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Hajj cancellation: Dashed hopes as faithful, stakeholders rue losses

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Kassim Alabi is the Vice President (South West), Association of Hajj and Umrah Tour Operators of Nigeria (AHUON). Having missed out on rendering services to teeming intending pilgrims last year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, he looked forward to recovering some part of investments made ahead Hajj 2020. But with the last week announcement by the Saudi Arabian government, barring the participation of international pilgrims in this year’s Hajj, Alabi has been left counting his losses on various fronts. For starters, within two days of the announcement, he was inundated with demands for refund of deposits made by intending pilgrims for the journey. And he had to cough out N10.6 million in refunds.

The cancellation of international Hajj for the second consecutive year by the Saudi government is undoubtedly eliciting concerns among stakeholders who are currently groaning and expressing disappointment amid uncertainties.
 
Scores of intending pilgrims who had deferred the religious rites in 2020 have expressed utter disappointment that the 2021 Hajj will not hold again for international pilgrims, despite the administration of COVID-19 vaccines on the pilgrims.

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Saudi Arabian authorities had barred international pilgrims for 2021 Hajj, declaring that only 60,000 pilgrims, including its citizens and nationals residing in the country, would be allowed to take part in the exercise. 
 
This decision, The Guardian gathered, dashed the hope of about 70,000 intending Nigerian pilgrims, who already made deposits while some obtained COVID-19 vaccines as part of conditions for the exercise.
   
Hajj 2021 rites are expected to commence on Saturday, July 17, 2021 and continue till Thursday, July 22, 2021. Already, Hajj operators and the logistics value chain have been thrown into confusion while also ruing their losses, with an estimated sum of about N220 billion said to be hanging in the process. The amount was the total paid to airlines, hoteliers, transporters, hajj operators and states’ pilgrim boards, among others. This is as some pilgrims are already trooping to their agents for refund of deposits and to airlines for airfare refund.
   
Alabi told The Guardian that the situation has led to a collapse of a number of businesses, while people working for hajj operators and other logistic firms would lose their jobs. 
   
“People made deposit for hajj. Now we are confused as to what to do. We were thinking we could do what we did last year when we asked people to defer the trip. But intending pilgrims are asking for refund already.
   
“Another point is that many tour operators have sacked their staff because they could not cope with the financial commitments. For me, my staff have been on half salary since last year, while we only come three times in a week. We do hope that things will change for the better soonest,” Alabi said.
   
Some intending pilgrims have, however, decided to keep their money till next year in the hope that hajj will hold and because they don’t want to divert the funds to other things.
   
Reacting to this development, Alabi said those rolling over their money would be given priority in 2022, even though they may have to add more money based on prevailing factors. “There is no way the hajj fare will not go up next year, considering inflation, exchange rate and cost of logistics such as increasing price of hotels, among others,” he said.
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Professor of English (Communication and Language Arts), Department of English, and Chief Imam, University of Abuja Central Mosque, Taofiq AbdulAzeez, said the cancellation for the second year running would have a lot of consequences.
   
He noted that the issue spiritually frustrates intending pilgrims, saying some of the pilgrims might abandon the religious project because it also has economic consequence as most people usually struggle to get the money. “Some of them might divert the money to other projects because people have competing demands they need to spend money on,” he noted.
   
Expressing his disappointment, AbdulAzeez said: “We are not comfortable with safety being used as the excuse for the cancellation. The argument is that whether there is COVID-19 or not, people die ordinarily at hajj. A Muslim is not afraid of dying while worshipping Allah. Hajj is a spiritual jihad. When you go out for jihad, you are going with two possibilities, either you die in the process and achieve martyrdom and enter Aljanat or you survive it; both are victories. But, stopping people from worshipping Allah smacks of spiritual conspiracy against Muslims.
 
“There are a lot of conspiracy theories around COVID-19 and its vaccine. You have allowed people to take the vaccine. Yet, you are saying that despite the vaccination, they still cannot come for pilgrimage. That means the vaccine does not guarantee protection. If the vaccine guarantees their safety against COVID-19, then it should be enough to allow people go for Hajj. They may even compel pilgrims to come early, take the vaccine, isolate them and then allow them to perform pilgrimage. If these things are not happening, then it is a very big statement against the vaccine. It means people were just tricked into getting the vaccine,” he said.

Decision To Bar Pilgrims Justified, Shows Islam Cares
NATIONAL Missioner, Nasirullahi-l-Fathi Society of Nigeria (NASFAT) Abdul Azeez Onike, said the Hajj cancellation showed that Islam is a religion that cares about the welfare of people.
 
“Al-Quran is very clear about hajj. It says ‘those who can afford it should perform hajj when the way is clear.’ So, if the way is not clear in terms of safety situation or health situation or anything that can hinder Hajj proceedings, then you may not do it. The fact that COVID-19 is around shows that the road is not clear.
 
“The custodians of the mosque see that it would affect the safety of people before taking that decision, because the objective of Shariah is to resist any harm on anybody and Allah knows best.
 
“The most interesting thing about Islam is that once you have a good intention to do anything, Allah would have given you reward. Islam is not a do or die religion. Just as you are allowed to reduce your Solat when you are traveling; no fasting when you are traveling or sick. No leaf will fall from a tree without the knowledge of Allah,” he said.
   
Professor of Middle Eastern, North African and Cultural Studies and Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, Afis Oladosu said: “I consider the decision very smart and a very proactive one for that matter. This is because one of the fundamental conditions guiding the performance of hajj is safety and security of life and properties of pilgrims.
   
“Besides, for those who are aware of the fundamental principles guiding rituals and other acts of worship in Islam, barring non-Saudis from performing the Hajj should have no negative effects on the spiritual or communal welfare of Muslims all around the world at least in the long term. On the contrary, it should, in my opinion, serve as an inspiration and a fountain of hope in the believers that since Allah was fully aware of the necessity and conditions that led to the current situation, He would most certainly grant them relief and reward them for their inability to perform the Hajj,” he said.
   
For those who intended to perform the Hajj but could not do so due to the blockade, Oladosu said, it is expected that they shall look forward to the rituals that Muslims who could not go on Hajj usually embark upon beginning from the first ten days of the month of Dhul-Hijjah. 
   
“These include fasting, alms giving and glorification of the Almighty. These rites or rituals usually reach its peak when Muslims observe the Eid on the 10th day of the month by offering sacrifice to the Most Beneficent,” he said.

On his part, Chief Imam, Usman Bin-Anfan Central Mosque, Gadan Kaya, Kano, Dr. Mohammad Aliyu Yunus urged Muslims with the intention to perform hajj to accept the condition as trial from Allah. The Islamic scholar expressed the belief that intending pilgrims can still earn bountiful reward of hajj even with their inability to travel to Saudi Arabia since the Almighty rewards all action based on initial intention.

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“The cancellation is a very big loss, especially for those already making payment and preparing their mind to undergo the spiritual exercise but as Muslims we don’t have a choice than to remain steadfast and of firm conviction that it is the will of Allah and surely it will come to pass.

A consultant public health practitioner with Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, Dr. Bashir Usman also considered Saudi Arabia’s decision the best public health safety measure, especially as many countries in the world are presently witnessing a new variant of COVID-19.

Dr. Bashir, a former head of medical team, Kano State Pilgrims Welfare Board, revealed that the holy sites would have turned into another incubation centre for the virus, if the pilgrimage was not limited to a maximum controlled number.  

“When you look at it from a public health perspective and the developing event relating to the pandemic, you will realise the decision was the best. Remember there was precedence in India early this year when citizens returned home from across the world to celebrate their annual religious rituals and what followed was an upsurge of COVID-19. They are still battling the impact as we speak.

“Likewise, Hajj is convergence of global citizens with different experiences. If anybody contracted the virus from his or her country only to spread during hajj, the dangerous aspect is, citizens of other countries will further spread the virus because you hardly contain social distance during hajj. Another issue is the people coming with fake vaccine cards during the lesser hajj. Incidentally, many of them were detected and detained, unable to perform Umrah because there were antibody tests conducted on them, which clearly proved that their cards were fakes. These are part of the issues that have justified the decision taken by Saudi government.”

On what is expected of Nigeria government ahead of the 2022 hajj, Dr. Bashir said, “First, government must improve vaccine coverage in the country. People are still not willing to administer the vaccine due to issues of misinformation, mysterious beliefs and rumours about the vaccine. So, the government is advised to do more sensitization while providing more vaccines for people.”

Pilgrims Boards Offer Refunds  
THE National Hajj Commission of Nigeria NAHCON has assured intending pilgrims that their deposits would be refunded without delay. In a statement by its Head, Public Affairs, Fatima Sanda Usara, it said: “NAHCON respects the decision of Saudi Arabia in this regard no matter how painful the decision may be to us and to intending pilgrims worldwide. We have accepted that it is Allah’s divine design that multitudes will again this year not perform the Hajj: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is only playing out a script ordained by our Maker long before creation of the universe. Our prayer is that we collectively turn to Him in repentance so that He admits us for Hajj in the coming years.”
 
Usara quoted the NAHCON Chairman, Zikrullah Kunle Hassan as commending the resilience of Nigerian intending pilgrims and the support they have shown in the long and tortuous wait. 

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“The Chairman is particularly impressed and humbled by the level of support and respect displayed and evidenced by their adherence to each instruction given by the Commission. An example is the total compliance in receiving COVID-19 jab with the hope of performing the 2021 Hajj. Equally, the Commission appreciates cooperation of States’ Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards in its decision-making processes.
 
“As in the previous year, those pilgrims who request for refund of their Hajj deposits will be granted such without delay. As for those who would still wish to roll-over their funds, the Commission strongly urges them to wait for further advice and decisions by the board,” the statement read.

On his part, though the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Prince Anofiu Elegushi, expressed shocked at the news, he noted that the reason given by the Saudi government to ban international pilgrims from the holy exercise is genuine.

“Looking at the reason behind the cancellation, I think it is positive. It is better for people to stay healthy at home than go on a trip and contact diseases,” he said.

He noted that as at the time of cancellation, Lagos State had registered about 2,892 pilgrims that have fully paid, which amounts to about N3.8billion, while 120 pilgrims paid partly.
 
Elegushi disclosed that the Hajj fees for pilgrims would be handled the same way it was handled the previous year. “Last year, when hajj was cancelled, we called a stakeholders meeting. At the meeting, we agreed that any pilgrim that wants a refund will get it and assured those willing to leave it that their funds were safe. About 90 percent left their money with us last year. Out of the few that demanded refund are those who relocated outside the country and those that passed away.”

The commissioner expressed optimism that by next year, COVID-19 will be a thing of the past and life will be back to normal. In Kano State, the State Pilgrims Welfare Board has also declared readiness to offer refunds to pilgrims. Executive Secretary of the Board, Alhaji Abba Muhammad Danbatta explained that any delay in returning the funds might generate needless doubt on the integrity of the board under his supervision.
 
He revealed that Kano has 5,500 persons, including those who left their 2020 deposits and the 2021 funds, in its record while disclosing plans to constitute a special technical committee that will be entrusted to coordinate and ensure prudent management of the refund of the deposits. He said the committee members would be representatives of the DSS, Police, Anti-Corruption Agency, Media and other relevant stakeholders.

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Ban Will Create Huge Backlog – NAHCON Boss
CHAIRMAN/CEO, National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, NAHCON, Alhaji Zikrullah Hassan, has said that the ban might create immense backlog on the system, suggesting that new applicants may have a longer wait ahead before they could perform hajj.  

He said: “Management of the backlog will become necessary. I have been discussing with my counterpart in Indonesia. In their own case, those who were to go for hajj this year were people who have been on the queue for 20 years. In Malaysia, it is more than that. And that is why people who go to hajj from those countries are usually old people. Some were even registered from date of birth. Therefore, with the way things are going, Nigeria may face similar consequence.”

Disclosing that Saudi authorities did not consult participating countries before taking the decision, Hassan noted that it is purely an issue of foreign relations. “I want to use the medium to console many of our prospective pilgrims in the country who had wished to be part of the journey. We are not alone in this as it affected Muslims all over the country. We pray that by this time next year it will be a different story.”  

On the impact of the development, Hassan said: “It is going to be difficult. As a commission, we run our entire operation mainly on Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). We have put on our thinking cap to see how we will survive and manage the limited resources we have. To the pilgrims, the challenge is that the inflation keeps on biting on all aspects of our life. The airlines are going to be impacted, local tour operators and a number of service providers will be affected.” 

Tour Operators Lament, Want Government To Cushion Losses
FOLLOWING the cancellation and the ripple effect of investments in terms of losses to stakeholders, Chief Executive Officer, Al-Mubarak Travels and Tours, Abdurahman Seriki, has called on the federal government to render financial assistance to private tour operators in the country.  

“There is nothing we can do about it. It is clear the kingdom is still afraid of the spread of the pandemic. But the decision has really affected us. This is all some of us do; I don’t have any other job aside this. Just imagine someone not working for two years. We are pleading to NAHCON to assist and give us some funds. This is indeed a difficult moment,” he said.  

In the same vein, the CEO/Chairman of Al-abrar Travels and Tours Ltd, Sheikh AbdulRasaq AbdulAzeez Ishola, said the ban has affected his firm’s operation. 

Ishola disclosed that some operators already envisaged the development since the kingdom allocated only 60,000. “As a tour operator, we have made a lot of preparation. We already planned our departure for July via Lagos and stay for three days isolation in Madinah. We also planned to return to Nigeria on July 26.

“Imagine the effect the ban of foreign pilgrims for two consecutive years would have on a company that its major business is hajj, which holds once in a year. We have staff across the geo-political zones but there is nothing we can do, as Muslims we have to accept Allah’s will. But we will appreciate if NAHCON can discuss with the presidency to raise palliatives for us to cushion the effect on the losses. It is beyond our expectation,” he added.

National Vice Chairman, Association of Hajj and Umarah of Nigeria, Northern zone, Alhaji Abdulazeez Haileru Kafisoli also raised concern over the economic impact of missing hajj for two consecutive years, saying that several members may find it difficult to overcome the gravity in a hurry. Citing the impact, especially on offshore and onshore investment, Kafisoli expressed fear of massive loss of jobs just as he solicited government intervention to restore lost glory in the industry.

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According to him, “It is sad to hear such shocking news at a time when the hope is high. Don’t forget the same authority initially announced that foreign pilgrims would be allowed but with limited numbers. Certainly, it will take a while before members could quantify the exact amount so far lost in the two consecutive years.

“We have committed a lot of investment, resources and manpower into this year’s hajj before it was finally suspended. We already put in place arrangements in the area of airline, accommodation, vehicular provision and even documentation with the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria. All these involve money. We paid for license and taxation, all which now amounted to loss. We have about 460 members in Northern Nigeria and if you want to measure our loss, approximately you will be talking in the range of billions of naira, although members are yet to come together to evaluate the entire loss incurred.

“Apart from that, the loss of jobs is another imminent challenge. For two consecutive years, there has been no hajj. How many people can afford to continue paying salary without operation?”

Abdulazeez, however, appealed to the Federal Government to assist tour operators with palliatives, considering their contribution to revenue generation for the government. “So many sectors have enjoyed government palliative as a result of the pandemic but we, in the hajj industry, are yet to benefit from such intervention despite our enormous contribution to the economy. Government should consider our plight and assist us.”

The aviation industry is another critical sector that shares huge economic disruption with the cancellation of hajj. Mohammad Hadi Abdulmanaf is the Accountable Manager of one of the indigenous airlines, which suffered tremendous liability, having invested heavily with procurement of new aircrafts to boost its fleet.   

In a chat with The Guardian, Abdulmanaf regretted the sudden announcement restricting international passengers and the economic impact on local airlines already booked to take part in the operations.

“Yes the banning has really affected our business given the fact that we committed heavy investment in our facilities early last year. Azman Air acquired wide body aircraft; we employed engineers, crewmembers, pilots and other specialists, coupled with the established relationship with vendors of spare parts. Unfortunately our expectations were dashed.

“In preparation for this year’s hajj, our planes have undergone C-check services abroad. That costs a lot of money. In terms of loss, I don’t think I can give you a specific figure because it is huge and we should be looking at around $20 million USD here, if you judge what is the cost to procure aircrafts, employ pilots, engineers and conduct C-checks,” he said.

On what happens to the investments, especially the aircraft and employment made, Abdulmanaf said: “We have to evaluate our options, maybe we might look for cargo business to use the aircraft for or charter flight. But the failed plan for hajj has heavy financial impact on the company. For now, we will keep our strategy steady and concentrate on domestic operation and other routes in Africa because of the limited flight operations on international routes due to COVID-19.”    

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Intending Pilgrims Rue Missed Opportunity
FOR Rasheed Abubakar, an intending pilgrim from Lagos, the news of the cancellation was disappointing. “I feel like, my hope of performing Hajj, the last pillar of Islam, is dashed yet again, for the second consecutive year. Unlike last year, this year’s cancellation is so disappointing considering the fact that I have taken the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was part of the initial requirements for international pilgrims as issued by the Saudi Hajj Ministry.
 
“I was scheduled to take the second jab this week when I heard the news on Sunday. It is so painful and I didn’t see it coming. Though, I envisaged a drastic reduction in the allocation to countries, I was optimistic that whatever the number of slots given to Nigeria, I’ll make the list but Saudi Arabia dashed my hope this year. However, as a Muslim, I accept their decision as the will of Allah. He (Allah) knows the best, and I can only pray to Him to grant me long life, in good health, so that I can witness and perform many more Hajj, before I return to Him.”

Another prospective pilgrim, Kayode Sanni, who had registered for the 2021 Hajj exercise with the Oyo State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board, expressed disappointment over the ban. 
 
He said, “I have been planning to go for hajj since 2017 but due to some circumstances beyond my control, it never happened. I had deposited some money for the exercise as earlier as November last year to guarantee a slot but it is sad things have gone this way. 

“In fact, to tell you the extent of my preparation, I was part of the people who first took the COVID-19 vaccine because I understand that the Saudi Arabia government might make it a condition to perform hajj. However, I won’t ask for a refund. I will keep my money with them because they told us that those who roll over their fund would be given consideration for next year hajj and I pray the situation would have changed by then.”

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