Kano, Dutse, Abuja and Kaduna — Nigerian Hajj stakeholders and prospective pilgrims have expressed concern over the failure of the Saudi authorities to start issuing visas for this year's pilgrimage, a week after they promised to do that and with just five days to the commencement of airlift of pilgrims.
At a meeting with the Sultan of Sokoto and other Hajj officials in Abuja penultimate Saturday, Saudi embassy representative Mr Ibrahim El-Asiry had said visas for Nigerian pilgrims would be issued starting from August 25.
Because of the assurances given by the Saudis, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) fixed September 6 for the commencement of the pilgrims' airlift in Dutse.
But by yesterday no visa had been issued to any of the 76,000 intending pilgrims, Daily Trust learnt.
This has caused concern that Nigerians may suffer major hitches in this year's pilgrimage.
Officials told our reporters that during previous Hajj exercises, visas were issued as early as three weeks to start of airlift of pilgrims.
They expressed surprise that this year's case is turning out to be dramatically different.
Daily Trust could not confirm if any reasons have been given by the Saudi authorities for the delay, but Nigeria had given assurances previously of taking steps to ensure no medically unfit intending pilgrim is allowed to travel.
'No need for panic'
During penultimate Saturday's meeting of stakeholders in Abuja, the Sultan of Sokoto, who is also the National Amirul Hajj, said: "We have been faced with two major problems in preparation for this year's Hajj operation. The first is the issue of Ebola outbreak that entered our country and has been contained by the government.
"Having received commendation from the US and the UN on the effort of the government, we felt that we are 100 per cent sure that 2014 Hajj operation would be free of Ebola."
The second issue, Sultan Sa'ad Abubakar had said, was the failure of the Saudi embassy to start issuing visas for pilgrims. "As at this morning (August 23), they have not started issuing visa for pilgrims and if you remember last year's Hajj operation, by this time, at least, we must have had over 15,000 visas issued."
After he spoke at that meeting, Saudi embassy representative Ibrahim El-Asiry announced that they would start issuing visas to the Nigerian pilgrims last Monday, and apologised for the delay.
Yesterday, officials of state pilgrims boards in Kano, Jigawa, Kaduna and other states contacted by Daily Trust said they were still awaiting the visas for pilgrims from their states.
NAHCON officials asked our reporter to call back today for update on the visa situation.
For its part, the Saudi Embassy in Abuja could not be reached for comments because yesterday was a work-free day.
Executive Secretary of Jigawa State Pilgrims Welfare Board, Alhaji Sani Alhasan Muhammad, told Daily Trust that they expected the Saudi Consulate to start processing visa for Jigawa pilgrims today.
"I can authoritatively tell you that visa has not been issued anywhere in Nigeria. We took ours to the Saudi Consulate last Friday but they ask us to bring it back on today (Monday)," he said.
He said the inaugural flight scheduled to take off in Dutse on Saturday will depend on how soon the visas were issued.
In Kano, officials said they are still waiting for visas for their pilgrims.
"We are waiting for the Saudi authority to issue the visas. We hope that they will release it very soon, since the day for the airlift has already been fixed," an official said.
He said pilgrims should not panic because it was normal to have hitches each year.
Spokesman for the Kano pilgrims board, Badamasi Nuhu Usman, said airlift of the state's pilgrims is scheduled to begin September 10. But he added that the board was still awaiting the Saudi authorities to issue visas.
In Kaduna, the spokesman for the state Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board, Yunusa Mohammed said online visa applications have commenced last week and that they will forward all necessary documents to the Saudi Consulate in Kano.
Meanwhile, an advocacy group called Media Awareness Initiative for Hajj has expressed concern over the pilgrims' visa delays.
In a statement by its chairman Garba Ubale Dambatta and publicity secretary Muhd Kabiru Yusuf, the association said it was sad that the Saudi authorities reneged on their initial promise to start visa issuance to Nigerian pilgrims last Monday.
It said the delay will affect the Nigerian Hajj arrangements, as previously visas are issued two or three weeks to the commencement of the airlift operations.