The theme aptly coined “Legacies of Hajj Operations and the Nigerian Question” couldn’t have come at a better time. Nigeria is an interesting country with numerous issues and sub-issues as diverse as the country itself. The Muslim population is not left out because we have our discourse ranging from how to pray to which Muslim is a Muslim and who is not. However, two major events seem to unite the Muslim Ummah… more or less: The month of Ramadhan and Hajj. My focus will be on Hajj and its impact on Nigeria, especially in recent years.
Ever since Allah SWT instructed Prophet Ibrahim (AS) to invite mankind to Hajj as mentioned in the Quran (22:27), it has remained a yearning of every believer from every part of the globe to undertake the exercise. Embarking on Hajj was initially a personal enterprise. In this part of the world, Hajj seemed to be the exclusive preserve of Monarchs, wealthy merchants or scholars.
The first recorded Hajj trip in sub-Saharan Africa was undertaken in the 11th century by rulers of the Sayfawa Dynasty. Mai Dunoma bin Ummee was said to have embarked on Hajj twice in 1098 and 1115 before the famous entourages of Mansa Musa (1394-5) and Askia Mahmud of Songhai (1496-7) in the 14th century. In the 19th century, some of the notables that embarked on the exercise included the Emir of Katsina, Muhammadu Dikko (1920 and 1936), the Emir of Kano, Alh Abdullahi Bayero, along with about 40 family members (1937) and merchants like Alh Muhammadu Nagoda, Alh Mahmud Kassim, Alh Mahmud Dantata and Alh Ibrahim Musa Gashash in 1948. The Hajj journeys are undertaken by individuals before the 19th century were life-threatening. In many cases, those who travelled never came back due to death or permanent re-settlement elsewhere (Hanga, 1999). The Sokoto-Kano-Borno-Darfur-Oumdurman-Suakin trans-Saharan route was famous for use by pilgrims. Many were said to have undertaken the Hajj journey, settled briefly to trade or farm to secure enough for the journey to Makkah and same applies when returning home.
Hajj in Nigeria started as group travels led or organized by Emirs and Merchants. The establishment of the West African Pilgrims Association (WAPA) and the Pilgrims Aid Society during the last decade of colonial rule, popularized and increased the number of pilgrims embarking the Hajj from Nigeria because of quicker means of transportation. The number of pilgrims increased from less than a hundred in 1936 to 2,483 in 1956 and 106,000 by 1977 (Hanga, 1999). With this increase came the need for the Government to get involved because managing such numbers went beyond basic welfare to include diplomatic and security concerns.
The first body established at the Federal level and charged with Managing Hajj in Nigeria was the Nigeria Pilgrims Board in 1975. Since then, different bodies were established under the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to manage Hajj (Bugaje, 1996). However, the story of Hajj for many years after was that of poor coordination, gross inefficiency and wastage of resources irrespective of the quality and integrity of persons leading the Hajj Management bodies.
For example, Nigeria had to continuously seek for an extension of airport closure deadlines for three consecutive years namely; 2004, 2005 and 2006 but was still unable to airlift its pilgrims. In 2005, President Obasanjo had to request the King of Morocco to intercede and extend the closure of Jeddah Airport by 48 hours, yet about fifteen thousand (15,000) pilgrims were left behind. Also, Government was forced to pay over two billion naira in fines incurred by Hajj carriers or due to its violation of contract agreements and many other financial losses caused by poor arrangements. This was in addition to the full dependence on Federal Government for funding of Hajj and not to mention the haphazard manner in which Hajj activities were coordinated in Saudi Arabia with Federal and State contingents operating independently of each other, duplicating duties and at times working at cross-purposes.
This situation caused President Olusegun Obasanjo to initiate a reform that will solve Hajj problems once and for all by establishing a body independent of the bureaucratic bottle-necks and other interferences of any Government Ministry. After the 2005 Hajj exercise, Stakeholders on Hajj were invited from all over the country and from various fields. The outcome of the effort was the birth of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria via NAHCON (Establishment Act), 2006.
With the establishment of a permanent and independent body in 2007, the course of Hajj operations in Nigeria changed direction for the better. To quote the Chairman of the Saudi United Agents Office, Dr Farouq Bukhari, the Head of the United Agents Office; He said “. In the last five years, Nigeria has come from being one of the worst to one of the best Hajj Missions in the world”. This is in addition to the award of excellence to the Nigerian Medical Team by the Saudi Ministry of Health in 2017.
I have mentioned some of these highlights, at the risk of sounding academic, now to highlight on the legacies of Hajj Operations in Nigeria
Legacies of Hajj.
- Forging Socio-Economic ties
The first legacy is, therefore, the establishment of economic and social ties. Hajj has facilitated commerce along all its routes, resulted in inter-ethnic marriages and the establishment of notable Nigerian families in Saudi Arabia.
- Unity of the Nigerian Muslim Ummah
Through Hajj, the Nigerian Muslim Ummah are always united irrespective of ideological differences. The National Ulama Team has covered much ground in this regard. All the Ulama gather on Arafat day to pray for Nigeria irrespective of sect or language.
- Unity of Nigeria in Saudi Arabia
Before the Establishment of NAHCON, Nigeria operated in Saudi Arabia with many states having banners and stands in Jeddah airport. The formation of a National Reception Team and later a National Medical Team has unified the Nigerian contingent to the Hajj in recent years.
- The strength of Organization and Numbers
The numerical advantage of Nigeria (the 7th largest contingent in 2017 Hajj) along with its improved efficiency in organizing Hajj has made it the toast of many service providers in Saudi Arabia. In addition to services rendered to pilgrims, some companies, upon the invitation of NAHCON are considering making investments in the hospitality, transportation and agricultural sectors in Nigeria.
- Spread of Islam without Bloodshed
People embarking on the Hajj by road had cause to pass through many settlements and caused the conversion to Islam of such settlements by peaceful means. Similarly, knowledge was being spread along the routes as some learned scholars settled in some cities to spread knowledge on their way to Hajj.
For the Commission, its greatest achievement is that of stabilizing Hajj operations in Nigeria. Gone are the days when Nigeria sought for extension of deadlines for airport closure. The usual rowdiness associated with pilgrims’ airlift both in Nigerian and Saudi Arabian airports has been virtually eliminated. Pilgrims now travel in a more organized manner with more comfort compared to what obtained before the establishment of NAHCON.
Similarly, the Commission has ensured the total elimination of briefcase companies in providing all Hajj and Umrah related services to Nigerians. This has increased the confidence Nigerians have on Tour Companies and any NAHCON licensed service provider.
The abscondment rate of pilgrims has been reduced to the barest minimum that the Saudi Minister of Hajj, Dr Muhammad Saleh Benten advised other countries to adopt Nigeria’s methods of reducing abscondment cases to the barest minimum. In terms of finance, NAHCON has moved from being a burden on Government and gradually attaining financial independence in line with the vision of its founding fathers. The Commission now funds its entire onshore operations without requiring a kobo from Government. It has also depended less on Government for its offshore operations, from 69% dependence in 2014 to 23% in 2017.
In the larger context of Nigeria, Hajj operations under NAHCON has served as a unifier of the Muslim Ummah and a bridge builder. NAHCON and the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC) were once sharing the same office at the Commission’s property in Malumfashi Close, Abuja.
The NCPC eventually secured its permanent office and became its landlord. When NAHCON eventually purchased Metro Plaza to serve as its Headquarters, the entire leadership of the NCPC were there to participate and celebrate with us. As we speak, the two organizations are embarking on a nationwide campaign to tackle the problems caused by religious discord and its attendant consequence on harmonious co-existence of the two major religions. This is in addition to the efforts of our Royal fathers and other organizations.
The legacies of Hajj can be summarized by quoting Dr Usman Bugaje who, in one of his conference papers delivered in 1996 said:
“Hajj is one source through which this Islam is nourished and by strengthening it the government is helping its war against crime and such other vices. Similarly, hajj, like any journey abroad, is an effective education, and the more educated the citizenry the easier it should be for their government… Yet hajj has always been and remains one of the most effective international trade links, not only with the Middle East but also with the Far East”
I want to seize this opportunity to appreciate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the giant strides it has recorded in managing Hajj over the years. Their ability to successfully host about two million foreign visitors despite some of the challenges witnessed deserves a global commendation.
It will be in the interest of Hajj that the Saudi Arabian Government considers spearheading a world conference on Hajj and Umrah to unify and forestall external organizations from cashing on the absence of such. The Kingdom should also consider the peculiarities of countries when introducing new policies. The recent introduction of only three biometric capture centres to serve entire Nigeria is an example of such. Nigeria is not against the introduction of biometric capture as a pre-requisite for issuance of the visa but is concerned about the non-readiness of the company appointed to undertake the exercise.
Hajj exercise in Nigeria has reached a stage in which certain standards have been set and sustained. Any attempt to roll back the progress achieved will be met with great resistance from the Nigerian public. Despite the successes I have enumerated, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria is run by human beings and any human endeavour is prone to shortcomings and mistakes. I plead with you all to call our attention where we go wrong. We always welcome constructive criticism and any advice that will assist us to improve our services to the pilgrims. We call on the general public to excuse our short-comings and encourage us where it is established that we have done well.
Outlining the Legacy of Hajj in Nigeria will not be complete without appreciating great names that have contributed to Hajj, some of whom I have mentioned. We appreciate the contributions of those who have shaped Hajj in Nigeria beginning with Alhaji Sir Abubakar Imam, Sir Ahmadu Bello the Sardauna of Sokoto and Sheikh Abubakar Mahmoud Gumi the pioneer Chairman of the National Pilgrims’ Board. May Allah SWT have mercy on their souls and reward their efforts which we are reaping today. The same goes to the founding fathers of NAHCON; The 19th Sultan of Sokoto, Alh Muhammadu Maccido, Prof Jibril Aminu, Dr Usman Bugaje, Alhaji Yayale Ahmed, Mal Nasiru El-Rufai, Dr Hammeed Bobboyi and Mal Nuhu Ribadu. We will not forget the important roles played by the Islamic Trust of Nigeria (ITN) and the Waff Road Mosque Forum for their contributions to bring Hajj to national discourse. I want to use this opportunity to appreciate Manara TV and Radio for their efforts and call on all Islamic organizations to emulate them.
I must acknowledge the support and purposeful leadership provided by President Muhammadu Buhari who has undertaken to ensure all Nigerians are served in the best manner possible. May Allah SWT continue to assist and guide him and us all in discharging the responsibilities He (SWT) has placed on our shoulders.
BY Abdullahi Muhammad
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