Hajj

By Haroon Ishola Balogun

When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced in April that one million pilgrims would perform the 2022 Hajj, out of which 85 per cent would be allocated to external pilgrims while the remaining percentage would be for Saudi residents, not a few believed everything would not be the same as they were prior to the pandemic era. The reality was that a new paradigm has just been born into the hajj industry – one of the largest gathering events in the world.

The preparation and organization of hajj by different countries is not in isolation from the organization and preparation of Saudi Arabia for the event. Barring the preparation of countries in 2020 and 2022 which eventually became futile, and of course delayed announcement for the 2022 1million participation, many Hajj missions in the world had only eight weeks to prepare. In history, no hajj has had that limited time for preparation.

It was not a surprise therefore that it was described as an emergency hajj. It was also unexpected that arrangements, process and protocol would change, and things cannot be the same anymore to achieve good welfare, safety and comfort for every pilgrim. But what jolted most hajj managers world over was the dramatic suddenness of those critical changes coming a few weeks before the event.

The launching of a new platform for visa processing for the international pilgrims, the non-signing of Memorandum of Understanding, the vaccination requirements, delays in issuance of passports and visa as it were, among others, made hajj managers and international pilgrims scrambling to beat the deadline.

By the time the borders were closed, about 12 percent of the one million slots couldn’t make it to the Kingdom. In Nigeria, about 1800 intending pilgrims out of the 43,008 allocation could not make it to the holy land.
Airlifts, flight cancellations, delays

In order to satisfy the airlift quota sharing formula between the host country and other Hajj participating countries, Max Air, Azman Air and FlyNas, were engaged for airlifting Nigerians to the holy land.

While Max Air was to fly pilgrims from 13 States namely -Adamawa, Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Katsina, Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau and Taraba; Azman Air was signed on to airlift pilgrims from 16 States and the Armed Forces, which are Kano, Abia, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Ebonyi, Ekiti, Enugu, Imo, Kaduna, Ogun, Ondo, Rivers, and Yobe. FlyNas on the other hand was committed to fly pilgrims from eight states which are Edo, FCT- Abuja, Lagos, Osun, Oyo, Sokoto, Kebbi, and Zamfara.

Apart from Flynas which completed its assignments in record time, our local airlines battled with some challenges which exposed some of the shortcomings in our aviation sector. Some of these manifested in flight cancellations as a result of the inability of concerned stakeholders to follow flight itinerary, arrangement and preparation of pilgrims and their necessary documents for their outbound journeys. Again, selecting eligible pilgrims to perform the Hajj based on the new requirements of Saudi Arabia on age limit, complete vaccinations, and PCR test results slowed down the process of airlifting of pilgrims.

According to the Chairman, CEO during one of the interactions with journalists said the outbound journey was fraught with over 30 flight cancellations and over 50 delays of flights caused by lack of preparedness of some states.

According to Hassan, these were the major reasons for the delay in the number of flights made out of Nigeria. “If there were no cancellation and delay, or even if half of these cancellations did not occur, all our pilgrims would have been airlifted at the record time.” he said.

The scarcity of aviation fuel further exacerbated the uncertainty surrounding the flight scheduled.

For the Private tour Operators, the non-crediting of their International Bank Accounts Numbers, IBAN, of about 53 members was a major setback. Over N15 billion was hanging somewhere, causing adrenaline to rise. Clearly, this was not the first time there was delay in crediting IBAN wallets of private Tour operators, but new rules of the Saudi Arabia which there was no clear communication apparently caused the momentary flop. According to a stakeholder in the industry, In the past, when private tour operator sent money through NAHCON to the their IBAN, the Saudi Arabia even before the credit is done in a few days, the authorities, once the process had started, would go ahead with their services pending the completion of the process of money transfer into their wallets.
Apparently, that was the expectation of the Hajj managers on the issue in providing the services for their pilgrims. Some of them had to source for another money to procure the needed services at that point. Two days after the Arafat, the Saudi authorities announced the money had been received and their wallets credited, without giving details of what went wrong ab initio.

Mashair

One major complaint by pilgrims during the entire hajj exercise was the inadequate and poor standard of meals supplied to Nigerian pilgrims at Mina.

Some complained of tasteless food, no water, no juice and also late delivery of meals, and food monotony” among other complaints, which led to the rejection of the meals by Nigerian Pilgrims.

Before the torrents of complaints, not many knew neither NAHCON nor the state pilgrims were involved in the arrangements of meals for pilgrims at the Masha’ir.

Responding to complaints by pilgrims, NAHCON Chairman/CEO, Alhaji Zikrullah Kunle Hassan said the feeding arrangement of pilgrims at Mina was an exclusive preserve of the Saudi organ in charge of pilgrims’ affairs.

He stressed that the Muasasa insisted it would take charge of feeding pilgrims at Muna even against the interest of State Pilgrims Boards and NAHCON.

This was one of the new developments and policies which Saudi Authorities brought in place in 2022 hajj. However, NAHCON, being very proactive on this, issued a letter to the agency seeking refund of money for the rejected food.

It was gathered that talks were on-going between the representatives of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) and the Company for the Mutawwifs of Non-Arab African countries (Mu’assasa) in Makkah to reconcile the Masha’ir feeding complaints.

Despite the challenges, the transportation in and out of the Masha’ir was smooth and commendable. The medical clinics established by the commission lived up to its biddings as the team led by Dr Idris Galadima worked relentlessly, managing the health of pilgrims very well, attending to between 650 and 800 patients daily, recording six mortality. We thank Allah and pray for the souls of the deceased.

Inbound journey

Unlike the outbound journey which was characterized with delays and cancellations, the inbound journey which began with FCT pilgrims was smooth. In a record time of three weeks, the airlifting of pilgrims back home was concluded.

With the dynamics of Hajj arrangements especially now that the host country is moving towards technological innovation for its major services, preparation for the pilgrimage can be a challenge in itself, especially when there is little or no information to keep you abreast of development. But adequate preparation can go a long way in ensuring more spiritually invigorating and less grueling exercise.

It is a known fact that Saudi Arabia has been in the Hajj and Umrah rites for over a thousand years, even with the big plan to develop this sector to attract more foreign pilgrims, regular information dissemination to hajj Missions on the new developments as well as early communication on policy change will help to keep participating countries on track and most importantly help in planning and organization of pilgrims. This once-in-a-life-time ritual deserves the best attention for a wonderful experience.

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