The Federal Government’s delegation along with delegation from the House of Representatives, are expected to leave Nigeria to Ukraine on Wednesday with a view to commence the evacuation of over 8,000 Nigerians living and studying in war-torn Ukraine.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama disclosed this during an interactive session with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, and other members of the Body of Principal Officers affirmed that 5,600 Nigerian students and about 8,000 Nigerians are in Ukraine.
According to him, “The latest we had was that since Monday will not be feasible, we have tentatively fixed for Wednesday. The idea is Romania is going to be the hub and there are about a thousand already estimated to pick up from Romania. Then you have Slovakia about 200, Poland was about 250 and Hungary the same figure. About 150 want to go through Russia, those are our students that we’ve advised our ambassador to get a permit for”
“So essentially that’s where we are as at today, moving into that next phase of getting these people. Of course, some of them don’t want to come back to the country but the point is also that we’ve given a commitment to these transit countries that have given us timelines for the refugees to stay in their countries. So we also have an obligation to ensure that within that timeline that they come back.”
While noting that the Russians invaded Ukraine by surprise, Mr Onyema explained that the first effort made was to “get in touch with all the Nigerians in Ukraine, set up a hotline with the embassy at the centre and start directing.
“We were in touch with the Ukrainian authorities and hope was that we could go in immediate and start evacuating but, of course, the Russians attacked some airfields and the airspace was closed. So that was not an option at all. The next thing was, some people now started including Ukrainians to move towards the borders. Kyle is very close to the border and Nigerians also joined.
“There are about 5,600 Nigerians there and maybe a total of 8,000 Nigerians are in Ukraine. And those who are close, there are a number of borders around Ukraine, Ukraine is the second-largest country geographic in landmass in Europe. So it’s a big country.
Initially, the advice was to stay-put, but of course, when they started the bombardment, people panicked which is normal and understandable and started moving out to the borders.”
While responding to the concern over the Poland Ambassador who travelled to Nigeria, the Minister explained that all the political Ambassadors travelled to Nigeria to attend Congress adding that when the invasion started he turned back to Poland.
According to him, Federal Government is partnering with Air Peace in a bid to get Nigerians back, especially the students.
While responding to questions on the level of preparation made so far, the Minister assured that the Ministry through the Embassy needs to bring all the people who are spread in various locations to a designated location.
We have to organize people dispersed all over the place, we have to bring to one central point.”
While responding to the question on the 48-hour timeline given to Refugees by the host neighbouring countries who offered to grant free visa to affected Nigerians, the Minister disclosed that the timeline “starts counting when they get in. It’s just to make sure that somebody else’s problem doesn’t become theirs.”
In his address, Hon. Gbajabiamila who expressed concern over the lingering crises ravaging Ukraine underscored the need for formidable emergency arrangement for the evacuation of Nigerians in such a situation like this.
“I was very surprised when on Sunday I think it was days after the whole thing broke out that the Nigerian Ambassador to Poland was in Nigeria, I’m not sure what he was here to do in Nigeria, but I think that was a wrong locus for him to be here but hopefully I think on Monday he has since gone back. I think all these little, little things, we need to look at how to address the situation.
The Speaker who acknowledged that under the current circumstances, our hands are tied however commended the Minister for doing a good job so far.
“I think it is important that we must be in the state of readiness at all times and not be caught flat-footed at all or whatever again. It’s happened too many times we need to have planes that are on the ready, we need to get all those things ready in case this should happen. We don’t pray that this happens again but we leave in a world of conflict so we need to be ready.”
To this end, he tasked the Majority Leader, Hon. Alhassan Ado-Doguwa and Chairman, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Hon. Yakubu Buba on the need to ensure the safe return of all the Nigerians in Ukraine, stressing that: “These people are our Constituents; you need to get your hands dirty as well.
“I don’t know, whenever they are going you need to be involved irrespective of whatever anybody says out there. This is a collaborative efforts, government is about everybody. The Foreign Ministry will take charge, but you oversight that’s what our law says. We need to be sure that things are done properly.”
He also urged the Minister to keep the House informed on any obstacles that may arise in the course of evacuating the stranded Nigerians in Ukraine.
The Speaker, who confirmed that he had a fruitful discussion with the Chairman of Air Peace on Sunday, stressed the need for synergy between the National Assembly and the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the bid to formulate a policy or legislation that will address emergency evacuation of Nigerians during emergency situation.
“I spoke with the Chairman Air Peace a couple of days ago and he did tell me, he is ready and more than able to airlift our citizens. He has about 8 planes at his disposal from 300 to 400-seater plans, I think some 180-seater planes; I think he has 377. He basically said he is willing as soon as we are ready. For the House, one day is a day too long in terms of delay,”
While stressing the need for Nigeria to make the necessary preparation to airlift Nigerians from any country during the emergency period, he lamented that: “This has happened one time too many, in South Africa where we have to lean on a private citizen to quote and unquote for want or a better word, loan us or borrow us his plane. I think if we can at this time urge the Executive to come up with a surplus supplementary budget.”
He also noted that the NEMA mandates should be extended to the external evacuation of Nigerians, noting that “if NEMA mandate includes external evacuation then the question is that have they been equipped with what is necessary for them to be able to execute their mandate?
“For instance, we all saw where America evacuated people who are not even their own citizens from Afghanistan. I think there’s a special purpose-built plane that we can try and purchase that would be there ready for evacuation of our students or citizens if any such things happen.”
He also stressed the “need for Nigerian authorities to interrogate the Ukrainians Government. I think I heard you say that some students if they left school, they would not be able to come back to school. I think we should try and interrogate them further on that. But whether they like it or not, they are in a state of war. How can you say students who leave school during the state of war cannot come back to school? Maybe that’s a policy but I think we should try and interrogate that.”
He also asked whether Nigerian Embassy has “hired enough buses to bring them to the borders? The answer is yes,” the Speaker noted.
“We’ve seen videos of them starving, cold weather, so do we have some arrangements for feeding, blankets? These resources how soon do you think we can get them! Because of cold weather, I was in New York not long ago, I don’t know how people live there?