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Months after, UAE yet to open gates to Nigerians

Six months after President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s diplomatic shuttle to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to resolve the lingering dispute between Nigeria and the UAE,…

Six months after President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s diplomatic shuttle to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to resolve the lingering dispute between Nigeria and the UAE, both countries are yet to reopen for travel and businesses, Daily Trust Saturday reports.

It is now six months since President Bola Tinubu visited the United Arab Emirates with a view to resolve the lingering dispute that made the Middle East country to shut its doors against Nigerians while its carriers stopped flying to Nigeria. It’s been over one year, four months since the UAE slammed visa ban on Nigerians and 17 other African countries, including Ghana.

However, international travel has resumed between Nigeria and the Republic of Ghana and other neighbouring countries while the visa ban on Nigeria remains in place.

Countries affected by the visa ban include Uganda, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Liberia, Burundi, Republic of Guinea, Gambia, Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Benin, Ivory Coast, Congo, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Comoros, and the Dominican Republic.

In a notice issued to trade partners including travel agents, the authorities indicated that all applications should be rejected.

“This is to inform you that we will not be posting 30 days visa applications for these nationalities effective today October 18, 2022,” the notice read in part.

“Any applications from the above-mentioned countries will be sent back or cancelled.”

Daily Trust Saturday reports that the ban came after months of diplomatic row between the two countries which have dragged since the COVID-19 lockdown. Both countries had disagreed over discriminatory COVID-19 requirements for travel which prompted UAE authorities to deny Nigerians boarding on Emirate Airlines. Also, there was a diplomatic row over the denial of Air Peace —a Nigerian carrier, slots in Dubai Airport while the federal government retaliated by reducing Emirate frequencies from 21 to one.

But the 2022 visa ban imposed on Nigerians by the UAE authorities after a culmination of months of disruptive travels between the countries and the blocked funds belonging to Emirates Airlines, was said to be the last straw.

Daily Trust Saturday reports that Nigeria has been in the eyes of the storm globally for being the single country holding the largest share of airlines’ blocked funds. This was what prompted Emirates to suspend its flights indefinitely to Nigeria with effect from September 1.

“Emirates has tried every avenue to address our ongoing challenges in repatriating funds from Nigeria, and we have made considerable efforts to initiate dialogue with the relevant authorities for their urgent intervention to help find a viable solution. 

“Regrettably there has been no progress. Therefore, Emirates has taken the difficult decision to suspend all flights to and from Nigeria, effective 1 September 2022, to limit further losses and impact on our operation. We sincerely regret the inconvenience caused to our customers, however the circumstances are beyond our control at this stage. We will be working to help impacted customers make alternative travel arrangements wherever possible. 

“Should there be any positive developments in the coming days regarding Emirates’ blocked funds in Nigeria, we will of course re-evaluate our decision. We remain keen to serve Nigeria, and our operations provide much needed connectivity for Nigerian travellers, providing access to trade and tourism opportunities to Dubai, and to our broader network of over 130 destinations.”

Just about a month after Emirates suspended flights over $85m trapped funds as of that time, the UAE authorities followed suit with a visa ban which left other airlines bringing Nigerians to Dubai with no option than to also suspend flights due to dwindling passengers. What this meant was that it would be difficult for any airline to develop the route and grow its customer base while Emirates and Etihad, both UAE carriers, were out. 

Nigeria loses billions

But the suspension of travel between Nigeria and UAE has far-reaching implications for both countries as the Nigeria-Dubai route is one of the most lucrative routes for foreign airlines and Nigerian airlines as well. When the going was good between the two countries, Emirati airlines enjoyed about 30 weekly frequencies to Nigeria. Emirates Airline was doing two daily flights out of Lagos to Dubai and one out of Abuja, making 21 frequencies weekly while Etihad was also doing daily flights out of Lagos.

With the passengers of other airlines like Air Peace, Ethiopians, Qatar, Royal Air Maroc, Kenya Airways, among others combined, it is estimated that 3000 passengers were recorded daily on the Lagos-Dubai routes as people frequent the country for businesses and leisure.

This implies an estimated loss of $300,000 (N450m at N1500/$) daily in passenger service charge (PSC) for the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) alone and billions in ticket sale charge and cargo sale charge (TSC/CSC) for the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority of Nigeria (NCAA). The NCAA collects five per cent TSC on each passenger and as of today when the cost of a flight ticket to Dubai costs about N1.5m, it means the NCAA is losing an estimated N225m daily if combined with the number of passengers.

Also, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) also loses millions daily on navigation charges and several other losses occasioned by the stoppage of flights between the two countries.

Our correspondent further learnt that some indigenous engineers working on contract with Emirates have lost their jobs as the airline terminated their contract after the suspension of flights to Nigeria.

Meanwhile, due to the visa suspension and the inability of Nigerians to travel to Dubai, businesses have been impaired with a lot of Nigerian business men and women stranded and having to explore other options.

Daily Trust Saturday findings revealed that many Nigerians now travel to Dubai via neighbouring countries like Ghana, Benin Republic, among others for those who get their supplies from Dubai.

Travel agents who spoke with our correspondent said neighbouring countries are the beneficiaries of the imbroglio between Nigeria and the UAE.

One of the agents who spoke with our correspondent on the condition of anonymity said people mostly use Ghana which is the most stress-free at the moment.

“Ghana is the most stress free. Besides, they speak English. We do not encourage connecting flights from French speaking countries,” she said. 

Tinubu’s diplomatic shuttle

In August 2023, the visit of President Tinubu was widely applauded following the announcement by his media aide, Ajuri Ngelale, that the UAE government had agreed to lift the visa ban, the work permit while Emirates and Etihad Airways had agreed to resume flights to Nigeria.

However, what seems like a one-sided narrative was countered by the UAE authorities which clarified that the visa ban was still in place. Later on, the federal government through Ngelale on one side and the Minister of Aviation, Festus Keyamo, on the other side, said the discussion is still ongoing.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Africa Aviation Summit and Exhibition in Abuja a month after the visit, Keyamo stated that the details of the agreement between both countries are being worked out.

He also stated that there was no time-frame for the resumption of flights by Emirates and Etihad.

In the midst of this stalemate, Nigerians in UAE have sent a save our soul (SOS) message to the federal government to resolve the diplomatic row with the UAE so that the work permit ban can be lifted.

“As I am talking to you, nothing has happened and it appears the major issue here is the fact that the federal government is yet to fully clear Emirates’ trapped funds,” a Dubai-based Nigerian said.

Our correspondent reports that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) recently announced clearing the backlog of airlines’ trapped funds. However, the foreign airlines disagreed, saying over $600m is still trapped with commercial banks.

The implication is that without liquidity in commercial banks, the remaining part of the blocked funds would remain while the funds continue to grow as tickets are sold on a daily basis.

“If they don’t pay Emirates airline money and sign some bilateral agreements, nothing will happen. We don’t need too much talk,” a member of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), UAE chapter, said.   

As at the time of filing this report, Emirates Airlines or Etihad have not given any indication on resumption of flights to Nigeria.

Stakeholders however said clearing the remaining backlog of trapped funds is critical to reopening of flights and businesses between Nigeria and UAE.

Speaking on the development, Mr Olumide Ohunayo, the General Secretary of Aviation Roundtable, said “Emirates is not satisfied with what they have offered so far, they have not collected their money in full and some of the services are still paid in dollars, including for fuel.”

According to him, if some service providers, especially fuel suppliers, agree to accept naira from the airline, they might have a rethink.

It would be recalled that Emirates had proposed to fuel suppliers to be paying in naira instead of dollars, which they rebuffed.

But Ohunayo said, “If the suppliers are ready to accept naira, they would probably have a rethink and come back. They feel they can do without the Nigerian route with the profit margin that was announced which is the best profit margin any international airline can make last year.

“I think they have nothing to lose and if the conditions are conducive for them, then they come back.”

“The absence of some international airlines also jacked up fares astronomically. Remember they (Emirates) had 21 slots a week and that is a loss when you multiply it by the number of seats on their 777 aircraft.

“While I wish they come back, I also wish that we would reciprocate and use that reciprocity in BASA. The only way we can bring down fares and have our own comfort is for us to participate. That option is non-negotiable for me.” 

Aviation Analyst and Principal Partner Avaero Capitals, Sindy Foster, said the engagement of the Nigerian government with the UAE authorities has not yielded the desired results because of the trapped funds which have not been fully cleared.

She stated that it would be in the interest of the Nigerian government to fully resolve the issues with the Dubai authorities given that many Nigerians travel to the UAE.

She said, “Several months ago, we got insight into a very one-sided engagement which the Nigerian contingent decided would result in restart of operations. We received no such notification from the UAE. 

“Each country is within its rights to accept visa applications from other countries. Given the passengers travelling between Nigeria and UAE are mainly Nigerians, it’s more in Nigeria’s interest to find a resolution to this issue.”

When contacted yesterday, Mr Tunde Mashood, a spokesperson with the Minister of Aviation, said the issues would be resolved very soon. “From the look of things, we will soon hear from them.”


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