Several Nigerians – mostly students – who are in Ukraine are currently stranded even as Russia continues to attack the eastern European nation, The PUNCH has learnt.
This is as the National Association of Nigerian Students in Ukraine sent out a Save Our Soul message to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), seeking immediate evacuation from Ukraine.
The acting President of the National Association of Nigerian Students in Ukraine, Eunice Eleaka, pleaded with the Federal Government to come to their aid.
In a letter to the President titled, ‘Matter of Urgency. Letter of Request to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari’, on Thursday, the students said cities occupied by Nigerians were under attack.
The letter read in part, “Greetings, your Excellency. We are the executive body of National Association of Nigerian Students Ukraine (NANS-UKRAINE).
“We write to you with regard to the current Russia-Ukraine conflict which has finally risen to its maximum early this morning being February 24, 2022 as gunshots and explosives have raided the territories occupied by the Nigerian citizens.
“We plead with your Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, to please send for an immediate evacuation of the Nigerian students currently in Ukraine. We can only trust and wait on our great nation (Giant of Africa) in this perilous time.
“It will be of great honour if our request is deliberately considered and met with urgency as it calls for. Forever, this kind and fatherly gesture will be engraved in our hearts. Thank you so much in anticipation, Mr President.”
Eleaka, who has found her way out of Ukraine, told The PUNCH that many other Nigerians were stuck because of the cost of the flight tickets.
She called on Nigeria to come up with a proper evacuation strategy like India.
Eleaka said, “I left before the invasion. The news on a possible invasion has been out there for a while now. My parents got really worried and got me a flight ticket to return home.
“I’m sure most students really wanted to leave too, but the flight tickets got really expensive and the need to leave then seemed impromptu. I heard some cities still had their classes offline but we were ensuring every school goes online.
“But all the same, I feel the most cogent reason for everyone is the flight ticket price.”
Specifically, she said the Indian embassy had set up two different camps to evacuate Nigerians who were stranded in Ukraine.
Eleaka said, “The Embassy of India in Poland has set up a camp office in Krakowiec on the Polish-Ukraine border. This office will facilitate transit via Poland back to India of Indian nationals stranded in Ukraine. They gave out telephone numbers of the officials in charge.”
Earlier, on Thursday, the Federal Government expressed shock over the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The government also assured Nigerians living in Ukraine of their safety, stating that measures were underway to evacuate Nigerians living in the country.
In a statement by the spokesperson, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Francisca Omayuli, the Federal government said as soon as the airports were reopened, it would assist Nigerians who were willing to leave to do so.
The statement was titled, ‘Federal Government reassures its commitment to the safety of Nigerians in Ukraine’.
It read, “The Federal Government of Nigeria has received with surprise, reports of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been reassured by the Nigerian Embassy in Ukraine of the safety of Nigerians in that country and measures being undertaken to keep them safe and facilitate the evacuation of those who wish to leave.
“The Federal Government wishes to assure the families with loved ones in Ukraine that as soon as the airports in the country are opened, it will assist in facilitating the evacuation of Nigerians who are willing to leave.”
Although the Federal Government promised to evacuate the students once the airports re-opened, it remained unclear how long the airports would remain closed.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, in an interview with NTA, said the Nigerian embassy in Kiev had been contacted to finalise the arrangements for those willing to return to the country.
He said, “The Federal Government of Nigeria has arranged for a special flight operation to evacuate our citizens from Ukraine in view of the escalating tension between that country and Russia.
“The Nigerian embassy in Kiev has been contacted to arrange for those wishing to return home from other areas including Donestk and Luhensk.
“Nigerians are assured that the ministry is following the events in the country, we would do everything for the safety of Nigerians in Ukraine, particularly students.”
Akinterinwa slams FG
But a former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Prof. Bola Akinterinwa, wondered why the government had to wait so late to evacuate its citizens.
He added that the only option left was for Nigerians in the country to be evacuated by road.
Akinterinwa said, “It is unfortunate we have this type of government in Nigeria. The government of Nigeria, I have always argued, has a foreign policy that is unnecessarily reactive. Many countries had been evacuating their citizens before now.
“I was told that our ambassador there has taken measures and has advised Nigerians living there to stay indoors. Now, by this time, you are asking people to stay indoors? When the French Government told its citizens to leave immediately, the same with the US Government?
“What have we been looking at? As it is now, nobody can influence the Ukrainian Government or Russia at this time. The only thing is to advise, if possible, if they can travel by road.”
However, it was learnt that some students had begun making their way to Poland with a view to getting a flight from there.
The CNN reported on Thursday that while other governments were making plans to evacuate their citizens from Ukraine, Nigerian students said they had been essentially told: “You’re on your own.”
A student, Anjolaoluwa Ero-Phillips, said he and around 70 other Nigerian students were stranded with no way to legally leave Lviv in the west of the country, close to the border with Poland.
Lviv is around 300 miles from Ukraine capital, Kyiv, where explosions were heard in the early hours of Thursday after Russian forces entered the country.
“There have not been explosions here but earlier in the day, we heard the siren tests. Flights are cancelled and it’s hard to get any taxi or Uber,” medical student, Ero-Phillips, said of the situation in Lviv.
“Everybody is at the ATM trying to withdraw cash but banks are not opening. Money is running out at the ATM and you can’t do app transactions anymore,” he added.
“Based on what I have heard from the Indian citizens, their government is trying to get free transit for them to the Polish border,” Ero-Phillips said.
“No one has any idea what to do. We have been reaching out to the Nigerian embassy since last month,” said Ero-Phillips, who is president of the Lviv arm of the National Association of Nigerian Students in Ukraine.
Students express fear
In separate interviews with The PUNCH, five students expressed fears over the rising tensions.
Stephen Oyebisi, who is a fifth-year medical student at the Ivano Frankivsk National Medical University, said in a WhatsApp chat on Thursday that although some of them were safe, there was apprehension in his region.
He said, “In some regions including the region where I am, missiles have been launched. I heard that the Nigerian government would send help to us for evacuation. The airport in my region was attacked. Many of us are scared and worried at the moment. ’’
Also, a part-three student of Computer Engineering at the Ivano Frankivsk region, Amarachi Nwabia, told our correspondent that no one was safe at the moment.
She said, “No one is safe. Honestly, there is a lot of news going on. I am still in my city. There is a lot of confusion. I don’t really know what to do.’’
A female student who didn’t want her name in print side she was desirous of leaving but the Nigerian Embassy in Ukraine had left them to their fate.
She said, “The Boryspil international airport was bombed and it is 20 minutes drive from where I live. There’s no one that can tell what will happen next. If there’s an opportunity to leave right away, I won’t mind going back home. The only thing we got from what they sent to us is that we should take care of ourselves or more like we’re on our own.
“But after they announced their plans to send an evacuation flight, we feel somehow relieved but we’re also worried because it’s one thing to make a promise and another thing to fulfil it. It will be very assuring if Nigeria can actually send the flight as promised to evacuate those that are willing to leave.
“Currently, classes are on hold. We’re not attending any classes and even our online classes have been suspended. A lot of us are still trying to wrap our heads around this whole situation. Personally, I really don’t know what to do and how to plan myself. But I’m ready to leave at any time should the opportunity arise. I have my passport and other documents ready. If that could be considered as a plan, then that’s my plan”
A medical student in her fifth year, Victoria Adedayo, wondered why Nigeria had not started evacuating her citizens from Ukraine.
She said she might have to relocate should the crisis escalate.
Adedayo added, “All we hear are promises. What is stopping them from evacuating us? If Nigeria doesn’t come, we will have to move from place to place to seek shelter should this matter escalate into a full-blown war. I just hope it doesn’t come to that.
“A lot of Nigerians are really sceptical about this issue of evacuation. I just hope the government will be able to successfully carry out what they have planned for us and safely take us back home to our families, because as much as it’s hard on us here in Ukraine, they are also going through a hard time. Not knowing what is happening to their loved ones and having to panic every single time over their well-being can be quite exhausting and detrimental to the body and mind.
“I live in Kyiv. My parents have been calling me frequently and they’re very worried. They pay attention to the news and call me to update me about every little thing. I’m able to keep my sanity thanks to my family and my friends that have been checking up on me. I had plans to leave the country but I decided it was better for me to watch how things go before booking my ticket. I let my guards down when I got the news that (Russian President Vladmir) Putin had no intention of starting a war and he was withdrawing his troops from Ukrainian borders.”
House demands immediate evacuation
In a related development, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, demanded the immediate evacuation of Nigerian students in Ukraine over the ongoing war.
Gbajabiamila issued the order based on a motion of urgent public importance moved by a member of the House, Ahmed Munir, at the plenary on Thursday.
After the unanimous motion titled, ‘Urgent Importance to Evacuate Nigerian Students in Ukraine,’ the Speaker asked the Majority Leader, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa; and Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Buba Yakub, to leave Nigeria by Friday and bring back stranded Nigerian students by Monday at the cost of the House.
Gbajabiamila said, “This is a very important motion that we discussed. Time is of the essence. A state of emergency has been declared. I listened to the news yesterday; even America said it is not going to be bloodless. We should be more proactive and I think it is better late than never.
“It is important at this point to forget all the bureaucratic bottlenecks and look out for our citizens, especially students. Action needs to be taken now and my thought is that the Leader of the House, Ado Doguwa and Chairman (of the Committee on) Foreign Affairs should liaise with the Ministry Foreign Affairs, NIA (Nigerian Intelligence Agency) and (Nigerian) Embassy in Ukraine.
“And if nothing positive comes out of it, then we should liaise with Chairman of Air Peace (Allen Onyema). Whatever it is going to cost the House, you need to leave this country, at the latest tomorrow, and come back on Monday with many of our students.”
Moving the motion earlier, Munir noted that there was a worsening conflict between Russia and the United States over Ukraine, of which the situation is deteriorating by the hour.
The lawmaker also noted that Nigeria had a significant number of undergraduate and graduate students currently studying in Ukraine, of which a number of them were under government scholarships, in addition to a number of Nigerian diplomats and their families in the Kiev Embassy and Nigerian expatriates across Ukraine.
He said, “The House is concerned that if a strategic plan is not put in place to secure and provide a safe passage for our citizens, they may be trapped or worse, harmed.”
Munir prayed the House to mandate its Committees on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Affairs, in conjunction with the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to “ascertain the exact figures of Nigerians affected by this conflict and put in place a comprehensive monitoring, evaluation and evacuation mechanism.”