From Uche Usim and Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja Abuja

In the spirit of equivalent retaliation, Minister of Aviation, Mr Hadi Sirika, yesterday announced the temporary ban of flights from all nations that put Nigeria on their red list following the discovery of a few cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant in the country.

The countries affected are Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Canada and Argentina. Flights from their territories into Nigeria have been banned till further notice tomorrow.

This is as the Federal Government locks horns with the government of the United Arab Emirates over what it described as an insulting and unacceptable letter wherein it justified the reasons it granted only one slot a week to Air Peace but expected to enjoy 21 frequencies into Nigeria every week.

Sirika, in an audio message made available to Daily Sun, said the sovereign interest of over 200 million Nigerians was too important for any foreign government to toy with it.

He warned that any country that rubbishes all diplomatic etiquettes and bilateral agreements to slam unfair deals on Nigerians will be resisted and served in similar measures as tit for tat remains a fair play.

On the Emirates-Air Peace impasse, Sirika said the issue leaves a sour taste in the mouth, insisting that the Federal Government would stick to its guns until UAE allows for a level playing field.

“When we came in as a government, UAE requested 21 frequencies, meaning that they will be coming to Nigeria 21 times in a week or simplified as three times a day; two in Lagos, one in Abuja. Well, even this was something that the Buhari administration gave them. They had just 14 frequencies when we came, and it was seven for Lagos and seven for Abuja. They never operated Abuja daily until when we came.

“However, we’ve got an airline, a Nigerian airline, which is Air Peace that applied to get only three out of the 21 frequencies, and I approved. So, Air Peace wanted to be going into the UAE three times a week. So, UAE refused to approve the three frequencies for Air Peace. They insisted on giving them only one frequency and it was in Sharjah not Dubai. Now, we are giving them 21 frequencies from our agreement, they ought to give us 21. So, what they’re supposed to do is to give Air Peace 21. And then it is up to Air Peace to operate all the 21 or do three. So, we went back and forth with them. Right here in Colombia, we had a meeting with them and we said okay, well, we are going to also look at it and give you also one frequency as against 21. So, they wrote us a very insulting letter that referred to meeting discussions and agreement ‘bla bla bla bla’, in accordance with a bilateral agreement between the two countries and having looked at our operations with great pain we’re giving you or Air Peace one slot in Sharjah. And that’s the best we can do in the circumstance that our airports are full.’

So, this is very insulting and this is not acceptable by international treaty, convention or agreement. And therefore, I directed that they also be given one frequency and into Abuja. So, whoever, and beginning from the 12th or 13th, they will only come once into the country. So, anybody who wants to get out using Emirates should get out on the 12th maximum. And then when he wants to return he should book his return, he should make sure that that return date is on a Thursday and that is to Abuja and get his booking confirmed.

“I know they can be under pressure because they’ve lost a lot of money in the past. Honestly, who cares? But they are not coming. They are losing a lot of money. We also in Nigeria are losing the service they provide and are also losing some economic activity as a result of that coming. But the sovereignty of 200 million people is too important for us to toy with. So, on behalf of the 200 million Nigerians, we have taken the decision that they also be given one slot. And this is just for your information. And there’s nothing grandstanding, it’s just the way things are in civil aviation,” the Minister explained.

On the series of travel ban, Sirika said he participated in a Zoom meeting of the COVID-19 tax force, stressing that the Nigerian government would draw strength from the agreements at the meeting to shut its doors on those who also shut out Nigerians.

“Just for your information, we recommended that those countries, Canada, UK, Saudi Arabia and Argentina, who banned Nigerians, we also put them on the red list, just the same as they did to us.”

•We’re in regular contact with other countries  –UK

The United Kingdom has said it is in regular conversations with other countries about their travel policies.

This was even as the United Kingdom said it has been clear that travel abroad will be different this year and countries may impose border measures at short notice in line with their own coronavirus policies.   

Head of Communications, British High Commission, Abuja, Dean Hurlock, stated this in response to the continuous criticism of the travel ban slammed on Nigeria by the United Kingdom as a result of the COVID-19 Variant of Concern (VOC) Omicron.

He said the Government of the United  Kingdom proposed sticking to its standard background lines on whether a particular country will put the United Kingdom on the red list and avoid getting into hypothetical situations.

“We’ve been clear that travel abroad will be different this year and countries may impose border measures at short notice in line with their own coronavirus policies.   

“FCDO travel advice is kept under constant review and travellers should continue to check it for entry requirements of the destination they plan to visit.”