The Director General of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Muhammad Sani-Sidi recently led a special team comprising other relevant agencies for the evacuation of stranded Nigerians in Libya. Before then he had led a similar team for the evacuation of distressed Nigerians in Cairo Egypt. Prior to his present appointment, he had held various positions of responsibilities including a Commissioner in various ministries in Kaduna State, including that of Works, Health, Culture and Tourism and was Special Adviser to Finance Minister. A member of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and the International Emergency Management Society (TIEMS) among other professional bodies, Sani-Sidi granted this interview to the Economic Confidential after a return trip with Nigerian evacuees from Libya. Excerpts:
What can you say about the exercise?
We must commend President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan for his passion about the well-being of Nigerians and for always giving directives for immediate actions to rescue Nigerians. The President is a person who believes so much on positive and immediate results on his instructions that have to do with Nigerians’ wellbeing. In NEMA and other response agencies we take seriously any directive the President gives. In fact before other bureaucratic processes are completed, we strategize in-house and have briefings with all relevant agencies like the police, civil defence, security agencies and where the service of volunteers are required, we involve them too.
How would you describe the evacuation exercise generally?
You should know that the evacuation is a humanitarian operation which is sensitive and requires perseverance, diligence, diplomacy, high sense of responsibility and collaborative efforts of all the stakeholders and the cooperation of all Nigerians. We don’t move into any country as if we are in combatant or confrontational stance. We go there with hands of friendship and brotherhoods to enable us sustain mutual relationship with the countries concerned. That is why we can’t do anything alone without the supports of other agencies like in this case we involve the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Security agencies, immigration service, civil defence and medics in all our activities. The collaborative efforts and understanding with other relevant agencies have been quite impressive.
What has been the public impression on the evacuation exercise?
We are impressed by words of encouragement from different segments of the society who have continued to commend our rescues efforts in Egypt and Libya describing the operation as being the first time in the history of Nigeria where the country demonstrates its ability and capability to address the plights of distressed Nigerians in Diaspora which is unprecedented. One of them was even quoted in the media as he said that ‘he was proud to be a Nigerians when he saw the Nigerian crew who came to Tripoli International Airport to evacuate them. He said he was not a politician, but the administration of Goodluck Jonathan deserves commendation for competing with other developed countries in the evacuation exercise to rescue their respective citizens.’
So how many passengers have you flown in from Libya after the two batches?
We were able to successfully and safely bring into the country 1035 Nigerians who were stranded in Libya. They are distressed people who voluntarily registered to be evacuated. The exercise is not a forceful evacuation so not all Nigerians are targeted for the operation. In the first batch we had 499 passengers while the second batch we flew in 535 Nigerians. You may be surprise to learn that as some countries were celebrating the evacuation few passengers some less than 300 of their citizens, the 1035 Nigerians arrived the country less than 48 hours of the commencement of the exercise.
But we were told that there was a delay in the evacuation… What were the problems?
Well in the initial stage we had problems of getting diplomatic clearance that could enable our flight to fly into Libya. After diplomatic efforts between Nigeria and Libya the clearance was obtained and we immediately moved to Tripoli International Airport.
There is the story that your team spend more than 10 hours at Tripoli airport?
Yes… It is true. The screening and documentations of intended travellers in Libya took a long time because of the pressure and large number of Nigerians as well as the rowdy situation at the airport. At the end of the day we took off after about 11 hours of our arrival in Libya but the second flight was smoother because the documentation took less than 5 hours. So I can say that the arrival of the two flights was within 24 hours.
Why the process of documentation and screening should take that long time?
As you may be aware most of Nigerians we brought in were classified as illegal immigrants because they do not have required travelling documents like visa and passports. Our embassy had to issue them with what is known as Emergency Travelling Certificate, popularly called ETC. It was based on this reason that on their arrival in Abuja we had to move them to special camp where their data provided in Libya could be subjected to further scrutiny while they were provided with foods, medication before they were subsequently transported to their states of origin.
Who provided all the logistics, foods and transportations to their states of origin?
The government of course! We provided the inflight meals and drinks, which are mandatory requirements and also offered medical services including provision of drugs and food at the special camp in Abuja. Ambulances too were made available to attend to the very weak and sick passengers.
How soon will the next flight depart Abuja for the evacuation?
As soon as we receive all the clearance and positive signals we will move. You should know that while optimistic that everything will go according to the plan, we are mindful of other considerations like diplomacy, security, logistic and coordinated efforts so as not to jeopardize and put any one at risk. It is a delicate and risky exercise that safety, security and well-being of our people is paramount.
Do you have a target of the number of passengers you are supposed to evacuate considering the population of Nigerians over there?
We were working on an estimated 2000 Nigerians out of the roughly figure of about 10,000 to 15,000 of our people that are either working legitimately over there and those on transit to other countries. There are also bulks of Nigerians who are classified as illegal immigrants.
How do you operate the camp you established?
The camp is a military facility that we requested to serve as a transit site to accommodate the returnees on arrival because we realise that if we will use the airport for the reception and documentation of the returnees it could disrupt the normal scheduled flights and there could be confusion with other international passengers arriving from other countries. Rather than use the airport for such immigration and security checks, we use the camp. Like I said early we also use it to serve them food and provide medications for those that required the service. The designated Special Camp is along Abuja International Airport road. It is from there that we provide the transportation to all of them that could enable them to return to their various states of origin.
Is this the first exercise your agency will carry out since your appointment about 6 months ago?
This is the second exercise. We had similar operation in Egypt to evacuate distressed Nigerians in Cairo during the political crisis in that country before the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak. At that operation alone our team comprising other agencies’ participation evacuated over 1000 Nigerians safely to the country within 48 hours of Presidential directive.
So after that you relaxed before this Libyan issue?
No… no…. no! In every exercise including rescue of victims of bomb blast or flooding including the humanitarian interventions in providing relief materials to victims of disaster, we convene regular meetings of stakeholders to brainstorm on the incidents and map out strategies to minimise or reduce the reoccurrence of such disasters or how to improve on our capacity for future intervention.
We learn that you are also likely to repatriate Nigerian prostitute from Mali, why is NEMA involve in all these foreign interventions?
Well you need to know the mandate of NEMA must of the intervention are based on official requests from the agencies concerned and we also get Presidential approval before embarking on such operation. You may be aware that before the Libyan issue, the Executive Secretary of National Agency for Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and other Related Matters (NAPTIP), Barrister Simon Chudi Egede and his top management staff were in NEMA requesting for the repatriation of young Nigerian are exploited for sexual abuse and slavery in Mali. In Fact he narrated sad stories of how our girls charge N150 for a round sex and how some are subjected to other abuses. We had set up machinery towards the repatriation of young Nigerians who are exploited for sexual abuse and slavery in Mali.
What precisely are the mandates of NEMA?
The Act that established NEMA vested the authority of managing disasters in Nigeria on NEMA. According to the enabling law, apart from formulating policies on all activities relating to the disaster management in Nigeria, NEMA is mandated to coordinate and facilitate the provision of necessary resources for Search and Rescue and other forms of disaster curtailment activities in response to distress calls. We are also to process relief assistance to such countries as may be determined from time to time while we liaise with the United Nations Disaster Reduction Organizations such other International bodies for the reduction of natural and other disasters.
Where does the issue of coordinating other agencies come in?
The law states that NEMA should “co-ordinate the plans and programmes for efficient and effect response to disasters at national level; co-ordinate the activities of all voluntary organizations engaged in emergency relief operations in any part of the Federation; monitor the state of preparedness of all organization or agencies which may contribute to disaster management in Nigeria; collate data from relevant agencies, so as to enhance forecasting, planning and field operation of disaster management and Educate and inform the public on disaster prevention and control measures. So this is clear.
In the past NEMA was very visible on provision of relief materials… Is that too in the mandate?
Yes. You are right. The same enabling law says NEMA should receive financial and technical aid from international organization and non-governmental agencies, for the purpose of disaster management in Nigeria and distribute emergency relief material to victims of natural or other disasters and assist in the rehabilitation of the victims, where necessary. We don’t do all these alone as we liaise with State Emergency Management Agencies (SEMAs) to assess and monitor, where necessary, the distribution of relief materials to disaster victims.
So when next are you going for the evacuation?
Once we get approval and clearance to move… we move immediately