The detention of about 1,000 Nigerian female pilgrims in Saudi Arabia and the subsequent deportation of 171 of them might trigger a diplomatic spat between the Middle-eastern country and Nigeria.
The Federal Government, which Wednesday summoned the Saudi Ambassador to Nigeria, Khaled O.Y. Abdrabuh, to register its displeasure over the incident, gave the country a 24-hour ultimatum to redress the situation.
Saudi authorities Wednesday deported at least 171 female Nigerian pilgrims for not being accompanied by the required male chaperons while trying to enter Mecca to perform the annual pilgrimage.
Those deported were among some 1,000 intending female pilgrims the Saudi authorities had detained during the weekend for breaching the pilgrimage guidelines.
Some of the women were said to have been detained because the names on their passports did not match those of their husbands.
The deportees, mostly from Sokoto and Jigawa States, arrived in Nigeria yesterday through the Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano.
A top government official, who craved anonymity, expressed concern at the sudden development, stressing that the deportation of the intending pilgrims had violated the understanding between the two countries.
"Nigeria presents one of the highest numbers of pilgrims to both Saudi Arabia and to Israel; we have therefore enjoyed certain concessions. For instance, the Christian Pilgrims Commission by itself screens the pilgrims travelling to Israel," the source said.
He said Saudi Arabia had granted Nigeria the concession to allow its female pilgrims travel without male escorts as long as they are accompanied by officials of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).
"I wonder what triggered this development, the male escort requirement has never been an issue all these years," he said.
Vice-President Namadi Sambo, at a meeting with the Saudi ambassador at the State House, Abuja, urged the Saudi authorities to resolve the issues surrounding the detention of the women within 24 hours to avoid a diplomatic row between the two countries.
A statement by Sambo's Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Alhaji Umar Sani, said the vice-president directed Abdrabuh to do all within his power to ensure that the issues are resolved within 24 hours and that the outcome of such resolution should be communicated to him immediately.
Sambo said no responsible government would sit idly while its citizens are manhandled, adding that Saudi Arabia should let Nigeria know if it does not want its pilgrims to perform this year's hajj.
According to him, the Federal Government is not happy with the step taken by Saudi Arabia on the matter, noting that reports available to him suggest that only Nigerian pilgrims were subjected to the dehumanising treatment.
He urged Saudi Arabia to apply caution and flexibility to allow Nigerian pilgrims undertake their sacred religious duties.
Explaining the position of the Saudi Arabian Government, Abdrahuh said Nigeria was not treated in isolation and that it affected pilgrims from all countries who breached the guidelines on accompaniment.
He said it was not a new policy but that the Saudi government decided to be flexible in previous years but was enforcing it this time around.
The ambassador, who assured the vice-president that the matter would be resolved within the 24-hour deadline, said officials of the Ministries of Hajj, Foreign Affairs, Interior and the Governor of Mecca were meeting in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to resolve the matter speedily.
NAHCON had on Monday confirmed the arrest of 400 Nigerian female pilgrims in Mecca. The figure rose to 1,000 on Tuesday as 600 additional female pilgrims from Katsina, Kano and Zamfara States were also detained at the airport on arrival.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly drafted a letter to the Saudi authorities over the issue, demanding redress.
Senate President David Mark Wednesday advised President Goodluck Jonathan to intervene in the pilgrim saga by immediately talking directly to the Saudi King, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz.
According to Mark, this option had become expedient following the inability of the foreign embassies of both countries to diplomatically resolve the matter.
Mark and other senators, who spoke on the matter just at around the same time Sambo was meeting the Saudi ambassador, expressed displeasure with the maltreatment of the pilgrims by Saudi immigration officials.
The senators, in their contributions to a motion on the matter, sponsored by Senator Abubakar Bagudu, noted that all attempts to resolve the crisis internally had failed as the intervention of Nigeria's Foreign Minister, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, and that of the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammed Sa'ad Abubakar III, did not yield positive results.
Mark urged the Federal Government to take all necessary steps by prevailing on Saudi authorities to grant the pilgrims entry so that they could perform the hajj.
He said: "If there are lessons or corrections that the people want Nigerians to learn after the pilgrims have gone thus far, they should be allowed to go in and perform the hajj, then we will take necessary steps to do that.
"But if they want to crucify you, there is nothing you do that they will not find a fault with; otherwise, from the statistics where they are allowing some people from South-west shows that their motive is not clear."
In his contribution, Senator Mohammed Magoro said government should let Saudi Arabia know that there will be reprisal from Nigeria should anything happen to any Nigerian pilgrim.
Also speaking, Senator Uche Chukwumerije said Nigeria must make it clear to Saudi Arabia that Nigerians deserve the protection of the laws of that country, otherwise there will be reprisals.
The House of Representatives also urged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prevail on Jonathan to intervene and secure the release of the remaining female pilgrims currently detained in Saudi Arabia.
The proposed intervention is expected to pave the way for Jonathan to seek audience directly with King Abdulazeez to effect the release of the pilgrims.
Speaking during a meeting with the leadership of the hajj commission Wednesday, Chairperson of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Hon. Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje, said under the current situation where the pilgrims have been detained for three days, there was need for intervention at the highest level to either allow the pilgrims continue with their mission in the Holy Land or be brought back to Nigeria.
NAHCON Chairman, Alhaji Mohammed Bello, who presented a situation report on the pilgrims' detention saga, told the lawmakers that there had been no official communication from Saudi Arabia to the Nigerian mission in the country or the commission since the incident began.
Bello absolved the pilgrims of any blame, saying they had no issue with the requirements of entry into Saudi Arabia as they were duly issued visas by the Saudi Embassy in Nigeria before the trip.
"Throughout our bilateral meetings and signing of the 2012 Hajj MoU, there was no mention of the need to strictly comply with matching female and male mahrams.
"The sorting of mahram based on the Saudi immigration system of screening males before females and not together, cast serious doubts on the Saudi claim of lack of mahrams as no flight landed Jeddah with female pilgrims only.
"The argument of matching mahram based on passport names is not tenable as Islam allows wives to bear the names of their parents and not necessarily that of their husbands.
"Checks at the Jeddah Airport revealed that only Nigerian pilgrims were subjected to such treatment," Bello said.
Meanwhile, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, will lead the Federal Government delegation to Saudi Arabia to interface with the Saudi authorities over the issues surrounding the detained pilgrims.
Jonathan granted the approval Wednesday through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, for the constitution of a five-man presidential delegation headed by Tambuwal.
Other members of the delegation include the Minister of State II for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nuruddeen Mohammed; Ambassador Shehu Galadanchi; Sheikh Sherif Saleh; and Bello.
The delegation is expected to depart for Saudi Arabia as soon as an appointment is finalised with the appropriate authority.