The ill-treatment and subsequent deportation of some Nigerian female pilgrims in Saudi Arabia is a diplomatic affront that should not be allowed to stand
Last week some 1000 Nigerian female pilgrims allegedly travelled on Hajj unaccompanied by Muharam (husband, father or brother) as required by Saudi and Islamic law. They were subsequently detained by the Saudi authorities and deported back to Nigeria despite government entreaties. In response, Nigeria temporarily suspended the airlifting of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia until the matter was resolved.
The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) National Commissioner for Operations, Mallam Mohammed Bello, said the Saudi authorities acted out of malice. He told the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Mahram issue was not part of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed with the Saudi Government for the 2012 Hajj. He said the issue only came up when some Nigerian pilgrims arrived at the Jeddah Airport, adding that only Nigerians were subjected to this humiliating treatment. He insisted that female pilgrims who landed in Medina airport were initially not subjected to the same treatment.
Hajj operations in our country have always come with unpleasant tales like flying into Mecca late, shoddy logistical arrangements for intending pilgrims etc. but never have our people been treated with as much contempt as it is happening this year. The pertinent questions therefore are: How did we get into this bind? Did Nigeria deserve this humiliating treatment from Saudi Arabia? What does it take for a woman to travel on pilgrimage? Is this application universal or specifically directed at Nigerians? And why did the authorities allow the pilgrims to travel if indeed they fell short of the requirements? “We do not deserve this humiliation,” said the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammadu Sa’ad, who is the Amirul Hajj, describing it as an insult to Nigeria and to our nation’s Muslims. “It is an embarrassment” said Anyim Pius Anyim, Secretary to the Government of the Federation. He added: “We did not anticipate this and we cannot allow it to repeat itself”.
But even as the Nigerian authorities are talking tough, they seem to be acting soft and all attempts at mending fences with the Saudi Arabian authorities have met with brick wall. In fact, things are actually getting messier by the day. While the Vice President, Arc. Namadi Sambo, was at a meeting with Khaled Abdrabuh, the Saudi ambassador to Nigeria, on how to resolve the issues and stay on good terms, the Saudis would indeed proceed to deport another batch of some of the 1000 female pilgrims detained at the King Abdul-Azziz International Airport in Jeddah. Earlier and even more depressing, the Saudi authorities had blocked the access of the Nigerian envoy to Saudi Arabia, Alhaji Abubakar Shehu Bunu, to the detained pilgrims, after an hour of pleading.
Stripped of all emotions, this is a diplomatic issue between the government of Nigeria and that of Saudi Arabia and the earlier it is treated as such the better. It is unacceptable that citizens of Nigeria, and legal travellers, would be treated the way the affected women are being treated by the Saudi authorities. This is not the time for appeasement, which in any case has not worked. Rather, we should demand a formal explanation from the Saudi government, and after that, an apology and restitution.
Even when we as a people need to do some internal soul-searching about our perennial shoddy preparations for Hajj, about the nuisance that some Nigerians constitute while on pilgrimage, and about the use of scarce public resources for private spiritual exercise that according to the precepts of Islam should be undertaken only by those who can afford it, we must stand firm on the detention and deportation of our female pilgrims.
Our government needs to insist that it will not brook inhumane, disrespectful and contemptuous treatment of our citizens, whether in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.