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The evacuation of stranded Nigerians from the United Kingdom has suffered a delay because the UK government denied Nigeria’s Air Peace landing permit, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, said Sunday night.

Initially scheduled to depart Heathrow Airport, London on Monday, the airlift of about 584 Nigerians has been rescheduled for Tuesday at Gatwick Airport London. This followed the UK’s sudden withdrawal of diplomatic landing clearance to Air Peace, a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson, Ferdinand Nwonye, said.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to make additional clarifications that led to the changes in the departure date and airport of the Air Peace evacuation flights. The flight was earlier scheduled to depart on 13th July 2020 from London Heathrow but was later rescheduled to 14th July 2020 from Gatwick Airport London.

“The changes became necessary following the unexpected decline by the British Government to grant Diplomatic Landing Clearance to Air Peace airlines,” the statement read.

While Air Peace airline had evacuated over 300 Nigerians from the UK about a fortnight ago, the reason for the UK’s sudden withdrawal of the landing clearance remains unclear.

“All the arrangements were made including payments, only for the UK authorities to withdraw landing rights close to departure despite strong representations by the Nigerian Government, including pointing out the hardship that would be caused to hundreds of Nigerian evacuees,” Mr Onyeama said in a Twitter post.

Mails sent to the UK’s civil aviation authority, a regulatory agency that issues landing permits, have not been responded to at the time of this report.

Consequently, Air Peace was urged to find an alternative solution to the problem at hand.

The airline went ahead to wet-lease aircraft from a UK company, Air Partner, to airlift the stranded Nigerians, instead of refunding their payments.

According to aviation experts, wet-lease which requires the leased aircraft to be operated by the crew of the company, often puts a prohibitive cost on the airline that hires it.

“Air Peace could have just refunded the passengers but exceptionally, patriotically and altruistically agreed to find an alternative carrier acceptable to the UK authorities to carry out the evacuation a day later than scheduled but for much higher fares,” the Foreign Affairs minister said further in the Twitter post.

“These higher fares could legitimately have been passed on to the evacuees but Air Peace bore this huge cost itself. This is to let the aggrieved evacuees know that the objects of their grievance should neither be Air Peace nor the Nigerian Government. They should rather be eternally grateful to Air Peace.”

“The Nigerian government nonetheless expressed its gratitude to the management of the airline for its “commitments and patriotism in ensuring that our stranded nationals in the United Kingdom return home safely.

The minister said the Nigerian government would review its air agreements with various countries as a result of “the unacceptable treatment of Nigerian carriers during this pandemic.”

Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama[PHOTO CREDIT: @GeoffreyOnyeama] Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama[PHOTO CREDIT: @GeoffreyOnyeama]

But a diplomatic relations expert said there were questions to be asked about the sudden withdrawal of landing license by the British government after it had earlier granted the airline permit to evacuate over 300 Nigerian nationals just a fortnight ago.

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For Azeez Olaniyan, a Nigerian expert on diplomacy and governance, the new development from the British government is a breach of long-standing diplomatic relations between Nigeria and the UK, and also a breach of air travel arrangement.

He said it has to do with diplomatic issues yet to be revealed, while noting that the economic interest of the UK cannot be ruled out.

“I think the event is still unfolding. The landing right was denied after it was initially approved. I think it has to do with some diplomatic issues that we are yet to know. We cannot also rule out economic interest on the part of UK because Air Peace was forced to contact another airline at extra charges,” Mr Olaniyan said.

“Nigerian people deserve explanation from the Nigerian government on why Nigeria was denied landing rights.”

He urged the government to carry out an investigation on the embarrassment the Nigerian state was subjected to, due to the incidence.

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