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‘Foreign Pilgrims went for Umrah, returned with variants of COVID-19’

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Director, Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board, Mohammed Danmallam, says the decision of Saudi Arabian government to limit the 2021 hajj to people within the kingdom because of the coronavirus pandemic was a sad but necessary action to save humanity. He spoke to SODIQ OMOLAOYE .
How do you react to the Saudi Arabia government’s ban of foreign pilgrims from the hajj exercise for the second year?
We took the decision of the Saudi Arabia government as an act of God. Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam and people go on Hajj in fulfillment of that pillar of Islam. Therefore, if we go on hajj to fulfill a requirement that is ordained by Allah (SWT) and we, as Muslims, believe that whatever happens is the will of Allah. Since Allah in his wisdom says there won’t be Hajj this year, we take it in good faith. 

The consolation for every Muslim, however, is that for every intention towards any good deed, there is a reward already. In this case, having the intention means that a person already deposited money towards the journey and he or she would be given the reward of Hajj. Therefore, going to Mecca to perform the Hajj also translates to additional rewards. This means for any intending pilgrim who had genuinely intended to go to hajj and had made deposit, Allah has given them the reward of a person who has performed Hajj. Sad as the news may be to the ears, we give gratitude to Allah because he knows what we don’t know.   

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A lot of preparation has been put in place for the hajj exercise, including ensuring that intending pilgrims were vaccinated. Are there any regrets?
Hajj management is a whole year activity, it doesn’t just start when the Saudi authorities announced whether there would be Hajj or not. As a matter of fact, we usually start preparing for the next Hajj as soon as we finish a particular one. It is a very long process and procedure. 

For instance, since September last year, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) released a guideline that was adopted by all States Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Boards/Agencies/Commissions. In the guideline are dates to begin registration of pilgrims, education and enlightenment of pilgrims, and so many other activities. There is also pre-Hajj tour in which NAHCON and chief executives of SMPWB would visit Saudi Arabia to begin preparation towards transportation, accommodation, feeding and so on. 

Even when we expected that there might not be Hajj, we didn’t relax. We ensured that we were doing everything to fulfill all requirements that ought to be in place. It would be foolhardy for the Saudi Arabian government to announce that there is Hajj and we are not prepared. What that means is that automatically we have disqualified ourselves. 

For the COVID-19 vaccine administered to intending pilgrims, it was a directive from NAHCON after seeing the conditions set out by the Saudi government for Umrah exercise. We saw that it was only wise to start vaccination and for us in the FCT, we were able to administer vaccine to about 2700 intending pilgrims. So, taking that route is not a waste after all. 

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There are arguments in some quarters that if the Saudi authorities could allow the Umrah pilgrimage with presence of COVID-19 vaccine, issuing an outright ban on international pilgrims was unfair. How do you react to this?
There is a great difference between Umrah and Hajj. Umrah takes place throughout the year. One can go on Umrah in each of the 12 months in a year but Hajj happens once in a year. The number of people who go to perform Umrah at a time is very insignificant compared to hajj. During Hajj, we use to have about three million Muslims at a time in Saudi Arabia, performing same tasks. Therefore, the closeness during Hajj gives room for cross infection.
 
Saudi Arabia government owes their citizens the duty to cater for their health. They cannot allow citizens to become infected and at the end of the day become an epicentre of COVID-19 just like we have in India. For any right thinking man, the decision of the Saudi government is in order. The government has the duty to protect their citizens and citizens of other countries because the entire world goes there. So, it is safety first. If they cannot guarantee the safety of their citizens, definitely they wont allow travellers into their country. 

Nigeria is a key member of the hajj community and ranks among top 10 pilgrim contributing countries in the world. Don’t you think consideration should have been given to countries like Nigeria?
The announcement that there wouldn’t be Hajj came in barely 30 days to Arafat. Why did such announcement come late? It is because it was a very hard decision for the Saudi government. It was not in their interest but like I said, they owe it a responsibility to ensure that people are safe. They could have gone ahead to allow foreign pilgrims but they later understood that the disadvantages to allow international pilgrims outweigh the advantages. Apart from oil that they get revenue from, the next is pilgrimage, so Saudi Arabia is most affected by the development. 

I was there for Umrah last month and I can tell you that the economic impact of not allowing foreign pilgrims for hajj is better imagined. Hotels, shops and transportation business were all grounded. Even for the government, they won’t get royalties being paid by pilgrims. They really wanted a way out.

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Also, looking at it from another angle, if the Saudi authorities had, for instance, limited the number of pilgrims and gave like five thousand slots to Nigeria, how do we share those slots? We have 36 states including the FCT, private tour operators and Armed Forces. In FCT alone, for instance, we usually get about 2200 slots and we have registered 2700 intending pilgrims already. Probably, they could have given us 200 slots out of the 5000 slots, how do we then go about it? For me, the decision not to allow foreign pilgrims for Hajj this year is better than having just few slots that might not go round.  

What is the economic implication of the ban to Nigeria?
We are the one taking our money there in the first place. So, it is favourable to us because there won’t be capital flight. Usually, Nigeria used to get about 90,000 slots. This development would reserve forex, which is an advantage. 

On another hand, NAHCON and SMPWB have been expending resources since last year towards preparation for the Hajj. We expended resources for the COVID-19 immunisation, training and enlightenment, and even on our pre-hajj tour. We did this because we don’t want to be caught unawares and there is a saying that anyone who fails to plan, plans to fail. All these resources are now wasted.   

NAHCON has said intending pilgrims who request for refund of their Hajj deposits would be granted such? What is your advice to those affected?
Even without the Saudi Arabian government making that decision, intending pilgrims who deposited their money with us are always free to come back and ask for a refund. What they need is just to apply and we will document and give them back. The decision to roll over or seek refund is squarely the decision of the pilgrim.  

Based on this development, what is your projection for the 2022 hajj?
As a Muslim, we will be hopeful and prayerful. However, we should understand that the Saudi officials didn’t just cancel Hajj for foreign pilgrims. They did that due to the ravaging pandemic. One thing that also informed that decision is that some people who went for Umrah returned to their country with other variant of the COVID-19. There is also a gap in the supply of the vaccine, which means many intending pilgrims have not received the vaccine. If by next year, the cause of COVID-19 has reduced or there is an increase in the roll out of vaccine, I am sure the Saudi government won’t have any reason not to allow foreign pilgrims.  

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How have intending pilgrims in FCT reacted to the development?
All of them are humans, so it is expected if they feel sad. However, as a true believer, one won’t feel so sad because God makes everything possible and whatever God decides is in the best interest of humanity.  

In addition to this, many of them have been calling us to seek more information. But like I said earlier, they also knew that they are free to collect their deposits anytime they want. Even before the announcement, some of those who paid had come to collect their money while others who do not want to take the vaccine rolled over their payment for next year.

You have not been able to supervise hajj operation since your appointment in 2019. How you feel about this?
I came on board in 2019 just like the NAHCON chairman. Like him, I have not had the opportunity to supervise hajj operation due to the pandemic. However, I thank God, as that is not my doing. If it was something that happened due to my own decision, it would have affected me but this is something that is worldwide. Like I said, it is by the will of Allah and who am I to challenge the will of Allah. 

The Hajj saving scheme has been described as a laudable initiative. What is the level of response in FCT?
Hajj saving scheme is usually for people who do not have enough. It is in place for people who cannot make a one-off payment. We have started enrolling people who want to plan their journey for years. People who can afford one-off payment do not have business with the scheme. The turn up here is fair. However, FCT is not like the state. Most people here are the elites and can afford one-off payment and that is why the impact of the scheme is not really felt here.

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