Mission Impossible, Possible!

The Hajj is over. Over the past week 8,308 pilgrims have been flown back to Nigeria. But 76,692 of us are still in the holy land, waiting to be transported. (Hundreds more should have returned to Nigeria by the time you are reading this). In my case, two journeys are ahead of me: one to Medina and the other to Nigeria. I do not know when either will take place. Out of the 85,000 pilgrims that came to Saudi Arabia for Hajj through the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), only 44,600 have been to Medina to pay homage to the Prophet’s mosque and other interesting religious sites, prior to the start of Hajj proper. The rest are in Mecca, waiting. In the house where I stay, and in many other houses dotted across Mecca, there is a great deal of uncertainty about just when we will be moved to Medina, after which we will wait to be taken to Jeddah and then Nigeria. Though the Medina visit is not a pillar of Hajj, it is nonetheless a significant aspect of the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) has stressed, as reported in so many Ahadith, the importance of visiting his mosque where his grave and those of his companions are located. One Hadith of Muslim says Abu Hurairah (RA) reported the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) saying: “A prayer in my mosque is a thousand times more excellent than a prayer in any other mosque, except Masjid-al-Haram (Makkah)”. So we wait.

The wait can be excruciatingly annoying, though. It tugs at one’s patience. We “kill” time by going to the nearby mosque for congregational prayers or to the Haram for circumambulation of the holy Ka’aba (Tawaf), window-shopping, visiting other pilgrims’ houses, or simply taking a siesta. Some even watch movies on potable DVD players. Rumours have it that our batch of pilgrims that has not been to Medina may be moved there tomorrow or the following day. Or the next day. Or, maybe, next week! Those lucky pilgrims that have been to the Prophet’s city are the ones being flown back to Nigeria. The way things stand, with pilgrims being jetted to Nigeria in trickles, we fear that we are going to be marooned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for the next three or four weeks. The stay would have otherwise been of great spiritual value because it affords one the rare opportunity to pray in Islam’s holiest site. But because every pilgrim wants to return home after the satisfyingly grueling rites of Hajj, most would rather just leave.

Lack of information from officials compounds the situation. It reflects the uncertainty and disorganization that dogged the preparation for Hajj months back. In normal societies it is possible for a pilgrim to plan his trip – from the date of his embarkation to the holy land to the date of his departure there-from – but in our country it seems that keeping the pilgrim in the dark about almost everything is one of the major pastimes of the Hajj officials.

A mid-level Nigerian official was here last night. When someone complained about the painful anxiety of waiting in the dark, he explained off the situation by saying that it was caused by the airlines. If the companies given the contract of transporting the pilgrims had done their job properly – by providing enough aircraft the way, say, the Pakistanis, the Indonesians, the Malays and other “more civilized” countries have done – there wouldn’t have been this problem. From his explanation, and the incriminating evidence one sees everywhere, one got the distinctive impression that Nigerian Hajj administration is the worst on Planet Earth.

Due to the straight-jacketed culture of corruption and partiality that has been entrenched in the system across the years, one of your greatest nightmares begins as soon as you’ve decided to perform the Hajj from Nigeria. You would soon discover that it is a mission impossible that is made possible only by Him whose exhortation you have ventured out to fulfill – the Almighty Himself. There are many stumbling blocks on your way. While some of them are natural and are, therefore, bound to happen, most are man-made. For instance, natural problems can (and do) occur from the overcrowding, which creates other cataclysms. You cannot have over three million people in a small field like Mina or Arafat or squeezed into small embankments like the Jamrah and not expect to encounter mountains of problems, more so when those millions hail from diverse cultural backgrounds.

The man-made problems are the ones that pilgrims grapple with. Nigerian governments at all levels do spend incredible sums of money every year in order to overcome or at best minimize those problems, all to no avail. Right from the registration of intending pilgrims to transporting them back at the end, the hurdles seem to defy solution. Why? Answer: no realistic solutions are applied.

The buck stops at the table of Hajj officials. From what I see here in the holy land, the whole exercise is run by semi-literate undertakers, supposedly superintended by the senior, more educated officials. Many of the so-called senior officials do not even know why they are here, or pretend not to know. Many of them appear to think that they are in KSA for their personal pursuits – some picnic away from Nigeria. Tales of their alleged unholy exploits abound. The obvious one is the cat-and-mouse game they play with confused pilgrims, disappearing just when they are most needed. Once in a while you catch sight of them cruising around town in big American cars (their favourite is GMC) with their women: their parents, wives and or sisters, I suppose, though a friend of mine derisively said “girlfriends”. They wear an air of “hard at work” when they catch your eye and promptly zoom off, lest you would ask for ‘lift.’ An exception here are members of the medical team, who stay at their desks attending to the needs of pilgrims. I doff my hat to them.

Our Hajj officials should stop behaving like privileged brats, thinking they are doing a favour to the pilgrims. They are in this country enjoying all those unnamable perks courtesy of the poor pilgrims. They should, therefore, dedicate all their time to the service of the pilgrims even if they must miss their own Hajj. (Note that they are not here to perform Hajj themselves). They should know that if they perform creditably well, their reward isn’t just in the hefty estacode they receive, the choice accommodation and transport they enjoy, etc., but it is also in heaven because they would be contributing positively to a religious duty.It is very important for them to constantly provide relevant information to the pilgrims: when Hajj airlifts will begin, where to go in the holy land, how and when to get there, what to do there, the exact date and time for returning home, etc. Some of these tasks can be accomplished in liaison with other agencies, such as the airlines and local authorities.

Can they do these? From what is presently on the ground, my verdict is a grim one: the present officials are incapable of a change because they are the beneficiaries of the corrupt, decadent system they had helped create. The huge sums of money they milk from the system, as well as the privileges they enjoy, would vanish if the system is reformed. Expectedly, they would stand in the way of any change, insisting on maintaining the status quo. To kick them out would require a visionary, fearless leader who is unattached to the system, someone who would divorce the Hajj administration from politics. I suggest that the President of Nigeria should get involved actively, possibly by assuming the title of Amirul Hajj for at least four years. This way he would see things first-hand instead of relying on the annual report of an appointed so-called Amirul Hajj, who is (as happened this year) an absentee politico in the holy land. State governors and local government chairmen in Muslim-populous states should do likewise. The time to start the new system is now, not later, when the 2008 Hajj exercise is being wrapped up amidst ceaseless uncertainty and disappointment.

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