Nigeria suspends Hajj flights over women deportation
Nigeria has suspended all Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia after the authorities there deported more than 170 women who had arrived without a male escort.
About 1,000 Nigerian women intending to make the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca have been detained since Sunday.
A Nigerian government delegation is going to Saudi Arabia to complain.
There has been an understanding in the past that Nigerian women are exempt from traveling with a male relative – a requirement for women on the Hajj.
Nigerian diplomats say the agreement between the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria and the Saudi authorities allows visas to be issued for Nigerian women going to Mecca as long as they are accompanied by Hajj committee officials.
BBC Nigeria correspondent Will Ross says it is not clear if this action was taken as part of an effort to clamp down on people entering Saudi Arabia illegally to work.
Since Sunday, hundreds of Nigerian women – mainly aged between 25 and 35, according to Nigerian diplomats – have been stopped at the airports in Jeddah and Medina.
Bilkisu Nasidi, who travelled from the northern Nigerian city of Katsina, told the BBC that hundreds of women had been sleeping on the floor, did not have their belongings and were sharing four toilets at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.
She said she was part of a group of 512 women being deported to five states in Nigeria on Thursday.
With many of them now facing deportation, she said the atmosphere at the airport was not good, and the women felt “victimized”.
The main problem was that their surnames did not correspond with those of their husbands or male guardian on visa documentation, she said.
It is a common practice for Muslim women in Nigeria not to take their husband’s name.
“Honestly both governments are to blame, ours and theirs. They’re telling us that our government has been aware of what are the requirements for the visa application and granting our visas,” she told the BBC’s Focus on Africa program
“We’re not happy about the situation – other than the Hajj we would not be interested in coming back to Saudi Arabia but unfortunately it is the holy land to us Muslims and we will have to look beyond the treatment and come back.”
Nigeria’s vice-president met the Saudi ambassador to Nigeria on Wednesday and gave him a 24-hour ultimatum for the situation to be resolved, the BBC’s Chris Ewokor reports from the capital, Abuja.
The deportations have heightened concerns that the situation is threatening to develop into a diplomatic showdown, he says.
Nigeria’s speaker of the House of Representatives is leading a government delegation – to include the foreign affairs minister – to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to resolve the situation.
More than two million Muslims are due to converge on Mecca for this year’s Hajj, which is set to culminate over a four-day period somewhere between 24-29 October depending on lunar observations.
The Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam, which every adult Muslim must undertake at least once in their life if they can afford it and are physically able.
1 October 2012
Nigeria: Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia resume
By Damilola Oyedele,
At least five flights departed Nigeria Sunday for Saudi Arabia, signifying an end to the brewing diplomatic row between the two countries following the detention and deportation of almost 700 unaccompanied Nigerian female intending pilgrims to the Middle-eastern country. Sources said that the five flights lifted about 2,500 pilgrims, including some of those deported last week for not having male chaperons when they arrived in Saudi Arabia, to Jeddah and Madina airports in the country.
At least 159 of them from Oyo, Katsina and Taraba States were deported last Wednesday, while another batch of 512 female pilgrims arrived at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA), Kano, last Thursday from Saudi Arabia. THISDAY gathered that with the resumption of flights, a Federal Government delegation, headed by the House of Representatives Speaker, Hon. Aminu Tambuwal, would no longer need to go to Saudi Arabia to resolve the issue.
President Goodluck Jonathan had through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, last Wednesday, raised the delegation whose other members included Minister of State II for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nuruddeen Mohammed; Ambassador Shehu Galadanchi; Sheikh Sherif Saleh; and the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) Chairman, Alhaji Muhammad M. Bello.
In order to resolve the crisis, Tambuwal last Thursday met with the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Khalid Abdrabuh, who reiterated his assurance that the controversy would be resolved shortly. The intending pilgrims, who left Nigeria Sunday, were ferried from Abuja, Lagos, Kaduna, Minna and Sokoto airports. The plane, which departed from Abuja, left with the pilgrims from Kogi State.
Prior to the dispute, which led to the temporary suspension of flights to Saudi Arabia, the airlines operated up to two flights a day to Saudi Arabia. As the country is racing against time to ferry all its pilgrims before the closure of Jeddah Airport on October 20, the airlines are expected to operate two flights a day to carry the remaining 59,000 pilgrims. Bello, had on Saturday night, said the airlines had the capacity to ferry all intending pilgrims to Saudi Arabia within 10 days.
THISDAY also learnt Sunday that there might have been more to the maltreatment of the Nigerian female pilgrims beyond the excuse that male chaperons, known in Saudi Arabia as ‘muhrams’, did not accompany them. The sudden decision by Saudi Arabia to invoke the ‘muhram’ requirement, despite a previous concession it had granted the Nigerian contingent, had raised suspicion in Nigeria about the Islamic country’s motive. This was buttressed by the fact that over 20 planes bearing Nigerian pilgrims had already landed with their passengers allowed into Saudi Arabia without any incident. It was learnt that the Saudi authorities had accepted the Maliki school of thought in Islam, which allows a lawful institution such as NAHCON to act as ‘muhram’ for female pilgrims.
THISDAY gathered that a Saudi airline was among those carriers that bided to ferry Nigerian pilgrims for the pilgrimage, but it lost out as only Max Air, Kabo Air, Medview Airlines and Meridien Airlines emerged the preferred carriers. Sources suspect the detention and deportation of some female pilgrims was the excuse given by Saudi Arabia in retaliation for not selecting its airline for the hajj operations. There were also speculations that Saudi authorities decided to take such action due to the high number of illegal immigrants in the country who hail from Nigeria.
THISDAY gathered that there are at least 44,000 illegal Nigerian immigrants, majority of whom are women who came in under the guise of performing the pilgrimage. Another reason being bandied about stems from the fact that Nigeria may have exceeded the allowable number of pilgrims expected from the country. However, Bello dispelled this, saying: “In the 1980s, Nigeria used to take over 100,000 pilgrims to hajj.
Last year, we took 99,000 pilgrims and this year we are taking 95,000, which is lower than last year.” Bello also refuted reports that he was aware that the Saudi authorities would demand that the male chaperon requirement be enforced. He said: “If the rules had changed and we were not informed, of what benefit would it be for us to flout a policy that would make our people suffer?”
NAHCON Head of Media, Mallam Mana Uba, told THISDAY that the Saudi airline did not bid this year, but it did last year and actually emerge one of the carriers. “What happens is that NAHCON screens airlines and selects the best. Then we forward the list to the states, which choose whichever carrier they want to do business with. No state patronized the airline (Saudi Airline),” he said. Uba added that Ethiopia Airlines was one of those which won the bid to ferry intending pilgrims this year, but no state patronized it.
Nigeria has a population of 170,123,740 (July 2012 est.) and is 50% Muslim with the rest being Christians or Traditional African Religion.
Video: Nigerian women pilgrims without male companions detained
Video: The Hajj
In carrying out its Hajj statistics program within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Central Department of Statistics & Information (CDSI) depends on the comprehensive enumeration methodology for all individuals coming to Makkah for performing Hajj. This is achieved through Hajj Statistics centers stationed by the CDSI at all entrances of Makkah.
The counting usually begins on the 1st of the month of Dhu Al-Hijjah of every lunar year and ends at 6:00 o’clock in the evening of the 9th day of the same month.
The Islamic calendar
The current Islamic year is 1433 AH (2012)
The first Islamic year beginning in 622 during which the emigration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina
Source: Kingdom of Saudia Arabia Central Department of Statistics and Information
Population: 26,534,504 (July 2012 est.)
Capital of Makkah province
Population: 1.484 million
Jeddah- King Abdulaziz International Airport
Riyadh – King Khalid International Airport
Video: Inside: Mecca