The crisis of Nigerian female pilgrims refused entry to Saudi Arabia has finally made it to the headlines of local newspapers in the Kingdom. Before now, only the Saudi Ambassador to Nigeria H.E. Khaled Abdurabuh presented his country’s position on the issue. A Saudi daily newspaper AL-HAYAT on Saturday 29/09/2012 quoted the spokesperson of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj, Hatim Qadi, to have said that Nigeria violated the terms of the agreements reached for the 2012 hajj operation. One of the terms, according to him, is that female pilgrims under the age of forty-five must be accompanied by a male relation, known as Mahram. The ambassador could not have been as blunt as the Hajj Ministry spokesman, because a good ambassador should, at all times, strive to maintain good relations between his country and the receiving state.
The Saudi Hajj Ministry’s account is slightly different from what we have been told by our officials. While not mentioning the forty-five years age threshold, our officials stated that an understanding was reached with the Saudis to allow female pilgrims arriving without male relations to be accompanied by officials of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). This is an indirect admission that indeed the Mahram issue is included in the agreement. But more than that, we should be interested to know how many NAHCON officials would have been sufficient to match the hundreds of stranded female pilgrims. Is substitution of NAHCON officials for Mahrams captured in the agreement? NAHCON also said that so far, over 24,000 Nigerian pilgrims, males and females, out of 95,000, have already been admitted for the hajj, suggesting that those ones fulfilled the terms of the agreement.
It would appear from the foregoing that our officials have not handled the situation well enough. And the comments emanating from our side are not helping matters. One gets the impression that NAHCON does not want to accept responsibility for the mistake, probably out of fear that their image would be sullied. In fairness, the Commission has improved hajj operation since coming into existence in 2007. Before then, the hajj operations had always left much to be desired. We used to face yearly embarrassments begging the Saudis for extension to enable us complete our inbound flights. Despite being granted an extension in 2005, about 11,000 Nigerian pilgrims still missed the hajj. The following year, 492 pilgrims were returned home for arriving after the airspace had been closed.
Image protection notwithstanding, the honourable thing we should have done is to see where the problems lie and rectify them quietly rather than trying to defend the indefensible. To be sure, the hajj is the most important component of our bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. With the record of understanding the Saudis have been showing to us on this matter over the years, it seems ill-advised to have issued them an ultimatum. It is even more painful that at the expiration of the ultimatum, rather than being allowed, more of our female pilgrims were still refused entry while some were deported. When the threat failed to work, decision was taken to send a delegation to Saudi Arabia! For what? To be ridiculed further?
If anything, this has proven once again that, although our Senate and House Committees on Foreign Affairs have responsibilities to the people, their job does not include and is not helped by threatening or issuing ultimatum to foreign governments. Our diplomats whose jobs it is, and are trained, to conduct our international relations should have been left to handle the matter, including giving advice on proper diplomatic protocol. If strong languages have to be used as is sometimes inevitable in diplomatic relations, such demarche should be delivered by the people mandated to do so, after careful assessment of everything at stake.
The Premium Times columnist Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u in a May 15 2012 article titled: Child abuse, Kano to Jeddah and Nigerian Muslims narrated his personal experience at the hands of some Nigerian women who apparently abuse children to engage in begging, right at the Holy Mosque in Makkah. He described how shocked he was to see such an act being perpetrated and how he was told by a Nigerian student in Saudi Arabia that the matter had become a thorn in the flesh of the Saudis who were yet to know how to handle it.
How can anyone guarantee that the strictness being applied by the Saudis is not a way to find a lasting solution to the kind of eyesore described by Muhammad Jameel? And who can blame them? You can imagine the contempt with which the Saudi authorities would view our country and our leaders. Is it with such image deficit that you issue an ultimatum and expect to be taken seriously? Charity, they say, begins at home. Once we put our house in order, we would be respected again all over the world as we once were and our diplomats would find their job of representing us a lot easier.
The present crisis, like the 1996 meningitis one, will be resolved one way or another. All Muslims have a right to perform their religious obligations in Islam’s holiest places for as long as they abide by the rules. The lesson to be learnt from this unfortunate crisis is never again to put ourselves in embarrassing situations.
Abdulbasit Mukhtar writes from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia