Some of the female pilgrims deported from Saudi Arabia on arrival in Nigeria
The recent humiliation of some intending female Nigerian pilgrims by Saudi Arabia shows to a large extent, the scant regard Nigeria is accorded in diplomatic politics, writes Muhammad Bello
Over the years, it has been business as usual for Nigeria women and the Federal Government whenever it was time to visit Saudi Arabia for either the main pilgrimage or lesser Hajj. Conventionally, any female pilgrim who seeks to visit the Holy Land is statutorily required by Islamic precepts and the laws of the Saudi government to do so with a male company.
According to the Shafi’i school of thought, which is the guide post for religious observance in Saudi Arabia, a female is not supposed to take a trip outside her place of abode except with a male chaperon who must be her blood affine. However, the Maliki School, to which Nigerian Muslims subscribe, is a bit relaxed on this. It gives the female latitude to travel as far as she can, provided she has secured the permission of her husband, brother or any such relative.
Until the current near-diplomatic crisis between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia over the latter’s detention of and later, deportation of some female pilgrims to this year’s hajj, both countries never seriously defined the conflicting positions of the two schools of thought which they follow.
Perhaps, Saudi Arabia finally realised it has procrastinated for too long on the issue, particularly, with the escalating number of defections, after hajj operations, by Nigerian women. Although, there may be no statistics to support this claim, many individual anecdotes show that a handful of Nigerian women stay back in the Holy Land after completing their obligatory worship.
An instance of such incidents occurred last year in the hajj contingent of one of the South-South states. A resident of Abuja who is also a graduate of Agricultural Economics from one of the premier universities in the country purchased a seat that was supposed to be free of charge. She was among those airlifted to the Holy Land. Once there, she disappeared and never returned with others she travelled with.
Long before this year’s embarrassment meted out on Nigerian female pilgrims by the Saudi authorities, successive Nigerian governments had not demonstrated as much commitment in the handling of Muslim pilgrimage. Pilgrims are sometimes airlifted late. At times they are returned late after they must have suffered lots of indignities abroad.
Sometimes when they are stranded, some female pilgrims are alleged of resorting to all sorts of engagements to survive. Indeed, there are many low profile quarters where Nigerians stay. Many of these Nigerians undertake menial jobs, the men especially. The women sell food, gumama (second clothes and other items) among other humiliating volitions. Some of them work as house-helps in the homes of wealthy Saudi families. Some in this category often secure igama (residence permit) with the help of their Saudi patrons.
Naturally, some of these circumstances are attributable to the failure of the Nigerian government in its primary responsibility to its citizens. As a matter of fact, if the Saudi government were to take more proactive measure against Nigerians leaving in Saudi, it is believed that no Nigerian will be allowed to visit the country considering the opprobrium that they are believed to have brought, both on their home and host countries.
Sources close to the Saudi embassy in Nigeria told THISDAY that the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) had been informed by the Saudi authorities that this year would not be business as usual in the case of female pilgrims. The Saudis were said to have insisted that no female pilgrim should travel without a Muharram. NAHCON and other officials of state hajj commissions however neglected the admonition. The result was the detention of 400 female at the beginning of last week. As the nation was still trying to recover from the shock another set of 600 were again detained.
Immediately, the federal government moved in. Vice-President Namadi Sambo had summoned the Saudi ambassador to Nigeria, Khaled O.Y. Abdrabuh, for a meeting at the Presidential Villa. Sambo expressed displeasure over the treatment extended to the Nigerian female pilgrims and urged the Saudi Authorities to resolve the issues surrounding the detention of the women within 24 hours in order to avoid a diplomatic row.
He said government was not happy with the step taken by the Saudi government and that reports available to him suggested t hat only Nigeria pilgrims were subjected to such dehumanizing treatment and requested the Saudi Authorities to exercise caution and allow the pilgrims undertake the annual religious rites.
While the meeting was going on and Ambassador Abdrahuh was rationalising the action of his government, Saudi herded over 170 female pilgrims into a plane and sent them back to the country. Before the ultimatum expired, another set of more than 500 were hurriedly bundled back to the country.
But by this time, Abuja had decided to embrace subtle diplomacy. The president who was yet to return to the country from his trip to New York approved the formation of a committee detailed to interface with Saudi Arabia on the issue. On the day the team was supposed to depart the country and at a time when the president who just came back from his trip was meeting officials over the issue, the diplomatic shuttle team headed by the Speaker, Hon. Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, announced that it could not travel to Saudi Arabia as planned because it was unable to obtain the required clearance from the Saudi Arabian authorities.
There is no doubting the fact that the Saudi government feels justified in its action, the reason it was not inclined to dialogue by the Nigeria government. It may also be the reason that the Saudi government has refused to allow officials at the Nigerian embassy in Saudi see the detained pilgrims who were said to have been left in an open space without food or sanitation facilities.
Nigeria’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Alhaji Abubakar Shehu Bunu, told BBC Hausa Service that “We’re not happy about the situation because an immigration official at Jeddah airport treated us badly and denied us access to the female pilgrims in their custody. I have written a formal complaint to the concerned authorities in Saudi Arabia for action.” The ambassador claimed he also “wrote a letter to the Saudi authorities on Wednesday informing them that there is a delegation from Nigeria led by the speaker of the House of Representatives to meet with the king of Mecca. I have not received a reply yet.”
Unfortunately, this year’s experience has only exposed the malady in the administration of hajj affairs in the country and more instructively, an indication of a weak state. Yet, there is the belief in diplomatic quarters that the Saudi Arabian government had not acted well, despite claims that the action was not taken against the Nigerian pilgrims alone. Questions are being asked: Why will the Saudi government treat Nigerians and Nigerian officials so condescendingly? It is speaks more to irrational diplomatic stance that the Saudi government also refused to entertain a request by Nigerian government which had sent a high powered delegation led by the country’s number four man to resolve the row.
This is the time for Nigeria to also review her diplomatic relations with many countries and determine where her interests and those of her citizenry lie. No government in the world, except Nigerian will accept the Saudi Arabian treatment under whatever guise. Even the Saudi government would not mete out such humiliation to certain countries because of the regard accorded them.
It is to this reason that the Nigerian government, while admitting its shortcoming, reviewing same and ensuring better performance henceforth, must not allow this humiliation unaddressed. It must prove to the Saudi government that there is limit to diplomatic rascality in the name of set rules that do not factor in expanded consequences. This is only when it can prove more convincingly that being slow to acting in the name of strengthening diplomatic ties is not an indication of weakness.