military leaders.

Griffiths told the BBC that Sudan’s descent into violence was now at a dangerous tipping point. He called for security guarantees from the warring sides to allow humanitarian aid into the country.

The UN warned that the fighting could force hundreds of thousands of Sudanese to flee their homes.

In a BBC interview, hours after his visit to Port Sudan, Griffiths spoke bluntly of what he called “the rigid existential fact that those at war are keen to keep it going”.

During his time in Sudan’s largest port, now a major evacuation and humanitarian hub, he had separate telephone conversations with Sudan’s rival generals.

Griffiths, the UN top aid official, called for their clear public commitments to guarantee urgent deliveries of aid.

“This is about specific protections for the movement of aid workers and goods and supplies – going down roads at certain times, airlifts from being shot down,” he emphasised.

[FILES] UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Also, International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said over 12,000 people have arrived in Metema, the border town between Sudan and Ethiopia, since fighting erupted on April 15, many exhausted after the long and dangerous journey to safety.

IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) is currently recording over 1,000 daily arrivals, among them Sudanese citizens, returning Ethiopians and third country nationals from Türkiye, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria and more than 50 other countries.

IOM is assisting those arriving in Ethiopia, including from countries whose embassies sent requests to support their nationals.

The support includes transportation from the border to Gondar and Addis Ababa, as well as accommodation at IOM’s Transit Centres for some. Many of those fleeing Sudan enter Ethiopia without resources and belongings. Without assistance, they risk being stranded at small, remote border towns.

Nearly 200 Kenyans, some of them students, over 200 Ugandans and more than 800 Somali nationals are among those who have been assisted.

The Federal Government has, however, said if four aircraft were made available to move at once, every Nigerian in Sudan would be evacuated. The first group of some Nigerians stranded in Sudan arrived in Abuja on Wednesday night, after days of trying to escape persistent fighting.

According to Nigerian authorities, the evacuation plan covers more than 3,500 nationals, but their total number could be greater, as more than 5,000 Nigerians are believed to reside in Sudan, many of them students.

Nigerian commercial carrier, Air Peace, landed in the capital, Abuja, around 11:40 p.m., yesterday, with 260 passengers, while a Nigerian Air Force plane arrived a few minutes later with about 94 passengers.

Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM), Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said if four aircraft could move at once, every Nigerian stranded in Sudan would be brought home.

She stated this at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja, while awaiting arrival of the two aircraft from Egypt.

According to Dabiri-Erewa, Egypt officials were insisting the airplanes sent from Nigeria must be able to take the number of Nigerians available, otherwise they would not be allowed to evacuate anyone.

She said: “If four planes go at the same time, they will bring everybody back. Most importantly, we hope those over there come back speedily.

“We are expecting that with the arrangements made by National Emergency Agency (NEMA), it is going to be more planes because Egypt makes it difficult.

“Egypt says if the number of people you brought is, let’s say 200, and the aircraft can only take 150, then nobody will leave. They want you to pick the number of people that you are bringing into their borders.”

She added: “At Port Sudan, we are trying to get tickets because it is even more difficult to get flight to Port Sudan but they have an airline. So, they are processing them now, to get them tickets and then they come back home. And if other airlines get the landing permit, they will quickly go to help evacuate them.

“At least, they are coming back home and we are glad no life was lost and priority was given to students, women and children. Let’s just set our eyes on that.”