By Ahmad Muazu
Hajj 224 is fast approaching with major events scheduled to kick start the opening phases in January.
This heralds the onset of the Hajj conference, a pivotal event that swings open the doors to initiate meticulous preparations for this forthcoming Hajj. The road to the Hajj in 2024 promises to be a journey of hope and resilience.
Since 2023, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has unfurled a tapestry of new policies, with the prospect of introducing more to align with its Vision 2030.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has introduced a new model in the issuance of Hajj visas This significant shift in these new policies entails the conclusion of visa issuance 50 days before Arafah. This has revolutionalised the conventional approach where last-minute rush and the fire brigade methods of visa issuance dominate the pre-hajj preparations. The new policy will have a negative impact on the number of Nigerian pilgrims in the 2024 hajj.
Prominent among the evolution is the introduction of the Nusuk application platform, initially designed for Umrah bookings but ingeniously adapted to facilitate the seamless reservation of slots for Raudah visits during Hajj. The Haramain Train, Makkah Route, and Makkah Bus Projects stand as a testament to Saudi Arabia’s commitment to enhancing the pilgrimage experience and alleviating logistical challenges.
Among the pivotal policy changes is the dissolution of the archaic practice of allocating a single Mutawaf company to countries, a system that resulted in Nigeria being paired with a Mutawaf for non-Arab speaking countries (Muassasah). In its place emerges a dynamic approach; six companies are qualified to provide services to the global pilgrims and more are coming on board for the 2024 hajj, granting each country the freedom to choose its service provider from a selection of companies. This has introduced healthy competition, fostering a landscape where satisfaction and quality service delivery take precedence.
Another notable policy change is reducing tour operating companies from Nigeria to a designated 10 for the upcoming Hajj season. Though this transition presents initial challenges, it aims to streamline operations. Moreover, this signifies a move towards quality over quantity. This strategic pruning sets the stage for enhanced efficiency and a heightened focus on delivering an unparalleled pilgrimage experience.
In the intricate tapestry of Hajj endeavours.
The media stands as a pivotal thread, controlling narratives that shape the landscape of the Nigerian Hajj experience. From the articulation of grievances to the celebration of achievements, the media wields a transformative influence. However, amidst this narrative, the problem of inadequate information looms, particularly as a challenge faced by Nigerian pilgrims.
It would be unfair to place blame on the pilgrims, especially the elderly grappling with difficulties. The source of their challenges can be traced back to a lack of adequate information, a void that may arise from either the states, Tour operators, NAHCON or even the Saudi Arabia Hajj authorities. The language barrier and the absence of facilities for effective communication in Saudi Arabia compound the issue, leaving these individuals adrift without the essential knowledge needed for a seamless Hajj. The writer contends that bridging this knowledge gap lies within the purview of Saudi Arabia. It is incumbent upon them to develop effective means of disseminating information, ensuring that services are not only accessible but also well-utilized.
Upon their arrival in Saudi Arabia, pilgrims often rely on information disseminated by state officials and the informal grapevine, perpetuating rumours through word of mouth. Those fortunate enough to access information via social media channels are not immune to misinformation, often falling victim to misleading narratives or false news. Pilgrims complained about the lack of information to them in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the Saudi authorities also complained about the lack of preparatory information for the pilgrims before arrival. The challenge lies in the limited information-sharing avenues for Nigerian pilgrims within the Kingdom, where television, radio, and newspaper outlets catering to Nigerian pilgrims are notably absent.
Another challenge is the lingering problems of ignorance and illiteracy among pilgrims. Most pilgrims who are from rural areas in Nigeria require instruction on basic tasks such as flushing toilets, using taps, or navigating elevators. The absence of familiarity with road signs and written instructions further underscores the necessity for a comprehensive approach to the education and awareness of these individuals.
During Hajj, a significant percentage of complaints received by NAHCON emanate from a lack of effective communication or misinformation. For instance, there are pilgrims accustomed to outdoor living, creating challenges for organizers when trying to make them go back indoors to their accommodations. Some pilgrims adamantly express a preference for fresh air outside over indoors with air conditions – putting authorities in a predicament. In Mina, pilgrims sometimes indiscriminately discard waste, bypassing designated litter boxes. This not only gives the area an unsightly appearance but also necessitates the deployment of sanitation officers by the authorities to address the resulting hygiene concerns. A significant portion of Nigerian pilgrims, rooted in various cultural and religious societies, often exhibit practices that may diverge from Islamic norms. Attempts to curtail such behaviours risk invoking the ire of these pilgrims, many of whom may prioritize the pilgrimage badge or title without delving into the profound significance of the sacred journey. A notable example is the stoning ritual at Jamarat, where pilgrims frequently deviate from prescribed timings, opting to form small groups and conduct the stoning at their convenience.
Issues further arise during the animal sacrifice, with a prevalent belief among pilgrims that group leaders possess access to more affordable sacrificial animals. This misconception leads to financial irregularities, as substantial sums often go unaccounted for. For instance, during the 2023 Hajj, despite the state pilgrims board meeting its 75,000 quota, a mere 12,787 pilgrims paid through Jaiz Bank.
An overlooked aspect is the need for more tailored television or radio programs catering to visually or aurally impaired pilgrims. Specialized programs could significantly enhance their experience, providing them with the necessary information to navigate the Hajj independently. Currently, the Nigerian media tends to homogenize pilgrims, neglecting differences in age, condition, gender, or state of origin. Addressing these challenges demands a holistic strategy that combines effective communication, cultural sensitivity, and comprehensive education to ensure more informed and harmonious pilgrims.
In conclusion, the role of the media in this year’s Hajj is pivotal, perhaps more than ever. Pilgrims need timely information on Hajj fare payment deadlines, which NAHCON set 31st December 2023 as the date for final remittance of the 4.5m deposit, the policy of ending visas 50 days before Hajj, Nusuk booking, Makkah bus arrangements, visa validity, reduction in tour operating companies, hadaya and guidance on avoiding scams. This information is crucial not only to alleviate the stress on pilgrims but also to empower them with knowledge about available solutions in case of service shortfalls. The media can serve as a beacon, guiding pilgrims and ensuring they are well-informed and equipped to navigate the intricacies of the Hajj experience.
The media’s role should transcend mere reporting, to offering a strictly factual, non-controversial, and non-propagandist news service tailored to provide pilgrims with essential information and inspire them to reap the maximum benefits of the Hajj experience.
To facilitate this comprehensive coverage, the Saudi Embassy, Hajj Commission, and state Muslim Pilgrims Boards should provide the media with an array of resources, including policies, pictures, leaflets, slides, maps, videos, and informative books about the 2024 Hajj. These materials can construct a user experience journey map, guiding pilgrims through each step of their pilgrimage, from understanding crucial Hajj dates in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia to timelines for spiritual education, visa processing, BTA, airlifts, arrival, visitation, and more. The Saudi embassy holds a pivotal role in fostering information sharing through the media. Collaborating with prominent media outlets in Nigeria will or even adopt the style of other countries of creating a state-owned media outlet that will cater for the Nigerian pilgrims, media outlets such as BBC, VOA, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France, which broadcast in Hausa and other Nigerian languages were financed by the respective countries and have proven to be instrumental. This effort can amplify the Saudi 2030 vision, aspiring to witness 5 million pilgrims in the plains of Arafah.
Ahmad Muazu Writes from NAHCON