Since May 15, Musbau Ibrahim has finished his exams at the Islamic University of Madinah, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he pursues a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
He would have travelled to Nigeria a day after his exams but for some constraints that are beyond his control.
Ibrahim, an indigene of Oyo State, is one of the hundreds of Nigerian students studying in Saudi Arabia on scholarship by the Saudi government.
According to him, the school and the government have an agreement to pay for the return ticket of all its scholarship students once every year – however, under the condition that they will travel through the Saudi Arabian Airlines.
In the past years, Ibrahim said they would have informed the school authorities and the airline of their intention to travel home, and that a day after taking their exams, they usually travelled back without any hitches.
But this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline requested that the students should obtain a letter of “request for evacuation” from the Embassy of Nigeria in Riyadh before they could be flown to Nigeria.
However, Ibrahim said since March when they had been requesting the evacuation letter, the embassy had yet to write the required letter to the Saudi airline.
He said, “I’m a student on a scholarship funded by the Saudi government. Every year, the Saudi government pays our return ticket to Nigeria. Right now, we are supposed to be at home but there are some issues.
“We finished our exams on May 15 and we were allowed to travel anytime from May 16. In the past, we never needed any permission from the embassy before travelling home but due to COVID-19, we were asked to contact the embassy for an evacuation letter.”
Ibrahim added, “We stopped physical learning in March and started online classes due to the pandemic and since then, we have been trying to reach our embassy to request the evacuation letter but we’ve not got any response. When we finished the semester on May 15, we were supposed to travel home anytime from May 16.
“But there is a condition for us scholarship students. If we are to travel home, it has to be through Saudi Arabian Airlines. We have contacted our embassy and explained this, but they have been proving difficult.
“Because of this, we have also written a series of letters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission. But up till now, no one has responded to us. Meanwhile, fellow students from other countries have been travelling home since May 16.”
According to Ibrahim, the students contacted the embassy again about three weeks ago and an official claimed that they didn’t know how to write the evacuation letter. Ibrahim said the students offered to assist if that was the situation.
“We contacted a representative of the students from another country and he gave us a sample letter that they wrote to the Saudi Arabian Airlines. We presented the sample letter to the embassy but still, they have not written the letter. So we are stuck here,” he said.
Ibrahim said strangely, the embassy informed them of an evacuation plan “even after we made it known to them that the Saudi government and our school were ready to pay for our return ticket to Nigeria so far we are travelling via Saudi Arabian Airlines.”
He said, “Right now, the way I see it is that the embassy wants us to travel to Nigeria via their evacuation arrangement. But if we are going through this route, we have to pay. And we won’t just pay for our evacuation flight to Nigeria; when the school resumes, we will also have to pay for our trip back to Saudi Arabia. What we don’t understand is why the embassy is frustrating us.
“Because I am already bored here and want to be with my family, I made up my mind to pay for the evacuation flight, but I found out it would cost about 2,800 Riyal (N290,000). It’s too expensive for a student. But because I really want to leave, I gathered some funds and last Tuesday, I called the embassy to book the evacuation fight. However, I was told the plane seats were already filled up.”
To say Ibrahim is frustrated by this development is to state the obvious, as he said he did not know when the embassy would write the required letter or arrange for another evacuation flight.
He said, “I’m really out of options right now because I don’t know when there will be another evacuation flight and the problem now is that time is ticking. The next semester begins on August 30, which means we have a few weeks left to spend with our families at home before returning to school. Meanwhile, there are indications that online classes will still be the thing next semester. If this is the case, we can attend the courses while in Nigeria.
“We’ve been here since September 2019 and preparing to be with our families after the semester. Some of us have wives and children at home and, unfortunately, we can’t be with our families. We are not doing anything here; we are just eating, sleeping and waking up. It’s really frustrating we can’t be with our families. Of course, we chat and do video calls but these can’t be compared to physical connection.”
Ibrahim, who is in his final year at the university, said there were about 400 Nigerian students in the school, some for bachelor’s degree and others studying for master’s and PhD.
“In my school alone, we are about 165 who want to travel home from the list we compiled. But from the general list of students in various schools, we are about 315. The Saudi government is ready to pay for our flight, and it has always been like this,” he said.
Another Nigerian student stranded in Saudi Arabia, simply identified as Bode, said if not that he could not afford to pay for the evacuation flight, he would have reunited with his family in Nigeria.
He said, “We ought to be home now but the Nigerian Embassy here has been frustrating us. They know scholarship students are always given a free return ticket to Nigeria every year so far it is via Saudi Arabian Airlines. But because of COVID-19, the airline is requesting a sort of letter of permission for evacuation from the embassy, which should not be a big deal. However, the embassy is treating this as a big issue.
“Students from other countries have been going home since May because their embassies did the right thing on time. Why should there always be a problem whenever a matter concerns Nigeria? I think they are intentionally frustrating us so we can pay for the evacuation flight. If not that it is too expensive for us as students, we would have paid.”
Meanwhile, a Nigerian who travelled to Saudi Arabia for a contract job, simply identified as Modupe, complained that she couldn’t afford the evacuation fee, hence she was still stranded abroad.
She stated, “At this point, I can only appeal to the Nigerian government to come to our aid. The amount for individual evacuation is not affordable; even my sponsor (employer) said they wouldn’t be able to pay such an amount. I want to return home and see my family.
“For four months now, I have not received any salary from my employer because I completed my duration of contract shortly before the lockdown. My employer told other Nigerians and me to contact our embassy for evacuation but it is too expensive.”
Meanwhile, email enquiries sent to the Embassy of Nigeria in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, since last Wednesday had yet to be replied to as of press time. Repeated calls to the contact number on the embassy’s website were also not answered.
However, on the plight of students stranded in Saudi Arabia, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Ferdinand Nwonye, said the Nigerian Embassy had nothing to do with their evacuation process since the said Nigerians were on the invite of the Saudi government.
“I don’t think the embassy has anything to do with it. The embassy can’t be the one to permit them to travel since they are there on the invite and sponsorship of the Saudi government. I don’t know what the students mean; maybe they need to properly understand what is being required of them before being evacuated,” he said.
Nwonye further said apart from facilitation, the Federal Government had no hand in the evacuation of Nigerians stranded abroad.
He said, “Evacuation flight is not free and the government is not handling it. What I mean is that the government only facilitates the evacuation flight; it doesn’t pay. The evacuees pay their tickets. If an intending evacuee doesn’t have money to pay, I don’t know how it’s going to be. That is the thing.”
Although email enquiries to NIDCOM since last Wednesday had yet to be responded to as of press time, the Chairman of NIDCOM, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, recently said in a tweet that the embassy was already arranging for the evacuation of stranded students in Saudi Arabia.
She, however, acknowledged that the arrangement was being delayed.
“A bit behind schedule but (it) will be done,” she said.
Dabiri-Erewa also stated on Tuesday that the Federal Government had so far evacuated over 6,300 Nigerians stranded in 21 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, India and the United Arab Emirates.
“Currently, as COVID-19 is still on the rampage, the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Nigerian Missions around the world have evacuated and still evacuating stranded Nigerians across the world,” she said, adding that many Nigerians were still stranded abroad.
Among them is Omonike Adeosun, a senior nurse at one of the government hospitals in Lagos, who left Nigeria for the US for an educational programme on March 6. She planned to spend only three weeks abroad.
But on March 23, as the reality of the coronavirus dawned on Nigeria and the number of COVID-19 cases was increasing, the Federal Government suspended all international flights into the country except emergency and essential flights. This move was barely four days to Adeosun’s planned return to Nigeria.
Although the government recently reopened the airports for domestic flights, international flights remain suspended but expected to resume before October, according to the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika.
Hence, since March, Adeosun has been stuck in North Carolina in the US, waiting for when international flights to Nigeria will resume.
“I left Nigeria March 6 for the United States and I planned to spend three weeks and return to Nigeria but I never knew I would still be in the US four months later. Even if I’m not going anywhere at home, I want to be with my husband and children,” she told our correspondent on the phone.
She added, “I’m missing home. My children are anxious to see me. Sometimes they wake up in the middle of the night and call me just to tell me they are missing me. They also chat with me regularly to emphasise this. We also do video calls and I try to assure them that I will be home soon.”
Although Adeosun said her bosses at work understood why she was stranded in the US, staying abroad had already become tiresome and she wanted to be at work again.
She said, “I am sad because I’ve not been going to work. I am a unit supervisor at my workplace but I can’t supervise my subordinates adequately from here. I communicate with them on the phone but the experience is different from when I’m on the ground. Some of them do whatever they like because they know no one is monitoring them. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about it for now.
“Thankfully, so far, my bosses have not shown any displeasure at my extended stay in the US. I also made it official by sending a letter to the management that I’m stuck in the US and can’t come home right now because of the pandemic. They understand correctly because it’s a global issue. Still, I’m missing my work. I want to take care of the sick. In the US, I’m not doing anything. I’m becoming uncomfortable. I don’t go anywhere here unless I want to buy food with the family that accommodated me. I knew them in Nigeria before they relocated to the US.
“Many fun places are locked down, though some are now reopening. When you travel to the US, the expectation is to have some fun after finishing with any assignment you came for, but that is not the case now. For instance, where I stay in North Carolina, there is a gym and a swimming pool close by, and I would have loved to use them, but they are locked down. I’ve been at home, sitting, sleeping and eating. There is no church activity and no social gathering. Of course, I do take a walk in the evening and once in a week or two, we go to the field for exercises such as skipping and running.”
If not for the family that accommodated her in the US, Adeosun said she sometimes wondered how she would have coped during her extended stay running into four months now.
“Sometimes, I imagine if I were to be lodging in a hotel for having no friend in the US, it would have been a pathetic situation for me, considering the cost. Perhaps I’d be homeless right now. The family makes Nigerian food every day for me,” she said.
Asked if she was bothered being in a country with the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths worldwide, she replied, “Actually, I’m partially bothered but if you are on the ground here, you will realise that the US is managing the situation very well.
For instance, in North Carolina, we hardly hear of new cases. The number of deaths is also minimal and for people who are sick, they are getting proper treatment. Of course, I can’t speak the same thing of other cities.
“Also, we observe all the necessary protocols; we wear face masks if we are going out to the grocery store. We also carry hand sanitisers, even though they are mostly available everywhere we go.”
However, asked why she had not explored the option of flying to Nigeria via evacuation, Adeosun replied that it was “too expensive,” in addition to the fact that she paid for a return ticket while travelling to the US.
She said, “It’s not that I don’t want to explore it but it is too costly. When I was coming to the US, I paid for a return ticket. If I want to be evacuated, I have to pay another money, which is far more expensive. In fact, the cost of evacuation flight is higher than that of the return ticket I paid for.
“If I want to return home by the government’s evacuation arrangement, I will have to pay for 14 days self-isolation on arrival in Nigeria and feeding. When I calculated everything, it was around N900,000. That’s why I ruled out the option. To compound the issue, a friend who returned home via evacuation said the experience wasn’t palatable. He said they wasted their time at the airport even as they were hungry. He said if he had known, he would have stayed in the US. So I will wait until international flights to Nigeria resume.”
Adeosun said she contacted the airline she boarded to the US in March last Tuesday and they assured her that her ticket was still valid. She said the airline only told her that she might pay an extra fee if there was an increase in ticket prices on the day she would travel. But she wouldn’t need to pay an extra fee if there was no change in ticket fares.
“If international flights resume today, I will travel to Nigeria the following day,” she said.
Meanwhile, our correspondent also gathered that many Nigerians are stranded in Dubai, UAE due to job loss. As a result of this, some of them who could not afford to pay for evacuation flights were finding it difficult in the Middle East city.
One of the stranded Nigerians, simply identified as Bakare, said they held protests at the Nigerian Consulate in Dubai for them to be evacuated home.
“We have been going there under the hot sun almost every day. We are suffering. We came here to work but we lost our jobs due to COVID-19. Most of us can’t afford the evacuation fee. They should subsidise it for us,” he said.
In a video shared with our correspondent, the rowdy protesters were seen under a hot sun, some cleaning their sweats with bare hands. Some had their suitcases with them, depicting a people set to leave the country. While some donned face masks, others didn’t, even as social distancing rules were ignored.
Another protester, simply called Chike, said they couldn’t wait to leave Dubai. “We are stranded and we appeal to the government to come to our aid by reducing the evacuation fee. We lost our jobs because of the pandemic and we could barely save enough money before then,” he said.
Meantime, the Nigerian Consulate in Dubai had yet to respond to our correspondent’s enquiries as of press time.