The evacuation of 2,400 students and other Nigerians trapped by the ongoing conflict in Sudan took off on a slow start on Wednesday as only 15 out of the 40 buses required for the exercise were provided.
Although the Federal Government hired 40 buses for the repatriation of the citizens from Khartoum and other cities to Egypt, only 10 buses were available as of Wednesday morning, while additional five buses were provided later in the day.
This was happening as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama claimed the Federal Government had been charged $1.2m for the evacuation of Nigerian nationals out of Sudan.
He cited insecurity in Sudan for the high cost of evacuating Nigerians from Sudan.
One of the evacuated students, who spoke to The PUNCH, said, “Evacuated Nigerians are with the Rapid Support Forces. They will escort them to the border of Egypt.”
The government had said on Tuesday that the evacuation of about 5,500 Nigerians, including students stranded in Sudan would commence on Wednesday.
To expedite the repatriation, the government through the National Emergency Management Agency Tuesday released N150m for hiring the buses that would convey the citizens from Sudan to Cairo in Egypt.
But the frightened students informed our correspondent on Wednesday afternoon that scores of them were still stranded in Khartoum as only 15 buses conveyed some of their colleagues out of Sudan, leaving others in limbo and fear.
The students’ apprehension was not unconnected with the unpredictable situation in Sudan and the fact that the three-day ceasefire declared by the Sudanese armed forces and the Rapid Support Force expires Thursday (today).
The warring forces had suspended the hostilities following a ceasefire brokered by the United States to enable foreign nations to evacuate their citizens.
Despite the agreement, fighting was reported in parts of the capital even as a hospital was shelled on Wednesday.
The conflict has pitted army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan against Mohamed Dagalo, the head of the paramilitary RSF over the running of the country. More than 400 people have died so far.
While the most intense fighting has been taking place in the capital, Khartoum, battles have also spread to Sudan’s western region of Darfur, reviving memories of the 16-year-long conflict, in which 300,000 people were killed.
Speaking on Wednesday morning, a student of Noble College in Sudan, Idris Wakama, said “So far, 10 buses have arrived. I do not even understand anymore. The evacuation is very slow. Though, some students are currently entering the buses available it will not even go anywhere to convey us all and we must move out of Khartoum together.”
Female student laments
A female student in the Pharmacy Department of the Sudan International University, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted, “The ceasefire is just for Tuesday and Wednesday and if we do not leave this place today, I do not know what will become of us. The buses are not complete for now.”
Also, the President of the Jigawa State Students Association in Sudan, Umar Abubakar, disclosed that the available vehicles were not sufficient to convey the students, noting that they were jostling to board the few buses on the ground.
“A bus just left but the trapped students awaiting evacuation are many. You need to see students struggling to enter the few buses made available. Some of us here might leave here tomorrow (today). No sufficient buses for now,’’ he revealed.
However, a student who was fortunate to be on the bus said she was on her way to Cairo.
Zainab Mohammed of the Sudan International University, stated, “I am on a bus right now. We are on our way. Though still in Khartoum, we are on our way.’’
In an interview on Wednesday, the Chairman of the Nigerian Community (Elders Forum) in Sudan, Dr Hashim Na’Allah, explained that about 750 Nigerians had been conveyed out of the conflict zone by late Wednesday afternoon.
He noted, “The evacuation started late in the afternoon. Not everyone would be evacuated today. So far, 13-15 buses filled with Nigerians have left for Cairo. More buses are still coming but the remaining ones here cannot be evacuated because it is late and of course, the security situation.
“I am among those who have yet to be evacuated because until everyone leaves before I board the bus. So far, we have about 1,900 students who are to leave Khartoum alongside other Nigerians. About 750 Nigerians have been evacuated from Khartoum because each bus can carry 50 persons. They are on their way to Cairo. The evacuation will continue tomorrow (today).”
Briefing State House correspondents on the efforts to bring back the students and other Nigerians, the foreign affairs minister revealed that the Federal Government had expended $1.2m on buses and security for the citizens.
Speaking shortly after this week’s Federal Executive Council meeting presided over by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), at the Council Chambers of Aso Rock Villa, Abuja, Onyeama said the high cost of the evacuation was to provide security cover for the eight-hour journey from Luxor to Cairo and the 11-hour trip from Aswan to Cairo, Egypt.
While noting that no Nigerian life was lost in the conflict, Onyeama and the Minister of State, Zubairu Dada, took turns to elaborate on the Federal Government’s efforts to move them to safety.
Shedding light on the cost of the evacuation, Onyeama said, “It’s a lot of money. What I can tell you now is that we’re being charged $1.2m for the 40 huge transporter luxury buses made available to us to transport to the Egyptian border.
Minister explains cost
“Of course, you know because of the risks involved and so many other things. A lot of people are going to also take advantage of this. They’re going to hike up the price. You know, we saw how the French convoy was attacked. So it was difficult procuring these buses, but we had to do it because Nigerian lives matter.”
The minister further said Nigeria’s diplomatic team in Sudan was not the priority of Wednesday’s evacuation as they ought to remain on the ground to coordinate the efforts.
“Now, our diplomats cannot be evacuated before the students and others. They have to be there to coordinate, maintain contact with the Sudanese authorities, ensure that there’s security being assured for the convoy for the journey and keep in touch with other friendly countries with whom we are coordinating.
“So, their presence is very important. Now, as regards the gender question, I think that’s obviously something we will have to look into in a bit more detail, but I think ordinarily, it will be appropriate that women and children should be given priority. That goes without saying, ” he submitted.
Speaking on the planned airlift for the evacuees, the minister stated, “I spoke to the Chief of Defence Staff and he indicated that there are some military transport planes that will be available.
“And of course, Air Peace is making the offer and there are other airlines too, that their owners might also want to make an offer, but we will leave it to NEMA to coordinate who they use to transport by air.”
He added that there were no talks about alternative plans for continued education for the evacuees, most of whom are students of the University of Khartoum.
When asked about plans for the education of the students whose studies have been interrupted by the conflict, the minister said “None that I’m aware of. But yes, it’s a different context. During the Russia-Ukraine war, it was evident to everybody that this is not something that was going to be solved in a year or a year and a half.
“But in this situation, we would like to think that it should not drag on beyond another one month, maximum. But of course, one never knows. Then we’ll now begin to see how we can have alternative arrangements for the education of the students.”
Speaking earlier, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dada, blamed the delayed evacuation on a lack of authorisation from the Sudanese government, noting that no Nigerian died in the fight.
“The main challenge we had was securing authorisation of the Sudanese government and then, you know, some security support for the convoy because it’s been decided that we will transport or convey the Nigerians to the Egyptian border in Aswan.
“We secured a significant number of luxury buses because the distances are quite considerable. And so we started the process which will take a couple of days to evacuate everybody.
“The DG of NEMA himself is physically on the ground in Egypt. He is coordinating some of these logistics alongside his staff. The good news is that no Nigerian life has been lost so far. I think it’s important to stress that all Nigerians are very safe and that we have not lost any life so far,” Dada said.
He said while the Federal Government wanted to take advantage of the 72-hour ceasefire to evacuate stranded Nigerians, the operation would not be obstructed even after the truce ends, attributing this to the existing understanding between Nigeria and the warring forces.
The minister also revealed that the buses were not the only exit route for Nigerians.
The Saudi government, he said, had safely transported some Nigerians to Jeddah from where they would return home in the coming days.
Minister allays fears
Dada said “Let me also add that some Nigerians have actually been evacuated by ship from Port Sudan by the government of Saudi Arabia. Don’t forget this is a joint effort. I mean we have friendly nations that are ready to assist so that we have it on record that the Saudi authorities have been able to pick up some Nigerians, they’re transporting them by ship to Jeddah from where we’ll link up and find a way of bringing them back from Jeddah.”
In a related development, the Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, has explained the motivation for his offer to evacuate trapped Nigerians in crisis zones.
According to him, his goal is to make use of his blessings to unite Nigerians and harness the opportunities that abound in the diverse ethnic nationalities of the country.
The Air Peace boss stated this while speaking in an interview on Arise television monitored by our correspondent on Wednesday.
He said, “Nigeria is a country of about 370 ethnic nationalities. This is supposed to be our strength, the diversity we have today is envy to all. It pains me that we have not been able to weave the country together in over 60 years of our independence.’
On the security for Nigerians, on Wednesday night, said, Dr Hashim Na’Allah, said “I did not see any security officers when the buses were leaving the university premises. But I believe there is a certain point that the buses would meet with the security officers who would escort them to the border of Egypt.
“However, three days ago, I saw an announcement by the Sudan soldiers that the Nigerian community would leave on this day and security officers would escort them to a particular place.”
In an audio sent to our correspondent, a student, Bunyamin Muhammad, thanked the Nigerian Embassy for evacuating some students this far.
Ahmed, however, complained that some Nigerians who obtained Sudanese citizenship “bribed” a few bus attendants to help them evacuate, leaving more students behind.
He said “A lot of students here have not been evacuated due to external influences. There are some personnel who are collecting money from Nigerians who obtained Sudanese citizenship and have been living in Sudan. They promised them evacuation and they have been evacuated leaving the students behind. This is a terrible situation.”