Nigeria will be the first African country from where India will start repatriation: Envoy Abhay Thakur

WION New Delhi May 13, 2020, 11.51 PM(IST) Written By: Sidhant Sibal

Indian Cultural Association Abuja Photograph:( WION )

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India's high commissioner to Nigeria Abhay Thakur said 20 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the Indian community in the country, out of which 16 have recovered or are stable

Nigeria will be the first African country from where India will start its repatriation with the first flight set to operate next week. 

Speaking exclusively to our Principal Diplomatic Correspondent Sidhant Sibal from Abuja, India's high commissioner to Nigeria Abhay Thakur said 20 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the Indian community in the country, out of which 16 have recovered or are stable. 

He also elaborated on how India has sent HCQ to Nigeria and Chad to deal with COVID-19 crisis and trained nine Nigerians under the eITEC COVID-19 Management programme. It is interesting to know, a number of Indian/Indian-origin companies, including Airtel, Bajaj, Mahindra, TVS, Godrej, Indorama, African Industries, Stallion Group, Skipper and others have donated to local relief efforts in Nigeria.

WION: How is the Indian mission reaching to stranded Indians in the country or other countries to which the mission is accredited - Benin and Chad?

Abhay Thakur: The resident Indian community in Nigeria is estimated to be nearly 50,000. In addition, thousands of workers are engaged in several ongoing, large projects. Our community is spread widely across Nigeria, including Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and other cities. 

Our Mission in Abuja and our Office in Lagos are in direct touch with the heads of nearly 50 Indian community organizations/groups, as also with a number of prominent individuals. We have reached out to each and every Indian national through social media, particularly our Twitter handle. 

It is easily accessible and we have used it effectively for disseminating authentic information and updates from India and local authorities, for our registration exercise for repatriation, and for attending to those in distress. 

I personally wrote to all members of the Indian community and participated in four separate interactions over electronic platforms, in which several hundred Indian community members participated. Our Honorary Consulates in Benin and Chad, as well as the Indian Association Benin, which has 1,500 members with mandatory membership for every Indian, have helped our outreach. 

We have managed to extend requisite help to stranded and distressed Indians, by helping them access approved medical facilities for testing and hospitalization, providing visa-related assurances, and facilitating locally arranged supply of medicines and food to patients. 

We worked closely with commercial establishments such as M/s Dangote Refineries to put in place improved healthcare and welfare support to Indian employees and workers.

WION:  Any Indian COVID-19 positive cases in the country, and any plans of repatriation?

Abhay Thakur: There are challenges in the healthcare sector in Nigeria, though the country has handled the Ebola and AIDS crises in the past relatively successfully. The spread of COVID-19 has been comparatively limited (4,787 cases and 158 deaths as on May 12), and Nigerian authorities have taken a number of timely measures including full border closure and partial internal lockdown. 

Yet, there is a degree of concern in the country, including among its citizens and foreign residents. In the Indian community, we have had about 20 cases among the Indian community, of which 16 have recovered or are stable. We have extended the necessary assistance and support in all cases. 

From facilitating hospitalization in Lagos, supplying Indian food in Benin City of Edo State, assisting in medical supplies and ensuring overstay visa-waivers, our efforts have had a positive impact. 

Now, in view of genuine concerns of a number of Indian nationals, who are either stranded or need advanced medical care, Nigeria has been selected as the first country in Africa from where repatriation of Indians has been planned. The first repatriation flight will be operated next week, in Phase II of the "Vande Bharat" Mission. 

Then subject to easing of lockdown and inter-state travel in India, as also genuine needs, more relief/repatriation flights can be organized. I would also like to emphasise that a large majority of Indian nationals are permanent residents and are not anxious to travel to India at this juncture, as they believe they are safer where they are, at their homes.

WION: How are India and Nigeria cooperating on the COVID-19 pandemic? EAM spoke to Nigeria's FM?

Abhay Thakur: India and Nigeria share long-standing ties based on goodwill and mutual trust. Our strategic and multifaceted ties encompass close cooperation in defence and security, trade and investment, capacity building, and people-to-people linkages including education, culture and medical tourism. 

As large developing countries, we have similar approaches and support each other at multilateral fora. On the COVID-19 pandemic, we shared extensive information of India’s experience with the Nigerian authorities, which has been appreciated and widely reported. In his address to the nation on April 13, President Muhammadu Buhari, announcing his decision to extend the lockdown for another two weeks, referred specifically to India’s approach. 

As the most populous country and the largest economy of Africa, Nigeria has often looked to India as a country that has successfully overcome similar socio-economic developmental challenges and has sought to learn from India's expertise and experience. 

As the leading pharmaceutical supplier to Nigeria, with annual exports of nearly $400 million with at least seven  Indian/Indian-origin pharmaceutical companies have invested in Nigeria, as also a leading medical destination for Nigerians, we have played an important role in meeting healthcare needs of Nigeria including at this time. 

We are also supplying HCQS to Nigeria and Chad. With nine participants, Nigeria was a leading beneficiary of the e-ITEC Course on “Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic”, conducted by PGI Chandigarh in April-May 2020. 

A number of Indian/Indian-origin companies, including Airtel, Bajaj, Mahindra, TVS, Godrej, Indorama, African Industries, Stallion Group, Skipper and others have donated meaningfully to local relief efforts. Indian associations across the country have distributed food and essential items to needy Nigerians.

India's external affairs minister spoke with the Nigerian foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama on April 24. They had a good conversation on cooperation to combat COVID-19. 

EAM conveyed our commitment to provide key medicines. Both ministers expressed support for welfare of their respective communities in each other’s country. They also expressed support for each other at multilateral fora.

Overall, even though both our economies are adversely impacted by COVID-19, with the steep decline in oil-prices forcing a budgetary review in Nigeria, I feel that it is also a potential opportunity for both countries to engage even more closely together. 

We are Nigeria’s largest trading partner globally, and Nigeria is India's large trading partner in Africa, with our trade reaching nearly $14 billion in FY 2018-19, and our exports continuing to grow until January 2020.

Nearly 10 per cent of our energy needs are met by Nigeria. Indian and Indian-origin investments in Nigeria exceed $15 billion.

Given Nigeria’s price-sensitive and large market of 200 million people, desire to diversify its supply lines and boost domestic industry, positive image of Indian products and machinery, and abiding mutual goodwill, the post-COVID-19 situation holds immense promise and potential for both sides to further strengthen, prioritize and intensify their mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation.

WION: How has the ground situation in Nigeria changed? How have Indian diplomats been faring?

Abhay Thakur: The lockdown in Nigeria was partial, limited to Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States, and now extended to Kano. Though rising prices and infrastructure constraints have affected ordinary citizens, longer-term deterioration in socio-economic or security situation appears to have been avoided. 

Nigerians are working towards containing the further spread of COVID-19 whilst continuing economic activity and foresee economic growth in 2021. 

The Mission in Abuja and Office in Lagos have continued to function while taking necessary precautions. Wherever possible, bilateral exchanges and interactions are taking place digitally.