Hails Lagos Pilgrims on good conduct
Below is the concluding part of our interview with the chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, NAHCON, Barrister Abdullah Mukhtar Muhammad. The first part was published last Friday.
By Ishola Balogun
WHY is the Saudi doing this?
Yes! That is the question. I think everybody should use what they have to better their economy. Saudi government has never hidden the fact that they were moving away from oil revenue to non-oil revenue.
If as Muslims, we are contributing that amount of money, to better the facilities being used in performing hajj, I think we should support them towards that direction. There is nothing wrong in supporting them, but we may also want the Saudi to continue to play the big brother role by allowing hajj visa free, no matter how many times one wish to perform.
This is because there are various circumstances that lead people to repeat their hajj. Maybe they make mistake during their first hajj or they do things that invalidate the hajj without knowing, or they are performing it on behalf of somebody; such people should be exempted.
Honestly, the big brother role could have been much better. The king can decide to use his royal power to cancel that and I know Allah will bless them more and give them greater capacity to overcome whatever economic challenge they may have.
I am sure many more countries will dialogue with them on the possibilities of waiving the policy, but if it becomes inevitable, as Muslims, we should proudly contribute with the intent that we are contributing to everlasting cause for everlasting reward. And with the believe that that money will be used to better the facilities in Hajj.
What about the officials because there will always be officials to lead pilgrims?
There are three categories of officials. The first are the ones recognised by the Saudi authorities. These category in total are 850 for the entire Nigerian pilgrims and each state of the federation has its own quota. This extra charge is not applicable on them. Another category is the officials under each state which as far as Hajj commission and the Saudi authorities are concerned, they are pilgrims.
But at the state level, they are called officials because they are given official letters and they are allowed to official identification such as the welfare personnel, preachers and guides, staff of the board among others. They are not part of officials recognised by the Kingdom. So, if you come to process their visas, they will go as ordinary pilgrims. And that remains their status in Saudi. You pressmen fall under this category. The third category is those of the local government.
In some predominantly Muslim state, you will notice that local governments do sponsor one or two people to guide the pilgrims. There is nothing wrong with that, but you call them officials only at the local government level. The last two groups are not known by the Saudi, they are local arrangements.
But I believe in a very near future, we are thinking of injecting a reform whereby, we will make sure that we don’t waste human resources, and public funds in financing un-needed officials. How can you explain, a state with 1000 or 2000 pilgrims having 500 or 300 officials. What for? We will continue to bring in reforms that will address that.
How do you intend to push again the issue of electronic wrist band used in 2016?
The issue of the electronic wristband in 2016 was borne out of the unpleasant stampede in 2015 where we lost 317 pilgrims. May their souls rest in peace. Part of the challenge then was identification and accounting for the Nigerian pilgrims. At the heat of the stampede, the President gave order that we should account for all Nigerian pilgrims. Thousands of people were affected. It was a very big challenge for us because we had so much similarities in terms of names and physique with our neighbouring countries. The Yoruba man from Nigeria with name AbdulWasiu has little difference with Yoruba man from Ghana or Republic of Benin, so is also the Muhammad from Chad will have little or no difference from our own Muhammad from Borno State in terms of physic and name. So, it was really a complicated and difficult assignment.
You had to go through the dead bodies of all Africans and you begin to identify yours, couple with the fact that some Nigerians who are resident in the Saudi were also there to perform hajj and were also victim of the stampede, it was difficult. But we were able to account for everybody.
As a proactive step, whether accident or no accident, we came up with that idea to manage the core period of the hajj. Apart from the fact that some people do not like to wear their ID card, under serious pressure, the ID card can get lost. But the wrist band was just like a wrist watch, it was water proof. It has GPRS which can indicate location.
It had SOS button which the distress pilgrim can just press which will trigger the command and control center to know that that particular wristband displaying the message on the dashboard. Remember, each wrist band was customised with particular person. So, the command and Control can call that pilgrim. If the person is literate, he can tell what the situation is and if not, his location becomes known and Emergency-Rescue team will locate such person. And it did work.
We noticed that some pilgrims went out of the geographical boundary and we noticed that immediately. We saw pilgrims in Makkah while they were supposed to be in Muna, and Pilgrims in Arafat when they were supposed to be in Muzdalifah and we helped them to get to the right place.
One of the fundamental mistake from our own part was that a state made a mistake of bringing it in cartons. The Customs couldn’t understand, so they confiscated it and it became a big issue. Unfortunately, that year, we had security issues with people bringing in substance suspected to be drugs. One of the suspects apprehended used a video camera to plant in drugs. That also affected the wristband issue, because naturally they will suspect everything. But it is not a project that we have abandoned. We will continue to interface and dialogue with them until we are able to reach a common understanding on the importance and need for the wristband. It will help both of us and we are willing to surrender the entire monitoring technology to them. It will be a win-win situation especially during the stoning at Jamarat.
If Muslims all over the world will be compelled to wear the electronic wristband, if you are there outside your time, it will show and they will know which pilgrims, and from which country are breaching that timing. It will reduce and minimise accident during the peak period of the hajj. If they don’t want some certain people to come for tawaf, the wrist band will help. If you go, the wristband will pick you. We are hopeful to rekindle the implementation of that idea.
There were some irregularities noticed in the Muna arrangement of accommodation for pilgrims. In fact the Lagos accommodation was said to have taken over by Bukinafaso, how can we avert such development in future?
Let me first commend Lagos state on how they managed the issue. It shows the State Muslim Pilgrims welfare Board has the capacity to manage crisis very well. When their accommodation was taken over, Lagos pilgrims remained calm. And when alternative was found far away from the previous one and despite that the alternative place had no bedding, they also remained calm. They said, we are here to worship, not here for luxury. That was really commendable. I really commend the entire contingent, because we made similar offer to some states, they didn’t accept.
Manageable number of pilgrims
Recall I said that the balance of payment of Hajj fare nearly derailed us. If we had closed the registration earlier than we did, we would have brought in manageable number of pilgrims, but back home there will be agitation of not allowing more people to participate and that we are not sensitive. That was why we allowed late registration.
The problem of late registration, led to late declaration of actual number of pilgrims that the Saudi would provide facilities for. Without the actual figure, relevant authorities will not be able to plan for the pilgrims. Secondly, there was 20 percent rate reduction of pilgrims coming to perform hajj. Nigeria used to be 95,000 but it was reduced to 85,000.
When we were 75,000 we were comfortable, but now the same 20 percent were being restored and the same space allocated to us and you know that the boundary called Muna was defined by the Prophet himself,(s.a.w). So, nobody can change the definition. The capacity remains the same within the boundaries called Muna and there is a lot of infrastructure which have reduced the space. By the official estimate, that place is supposed to accommodate 950,000, but 1.7million foreign Muslims were there in Muna.
So, there will be constraints of space. But how to avert that is early registration and early declaration of the figure and early arrival to access the facilities provided. Again, the whole Hajj family worldwide needs to discuss the quota issue again. Maybe we need to maintain that 1.7million or reduce the number, so that we can make best use of the facilities.
Why we did not have Amirul Hajj this year?
If I may ask, how did that affect the whole Hajj process? It is government decision and it did not affect the performance of Hajj anyway. The decision to suspend government delegation is out of economic concern. The very first time the suspension was made, the spokesman for the presidency announced the reason. Government used to spend over $1million on the delegation alone, and with economic reality of our country, government had to look at areas where it will prone down expenditure. They don’t even have any recognition by the Saudi authorities. It was a system developed by Nigerians as a way of honouring some people. If the economy improves in future, maybe government may reconsider its stand if there is truly a need for it.