As this year's Hajj operations start nationwide, Mairo Muhammad Mudi reports that stakeholders are cautiously optimistic that the Federal Government will deliver a hitch-free pilgrimage as promised.
The hitches associated with hajj operations in Nigeria are the stuff of legends.Over the years, shoddy arrangements by bungling officials have characterised the exercise, much to the embarrassment of the country. For instance, Nigerian pilgrims have often been the last to get airlifted to Saudi Arabia, beating the airlift deadline by the whiskers, even as they are usually stranded in the Holy Land after the pilgrimage.
Against this unsavoury background, however, it would appear that the Federal Government is determined to make this year's Hajj operations an unprecedented success.
To this end, President Goodluck Jonathan recently appointed the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar to lead the Federal Government delegation to this year's hajj. The inclusion of former Niger Delta Militant, Alhaji Asari Dokubo, on this delegation has however generated controversy among stakeholders.
The Federal Government has also set up several committees to handle each aspect of the hajj operations. According to the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) the committees cover security of the pilgrims in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, aviation or airlifting of pilgrims, Tent 'C' Committee, luggage committee, accommodation, medial, transport & logistics, consular and protocol, committees, Jamrat and media team. In all, 850 officials are charged with executing this year's hajj operations.
As part of its efforts to ease the burden of airlift, the Federal Government said that this year's intending pilgrims would be flown to Medina directly from airports across Nigeria.
It is a major improvement over the previous arrangements where pilgrims were dropped at the Jeddah airport from where they undertook a long journey by road to Medina, according to the National Amirul Hajj, Sultan Sa'ad Abubakar, who flagged off the airlift of the first batch of the Nigeria pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, at the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA).
A total of 95,000 pilgrims are expected to attend this year's Hajj from Nigeria. Out of these, 10,000 are slated to go on the international platform while the 85,000 are state pilgrims.
Reviewing the preparations for this year's hajj, an intending pilgrim from Kano, Engr. Aminu Aliyu, was optimistic that it would be a hitch-free exercise.
Aliyu hinged his optimism on the early commencement of payment and induction course for the intending pilgrims in Kano state, which he urged the federal government to take a cue from.
Observing that Muslims in the country always use up the nation's yearly pilgrim quota despite rising cost of the pilgrimage, Aliyu enjoined "Nigerian pilgrims to be very disciplined in the Holy Land and avoid tarnishing the country's image as obtainable in the past."
He said the composition of the federal delegation to this year's hajj was a welcome development, considering the fact that each zone of the country is represented
However, Aliyu said the inclusion of Dokubo "is causing an uproar because of his recent utterances against the North."
Malam Ibrahim Sulaiman, a travel agent who just returned from Saudi Arabia,told LEADERSHIP WEEKEND that pilgrims making the trip to the Holy Land through non-governmental agencies might face accommodation problem because most hotels at Masfala area have been closed down by the Saudi authorities.
Malam Ibrahim said though he had no idea why the Saudi authorities took the decision, it might not be unconnected with renovation and upgrading of structures in the area.
He said some pilgrims preferred to go for the hajj through private agencies for comfort reasons and time factor. Pilgrims who opt for this private arrangement might spend between 14 and 18 days in Saudi Arabia for the spiritual exercise while those on government package would spend between 30 to 45 days in the Holy Land.
Hajiya Fatima Salisu, an intending pilgrim from Kano, commended the state over its preparations for the pilgrims, especially the state's "intensive induction course" for prospective pilgrimage, "despite having the highest number of pilgrims in Nigeria."
She charged the Federal Government to provide befitting accommodation for the pilgrims in the Holy Land.
Hajiya Halima Sulaiman is an intended pilgrim from Kaduna State who is full of praises for the state government over the arrangements put in place for this year's hajj, which she said would make for a successful outing.
But Sulaiman stated that the official delegation might not guarantee a successful hajj operations arguing that in the past "federal officials only went to Saudi Arabia to serve themselves rather than the pilgrims."
Hajiya Halima Sulaiman faulted the inclusion of Dokubo on the Federal Government's delegation to this year's hajj, saying: "What is the role of Asari Dokubo in that committee? Must Government play politics with everything it does? This is someone that was on the other side of the law and just recently insulted the North and its leaders.But now he is on the same table with the Sultan. This is another insult."
She urged the Federal Government "to shun sentiments when it is appointing delegates for the hajj. They should choose Islamic scholars rather than politicians and those with questionable characters."
At the closing ceremony of this year's induction course for pilgrims in Suleja Local Government, Niger State, Chief Imam of the main mosque, Malam Dantani, urged intending pilgrims to be good ambassadors of Nigeria and perform their obligations as taught during the four-week lectures.
Most pilgrims expressed satisfaction with the state's preparations for the hajj thus far.
But an Islamic cleric-cum- lawyer, Yunus Maikanti Yusuf, told LEADERSHIP WEEKEND that hajj operations in the country would not be hitch-free until the government tackled corruption in the process.
He lamented that government was "overcharging the ordinary pilgrims while sponsoring those that make Hajj a jamboree for political reasons."
Yusuf said: "The government itself, through its officials, is exploiting the masses whose sole aim is to perform their obligatory duty to their Lord because they pay any amount without questions. The flights that are usually allocated for the airlifts are of low standard while intending pilgrims have already paid the fare of international standard. The only solution to the problem bedevilling hajj operations is that we must go back to Islamic injunctions by eradicating corruption and doing it with the fear of Allah."
On the inclusion of Dokubo on the Federal Government delegation to the hajj, the Islamic cleric said: "There is nothing wrong with the decision of the President as long as it is established that Dokubo is a Muslim and his people are comfortable with him as their representative."
He stressed: "The northern leaders are the ones that sold out the region, which gives others the liberty to come out openly to threaten and abuse the North and its leaders without fear."