It seems the emergence of COVID 19 came with the persistent rift in aviation relationship between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Nigeria. Recently, the UAE reversed a travel ban on Nigeria, India and South Africa barring flights to and from the cities of Lagos and Abuja commencing from 21st of June.
The UAE had previously refused to fly passengers who did not have a pre-boarding rapid diagnostic test (RTD). However, last Saturday, it announced a new travel protocol that allows Nigerian travellers with negative PCR test results taken within 48 hours to departure to fly. It had published a travel protocol, noting that Dubai’s Committee on Crisis and Disaster Management had proposed new entrance protocols for travellers, beginning June 23, 2021, as part of reducing inbound travel restrictions.
This sudden re-imposition of the travel ban thus came as a shock to multitudes of Nigerians who had been looking forward to the lifting of the ban. The initial ban had been in place since February this year following a spat between the two countries over the methods for conducting COVID 19 tests on travellers to and from UAE. The face-off between Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates over travel procedures has been a reoccurring issue.
The faceoff began at the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic in 2020. The UAE implemented several preventive measures to combat the virus’s spread, including suspending the issuance of UAE visas to all countries until March 17, 2020. After entering the pandemic’s recovery phase, the country loosened several restrictions on July 7, allowing travellers from a variety of countries to take the appropriate precautions, such as demonstrating negative PCR test results within 92 hours of arriving in the UAE.
Visitors from Nigeria were included in this category. However, Nigeria was compelled to ban Emirates Airlines following the lockdown on the country’s aviation industry.
When aviation links were about resuming, The Nigerian government saw the UAE’s COVID-19 testing technique as unfair, and it triggered a dispute between the two countries again. The UAE required passengers departing Nigeria to complete three COVID-19 examinations almost within 24 hours, and Emirates will only accept COVID-test results from testing centres that are on a special approved list. The process included an initial PCR test, an antigen rapid test at the airport, and a PCR test at the arrival airport. Disturbingly, the traveller will pick the entire bill. Nigeria’s Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, found such a demand absurd. According to the Nigerian government, a single PCR test within 72 hours of leaving should be enough. The UAE, on the other hand, was not convinced of this.
In response to this development, a former lawmaker Senator Shehu Sani stated that if an Arab country can ban Nigeria because of COVID-19, Nigeria should follow suit. “If the UAE prohibits Nigeria due to COVID19, Nigeria should ban the UAE in retaliation,” he said.
Early this year, Emirates flights were banned in Nigeria because the airline issued a directive on February 1, 2021, requiring Nigerian passengers at the Lagos and Abuja airports to take fast COVID-19 tests irrespective of previous results, before departing. This directive was in line with directives from the home country.
After series of discussions at various levels, the airline stopped the requirement for quick antigen tests, and the restriction was lifted. However, on March 15, the federal government reinstated the prohibition, claiming that Emirates had continued to conduct quick antigen tests on travellers from Nigeria despite previous understanding. The UAE embassy in Abuja published it in revised COVID-19 travel regulations for Nigeria on March 25, 2021, as part of measures to combat the spread of coronavirus in the country.
Following the release of the new travel regulations, an uneasy diplomatic conflict erupted between the Dubai authorities and the Nigerian government. The Nigerian government interpreted this as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
Interestingly, Nigeria and the United Arab emirate have always had strong and cordial bilateral ties for decades, particularly in the field of trade and investment. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Zubairu Dada, remarked at the 49th anniversary of Nigerian -UAE bi-national interaction, that UAE had come a long way in terms of development partnership with Nigeria and the two countries should be looking towards replicating these accomplishments in other fields. He claimed that this was the cause for Nigeria’s good ties with the UAE.
Nigeria has maintained tight ties with the UAE over the past four decades, he claims. “We hope that the partnership will be elevated to a new level for the mutual benefit of all parties involved.
If Nigeria can boast of quality relationship with UAE in trade and other areas, why should there be an exception in the area of aviation?
Whatever is the reason for the hiccup, the effect of this travel ban will have negative consequences on the revenue generated by various airlines on that route. This is because the Nigeria-Dubai route is among the biggest revenue-generating sources for many stakeholders in the aviation business. Meanwhile, many people who had planned to pursue diverse programmes in the UAE have been left stuck. Many Nigerians have been forced to find other round-about routes of getting into Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
There is a need for governments on the two sides to find a permanent solution to this faceoff because the longer this standoff continues, business activities will remain adversely affected. It is indeed in both countries’ best interests to resolve this conflict by mutual compromise.
Bringing up additional rapid COVID-19 test requirements unilaterally was indeed a diplomatic blunder on the part the UAE. It should have done so in consultation with Nigerian officials. To end this excessively long travel standoff, relevant officials in both countries should discuss and agree on the solutions bilaterally.