How would you appraise your first Hajj exercise as Executive Secretary of Kaduna State Pilgrims Welfare Agency?
I got the appointment as Executive Secretary a few days before the commencement of the 2022 Hajj operations. So, you can see that it was not an easy task; it was a task that required commitment to seeing the success of the operations. But my training made it easy for us to conduct the operation. You know, as a Muslim Society of Nigeria member who rose to become the Vice President, this has given me a lot of experience in organising people. We organized what is called IVC, where we had over 10,000 students every December. So, the moment I started Hajj operations, I relied on my experience of conveying thousands of students to a particular place to organize a programme. So, I have been used to all these ups and downs, and it enabled me to execute the assignment, a few days after I was appointed as Executive Secretary. So, it wasn’t so challenging as such. But there were some disturbing moments such as selection air carriers, airlifting of pilgrims and other logistics. All these were worrisome, but I succeeded through Allah’s guidance and with prayers
The agency organized a post-Hajj review exercise with significant stakeholders in attendance. What were the most notable challenges that were highlighted, and how do you plan to avoid a recurrence?
Most of the issues raised had to do with airlifting of pilgrims from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia, particularly the issuance of visas. And I have said clearly, that the issue of visas is not domiciled in Kaduna state. It’s a national and even an international issue. So, by Allah’s mercy, those who could get their visas were airlifted to Saudi Arabia at the last Hajj. But those that did not get their visas, the situation was beyond our control. The announcement for the 2022 Hajj came late in the month of Ramadan, and we had just two months to make all these preparations which was not easy. But on the part of NAHCON and Saudi Arabia, the preparations proved challenging, especially regarding issuing visas.
Again, the second observation that stakeholders made was that one of the pillars of Hajj, the day of Arafat, fell on a Friday. Some Muslims attach a special significance to the coincidence of Arafat day falling on a Friday. So some people made it a do-or-die affair to be in Saudi Arabia–and even those who didn’t have prior intentions to perform the pilgrimage suddenly became interested because Arafat day coincided with a Friday. This caused a lot of problems for the pilgrims.
Next year, we are going to start preparations on time, it’s going to be easy, and this will be conducted based on schedules and plans and not the way we did it this year. So, I don’t think we will have many problems based on our review meeting. But we should understand that there are fundamental issues that we don’t have control over. Number one is the visa issue. Number two, is that of the aircraft you will use in airlifting the pilgrims because it is not your own. Kaduna state does not own planes, so we have to negotiate with private owners. So no matter how much we plan and strategize, if we have a problem with the airlines, there will be a problem.
So, our thinking is that we’re going to start engaging them on time. And we can’t even engage them until NAHCON clears and selects the airlines for us. So you can see that that is a fundamental problem. Otherwise, other issues, such as accommodation, can be quickly sorted out because those are under our control. The actual airlifting of pilgrims was one of the major problems that stakeholders highlighted in the post-Hajj meeting but we, as Kaduna State Pilgrims Welfare Agency, can do little or nothing about it.
What were your achievements during the last Hajj exercise and how do you intend to build on them?
One of the achievements is that we airlifted all our pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, except those the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria did not issue visas. Other states in Nigeria left behind several pilgrims. In Kano, more than 500 were left behind, so it was the case for some other states across the country. So, it is an outstanding achievement that we were able to airlift all our pilgrims that had visas to Saudi Arabia. I also see it as an achievement for us to convey our pilgrims peacefully. There was no animosity, no uprising; there was no protest in Saudi Arabia because the pilgrims were comfortable with all our arrangements. The accommodation was adequate and the feeding was reasonable and acceptable. Their transportation in Saudi Arabia was well planned and organized. The pilgrims appreciated all the provisions that were given. So to us, these are achievements.
We also observed all airlifting rules, such as avoiding travelling to Hajj with pregnant women due to the stress of the exercise. But some women in some states were able to scale the screening, and some even delivered babies in Saudi Arabia. But for us, no woman with pregnancy was able to scale our screening exercise. So this, to me, is another outstanding achievement that we can boast of. Another aspect is that our pilgrims conducted themselves in an organised manner in Saudi Arabia. All visitations, travels, and enlightenments were done in groups and batches. All the pilgrims had the opportunity to perform their rites as they are being done.
Another achievement is the support and encouragement from my staff; all of them were in uniform every day. Our team members were committed; they worked day and night, 24 hours. In some states, you can’t even identify the officials because all of them removed their uniforms and wore normal clothes. So when the pilgrims have a problem, they don’t know who to contact. But for the Kaduna camp, from myself, down to other officials, we were all in uniform so that pilgrims could quickly identify us in case of any challenges. Because of all these achievements, the Saudi Arabia Hajj Commission gave us an award for our excellent outing. I think the most important achievement is that we have garnered experience and we will build on it to enhance our subsequent operations, inshaa Allah.
At the review exercise, you formally announced the organization’s new name which is the Kaduna Pilgrims Welfare Agency. What is the difference between the present arrangement and the former Kaduna State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board?
In Kaduna state, when Malam Nasir El-Rufai came in as governor, many reforms took place. These reforms include the merger of the two separate pilgrims boards, the Muslim and the Christian pilgrims boards. They were merged as part of the reforms because they relate to religious pilgrimages. An autonomous agency, a self-funding agency focused on enhancing and ensuring better care for pilgrims that travel to Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem is now in place. So one of the critical difference is that the two pilgrims boards of before have now become one; they are no longer treated separately. So we now have one agency designed for both Christian and Muslim pilgrims. The objective is to ensure that we give comprehensive coverage and handling of all pilgrimage issues to Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia, for Christians and Muslims respectively.
As an agency, are you focused on generating revenue for the state and fostering unity amongst the two major religions?
Not necessarily generating revenue for the state, but we are working towards a self-reliant and self-funding organization. And of course, you can see that it’s going to bring about unity, bring about working together, as individuals, of different backgrounds. I think many states will soon start copying from Kaduna when they see how we have successfully merged the two boards under one agency. Again, there will be a lot of savings on overhead and running costs because now you have to budget for one agency instead of two.
Next Hajj is about 11 to 12 months away. What will your agency be doing within this waiting period?
We don’t even have up to 11 months; as I said earlier, we are gearing towards self-funding and self-reliance. We are about to commence Umrah in the month of Ramadan. We hope that Kaduna State Pilgrims Welfare Agency will start Umrah next year; so it’s no longer going to be a situation where we perform Hajj and come back and do nothing until another Hajj. As I speak to you now, we have a lot of advocacy meetings that we plan to do for Christian clerics and Muslim leaders. We have training. We have retreats. We have sensitizations. We have a lot of curriculum development for our pilgrims to meet the realities of the time. And then we also have a lot of programmes that we’re doing to enhance the capacity of our staff to ensure that we triumph when we meet challenges in future.
So, we are not sitting down like before, whereby when we come back from Hajj, we won’t have anything to do again until another Hajj. This time we have a lot to do; we are designing advocacy programs, particularly for the Christian pilgrims, as we have discovered that it requires a lot of enlightenment for the Christians to participate in pilgrimages. For instance, this year, 2,500 Muslim pilgrims were airlifted to Saudi Arabia, but only eight went to Jerusalem. So, you can see that it’s not good for us that way. We want to see how we can sensitize and educate the Christians to increase the number of pilgrims, so that we can start airlifting Christians directly from Kaduna to Jerusalem or Rome, without having to go to Abuja or other places. So these are some things we’re trying to achieve inshaa Allah.
-Kaduna State Pilgrims Welfare Agency conducted a rigorous screening of intending pilgrims before the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia—no pregnant woman scaled the screening;
-The weekly sensitisation of intending pilgrims paid off because Kaduna state pilgrims were organised and well behaved;
-The officials also worked tirelessly to ensure a seamless Hajj exercise as they attended to pilgrims’ complaints;
-The Saudi Arabian authorities gave Kaduna State Pilgrims Welfare Agency an award for the orderly conduct of its pilgrims and the general organisation of the agency during the last Hajj;
-On August 24, the Agency organised a post-Hajj meeting, where the entire pilgrimage was reviewed by stakeholders;
-Stakeholders commended the agency for organising a successful Hajj exercise.