Diplomatic row looms as South Africa frustrates, arrests voluntary returnees

A fresh twist to the diplomatic row between Nigeria and South Africa is in the offing as South Africa yesterday frustrated the plans to repatriate Nigerians that were fleeing xenophobic attacks.

The Guardian learnt that the evacuation plan of at least 640 Nigerians was met with resistance and arrests of some of the voluntary returnees, forcing the first airlift to be delayed by 10 hours. As at evening yesterday, the operating flight, originally estimated to arrive at 1:00p.m., was yet to touch down.

An Air Peace Boeing 777 aircraft had left Nigeria on Tuesday and arrived at OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa, at about 4:00 a.m. to airlift the first of the two batches of returnees.

Sources in South Africa explained that the Nigerian Commission in that country had prepared the first 317 Nigerians for the evacuation. “ But the South Africa Immigration started causing problem by arresting Nigerians who were due to travel, demanding papers and accusing them of travelling without the right documents.”

Indeed, some of the proposed returnees initially lacked valid travel documents, which forced the evacuation to be delayed till this week, while the commission prepared valid papers for them.

“That already done and everything ready as at Monday, the South African Immigration still demanded to know how the Nigerians came into the country and began to arrest them. South Africa is bent on frustrating us,” the airline source said.

It took the intervention of the Nigerian High Commission for the South African authorities to make the procedure less hectic, but the rounds of clearance started taking a lot of time.

“By 2:00 p.m. yesterday, only 182 Nigerians were allowed to board the flight, the rest were barred by the South Africa Immigration. They were frustrating the Nigerian High Commission too by re-arresting the returnees. They wanted to frustrate the airline and the Nigerian government.

“The aircraft (with some passengers on board) had been burning fuel since 4:00 a.m. They (South Africans) were not happy that Nigeria was evacuating its citizens. They did not want the world to know that a Nigerian airline and Nigerian government were evacuating them,” the official said.

Air Peace has said that the exercise would cost the airline about N300 million for the payment of passenger service charge, aeronautical and other charges in addition to the cost of operation.

The Chairman of the Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, confirmed the development, saying the South African Immigration services had insisted on conducting another round of documentation on the returnees.

Dabiri-Erewa told reporters at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, yesterday that the situation had led to the delay in the take-off and late arrival of the returnees.

She disclosed that 317 persons, comprising 231 males and 86 females, were already on the manifest to be airlifted.

On arrival, she said, the voluntary returnees would be profiled and given support in the form of fares that would take them to their respective states of origin.

Dabiri-Erewa added that the government had mobilised the Bank of Industry (BoI) to work out skills acquisition and other social intervention programmes for those who show interest.