Speaker, House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal
By Onwuka Nzeshi, Damilola Oyedele, Ibrahim Shuaibu and Aisha Wakaso
A Federal Government delegation, headed by the Speaker, House of Representatives, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, is expected to leave Nigeria Friday for Saudi Arabia to discuss with that country’s authorities over the fate of Nigerian female intending pilgrims who are being detained in Madinah.
About 1,000 would-be female pilgrims were detained on arrival in Madinah between Monday and Tuesday for not being accompanied by male chaperons, as provided for under Saudi Arabia’s immigration law that women under 40 years must be accompanied by male chaperons to be allowed to perform the pilgrimage.
As a result of the development, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has suspended all flights to Jeddah and Madinah until a resolution is reached on what has snowballed into a diplomatic row between both countries.
NAHCON has also dismissed the reason given by Saudi Arabia for its action, saying that it breached the understanding between the two countries that Nigeria’s female contingent would be exempted from the law so long as they are accompanied by NAHCON officials.
At least, 159 of them from Oyo, Katsina and Taraba States were deported on Wednesday.
Another batch of 512 female pilgrims arrived at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA), Kano, Thursday from Saudi Arabia.
The female pilgrims who are from Kano, Katsina, Jigawa and Zamfara States, arrived in Kano aboard a Meridian Air aircraft that landed at about 8.50pm.
THISDAY checks revealed Thursday that plans have been concluded for the five-man Federal Government delegation to leave for Saudi Arabia to broker a truce in the crisis.
President Goodluck Jonathan had through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, on Wednesday, raised the delegation whose other members are: Minister of State II for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nuruddeen Mohammed; Ambassador Shehu Galadanchi; Sheikh Sherif Saleh; and the NAHCON Chairman, Alhaji Muhammad M. Bello.
As part of efforts to resolve the crisis, Tambuwal Thursday met with the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Khalid Abdrabuh, who reiterated his assurance that the controversy would be resolved shortly.
The duo met behind closed doors to deliberate on the way out of the pilgrimage standoff.
Abdrabuh explained that the issue of detention of female pilgrims who failed to meet entry requirements was not restricted to Nigeria, as some pilgrims from other countries had also been subjected to the same treatment on arrival at the Holy Land.
Just like he had told Vice-President Sambo during a meeting on Wednesday at the State House, the ambassador said officials of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj were already holding talks with a delegation of the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mecca on the issue.
Sambo, during the Wednesday meeting, had given Saudi Arabia a 24-hour ultimatum to resolve the issue.
Tambuwal, who spoke to reporters at the end of the meeting, also said the Nigerian mission in Riyadh has been meeting with the Saudi authorities to resolve the situation.
But NAHCON has dismissed the excuses tendered by Saudi authorities for the deportation of Nigerian female pilgrims from the King Abdul-Aziz Airport in Jeddah.
A man, who declined to disclose his identity, was deported alongside his wife by Saudi authorities after they had insisted on deporting his wife for not having a male chaperon.
The commission said over 16 flights carrying Nigerians had already landed in Saudi Arabia with all its passengers, including unescorted women, allowed into Saudi Arabia, before the authorities suddenly decided to implement their policy of not allowing unaccompanied women into the country.
However, the Head of Media of the commission, Mallam Uba Mana, Thursday revealed that 509 female pilgrims are on their way back to Nigeria from Saudi Arabia after being stopped from proceeding with their pilgrimage.
He said that Saudi immigration officials at King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah refused the women entry, saying they were not travelling with their husbands or male relatives. Mana said some did travel with their husbands and that a lone male passenger was on the returning flight after refusing to be separated from his wife.
Mana told THISDAY Thursday that local officials of the commission have always stood as guarantors of female pilgrims where they are not accompanied by their husbands or male relations.
He said: “All through history, we have never had this kind of case or issue. All of a sudden, this happened, and by deporting a man alongside his wife, they have shown that their excuses are incorrect.
“What they said is that every woman has to be matched with either her husband or a male blood relation, but we have an instance whereby a woman who was travelling with her husband was not allowed to perform the pilgrimage, and in anger, the husband decided not to perform the pilgrimage also and came back home.”
Mana, who expressed hope that the matter would be resolved amicably, said the deported pilgrims would be allowed to perform the pilgrimage when the crisis is settled.
“Financially, they would lose nothing, if the issue is resolved, they would go back as long as their particulars are intact at no cost to them,” he said.
Mana’s assurances notwithstanding, the commission yesterday suspended all flights to the Middle-eastern country for the next 48 hours, pending the resolution of the crisis. This was announced in a statement Thursday, signed by Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad.
According to the statement, the hajj commission said it has been “compelled to temporarily suspend all hajj flights for the next 48 hours, following the unprecedented and worrisome development of detaining over 1,000 female pilgrims from Nigeria at the King Abdulazeez International Airport, Jeddah and Prince Muhammad Ibn azeez International Airport, Madinah”.
The commission added that it was taking this step after wide consultation with all stakeholders. “This is to enable the commission to appraise the situation critically with the view to surmounting all the challenges being faced,” the statement added.
The commission urged “all intending pilgrims to remain calm as all hands are on deck to resolve the issue and hajj flights will resume once the matter is resolved.”
It added that “all pilgrims that Nigerian carriers appointed for the 2012 Hajj airlift have sufficient capacity to airlift the remaining 60,000 pilgrims well ahead of the closure of Jeddah airport on October 20.”
Similarly, the Niger State Pilgrims Welfare Commission has suspended its inaugural transportation of pilgrims to the country for this year’s pilgrimage.
According to the spokesman of the commission, Alhaji Sani Awwal, the suspension complies with NAHCON directive.
“We aborted our planned inaugural flight to Saudi Arabia. We had finished the screening of the 500 intending pilgrims from Mashegu, Paikoro and Mariga Local Government Areas, including medical officials and the delegation commission, when the message of the suspension reached us, we will comply with it.
“In fact, the pilgrims were already at the Minna International Airport after the completion of their screening at the Hajj camp, while the carrier, MAX Airline, had stationed its plane on the tarmac waiting, when the suspension came into effect," he said.