By Allah’s divine providence, I would be among the millions Muslims across the world that are planning to perform this year’s hajj. The last time I performed hajj was about 12 years ago and the experience wasn’t palatable.
Having completed the payment of the hajj fares, I took it upon myself to be abreast with anything hajj particularly this year.
I actually wanted to know the level of preparedness by the hajj regulatory agency, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), in visa processing, hajj transit camps, airlift of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia and back, the transport system in Saudi Arabia, the feeding, animal sacrifice, health care system, accommodation in Mecca, Muna and Medina, safety of pilgrims, among others.
My last experience was anything but comfortable. First, I spent three days at the airport before I was airlifted to the holy land; on my way back, I spent five days in Jeddah airport. This didn’t include the terrible and mosquito-infested-four nights I spent at the hajj camp in Nigeria.
Yes, it was a holy ritual that every Muslim aspires to perform. But by the time I returned, I was ill for two weeks.
This explained why I developed interest on the “innovations” if any put in place by the hajj authorities as the airlift begins August 8, 2016. I equally studied how other Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Malaysia, among others are conducting their activities with less hassle.
One of the issues that bothered me was the safety of the pilgrims in the holy land, particularly with the last year’s twin tragedies of Haram crane crash and the Muna crush that claimed the lives of thousands of pilgrims.
I waited to see what the hajj authorities in Nigeria will put in place as safety measures this year, having lost over 200 pilgrims in the Muna crush and about 40 others still “missing and unidentified.”
Part of the problems of the hajj when I travelled 12 years ago was the “manual and unscientific” ways of handling issues by the hajj officials.
Then suddenly, I stumbled on that piece of news that NAHCON is introducing electronic tracker for all pilgrims performing this year’s hajj. While I found solace on that, I then wanted how the tracking would be.
The explanation by the NAHCON’s director of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Dr. Ashiru Sani Daura on how the new tracking chip will detect the whereabouts of individual pilgrims could using GPS technology, was impressive.
The ICT director, as reported by Blueprint newspaper, explained to Blueprint journalists that the commission opted for the new technology on the advice of the presidency which, last year, wrote suggesting that the regulatory agency should emulate Algeria which was doing similar thing for its pilgrims.
But nothing goes without controversy in Nigeria as cyber space was loaded with stories that Saudi authorities has plans to give wrist bands to pilgrims this year.
The official explained that contrary to the claims that Saudi authorities were already coming up with similar wrist band, the one being introduced by the NAHCON was more advanced and that it “can detect persons from the computer screen while the one to be issued by the Saudi government only uses a barcode reader.”
He said contrary to insinuations that wristband tracker was priced at N25, 000, contract documents seen by Blueprint showed that each pilgrim is charged N8, 400 for the item.
“The wristband will also be useful to pilgrims in distress who can place a call just by pressing it and we can get the signal immediately and mobilise our men,” he said.
The Guardian reported NAHCON’s head of aviation Mohammadu Goni explaining that three indigenous airlines – Dornier Aviation Nigeria AEP Ltd; Top Brass and Azman Air Services – earlier approved by hajj authorities in Nigeria were disqualified by the Saudi authorities.
Goni said the General Authority of Civil Aviation of Saudi Arabia (GACA) cleared only three airlines- Med-View Airlines Ltd.; Max Air Ltd. and Fly-Nas Air (Saudi Arabian designated carrier)- of the six nominated by the federal government.
He said that NAHCON had made concerted efforts to ensure that Saudi Arabian Government allowed the three disqualified airlines to participate in the exercise, but to no avail.
He said that the commission forwarded the report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Aviation for diplomatic intervention, but that Saudi Arabia did not grant its request.
“In fact, a delegation was send to appeal to Saudi Arabian Authority to allow the three carriers fly their route but they insisted that those airlines must acquire designation status because they only applied as charter flights,” he said.
Goni also said that it was a standing rule that all Hajj participating countries must abide by the Saudi Civil Aviation Authority’s condition in order to participate in the Hajj.
He said that it was clearly stipulated in GACA that any country participating in the Hajj must give 50 per cent of its total pilgrims to Saudi airlines to transport them.
The contentious issue of miqaat, which was dominant 12 years ago, seemed to have been settled now as NAHCON plans to airlift over 95 percent of the 70,000 Nigerian pilgrims directly to Medina.
In 2105, about 90 percent of Nigerian pilgrims were airlifted to Medina airport directly, thereby relieving pilgrims the stress of going to Medina by road and reducing the excessive arguments by clerics on the appropriateness or otherwise of using Jeddah airport as Miqaat.
The visa request has since gone online visa through the E-tracking online hajj integrated system introduced by Saudi Arabia.
The refund of the N1.7 billion naira to pilgrims who performed last year’s hajj by NAHCON for services not rendered was a great sign of change in hajj administration.
On accommodation, NAHCON has secured hotels at the door steps of Haram mosque in Medina for Nigerian pilgrims. Having googled the hotels, I found out that they included Taiba Arac Suites (located at the door step of Haram), Classic Andalus Hotel I and II (few metres away from the prophet’s mosque) and Bustan Taiba and Taiba As Salaam (300 metres away from the holy mosque).
An Islamic bank, Jaiz Bank Plc, has been appointed as official fee collection agent for Hadaya (animal sacrifice) for this year hajj. The need to go Muna animal market or dealing with suspicious pilgrims officials over my hadaya has been dealt with.
May God makes this year’s hajj a safer, better and hassle-free one for Nigerian pilgrims, and Muslims in general.
****Al-Siddeeq, an educationist, wrote from Oshogbo, Osun State