• Cleric offers free tickets to 20 willing returnees
Air Peace airline yesterday suspended further evacuation of Nigerians in South Africa until the remaining voluntary returnees have been cleared and released by the host government.The chairman, Allen Onyema, said the airline would deploy staff and equipment to South Africa once it receives approval from the Nigerian High Commission in the country.
Air Peace on Wednesday returned 187 out of a total of 640 Nigerians that submitted themselves for repatriation over xenophobic attacks. The returnees were a shortfall from the 314 that had been expected the same day.
The flag carrier, by the original plan, was supposed to make a return to South Africa yesterday to evacuate the second batch. But with the restrictions and alleged arrests of prospective returnees by the South African Immigration, the next evacuation has been delayed until further notice.
Onyema said the Boeing777 aircraft went to South Africa to pick about 320 passengers but the South African government, through its immigration officials, frustrated them.
“The Nigerian High commission informed us that they had over 700 Nigerians registered and willing to come back home. So, we decided to do the first batch on Wednesday with 320 returnees. But by the time they registered only 20, they told us that their system broke down.
“In fact, the Air Peace aircraft arrived in South Africa at about 4:00 a.m. Wednesday, and was supposed to depart by 8:00 a.m. The aircraft didn’t leave until about 4:30 p.m. That was about 10 to 12 hour’s delay, which was not the fault of Air Peace. They deliberately frustrated us until the Nigerian High Commission informed us at the end of the day that we could only airlift 187 inclusive of about 87 children,” he said. Onyema, however, added that Air Peace is ever ready to continue with the repatriation, “if the South African government agrees that we should come.”
He said: “l was told that they picked up some people and wanted to ask them how they entered the country in the first place. I thought these people (Nigerians) are now leaving your country and they should have been left to go home.
“However, we are waiting for the Nigerian High Commission to inform us of the next move. I have enough pilots to get onto the aircraft and go back to South Africa. “We are ready to evacuate every Nigerian, to the last, and free of charge too, so that we can encourage other Nigerians to always look at ourselves as one nation, telling others that irrespective of our differences, nobody can bend us, nobody from outside can separate us.”
Air Peace had disclosed that the exercise would cost the airline about N300 million. Onyema however expressed satisfaction with the humanitarian response. According to him, “I believe l cannot go to my grave with my bank account and fat wallet. But l can go to the grave comfortably and peacefully with my legacies. I want to implore all Nigerians to be their brothers’ keepers.
“You could see the shout of joy (by the returnees). Some of them were singing the Nigerian anthem when l moved in. l shed tears too; tears of joy. l am just thankful to God for giving me the heart to be able to take that decision. “It is something l did heartily, happily for my nation, and in support of the government. I am happy also that the president was appreciative of what Air Peace has done and had asked every Nigerian, who is willing to leave that enclave of South Africa, to come back home.”
Meanwhile, Senior Pastor of Omega Fire Ministry, Apostle Johnson Suleman, has offered to airlift more Nigerians willing to come back home from South Africa.Reacting to the development on his verified Twitter handle, the clergyman said: “I just heard that 900 Nigerians want to return home from South Africa.“I have asked for flight tickets to be bought for 20 Nigerians in South Africa, who want to return home. I will take care of the cost. Please, register at our church in Johannesburg. We will airlift more by God’s grace. God keep you all alive.”