About one million Muslim faithful will spend today at the Islamic sacred site of Arafat, the most important ritual of the Muslim pilgrimage taking place in Saudi Arabia. But an estimated 3,660 Nigerians who had planned to make the trip had their hope dashed after the last flight of the Nigerian contingent left the Thursday afternoon, leaving them behind.
This is the first large scale hajj happening since the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. In both 2020 and 2021, only a handful of Saudi residents performed the exercise.
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This year, a total of 850,000 foreigners and 150,000 domestic faithful were scheduled to perform the exercise. The figure is still a far cry from the nearly 2.5 million who performed the annual pilgrimage in 2019.
Nigeria had twice obtained extensions after it failed to conclude airlifting of its intending pilgrims. The country was allocated 43,008 slots for the hajj.
But by the time the Saudi air space was finally closed for intending pilgrims, Daily Trust gathered that at least 2,550 pilgrims who paid through states’ hajj commissions and 1,110 intending pilgrims who patronised licensed tour operators could not be airlifted. This was in addition to hundreds of others who could not get visas despite paying for the journey.
An insider in the commission told one of our reporters that the commission was issued 33,936 visas for pilgrims who paid through states’ agencies out of which 31,386 were airlifted.
Over 1,000 tour operators’ pilgrims stranded
Over 1,000 intending pilgrims belonging to the Licensed Tour Operators under the umbrella of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUON) would have missed the 2022 Hajj, according to findings by Daily Trust.
The pilgrims are mostly stranded in Abuja, Lagos and Kano, it was learnt.
Most of the pilgrims could not make it to Saudi Arabia due to the alleged non-remittance of funds paid to the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to their i-bank accounts in Saudi Arabia, which would enable them to process visas for their intending pilgrims as well as pay service providers for accommodation, feeding, among others.
Daily Trust learnt that over 51 operators with about 2,800 pilgrims were initially affected.
Some of them had to source foreign exchange from the parallel market to be able to process their pilgrims.
National President of AHUON, Alhaji Nasidi Yahaya in a chat with Daily Trust said the association is still compiling the list but confirmed that there are about 500 stranded pilgrims in Kano, 360 in Abuja and about 250 in Lagos.
He said the association would soon address a press conference after compiling its reports on the 2022 exercise, saying the losses to the tour operators cannot be quantified.
“The losses are so much that I can’t give now. We will come out with the figure. It is so devastating,” he said, blaming the issue on the non-remittance of funds into the operators’ i-banks. We are short of words. We can’t find any reason.
“And the pilgrims would not understand. They have paid money and their concern is to take them to the holy land,” he said.
745 Kano intending pilgrims miss out
At least 745 intending pilgrims from Kano State have missed out on this year’s hajj due to hitches in the airlifting operation.
The last flight for Kano pilgrims left the Malam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA) around 3:40pm on Thursday for Saudi Arabia after picking up 200 intending pilgrims to join those from another state already in the aircraft, leaving behind 745 intending pilgrims, including the Executive Secretary of Kano State Pilgrims Welfare Board, Muhammad Abba Danbatta and some directors of the board.
With hundreds of the intending pilgrims left stranded at the airport and hajj camp for days, Danbatta had faulted the last-minute disappointment on the failure of NAHCON to honour the rescue mission arrangement after the initial disappointment from Azman Airline, which led to an extension by the Saudi government.
Daily Trust gathered that NAHCON had agreed to a rescue mission, which would have seen the deployment of two Flynas aircraft to mop up all those left behind as of Tuesday, but the aircraft did not show up.
He said early on Thursday, Azman aircraft with 400 passengers capacity departed Kano with only 250 intending pilgrims, leaving on the ground over 940 pilgrims with the state officials and the last flight also left with another 200.
“NAHCON had promised to deploy Flynas aircraft with a high passenger capacity since two days ago to save the situation but we are yet to see that happening,’’ Danbatta lamented earlier on Thursday, adding that Azman had conducted six flights mostly with small capacity planes with total intending pilgrims airlifted from the state standing at less than 1,500.
“This was why we complained before the beginning of the Hajj exercise because of our high number that we prefer to be airlifted by Max Air,” he said.
At the airport, Daily Trust observed that the international departure wing was full of stranded intending pilgrims lamenting, with some accusing the Pilgrim Welfare Board of failure. The situation was similar at Hajj Camp where most of the intending pilgrims were still hoping for a last-minute miracle.
An intending pilgrim, Jamilu Sulaiman, who was sighted exiting the airport, said he lost hope and left everything to Almighty God as he was tired of the sufferings.
“This is just a day to Arafat what do you think we should do other than to leave here? I spent two days here and yet there is nothing done. They gave assurance that today (Thursday), they will deploy aircraft that will carry many of us but yet we saw nothing,” he said.
It was also gathered that, apart from those from Kano, there were other intending pilgrims that paid through tour operators from across Gombe, Oyo and Taraba States that came to Kano for their flights but were also stranded with some of them leaving the airport.
“I am from Oyo State. I spent two days here at the airport but I have given up already. We came here thinking we may luckily go, but it seems we are missing this year’s Hajj,” an intending pilgrim, who did not give his name, said while leaving the airport along with several others.
Drama as man ‘performs’ pilgrimage at Kano Hajj Camp
At the Hajj Camp, Malam Jibrin Abdu from Gezawa, who was one of those left behind, became the centre of attraction after he was sighted dressed in the haram white robe and declared that he had already started his pilgrimage at the camp.
“I have started already since we have all the facilities here and I will surely come back and complete it. I know how to do it. This is not my first time and will surely not be the last,” he said, adding that he sold his farmland just to go for the pilgrimage “but some unruly leaders made it impossible,” even as he accepted it was the will of God.
Aside Malam Abdu, a woman, Suwaiba Sani alongside several others rained curses on “all those who have hands in our plight”, with the woman, who was lamenting aggressively, insisting she will not forgive all those that made it impossible for her and others not to make the pilgrimage.
Meanwhile, Jaiz Bank, which handled the hajj savings scheme for most of the intending pilgrims who could not make it to the holy land from Kano, had absolved itself of any culpability in the failed exercise.
An Executive Director with the bank, Ahmad Alhaji Hassan, told the intending pilgrims that the bank paid N114.4million to Kano State Pilgrims Board and N583.6million to NAHCON being the total of the N2.4million each it collected from the 285 intending pilgrims that participated in the savings scheme.
He promised that the bank will kick-start the process of getting back the money for all those that were could not make the pilgrimage.
Huge liability to be recorded – Source
In addition to losses by individual companies, the government will have to cough out money to settle liabilities created by the untidy operation.
“There will be very messy reconciliation of the commission’s accounts. There is the issue of the Hajj Saving Scheme, then tour operators, outstanding pilgrims, regular pilgrims, and even the airlines. Government would be made to shoulder the liabilities,” he said.
NAHCON explains glitch
Spokesperson for NAHCON, Hajia Fatima Usara, did not respond to our reporter’s request to comment on the issues. But a source in the commission who acknowledged “technical problems” at some point in the operation, which, he said, affected a number of states, said the commission was not entirely responsible.
On non-issuance of visas to some of the intending pilgrims, he said “Some states couldn’t pay for their visa. It’s not Saudi that didn’t issue”.
From Abdullateef Aliyu (Lagos), Zahraddeen Yakubu Shuaibu, Salim Umar Ibrahim, Lubabatu I. Garba (Kano) & Faruk Shuaibu (Abuja)