Standing in the heart of Makkah, Saudi Arabia at Ummul-joud, staring at the gigantic Nigeria Hajj Commission office, nostalgically reminds you of the Hajj House located in the heart of the Central Business District Area of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT Abuja.
The similarities between these two gigantic structures stomach what it embodies. They are the symbols of the annual Muslim Pilgrimages to Islam’s holiest of places. And in-between, the rituals of lesser hajj; Umrah.
Both structures in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia bear the signature of the immediate past Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria NAHCON, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar. The structures came to be under his leadership, and for anyone familiar with hajj operations and NAHCON’s unenviable tasks, the standard set by Mukhtar were herculean.
Fortunately, Mukhtar came to the saddle from being an Executive Secretary of Kaduna State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Boards, now an agency, with the elevation of the then Governor of the State, Architect Muhammed Namadi Sambo as Vice President after the demise of President Umaru Musa Yar’adua and elevation of Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to the President of Nigeria.
Coincidentally, Barrister Zikrullah Kunle Hassan, the incumbent Chairman /CEO of NAHCON worked closely with Mukhtar as the then Chairman of Osun Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board.
So, Hassan was privileged to have worked with Mukhtar closely. As it stands, Hassan was no novice to the Hajj exercise. But his appointment as the Chairman of NAHCON by then President Muhammadu Buhari hits a speed breaker; no thanks to the covid-19 global epidemic.
For two consecutive years, the world watched in shock as the annual global host of millions of Muslims; the Ka’aba stood desolate and near-empty. Nigeria and Nigerians who, in their thousands, used to be the Guests of Allah, were inconsolable. So, NAHCON had little or nothing to do, but await the passing of Covid-19 and resumption of Hajj.
Zikrullah Kunle Hassan’s first major Hajj exercise as NAHCON Chairman was in 2022. Nigeria was allotted a meagre 45 thousand slots; less than half what it used to have, nevertheless, a great number went by global slots then.
Being the first post-covid-19 exercise, the jostle to make up for missed two consecutive years, saw the commission stressed beyond its elastic limit. But survived it did with little hitches, especially in Mina where the allotted tents were far less than the number of Nigerian pilgrims. The Commission raised eyebrows and the company Mutawif promised to make amends.
Fast forward to 2023. Nigeria was allotted 95,000 slots and the commission embraced it with a large chest. This number, huge as it may sound, could not assuage the number of Nigerians jostling to perform the 2023 hajj. In the end, some could not make it, but Nigeria filled the slot.
Initial hitches included but were not limited to; the deployment of lesser capacity aircraft by designated Hajj Carriers, slow visa issuance due to international financial and forex bureaucratic bottlenecks, and late redeeming of pilgrim’s fares by state agencies and boards to NAHCON.
But by the time the Saudi authorities closed the airports to pilgrims, Nigeria did not just beat the deadline, it successfully ferried all the 95,000 pilgrims to the holy lands. Nigeria also made history by being among those to utilise the Taif Airport newly opened.
The greater success of the 2023 Hajj exercise, was the uncommon transportation of more than 90 percent of Nigerian pilgrims through the Madina en route to Makkah. This was a great feat considering the huge numbers involved.
The new policy of pilgrims spending about a week in Madina before proceeding to Makkah, also aided in decongesting Madina, in addition to ensuring that Nigerian pilgrims stayed just a stone-throw away from the Masjid Nabawi; the Prophet’s Mosque and could afford to observe the five daily prayers in congregation in the Mosque.
The mass movement from Madina to Makkah was also hitch-free and timely. The about 7 hours journey, saw Nigerian pilgrims in comfortable luxurious buses, fully air-conditioned with USB charging points for each pilgrim. Some had free WiFi for the use of the pilgrims.
Though the ongoing ambitious Vision 2030 programme of the Saudi authorities with the expansion of structures resulted in high competition for accommodation in Makkah, Nigerian pilgrims expect some few states pilgrims have been accommodated within walking distance from the Grand Mosque of Haram. This was also a feat if one considered other nations that had to accommodate their pilgrims far from the Ka’aba and had to daily, provide shuttle buses to take their pilgrims to and fro Haram.
The glitch in this year’s Hajj was in the Masha’er; especially in Mina. Was this expected? May be yes, may be not.
Coming as the first major post covid-19 Hajj, and with the bludgeoning population of pilgrims, the shortage of tents in Mina was not surprising. But nations should have made better pre-hajj arrangements to have avoided that.
We had situations where pilgrims across states had to sleep outside tents for the days spent in Mina. In the tour operators’ tents, males and females were allotted and had to share the same tents. For a religious exercise, this was an aberration. Others resorted to making under the bridge their abode.
Food supplies were in shortage and often very late, just as the choice of the menu had no Nigerian touch.
While the average Nigerian pilgrim saw those inconveniences as part and parcel of, and an act of ibadah, typical Nigerian elites and the bourgeois, saw it as an affront and raise hell about it.
To save face, NAHCON Chairman swung into action by mobilizing the company Mutawif to allot more tents to Nigeria. In the end, 10,000 more tents were secured. Though states refused to evacuate their pilgrims to the new tents, the tour operators did, thereby alleviating their plight.
However, these inconveniences suffered by Nigerians that saw some pilgrims sleeping outside in harsh weather with no food and packed full toilet facilities were associated with the invasion of their tents by non-pilgrims before their arrival. Umar Bader Ali Bafakeek, the Chief Executive of Company Mutawifs for Pilgrims from African Non-Arab Countries made this assertion at a meeting with the Nigerian Hajj authorities at a post Hajj meeting.
Bafakeek alleged that some of these non-pilgrims mostly of African origins and irregular migrants in Saudi Arabia, went as far as printing fake hand bands, and other Hajj paraphernalia similar to that of Nigerian pilgrims to gain early access to the tents.
But in response to the claims, the NAHCON boss, Zikrullah Kunle Hassan said it was the fault of the Mutawif as NAHCON had no control over those places. He stressed that the company Mutawif should have secured the tents until the arrival of the Nigerian pilgrims.
While disagreeing that the tents provided were not enough to accommodate the 95,000 Nigerian pilgrims, Hassan also decried the poor menu, the non and late serving of food; both breakfast and dinner to the pilgrims, insufficient toilet facilities that saw pilgrims queueing for long hours and some bathing and urinating outside, lack of sufficient water supply in some conveniences among others.
He assured of writing a letter to request a refund from the company for such non and poor service provision.
Speaking also on behalf of the 36 States Pilgrims Boards and the Federal Capital Territory, the Executive Secretary of Adamawa State Board, Salihu Abubakar said the situation was so bad in Mina that from 8th to 10 Dhul Hijjah, some pilgrims were not fed, nor given drinking water.
Abubakar cautioned that every businessman’s interest is to satisfy the end user, and once the end-user was not satisfied, they had no business. He admonished them not to lose their image for money while calling on the company to hands-off feeding and allow each State to take charge of such.
Also, the representative of the Tour Operators who ferried international pilgrims to the holy land, Suleiman Yahaya Nasidi said even if the company refunded money for services not, or poorly rendered, their images before their clients could not be refunded.
Bafakeek however promised to review all the concerns raised by the stakeholders to be utilised for improved and better services for future exercises.
Not just satisfied even after the assurances, Hassan set up a committee to review the situation, document contract breaches and make recommendations even for refunds where necessary.
Arafat was also a great success with veteran pilgrims applauding the orderly manners on the plain. From transportation between Mina down to tents, water and food, movements to Musdalifah, orderly arrangement to Jamrat and movement back from Mina to Makkah, even first-time pilgrims had great testimonies.
But as great a success as the 2023 Hajj exercise was, it would have been far greater if State pilgrims’ agencies and boards had done their home works better.
Some State agencies seemed to have worked at cross purposes with NAHCON such that uniformity was not achieved. The spat over Hajj Savings Scheme and intending pilgrims left out between Kaduna State and NAHCON was a good example.
The large number of elderly and not-so-healthy pilgrims without chaperons was also a minus. In the end, some of these not-so-strong, not-so-healthy elderly pilgrims, ended up not performing some of the key Hajj rituals.
Very sad and of great concern and very bad diplomatic black spot, were cases of pregnant pilgrims. How these sets of female pilgrims got screened and scaled through to Saudi Arabia, remains a mystery. Especially, because some were in the advanced stage of the third trimester.
Sadly, some ended up not just missing performing Hajj but recorded more lost. For instance, the case of a pilgrim who went into premature labour as a result of the rigour of pre-Hajj exercise had a pre-term baby, could not perform the hajj as she was on admission during the exercise, and ended up losing the baby that could not survive in the incubator.
Of note also was the sad commentary of some stakeholders who ordinarily should have aided State pilgrims, but did nothing and ended up casting aspersions on the whole hajj officials and even the host nation.
In this class were governors and Amirul Hajjs. These are two sets of stakeholders who had the privilege of not just visiting and assuaging pilgrims but had unclad access to NAHCON leadership and the Nigerian envoy to Saudi Arabia. Where they could get first-hand information and be better educated on what went wrong, whose faults and how to make amends.
But instead of taking advantage of these, they stayed put in their cosy, comfort zones, relied on heresy and ended up framing stories based on those false presumptions.
Some flew back to Nigeria even when not a single pilgrim from their states had left the holy land.
These acts, you may say, justified the cancellation of the position of Amirul Hajj before now. Though there are exceptions as some Amirul Hajj not only visited and interfaced with their state’s pilgrims, aided the mitigation of their plight, and stayed put until the last pilgrim from such state departed Saudi Arabia for Nigeria.
Sans Masha’er, if you consider the large contingent from Nigeria, with almost three quarter being first-time pilgrims and highly rural dwellers, the political sponsorship by politicians who wants to gain favours of the electorates in an election year, the mass projects of Saudi’s Vision 2030 which restricted certain movement and access to the Ka’aba at certain time, the old and not healthy without chaperones pilgrims and the pregnancy cases, the 2023 Hajj was a great success story.
NAHCON needs to document those challenges, work on making amends long ahead of time, ensure rewards and punitive measures for outstanding and erring state pilgrims’ agencies and boards, and sanction or completely change service providers that breach contracts for a better and experience-rewarding Hajj exercise for pilgrims in the future.
Abdull-Azeez Ahmed Kadir, General Manager Liberty TV and FM Radios was part of the 2023 Hajj Exercise.
He can be reached via [email protected]
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