I have received calls from different quarters to provide my insight into the grumbling in the social media as regards the alleged refusal of National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to airlift pilgrims from Oyo State since the commencement of the homeward journey after the completion of Hajj rites.
Those who sought my opinion were counting on the fact that I am not only on ground here as a pilgrim but as a critical stakeholder in this affairs of Muslims of the South West. One of such complaints which I have reacted to privately was the inadequate tent facilities at Mina, absence of local food/poor feeding arrangements and other logistic problems at the Mashair-l-Haram which made those five days of Hajj extremely difficult for most pilgrims including my humble self.
Just I conferred with the writer of the piece privately; most of these issues are beyond the control of NAHCON. They are the results of the Saudi Arabia government’s resolve to maximize the financial benefits of Hajj as part of her vision of becoming a strong global player as encapsulated in her Vision 2030. This is the compelling reason for opening up the gates of Umrah for the Gulf States immediate after Hajj at a time when over 80 percent of pilgrims are yet to be evacuated. It is the same reason why it is projecting to receive over 12 million visitors for Umrah in the coming months.
To the Saudi government and its Hajj authorities, Hajj is pure business and since they enjoyed overwhelming absolute monopoly, there is little or nothing that national organizations can do to upset the apple cart. This year for instance, it was clear that in spite of the upgrading of facilities particularly at Arafat, no expansion was done at Mina to accommodate the millions of pilgrims expected at the Mashair-l-Haram at the same time.
The uniqueness of this year’s Hajj unlike the experimental exercise of last year is the fact it is the first normal Hajj without any restriction after COVID 19. To underscore how unprecedented it is, the Saudi authorities themselves have not been able to accurately report the total numbers of attendance in exactitude.
However, to insinuate that NAHCON did not intervene would not only be incorrect but mischievous. The chairman’s’ on the spot interaction with Nigerian press in Mina where he berated the Hajj agents for bringing untold hardship on Nigerians was given very wide publicity in both print and electronic media. This was what prompted Saudi authorities to provide additional 10,000 beds facility to cushion the effects even though this remedial measure was considered too late to come as many of the private tour operators who were urged to move there refused for the obvious reason of logistic dislocation. As regards food/feeding, nothing could be done as it was wholly in the hands of the Saudi agents in spite of official protestation from NAHCON after Hajj 2022. It would also be wrong to assert that NAHCON took all the responsibilities of allocation of tents, transportation and feeding from the boards as some are ignorantly peddling. To know that this cannot be true, the state boards (including Oyo State Pilgrims Board) as well as the Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUN) who are the major stakeholders in Hajj operations in Nigeria are not raising any dust because they are operating from a point of knowledge. The question is, who is complaining and to serve what end?
Addressing the delay in airlifting Oyo State pilgrims, some basic facts emerged from my findings. First, most pilgrims are really not aware that they have signed for a minimum of 42 days in the Holy Lands before evacuation becomes expedient. In fact, any airlifting before the 42 days is considered a luxury. It is one of the reasons why some elite pilgrims preferred and actually come for Hajj through international scheduled flights provided by the private tour operators. Secondly, by the rules of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj, countries with 50,000 pilgrims must utilize a minimum of 30 days for their returned journey in order not to over stretch airport facilities. Nigeria with 95,000 pilgrims may therefore require more than that. However, just as NAHCON was able to achieve bringing 95,000 pilgrims here in 29 days, it is also currently struggling to accomplish the same feat for the homeward journey with the cooperation of all the stakeholders. While, I would not dabble into the choice of Aero Contractor as the official airline for Oyo State because of the unverifiable insinuations being peddled, however I am aware that it is the same airline that airlifted Nasarawa and Adamawa pilgrims. In fact, the same aircraft was used for rescue mission from Abuja on the 22nd of June. Information at my disposal is to the fact that the first flight of Oyo State pilgrims to Madinah was on the 2nd of June and by 12th July, the 42 days moratorium would lapse. It is therefore gratifying to note that barring any unforeseen circumstances (God forbid), the airlifting of Oyo State pilgrims would commence on the 16th to 19th after the completion of the five flights of Nasarawa State pilgrims who were the first sets of pilgrims to arrive the Holy Lands. The sequence of arrival here through the same airline is Nasarawa, Oyo and Adamawa and no one either in NAHCON or elsewhere is planning to breach it against our dear state Oyo.
As for those who have to personally arrange for their homeward journey because they could not wait for the official airlifting, I want to say without mincing words that it is not new in Hajj operations. Pilgrims who have urgent business to attend to at home or elsewhere or need to officially resume at work before the official departure date of the states have always over the years explored that window of private arrangement. Just yesterday I facilitated the release of the International passport of a pilgrim under my care who wants to go home after showing me his flight ticket from Egypt Air. It is a standard practice that those who are familiar with the operations of Hajj over the years would not raise any eyebrow over. The assurance from NAHCON is that just as she successfully airlifted all registered 95,000 pilgrims here in spite of the minor hitches, she is committed to returning all of us home in record time. It is a promise we must all support them to keep!
Dr. Mustapha Adebayo Bello
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