The last batch of Nigerian pilgrims that performed the 2012 hajj in Saudi Arabia arrived back in the country on November 27, ahead of the deadline given by the Saudi authorities for all pilgrims to return to their respective home countries. It marked the successful end to the 2012 hajj operations. About 100, 000 Nigerians were among the over 3.5 Muslim pilgrims from across the world that performed this year's pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Forty four Nigerian pilgrims died during this year's hajj exercise; the same death toll for the 2011 exercise.
Each hajj exercise presents peculiar challenges. However, the deportation of Nigerian female pilgrims from Saudi Arabia during the 2012 hajj operation was it lowest point and presented the National Hajj Commission (NAHCON) with its greatest challenge in recent years. In what initially looked like the beginning of a hitch-free hajj season, flight operations and immigration procedures started on schedule and continued smoothly until after the seventeenth flight had arrived in the Holy Land. When two flights arrived in Jeddah with intending pilgrims from Jigawa and Sokoto states, precisely on September 22, Saudi immigration authorities detained all the women onboard at the King Abdul Aziz Airport, and demanded to see each female pilgrim's Mahram, or male companion, as required by Saudi pilgrimage rule.
The women were subsequently deported back to the country. Every female pilgrim who arrived in the holy land from Nigeria without a Mahram was thereafter also deported and allowed re-entry only when accompanied by a Mahram. Over a thousand Nigerian female pilgrims were affected before NAHCON and state Pilgrims' Boards/Agencies of state governments scrambled to comply with the regulation.
However, following mediation talks, all the 1,534 female pilgrims deported during the Mahram controversy returned to Saudi Arabia to perform pilgrimage. The allegation that experience had shown that many Nigerian female pilgrims illegally extend their stay in Saudi Arabia every after the hajj or lesser-hajj (umrah) exercise and engage in unsavoury conduct, may have prompted Saudi authorities to raise the Mahram issue as a way of tackling the problem.
While the Saudi authorities were without doubt high-handed in their handling of the issue, NAHCON officials are not entirely blameless either for failing to strictly adhere to the longstanding requirement in respect of intending female pilgrims. This should be a lesson for NAHCON and state pilgrims' offices not to take any Saudi law on pilgrimage for granted, from visa to customs regulations on contrabands and drug trafficking.
Media reports also highlighted the unhygienic state of accommodation for Nigerian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia. Such facilities for pilgrims from Niger state, for instance, were disconnected from water supply for several days, creating condition for cholera and other related diseases.
A recurring problem, which again featured in this year's exercise, is the last-minute allocation of "complimentary" hajj seats that often disrupts hajj operation, causing delays in visa processing and acquisition of residential accommodation in the Holy Land which is usually done several months before the hajj season.
All said and done, NAHCON has made significant progress in the management of hajj operations in recent years. It is due to its effort that the Federal Government has for years now not been in the embarrassing position of having to seek extension of deadline for the airlift of Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. The Commission needs to build on this in future exercises.
Hajj officials should be mindful in their choice of residential accommodation for pilgrims, putting into consideration proximity to the Holy Mosque of Ka'abah as well as availability of adequate water and conveniences. The practice of doling out "complimentary" hajj seats that does nothing but disrupt the smooth preparation for the hajj exercise should be discouraged. It is also a waste of resources.