The aviation and diplomatic circles in Nigeria were ruffled yesterday, as the Saudi Arabian government cancelled the visa of all the 264 passengers airlifted by Nigeria’s major carrier, Air Peace, on arrival at the country from Kano, insisting that they be returned to Nigeria.
This is coming at a time President Bola Tinubu, is in Saudi Arabia attending the Arab-Africa summits.
‘We’re investigating the matter to see if any consular or aviation rules have been flouted’.
Reacting last night, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement by the SA Media and Communications Strategy to the minister, Alkasim Abdulkadir, said it was investigating the matter to see if any consular or aviation rule had been violated.
The ministry said it would ensure actions that would impact the welfare of Nigerian citizens were mitigated in the future, in line with the 4-Ds strategy of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
“Nigeria has just participated in the Saudi-Africa Summit where bilateral discussions covering several sectors of the economy and mutually beneficial commitments were made,” the statement read.
When contacted, the Presidency said it was aware of the situation but was yet to get the facts of the matter.
The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Tope Ajayi, said: “I am aware of what happened but we don’t have the facts of what happened. We are waiting to get updates on the matter.”
Vanguard gathered that the flight took off from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos via the Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano on Sunday night and arrived Saudi Arabia’s major city, Jeddah, yesterday without issues.
However, on landing, the Saudi Arabia authorities announced that all the passengers’ visas were cancelled.
A source who pleaded anonymity, told Vanguard that all the passengers and the airline personnel were shocked at the cancellation of the visas because during check-in of the passengers, they went through the Advance Passengers Pre-screening System, APPS, which were also monitored by Saudi Arabian authorities before the flight left Nigeria.
The source wondered whether what happened was a strategy to discourage the airline from operating to the destination, having recorded high load factor since it started the operation.
It was also learned that even the flight to leave Jeddah today for Nigeria was already fully booked.
When the Nigerian embassy waded in, the Saudi government was said to have reduced the number of passengers that would be returned to 170 from 264.
Saudi Air has been operating directly from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia and a source said that since Air Peace started flight service to the Middle East nation at relatively lower fares, it had been receiving high patronage, helping to conserve foreign exchange for the country.
A source from the Nigerian embassy in Jeddah said even Saudi Immigrations personnel said they didn’t know who cancelled the visas but noted that they were cancelled when the airline was already airborne to Jeddah.
The source said: “The airline was exonerated in all this as the APPS, which is live between both countries would have screened out any invalid visa and its passenger. The system accepted all affected passengers and passed them on.
“Those deported were 177 passengers and Air Peace has already left with them back to Nigeria. They are on their way back to Nigeria now.”
Meanwhile, stakeholders in the sector have attributed the development to aeropolitics, describing the development as a way to force the Nigerian operator out of the route unless government intervened, adopting the principle of reciprocity.
According to industry expert and the Chief Executive Officer, Centurion Aviation Security and Safety Consult, Group Captain John Ojikutu, the action of the Saudis is obviously aeropolitics and diplomacy.
He also suggested that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs step in immediately and intervene in the case.
He said what happened showed why it is important for the Federal Government to stand strongly with any Nigerian carrier designated to operate international destinations.
Ojikutu said Nigeria should designate airlines approved to operate out of the country as flag carriers, noting that the United States had no national carrier, as all the airlines are supported by the government and designated as flag carriers.
“The action of the Saudi authorities is shocking. There is aeropolitics there and there is also diplomacy. There is need for the Nigerian government to stand firmly with Nigerian carriers and also designate them as flag carriers; so that other countries will know that they represent Nigeria.
“Government must come out and intervene. Government must be behind Air Peace now to ensure it is not denied its rights as contained in the Bilateral Air Service Agreement, BASA, between the two countries.
“The ministry of foreign affairs must not keep quiet. Nigeria must not keep quiet. Ideally, government is expected to stand behind any of the country’s airline it designates to fly overseas,” Ojikutu said.