BANKOLE AS AMIRUL HAJJ 2008 : AN APPRAISAL
By: Ishaq Dajuma
The yearly holy pilgrimage of Muslims to the Saudi Arabia in fulfillment of a major pillar of Islamic faith has been associated with different kinds of problems in Nigeria. Among such problems is lack of facilities at Hajj camps, Visa procurement problems, prohibitive cost and worst of all, inability to airlift all pilgrims to Mecca and bring them back in good time. For instance in 2005/2006, about 15,000 pilgrims who completed all processes were not airlifted before the closure of Jeddah Airport.
These problems have been a recurring decimal to the shame of Nigeria which at time has to seek special concession from Saudi Arabian authority just to ensure that the exercise is not abysmally bungled. This was the situation until this year when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, decided to appoint a young man who had never performed Hajj before in the person of Rt. Hon. Dimeji Bankole, the Speaker of the House of Representatives as the Amirul Hajj for the 2008 exercise. It was obvious that the President was banking on the managerial acumen of the legislator that has been making waves in his leadership of the House in the area of oversight and people oriented resolutions and legislations.
Inspite of the fact that the appointment of Bankole came just two weeks short of the commencement of the airlift, he was able to make outstanding success of the exercise through proactive actions. In his first meeting with members of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Air carriers and other officials, as reported in the media his major objective as Amirul Hajj is “to get our people to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj and bring them back in good time, health and safety”. He then rationalized this by saying that pilgrims are like ambassadors of Nigeria among other nations and should not be shabbily treated.
Subsequently as further reported widely in the media, the Speaker of the House of Representatives made a whirlwind tour of all Hajj Camps and visit to notable Islamic leaders and state governors across the nation to ensure that facilities are in place and adequate as well as ensure all pre- airlift health precautions like vaccinations are taken care off. A major concern for Bankole was the Contractual Agreement signed by NAHCON with Air Carriers. From all indications, there are not enough deterrents for failure of Carriers to airlift as schedule or enough punitive measures for Carriers in case of default. Not much could be done by him in this area, having just been appointed with agreement signed months before his appointment.
So it was a situation where Bankole had to manage the usual crisis situation built into poor contractual agreements and some sharp practices by some private Hajj operators and Air Carriers. One week after the airlift began in December, 2008, there was a shortfall of airlift by 4 days, a situation that requires immediate remedial action. The Amirul Hajj took one by approaching President Umaru Yar’Adua for presidential intervention. This came one gathered in form of two additional aircrafts at no extra cost. And the Hajj under Bankole achieved a feat in airlift to Saudi Arabia. For the first time in 20 years of Hajj operations, there was a 100% airlift of all 95,000 intending pilgrims (85,000 government pilgrims and 10,000 private hajj operators’ pilgrims) to Jeddah 4 days before the closure of the airport. In time past Nigeria has had to go to the degrading extent of asking for extension of time with the dismal result of still having thousands intending pilgrim stranded due to official ineptitude.
During the hajj proper, the Amirul Hajj from monitored reports moved from camp to camp in the Holy land to ensure the welfare of pilgrims in spite of the rigour associated with the experience. Unfortunately, there were some unavoidable casualties arising from auto accidents and ill health. But overall cases of stealing, riotous behavior and other ills were absent during the stay of pilgrims in the Holy Land. On arrival ahead of other pilgrims after the rites of Hajj, Bankole regret the deaths which he said should be taken with spiritual equanimity stressing that there is need for a National Hajj Blueprint to cover all aspects of the Hajj from health status and medical certification of intending pilgrims to agreement with Air Carriers as well as adequate preparation by state governments for their pilgrims.
However, there were some problems with the return leg of the Hajj journey due mainly to the use of a single screening point for Nigerian pilgrims. This was timely resolved at the diplomatic level to create more screening points and with the return of Amirul Hajj to Saudi Arabia on December 22, 2008 to further oversee the return process of Nigeria Pilgrims.
The result was another leap in achievement in our Hajj operation in recent times. By 8pm (Nigerian time) Sunday January 4, 2009 the last aircraft carrying the last batch of pilgrims departed Jeddah Airport for Nigeria. This is clear two days before targeted January 6, 2009. In time past, the whole exercise took a minimum of 40days to conclude oftentimes stretching to a scandalous 50 days. The 2008 Hajj exercise took 23 days to complete with minimum hiccup under Bankole.
For Bankole, who is now rightly an Alhaji, the exercise, successful as it was under him as Amirul Hajj, there is still need fine-tuning as he advocated through a National Hajj Blueprint. It is hope that the report he will submit to the President on the 2008 Hajj would inform and form a basis for improvement in future Hajj operation. Certainly those who criticize the appointment of Bankole as too young, inexperience in religious matter and other sundry charges are now put to shame with the success of 2008 Hajj. The young man has shown that progress and excellence is possible in this exercise that hitherto was a source of yearly embarrassment to the nation.
Ishaq Danjuma (Islamic Scholar)
20, Ahmed Musa Crescent
Jabi, Utako District, Abuja.