By Owei Lakemfa.
Opinion: A DOZEN years ago when I first lodged at the prestigious Corinthia Hotel, Khartoum overlooking the confluence where the White Nile River and Blue Nile River are in eternal embrace, a waitress approached me.
She was intrigued by my dressing and as such, could not place where I came from. I told her I was wearing a unique Nigerian dress. She told me I have a Nigerian brother working in the hotel who is always excited to meet Nigerians.
She gave me his name and the floor his office was located, and I checked him on my way downstairs. When I enquired about him, this Sudanese emerged from his office and when I introduced myself as a Nigerian, his face lit up. I told him he looks every inch a Sudanese.
He said he was born Sudanese but that his father had migrated from Kano. As a Muslim trying to fulfil his religious vows to visit Mecca on a pilgrimage, his father had travelled by road to Sudan trying to reach Mecca. Unable to continue, he had settled in Sudan and raised a family. However, his father always told the children they were originally Nigerian.
He told me that since his father could not proceed to Mecca, he had dreamt of returning home to his larger family in Nigeria, but never did until he passed away. So, he decided to search for his extended family in Kano to fulfil his father’s wish to link the lineage.
I collected as much information as I could from him and made a search. But unfortunately, the information he had was quite scanty; the names he provided were common amongst people in Kano and the quarters he guessed his father came from, too large for his extended family to be located. I relayed back the information.
I discovered there are many Nigerians trying to reach Mecca who eventually settled in places like Sudan.
The Nigerian faithful have made the pilgrimage to Mecca for hundreds of years now, and our aviation system is quite familiar with the protocols of flying to Saudi Arabia, including on non-Hajj flights.
It was therefore shocking when on Monday, November 13, 2023, the visas of 177 of the 264 passengers who landed in Saudi Arabia abroad a Nigerian Air Peace Airline from Kano, were cancelled on arrival.
Two days later, the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Abuja issued a statement claiming that: “The passengers whom were denied entry, and subsequently deported to their initial destinations, didn’t fulfil the entry conditions and requirements in accordance with the applicable rules and regulations of the Kingdom, as they submitted incorrect information to obtain a category of visa that doesn’t apply to them, which was discovered upon their arrival.”
However, the airline through its Chief Operating Officer, Oluwatoyin Olajide, clarified that Air Peace was on a scheduled flight to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Air Peace then presented a lucid, logical and verifiable response to Saudi Arabia’s claims. It included that the visas of all passengers on the said flight were “checked and verified through the requisite procedures and were vetted to be valid before departure.”
It stated that the visa confirmation platform provided by the Saudi Foreign Ministry was also used for the verification. “Which confirmed the validity of each passenger’s visa before passengers were allowed to check-in for the flight.
“All the Visas of the 264 passengers were duly verified, confirmed, and accepted as authentic for the trip.” The airline said the visas were further passed through the Visa Portal provided by the Saudi Authorities.
The airline also said that it used the Advanced Passenger Information System, APIS, to determine the admissibility or otherwise of each passenger on the flight.
Air Peace added: “Furthermore, the Passenger manifest containing the names of all passengers on board the flight was sent ahead to the Saudi Arabia National Travel Security Centre Carrier Portal before the flight departure, yet no Notice of Visa cancellation was received against any of these passengers.”
The Saudi Arabian statement is bland and clearly showed a country in search of excuses. It could not deny the authenticity of the visas and indeed, it is quite disingenuous for it to claim that 177 passengers in a single flight used “ incorrect information to obtain” valid visas. Are the Saudi visa officers and Foreign Ministry staff so ignorant that such a number in one flight would be given valid visas based on false information?
That clearly is an attempt by Saudi Arabia to present Nigerians as scammers who are so crooked that the alleged incorrect information they supplied could not be detected. So, how come the Saudis detected the incorrect information supplied by the 177 passengers only within the less than seven hours flight time between Kano and Jeddah?
The Saudi excuses are so childish and unintelligent that even a moron could show they ooze falsehood. What that country has done is what in Nigeria we call ‘See finish’: that is having no iota of respect for Nigeria and telling us to go to hell.
Sadly, it will not be very difficult for Saudi Arabia to try sticking the claim of Nigerians being crooked. Just four days before the deportations, the Nigerian Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, issued a statement claiming that Saudi Arabia had pledged to invest in revamping Nigeria’s refineries. He added that: “To support the Central Bank’s on-going reforms of Nigeria’s foreign exchange regime, the Saudi Government will make available a substantial deposit of foreign exchange to boost Nigeria’s forex liquidity.” These claims, tragically, have proven to be unverifiable.
The Saudi Arabia deportations are coming on the heels of the over one-year-long visa ban on Nigerians by its neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, UAE. President Bola Tinubu had personally intervened to get the ban lifted. This happened on September 11, 2023 when he met UAE leader Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The Presidency then issued a statement announcing the lifting of the ban. However, the UAE countered the statement to say the ban remains in place.
It is sad that Nigerians are being subjected to such indignities by countries that claim to be our friends. So who pays for such mass deportations? How can the deportees be compensated and by who?
Diplomacy has a lot to do with reciprocity; so, while we may be searching for answers why the mass deportations, we should pick out all Saudis arriving in Nigeria, cancel their visas and deport them in the same aircraft bringing them. We did it with South Africa and it worked. If we, do it with Saudi Arabia, it will work like magic. Nigeria may not be able to stop people disrespecting us, but we can refuse to be disrespected.