Following the resolution reached by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and President of the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, flights and businesses are set to resume in full swing.
The announcement has elicited mixed reactions as stakeholders hailed the diplomatic engagement of President Tinubu and President Al Nahyan, which led to the suspension of the visa ban placed on Nigerians.
In what was described as a “historic agreement,” Tinubu was able to reach an agreement with his UAE counterpart to reinstate the Nigeria-UAE flights, which had been suspended since October last year.
According to the Presidential spokesman, Chief Ajuri Ngelale, by the historic agreement, both Etihad Airlines and Emirates Airlines “Are to immediately resume flight schedules into and out of Nigeria, without any further delay.”
Ngelale said, “As negotiated between the two heads of state, this immediate restoration of flight activity, through these two airlines and between the two countries, does not involve any immediate payment by the Nigerian government.
“In recognition of President Tinubu’s economic development diplomacy drive and proposals today presented by President Tinubu to his counterpart, an agreed framework has been established, which will involve several billions of US dollars’ worth of new investments into the Nigerian economy across multiple sectors, including defence, agriculture, and others, by the investment arms of the government of the United Arab Emirates.
“Additionally, President Tinubu is pleased to have successfully negotiated a joint, new foreign exchange liquidity programme between the two governments, which will be announced in detail in the coming weeks.
“In conclusion, the president wishes to commend the UAE President, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for his unalloyed friendship and his determined effort to join hands with him to fully normalise and reset to excellence, the standard of relations between the two important countries.”
However, experts in the aviation industry added that while the president’s move was commendable, the interest of Nigerian carriers must be protected in restarting commercial flights between the two countries.
What went wrong in the past?
Most part of last year saw relations between both countries almost hitting the rock over several issues bordering on trapped funds, the rise in cult-related activities in UAE attributed to some Nigerians, as well as the refusal of UAE to grant Air Peace, a Nigerian carrier, slots to Dubai International Airport.
It would be recalled that the UAE authorities suspended visa issuance to Nigerians in October last year.
In a notice issued to its trade partners in Nigeria, including travel agents, the Dubai authorities said that “All Dubai applications submitted are now rejected”.
The UAE government said rejection notices would be sent in batches to applicants. It said the rejections “Are general for Nigerians and approvals are on hold at the moment”.
The development was coming about two weeks after Emirates, the UAE carrier suspended flights to Nigeria over trapped funds amounting to $85m at the time.
Our correspondent reports that the UAE carrier suspended its flights after failed efforts at getting its funds repatriated.
Air Peace, a Nigerian carrier operating in Dubai also suspended its flights. This was seven months after it resumed the same flights following resolutions of a diplomatic row between both countries over the initial denial of Air Peace frequencies in Dubai.
Earlier in the year, the Nigerian government wielded the biggest stick on the UAE carrier as the former Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika restricted Emirates flight to one weekly frequency from 21 in retaliation over the denial of Air Peace requested slots in Dubai. The UAE authorities later rescinded the decision and granted seven frequencies to Air Peace while Emirates frequencies were also restored.
But the diplomatic row was worsened by the inability of Emirates to repatriate its funds, which was said to have triggered the visa ban.
Our correspondent reports that Nigeria is leading among countries with trapped funds with about $800m trapped funds.
Many businesses were affected by the ban as many Nigerian entrepreneurs who used to visit Dubai to procure good items had to look for other alternatives. Also, leisure travel was stalled.
Our correspondent also gathered that Emirates also laid off some Nigerian Aircraft Engineers providing services to the airline on a part-time basis.
Boom in businesses
But with the planned restart of flight operations, stakeholders are anticipating a boom in the trade relations between both countries in addition to providing more flight options for Nigerian travellers at a time the airfare has hit the rooftop.
Aviation analysts who spoke with our correspondent however said the interest of Nigerian Airlines must also be protected going forward.
Principal Managing Partner, Avaero Capital, Sindy Foster said, “Normally, when you negotiate, you put both sides’ issues on the table…Let’s hope the issue of Air Peace and BASA reciprocity was part of the negotiations, otherwise, we may be back to cat and mouse tactics again…”
On the issue of the trapped funds belonging to Emirates and other airlines, she said, “The issue of trapped funds is a recurring decimal. So, some assurances are likely to have been given before the stalemate was resolved. Until action to pay off or put a plan in place becomes a reality, this ‘peace accord’ is tenuous.”
She also stated that it might impact positively on airfares depending on the number of people traveling or transiting via the UAE.
“The biggest impact will be on traffic between Nigeria and UAE. Other countries benefited from the impasse. So traffic via Egypt and Morocco are likely to be reduced,” Foster added.
President of Aircraft Owners and Pilots’ Association, Capt. Alex Nwuba commended the step taken by the president to re-establish a relationship with both countries but added, “What is more important is what did we agree on in the relationship? Are we (Nigerian carriers) allowed to come as we allowed them to come?
He said what is more important is what happened to the Nigerian carriers, adding it would be counterproductive if Nigerian carriers were not allowed access to their markets as the UAE carriers have access to ours.
“It is surprising that nothing was said about that…But let’s wait and see what happens, it will tell a lot about our negotiating style,” he said.
Another analyst, Group Capt. John Ojikutu said while efforts are being made to clear the trapped funds belonging to Emirati Airlines, other airlines must also be considered.
“What is good for the goose is good for the gander. This should not be for Etihad and Emirates alone but for all the foreign airlines that got their repatriated funds trapped in the Nigerian banks.
“Government must have found out where the earnings the Nigeria service providers made in dollars from the foreign airlines got trapped outside the banks and the CBN,” he said.
From an international relations perspective, a Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hassan Saliu in a chat with Daily Trust commended the president for the steps taken, describing his move as a plus to his administration. He said this would also result in a renewed business relationship with the UAE and called on Nigerian carriers to also rise up to the challenge.
Saliu expressed optimism that the interest of Nigerian carriers would have been addressed more so when the Chairman of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema was on the delegation of the president to India.
“What the president has done is a normal diplomatic relation and that is the apex when it cannot be handled at the ministerial level and that is Head of State to Head of State. To me, it is a plus for Tinubu.
“He went there to smoothen relations with UAE and that won’t be the first time. Buhari was also in UAE and he struck an agreement with UAE over the sponsors of Boko Haram in Nigeria,” he said.
He charged the Nigerian carriers to rise up to the occasion and participate actively in the competitive global aviation environment.
“We live in a competitive world where our airliners also need to aspire to international standards,” he said.