By NBF News
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The recently introduced policy of restricting pilgrimage to only first timers by the Saudi authorities has made many, if not all intending pilgrims, confused, particularly as anybody who wants to go for this year's hajj had for long paid their money to the relevant authorities.

States on their parts have already remitted their money to the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) months back; while Nigeria on the other hand was the second country world over to sign the Memorandum of Understanding with the Saudi government close to six months ago.

Even though the policy is not limited to Nigeria alone, it is applicable to all pilgrims across the world. However, what NAHCON argued was that the policy came late. It says during the signing of the agreement in respect to this year's hajj there was no mention of such policy; the circular was just made available to NAHCON some two weeks ago.

NAHCON said all the necessary arrangements for this year's hajj are almost completed. Each state, by the time the circular came, already knew those performing hajj this year and the arrangement now is to pay the approved air carriers their money, which the signing of agreement was to commence last week.

The chairman of the commission, Muhammad Musa Bello, said money had already been sent to Saudi Arabia for the booking of pilgrims' accommodations in both Mecca and Medina – the two holy cities.

Stating the commission's stand on the matter, Bello said they would collaborate with Nigerian ambassador in Saudi Arabia order to work things out. He said they are optimistic that Saudi would make a u-turn and suspend the ban until next year.

The commission informed Weekly Trust that its delegation is already in Saudi Arabia for dialogue. 'There is hope that despite the fact the policy affects not only Nigeria, they will see reason with us because while planning for hajj, there is usually a free hajj arrangement between the Nigerian and Saudi authorities.'

Bello said, 'During the last meeting, all the policies being introduced and all the necessary arrangements being made were tabled. Nigeria was the second country invited for that meeting about six months back. During our meeting with the Saudi Minister for Hajj, we were not informed about this new policy and all our arrangements were in line with the outcome of the signed agreement during that meeting held on the 10th of March, with hope that we would succeed.'

Saudi government on its part had since allocated 95, 000 seats for Nigerian pilgrims which makes many to argue that 'If Saudi wants to reduce the number of pilgrims, why shouldn't she reduce it from the source while allocating seats to countries? It is unfair; you give and say 'it is not a must for Nigeria to fill its seats' while it has the capacity.'

Going by the reactions from many Nigerians, the policy is a welcomed development as both the Saudi embassy and NAHCON argued that this is to give chance to many people, and a realisation that the said old-timers who go to hajj every year were responsible for blocking the chances and rights for first-timers.

Hajiya Amina Ibrahim yusuf, Managing Director of Dijja Travels and Tours and Chairman of Abuja chapter of Hajj and Umrah Travel Tours Operators of Nigeria, told Weekly Trust that government has to appeal to the Saudi authorities to recind the decision. 'We are not happy about that decision by the Saudi authorities. We are appealing to the Nigerian government to appeal to them to rescind the decision. They should, at least, have given a year or two years' notice. How can you make that kind of policy statement less than two months to the commencement of Hajj excersice when some states have paid and preparations are in top gear. When we signed the memorandum of understanding with National Hajj Commision, such a thing was never discussed. Much as we appreciate their right to make laws, this one should not be handed out just like that'.

Hajiya Yusuf said on a good day, Nigeria does not even fill the quota allocated to it.

'I want to assume that this policy was premised on the quest to control the number of people going to hajj. But as someone involved in Hajj operation, over the years, I know that we cannot fill the 95,000 seats allocated to Nigerians this year because at the end there will be people who will not go. So, we don't even exceed our allocation to warrant even suggesting that old-timers are causing congestion. I know some state pilgrims board officials think that old-timers are problems, but that is far from the truth.'

She exlained that Hajj issues in Nigeria is both cultural and religious. 'Islamically, you cannot ban people from going to hajj simply because they are old-timers. You can go to Hajj to do business and at the same time perform hajj. The Qur'an recognises that. When you ban old-timers, it means that you are shutting out those who go to do business, which is normal. Culturally, there are people who believe in sponsoring others to hajj as part of their social responsibility. And they believe that they should escort and take care of those they sponsor. Most old-timers sponsor their aged parents and family members too which they like to escort most times. Even in most cases, the so-called old-timers are the ones that assist hajj officials to take care and direct the new-timers on hajj rites because the officials are not always there for pilgrims.'

According to the Hajj expert, barring old-timers through e-passport may not likely work because the old-timers can obtain fresh passports which does not contain their old data especially if they claim that they lost their old passports.

Sheikh Abu Sulieman, an Islamic cleric, said the Saudi authorities have no right to ban old-timers. 'First and foremost, pilgrimage to Makkah does not belong to the Saudi government. It belongs to Allah and He is the one that calls the people. But the Saudi government has the right to give specific number of pilgrims that can perform hajj to each country since overcrowding is disallowed during hajj. They can, for example, say this year we want 1.5 million pilgrims and it is left for countries to know how to streamline their hajj operation. But with this new policy, it looks like they are trying to force something on countries which she doesn't have the right to do.'

Ustaz Ibrahim Idris says it is not right to use this policy this year. 'As someone who studied in Saudi Arabia, I know this policy has been in operation in the kingdom since 1996.  So, for them, whoever performs hajj will not repeat it again until after five years. But for us in Nigeria and especially at this time, it is not right because most intending pilgrims have finished paying their monies and they have even gotten accommodation in Saudi Arabia. So, any intending pilgrim that has paid his money and you later tell him that he cannot make it will definitely feel cheated.

Alhaji Usman Kano said the policy will reduce the suffering of pilgrims. 'As someone who has performed the pilgrimage and seen the kind of suffering Nigerian pilgrims undergo everytime. It will help. There are some people who have formed the habit of going to hajj every year while their neighbours and relatives are suffering. Instead of helping them, they prefer to use the money to perform hajj or umrah. Some people have made it a habit of just travelling, and I dont think it's right.'

Zubairu Shaban, said though he has perfomed hajj severally, he welcomes the new policy. 'I have been to hajj several times and I can tell you that some people have turned hajj and umrah into a play thing. You will hear them saying they have performed hajj twenty times. Meanwhile, they have people suffering and they can't assist. I support the five-year limit placed by the Saudis.

As the debate goes on on the propriety or otherwise of the new policy,those who have paid for this year's hajj will have to keep praying that the Saudi authorities rescind their decision.