About four hundred female pilgrims from Nigeria who arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, yesterday to participate in this year's hajj were promptly separated from their male counterparts and detained by the Saudi authorities, Daily Trust has reported.
It was gathered that the Saudis demanded to see each female pilgrim's muharram, that is, the approved male companion accompanying her on the trip, usually a husband, father or brother.
When they could not produce any, the Saudis promptly detained them and as at last night, they were threatening to deport them back to Nigeria on the next available hajj plane.
Daily Trust learnt that the pilgrims had arrived Jeddah in two separate Max Air flights Monday afternoon.
One of the planes conveyed pilgrims from Jigawa State while the second plane had pilgrims from Sokoto State.
The nearly 400 women were only allowed to be supplied water and food by the Saudis after strenuous efforts by the Nigerian Consul in Jeddah and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Alhaji Nurudeen, the paper also learnt.
Contacted on telephone from Sokoto Monday night, Sultan Muhammadu Sa'ad who is the Amirul Hajj condemned the Saudi action in the strongest terms and described it as "an insult to Nigeria and to this country's millions of muslims."
He said the action of the Saudi authorities came as a total surprise to Nigeria's hajj authorities because during the numerous meetings held between Nigerian and Saudi officials to prepare for this year's hajj, the issue of muharram for female pilgrims was never raised.
The Sultan said, "They never raised this issue and never demanded that the female pilgrims must have a muharram.
They did not make this a requirement for issuing visas. They issued visas to all these pilgrims, only to embarrass, detain and threaten to deport them when they arrived in the holy land. How can they do this to us? The chairman of the National Hajj Commission assured me that the Saudis never asked for this during all the meetings they held. This is very unfortunate. We have done a lot over the years to improve on our hajj operation and we do not deserve this humiliation."
The Sultan also told Daily Trust that he had ordered the Nigerian pilgrims not to walk voluntarily into planes to be deported. "Let the Saudis physically carry them into the planes and deport them," he said. "They issued them with valid visas, only to shift the goal posts at the very last minute, when they had already arrived in Jeddah."
Spokesman for Max Air, Malam Ibrahim Dahiru, when contacted Monday night, said he was not aware of the development, though he confirmed that the two Max Air planes did indeed land in Jeddah with Jigawa and Sokoto pilgrims.
He expressed surprise that the Saudis would demand for muharram, saying "that is usually asked during the Umrah, but since the hajj is collectively organised by the Federal Government, that is enough guarantee and this demand is not made."
Dahiru also said as at yesterday, Max Air alone had already delivered 9,700 pilgrims to Jeddah in 19 flights from Abuja, Kano, Katsina and Sokoto.