Saudi Arabia has identified about 11,600 Nigerians reportedly stranded in the country, many due to the coronavirus disease, and is making plans to airlift them back home, an official has said.
The Nigerian embassy official, who is privy to the development but asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to journalists, said the Saudi’s decision was contained in a letter addressed to the embassy a few weeks ago.
The source added that the list, according to the Saudis, includes Nigerians who had visited the country for umrah – a lesser hajj – and were held up by the movement restrictions introduced by Saudi authorities as part of containment measures.
The kingdom, which recorded its index coronavirus case on March 2, had initially imposed a travel ban on some neighbouring countries before extending it to include European countries and 12 others, on March 12.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, confirmed the development. He said Nigeria’s logistics challenge has been responsible for the delay in the repatriation.
Speaking on Tuesday shortly after taking part in the daily media briefing by the Presidential Task Force on COVId-19, Mr Onyeama told PREMIUM TIMES that some of the stranded Nigerians would have landed about a week ago, but that the country does not have enough facilities to accommodate them all for the 14-day quarantine period.
He said; “We are aware of this… In fact, they wanted to land last week, but they couldn’t because there was no arrangement to receive them.
“As you heard, we have a capacity we can absorb. The medical people have to monitor them for two weeks for quarantine. But there is only a certain number of port health authority staff who are able to monitor all these people as they come in.
“As the SGF said, we have to finish the ones we have, then allow some more to come in. We can’t allow everybody to come in because we don’t have the capacity to house them and also to monitor them medically.”
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the Nigerian embassy in Saudi Arabia was surprised by the huge number of Nigerians contained on the Saudi’s list of Nigerians to be repatriated, and has responded to the letter by seeking clarification on how the kingdom arrived at such.
Our source said in the letter, the Saudis noted that only 340 Nigerians have indicated their willingness to return home. The Saudi authorities, therefore, wrote to seek the embassy’s cooperation in the search “for the remaining 11,260.”
“The Saudi authorities officially stated that they will be taking charge of airlifting all Nigerians who came into the Kingdom for Umrah and or visit and got stranded here as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the official said.
He added that the embassy “has requested the Saudi authorities to furnish it with more detailed information on what they have to enable it know how to play its own role accordingly.”
Earlier, when contacted, the consular officer of the Nigerian mission in Saudi Arabia, Muhammed Aliyu, refused to speak on the issue.
In a message shared on WhatsApp with our reporter, Mr Aliyu said the embassy has no right to speak to the media on such matters.
He, however, directed this newspaper to Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry, saying the approval to communicate with the media would have to be conveyed in writing to the embassy by the ministry.
“Mr. Alabi, professionally, Embassy has no right to speak to the media directly or indirectly, except with express approval from MFA (ministry of foreign affairs) Headquarters in Abuja. The approval will be communicated in writing to the Embassy, with clear instructions,” he said.
Mr Aliyu, however, confirmed that every official correspondence received by the embassy has been forwarded to the ministry.