11 November 2012

Nigeria: Deportation of Female Pilgrims - the 2012 Hajj in Retrospect

Preparatory obligations in the lead-up to the 2012 hajj were somewhat threatened by some scary news.

"More than 400 female pilgrims from Nigeria, who arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the religious rites, have been detained, prior to their repatriation," the news reverberated repeatedly.

Why? The Saudi authorities said that the female pilgrims were not accompanied by "Muharram" (male escorts); a requirement under the Islamic jurisprudence.

Subsequently, 171 of the pilgrims were repatriated to Nigeria.

Recounting their experiences, some of the repatriated pilgrims said that they could not easily forget their harrowing experiences in Jeddah where they were denied entry into Saudi Arabia.

Hajia Aisha Lawal said that when they got to Medina, none of them was allowed to enter the airport or permitted to buy food and drinks.

"Immediately we alighted from the aircraft, we were not allowed to move and the next thing we saw was a troop of soldiers who directed us back into the plane.

"We protested, screamed and screamed; all to no avail. We frantically tried to get the attention of the authorities; we were hungry and thirsty but there was no opportunity for us to buy what we wanted," she said.

Other affected female pilgrims have similar tales to narrate.

"I had a terrible experience in Jeddah; after all the struggles I made to get money for this year's Hajj, I was disallowed from performing it", Mrs Muinat Ismail, one of the deported pilgrims, said.

Naturally, the pilgrims' deportation provoked some controversies and elicited spontaneous reactions from different quarters.

President Goodluck Jonathan immediately constituted a delegation, headed by Alhaji Aminu Tambuwal, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to iron out the issue with the Saudi authorities.

The Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa'ad Abubakar, bemoaned the action of the Saudi authorities, describing it as an insult to Nigeria and the country's Muslims.

He argued that the Saudi authorities never raised any issue concerning the need for female pilgrims to be accompanied by "Muharram" in the lead-up to the pilgrimage.

"They did not make this a requirement for issuing visas; they issued visas to all these pilgrims, only to embarrass, detain and threaten to repatriate them when they arrived in the Holy land.

"The chairman of the National Hajj Commission assured me that the Saudis never asked for this during all the meetings with them; this is very unfortunate," he said.

Expressing similar concern, the CBN Governor, Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, said: "The most annoying thing here is that nothing in Islamic Law requires a woman travelling in a large group to go with a 'Maharram'.

"A large group comprises at least 20 members. So, when a woman is part of a Hajj delegation from a state with thousands of other pilgrims, why should she have a 'Muharram'?

"The regulation is not Islamic; it is a violation of the female pilgrims' fundamental rights," Sanusi added.

In a counter-reaction, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr Khaled Abdrabuh, said that although the stipulation concerning "Muharram" was never enforced in the past, the Saudi Government decided to enforce it this year.

"Clearly, this enforcement aspect was never communicated to both the pilgrims and the Nigerian authorities.

"In this case, this was a very serious omission on the part of Saudi Arabia. It was needless to have waited until the pilgrims arrived in Jeddah before enforcing the rule" he said.

Abdrabuh, however, insisted that every Muslim should know that a female intending pilgrim ought to be accompanied by a "Muharram" while on hajj.

"No Muslim need be told of this basic requirement, as it is an essential Islamic injunction which the Nigerian authorities ought to have been enforcing without being reminded.

"True, it was quite inappropriate that the Saudi authorities never reminded the pilgrims and hajj authorities in Nigeria, it was also inappropriate for Nigerian pilgrims and officials to be reminded of such basic requirement.

"To say the least, some go there for other purposes, rather than performing Hajj.

"But as it is now, the Saudis need to review the enforcement of the 'Muharram' rule," the envoy said.

However, with the Federal Government's intervention, 204 female pilgrims from Jigawa, who were earlier repatriated, returned to Saudi Ariabia for the hajj.

Alhaji Mohammad Gumel, the spokesman for Jigawa Pilgrims Welfare Board, said that the pilgrims were elated because of their renewed opportunity to perform the pilgrimage.

"We are grateful for the intervention of the Federal Government and the Jigawa State Government in ensuring that the deportees were given a fresh opportunity to perform their religious obligations," he said.

One of the pilgrims, Hajia Maryam Zaka, said that she was glad that she had another opportunity to partake in this year's hajj.

She commended the Federal Government and the Jigawa Government for their prompt intervention which, she noted, enabled them to return to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage.

Besides, Alhaji Awwal Wushishi, the Director of Operations, Niger State Pilgrims Welfare Commission, said that the eight female pilgrims from Niger, who were earlier repatriated, later returned to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj.

However, what is the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) doing to prevent the recurrence of such deportations in the coming years?

Malam Musa Bello, the Executive Secretary of NAHCON, said that the commission had been working toward ensuring that such experience never occurred again.

"Several committees have been constituted to improve the services rendered to pilgrims.

"These include national reception to welcome all Nigerian pilgrims as they arrive in the Holy land, creation of command and control centres to monitor aircraft movement, among others," he said.

Beyond this, observers underscore the need to strengthen diplomatic ties between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, particularly in the area of hajj operations, so as to protect Nigerian pilgrims from any form of embarrassment in future.


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