There they stood—all 187 of them--on the airstair of the Air Peace aircraft, waving to the motley crowd of journalists, airport and government officials below; while clutching placards that read: “say no to xenophobia”.
It was a message they couldn't wait to share. They hadn't flown this far home to be silenced.
They looked happy and relieved to be back home as they alighted the airstair onto the dimly lit runway of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos at exactly 9:35pm on Wednesday, September 11, 2019.
A few of the starry-eyed kids took turns jumping into the outstretched arms of Chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Hon Abike Dabiri-Erewa, and into the arms of every adult they could find at the airport.
And when they all hit the tarmac, some held hands, others smiled so broadly and dished out hugs to their compatriots. There is no place like home.
Once at the arrival lounge, they broke into the Nigerian national anthem in unison, gesticulating aggressively and pumping fists into the cold, rainy night.
“One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity”, they sang.
Mr. Allen Onyema, Chairman of Air Peace airline, fought back tears as he sauntered into the aircraft to welcome his compatriots back home.
He said the national anthem and cheers got to him. “When I stepped into the aircraft to welcome them, they mobbed me and started singing the Nigerian national anthem. There was nobody there singing about separation. They felt proud to be Nigerian. They rose in unison and that drew tears from me”, Onyema recalled.
Two weeks of ceaseless xenophobic attacks have brought these Nigerians from South Africa back home where they feel they truly belong. And they just couldn’t stop the singing, rejoicing and dancing.
“One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity….”
One of the returnees said the South African attackers arrived his car workshop in a fit of rage, “burnt the whole place, broke all the cars. I am a German car mechanic. Since they broke all the cars, I couldn’t afford to fix them anymore. So yesterday, I went to fill the evacuation form. I just had to leave.”
Another returnee identified as Jude Anthony, accused the South African government of enabling it all. “Xenophobia is a policy driven right from the era of President Jacob Zuma or even the regime preceding Zuma and it is driven by the South African police. In the presence of the police, people are being slaughtered like chicken and there is no outrage from the west, the west is not condemning it, America is not condemning it because they see it as black on black violence. Which is very wrong. Violence is wrong, criminality is wrong”, he said.
Dabiri-Erewa says the government will help the returnees find their feet in the land of their birth.
She says the returnees will be handed sim cards and call credit that would last them a couple of weeks, just so they can stay in touch with family and friends. Those who want to enroll for the federal government's social investment programs can also do so, she adds.
“The bank of industry will also be here to offer some entrepreneurship program and some support to start a small business and there would be some stipends for transportation to take you home and we will profile them and for those who want to get any training, they will decide what kind of training they want to do and the Bank of industry will be there to provide it,” Dabiri-Erewa told ChannelsTV.
Dabiri-Erewa explained to the returnees that besides stipends to help them get to their destinations, they will receive SIM cards with N40,000 worth of airtime, plus 9GB of data valid for two months, as well as soft loans from the Bank of Industry to support those interested in small trade and businesses, TheCable reports.
“I am soooo happy to be home”, one teenager yelled to no one in particular through a cascade of joyous tears, as large raindrops pounded the rooftops in cloudy and chaotic Lagos.