The 2012 Hajj operations may have come and gone successfully, but the memoirs it left in many pilgrims and hajj administrators in Nigeria will remain for a little long. The airlift operations began on 19th September with Kano pilgrims and ended on 27th November, 2012 when the last batch of pilgrims Kano and Maiduguri zones were brought back to Nigeria by Kabo Air, one of the four airlines approved by the federal government for 2012 Hajj. Other airlines that participated and performed wonderfully were Max Air, Med-view and Meridian. They have proved that the drive of the federal government to institutionalize local content is in the right direction.
One major issue that challenged the 2012 Hajj was Mahram (female guide) which is an important condition for a female pilgrim. For the first time in the history of Hajj operations in Nigeria, the Saudi authorities initially denied many Nigerian female pilgrims entrance into the Kingdom on the basis that they did not have Maharim, (Mahram for singular). Over 1,500 female pilgrims were refused entry by the Saudi Immigration.
Though one struggles not to link this ugly development with the wishes of those who have been hell-bent in destabilizing holy pilgrimages, planning against the success of pilgrimage operations and even exploring avenues to scrap national pilgrimage commissions, it is quite unfortunate that this is happening at a time when hajj management in Nigeria has advanced to a commendable level.
But on any account, it should be noted that as Muslims, whatever happens is preordained by Allah and therefore it cannot be the ploy of a group of persons or even a government that can stop Nigerian Muslims from embarking on the yearly journey to Makkah to fulfill their religious obligations.
Personal investigations revealed that some political shake-up in the Saudi government might not have been unconnected to the challenges faced by different nationalities in the 2012 Hajj. While Nigeria faced the challenge of Mahram, about three countries were not allowed to perform the last Hajj on the basis of some epidemics that were alleged to have ravaged those countries. Some other countries which travel by road to the Kingdom had their own tales of woe.
The three new faces in the leadership of Saudi Arabia who must have directly affected the whole 2012 Hajj operations were: the new Crown Prince Salman bn Abdul-Aziz who is also the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, the new Minister of Interior, Amir Ahmad bn Abdul-Aziz and the new Minister of Hajj, Dr. Bandar Hajjar who was the former Deputy Speaker of the Saudi House of Shurah.
Their predecessors though tough could be said to have been mild in policy implementation. Salman’s predecessor, Amir Naif bn Abdul-Aziz was also the Crown Prince, Prime Minister and Minister of Interior. Three sensitive but somewhat unrelated positions! Amir Ahmad who took over from Amir Naif exclusively handles interior matters of which the immigration is an integral part. It must be noted that the Ministry of Interior is such a sensitive one that oversees the internal security of any country. And the new Minister of Hajj who took over from Dr. Fuad bn Abdussalam Al-Farisi is coming from a more internal organ of the government, the House of Shurah.
The thing to observe is that most of the Saudi Crown Princes occupy more than a position at a time. The position of the Prime Minister is strictly attached to the Crown Prince. An instance to mention is late Crown Prince Sultan bn Abdul-Aziz who was also the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, Minister of Aviation and Auditor General of the Kingdom.
As it is in the Saudi dynasty, the Interior Minister Ahmad bn Abudul-Aziz is believed not to belong to the main family made up of 11 brothers from the most influential wife of King Abdul-Aziz, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi – the family whose influence in Saudi Government cannot be overemphasized. So sensitive as the Ministry is, Ahmad couldn’t have withstood the pressure from the son of his predecessor, Amir Muhammad Naif bn Abdul-Aziz who was his father’s assistant in the Interior Ministry from 1999 to the death of his father in June 2012. Amir Muhammad was said to have been in total control of the Ministry throughout the period of his father’s health challenge.
Somehow, it was a challenge for Ahmad to have accepted the position just to willingly – as politically intertwined – resign the appointment on Monday 5th November, 2012 for the late Naif’s son to take over. This historical background in Saudi dynasty became necessary to showcase how power-play might have affected the 2012 Hajj operations worldwide. Who knows? Could it be that the tension created by the Mahram and allied matters during the 2012 Hajj contributed in the silent removal of Ahmad from the position he occupied for only four months?
Furthermore, in every society, there is also a mild or drastic change in the implementation or enforcement of extant policies with the advent of an entirely new government or infusion of new blood into the government. More so, any sensitive arm of government can single-handedly cause a positive change in the entire government such that other arms sit up to their duties. This is what happens in any country where their systems work. However, these three Saudi personalities really took Nigerians unawares. And as many Nigerians would believe, Saudis have always been stringent on their policies when it concerns Nigerians.
Nigerians were taken unawares because right from the preparations for 2012 Hajj which was officially launched in February 2012 by the signing of the 2012 Hajj Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Saudi Government via the Ministry of Hajj and the Nigerian Government via the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), there was no mention of the Mahram issue neither verbally or in written document.
To recall in this connection was the 4,000 additional Hajj slots granted to Nigeria at the tail end of 2011 Hajj preparations which the Saudi Government insisted must be completely utilized by Nigeria if it must continue to have it. Nigeria complied and it was distributed to the states that requested for additional allocations. But when NAHCON signed the 2012 Hajj agreement, the 4,000 slots were not included, and on enquiry, the Commission was told that it was only a bonus for 2011 Hajj. This was after the Commission had distributed the 2012 Hajj seats to the State Boards and agencies based on the added 4,000 slots of 2011.
The case here is that Saudis seem to be latent in dealing with Nigeria. The MOU signed between the two countries every year should clearly and categorically state what is required from both sides. Even if the laws had been in existence, there is no harm in re-emphasizing them during the meetings with each and every Saudi Hajj interest agency. And especially when it is a matter of international relation, the embassies of both countries should be accurately informed.
Once more I assert that Nigerians and Saudi authorities in Nigeria were taken unawares because several meetings were held between NAHCON and the Saudi Embassy and Consulate in Abuja and Kano respectively during the preparatory stages and before the issuance of Hajj visa began.
The Saudi Embassy in Abuja and its consulate in Kano couldn’t have done Nigerian female pilgrims any good by issuing them visas, knowing that they cannot enter their country with the visas. After all, the process of acquiring a Hajj visa is such that the data and all relevant information are posted online the visa portal of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). The posted information is viewed by all relevant Saudi authorities before approval is granted for issuance of the visa via the Saudi Embassy and its Consulate. At that stage, the applicant can be queried and denied visa. So it was beyond doubt that the Saudi Embassy was satisfied with the Nigeria’s compliance to the Hajj visa processing requirements.
Therefore, it could then have been an afterthought by the new Ministers in the Saudi Government to enforce the Mahram policy especially on Nigeria when Hajj airlift operations had begun for five days from the 1st flight on 19th October to the 16th flight on 23rd October, from different departure zones in Nigeria. Or did they suddenly realize that young Nigerian female pilgrims were many? Or is there age-limit for female pilgrims in Islam? Even if so, what was the reason behind screening the male pilgrims first and then denying some of the females whose husbands had been screened? This made some pilgrims refuse to enter the Kingdom without their wives. Saudis even ignored the Maliki School of Thought on the issue of Mahram which Nigeria has practiced over the years by making the State Executives Maharim for some of their female pilgrims.
To show how serious NAHCON took the matter, three emergency meetings were summoned in Abuja with the Chief Executives of the State Pilgrims Welfare Boards and Agencies. In the last that was held on 3rd October, 2012 at the NICON Luxury Hotel, the Saudi Ambassador to Nigeria, Ambassador Khalid O. Y. Abdurabuh and the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) were invited though represented. In that meeting, the Consul-General of the Saudi Embassy, Muhammad Al-Aseery, who represented the Ambassador gave the assurance that visas for all the female pilgrims who were brought back by Nigeria on Mahram basis will be reprocessed for them to attend the Hajj.
Against the views and actions of the Saudi Immigration, he explained three critical points. First was that a woman and her Mahram do not have to share the same name. Instead, the existing relationship must be specified. For instance a woman who bears Fatima Idris may have Jameel Abubakar as her Mahram with a brotherhood relationship. Second was that there was no specific number of women attached to one Mahram who can be a brother, an uncle, a nephew to five or seven females. The third point was that women above 45 years do not need to have a Mahram.
The Commission, after several consultations, suspended airlift operations for 48 hours, while the Presidency on the directive of Mr. President immediately set up a 5-man delegation led by the Speaker of the House of Representative, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal , to meet with the Saudi authorities in the Kingdom. The Minister of State II for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nuruddeen Muhammad, the Nigerian Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Abubakar Shehu Bunu, the Nigerian Consul-General in Jeddah, Ambassador Ahmad Umar, Board Members and staff of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) and the Chief Executives of State MPWBs and agencies could not have rest until the problem was resolved.
Three important resolutions at the meetings which smoothened the operations afterward were that the States must ensure appropriate documentation and pairing of female pilgrims with their Maharim to and fro Saudi, the Nigerian Immigration should disallow from travelling any female pilgrim without Mahram and for the airlines not to issue tickets and boarding pass to such females.
It is sure that this matter has tested the age-long cordial relationship between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Nigeria has always appreciated the extant rules of the Kingdom. It is assured, however, that the peaceful resolution of the problem has once more endeared each of the country to the other. Whoever committed the mistake is now secondary. The most significant is that all steps followed by the Nigerian side to resolve the impasse gradually yielded the finally desired result.
To note is the fact that no Nigerian female pilgrim was deported from Saudi Arabia on the base of no Mahram, because deportation is a terminology that connotes forceful return of a citizen back to his country on certain criminal or deplorable charges. Nigerian female pilgrims did not contravene any Saudi law. If not, the Saudi Embassy would not have issued them visas.
Another thing to note is that Nigerian government stood firm behind its citizens and defended them against humiliation by the Saudi authorities. Food and medical services were however provided while the issues were being trashed out until the government brought them back to Nigeria honourably before reprocessing their visas. All the pilgrims who were brought back still performed their Hajj obligations accordingly with the rest of their brethren across the world. I give kudos to the Nigerian government for this marvelous gesture and wish it is extended to all Nigerians with genuine cases around the world.
Muhammad Ajah is a writer, author and advocate of the rule of law and good governance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org