Even by the standards of its organisers, the airlift of pilgrims for this year's hajj was the worst in Nigeria's history. Factions within the two houses of the national legislature are knocking heads over tile issue. But since the man at the center of the issue is also enmeshed in the controversy over a brainless "third-term" obsession, it is more likely than not that some horse trading will take place, and the question of accountability will, be sacrificed for the "national interest". But for the victims, the memories will linger.
How can one begin to describe the feeling, even with hindsight? You have saved for months, probably years, for this once-in-a-lifetime obligation. Several times, you went to the "pilgrims' board" for immunisation, for uniforms, for bags, for passport, for visa. You even attended "hajj seminars" where some of your facilitators seemed more interested in telling stories and begging for alms than teaching you anything worthwhile. Finally, you are summoned and you take leave of weeping loved ones and head to the airport, hoping to be in Saudi Arabia within hours which turn into days then weeks of waiting at the hajj camp.
You are not alone; as you wait, the crowd grows, like refugees in a shelter. You are lied to ("the deadline has been extended by the personal intervention of the head of state"); deceived ('Virgin Nigeria planes have been commandeered to commence the airlift") and humiliated. Too tired to be angry, you accept the condition and hope for the best.
How can one describe the pain: over 1800 pilgrims living in the open, sharing two toilets and two bathrooms, many (including women) sleeping and doing their toilets out in the open - for two weeks and more. The yearning for that indescribable fulfilment that comes with a completed hajj must have kept the pilgrims strong as they waited, and waited, and waited, only to be told: "sorry, you cannot go this year". The anxiety, the anguish and finally, the pain. Surely, very few situations can match the disappointment.
And so, we have the shame of writing about another botched hajj operation, another annual ambush. Regardless of the watery apologies, it is difficult to believe that this constant failure to get things properly done is not deliberate. After all, people don't spend weeks in transit camps When they travel to support sports teams! The handling of this hajj must be the worst in Nigeria's history. It does no help trying to demand accountability.
All you are likely to get are the sanctimonious preachments of "that's how Allaah wanted it", "it was destined ... " etc., meaning that we are expected to forgive, forget and hope that next year's will be better. The ease with which the authorities get away with this affront gives one the impression that maybe we have all lost sense of the gravity of this annual event. If not, how come nothing at all is being done to bring those responsible to book (just as nothing was done about those who ruined last year's, and the one before that)? And nobody it seems, is saying anything. The politicians are still strutting the landscape, the several pilgrims boards are still swallowing in their ineptitude and feeding fat on our disappointment.
In effect, doing any in-depth analysis of the failure of hajj opera in Nigeria is not a good use of time. Everybody knows what the problems were, and that most of those have the authority to make a change simply lack the sincerity to admit their failures. As for those who wish to look forward, there is really only one lesson to be learnt from this fiasco (assuming again we are not dealing with a simple case of sabotage).
Some history might help. Government first dabbled into hajj affairs in the 1920s when the colonialists tried unsuccessfully to organize the journey so as to carry out surveillance on the pilgrims. They sought by this to limit the pilgrims' exposure to "radical elements" and eventually to control the whole pilgrimage itself.
The colonialists failed, but subsequent governments have built on the experience and reaped the gains. The motives of subsequent governments might have been purer. As Dr Usman Bugaje tells us in his seminal work (Hajj and the Nigerian Government: Towards a Clear and Sustainable Policy on Hajj), the initial plan was that government would merely appoint a pilgrims commissioner to accompany the pilgrims (for a term of three months, not the ceremonial meddling of the current institution of "ameerul hajj").
The pilgrims will also be accompanied by a medical corps (then called dispensary attendant), and government would facilitate both accommodation and payment of royalties, foreign exchange, etc. But Dr Bugaje notes that over time, these idears were sorely compromised, first by the inefficiency of the Nigerian Airways, then the curse of bureaucracy, finally reaching a head in 1979 when the inept pilgrims boards "became embroiled in the dirty politics of second republic, engulfed by corruption, weighed down by patronage, wastage and inefficiency, (and were thus) unable to cope with the increasing number of pilgrims.
Things have gone progressively worse. The domination of the process by politicians have become so total that it is no longer news that one politician sponsored 200 pilgrims (read area boys, prostitutes and traders) for hajj; the lie about the so-called federal government subsidy of the hajj continues to win more Muslim hearts and minds, and we are not surprised, serious politicians feel they must have some relevance in hajj affairs.
Senator Ibrahim Mantu, the esteemed Amirul-hajj for this year, told us that some of the federal government's contractors had not even seen the inside of a cockpit before being granted the right to airlift pilgrims!
Meanwhile, countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, even India with larger pilgrims manage to handle the trip with the minimal involvement of government and politicians; they somehow manage to have almost flawless organisation, even when some of the pilgrims have to book their journey three years ahead.
Essentially therefore, there is only one lesson to be learnt. Let us have the politicians 'leprous' hands off the hajj. The hajj, like everything serious, is too important to be left in the hands of politicians. Let the private sector take over. Let government concentrate on consular, foreign exchange, health and other such matters. This might make the trip a little more expensive, the learning curve might be a little steep in the first few years, but certainly, nobody would have to spend weeks sleeping at the hajj camp!
This article was culled from the publications of Deen Communication Limited