Monday, August 30, 2010

Religious pilgrimages are a major event in Nigeria. As such the country sends thousands of Christians to Israel and even more Muslims to Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia announced that it will no longer issue visas to any Nigerian that participated in the Hajj within the last 5 years. According to news reports, this ban is Nigeria-specific. In response, heads of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) have set off to Saudi Arabia to plead on the behalf of the country's Muslims.

There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has a right to dictate who can enter the country and can also determine how many. Given the number of people that have been crushed while participating in the Hajj over the last few years, it is clear that crowd control is of the essence to Saudi authorities. However, I cannot help but wonder why Saudi Arabia would make such an announcement so close to Hajj which will take place in November 2010. Considering that in May 2010 the Saudi Ambassador to Nigeria gave an interview clarifying the visa process for Nigerian citizens seeking to attend the Hajj, this new attitude towards Nigerians is inconsistent.

It cannot be ignored that to create a ban that allegedly focuses on Nigerians alone is discriminatory and disrespectful. Although I am no expert on Islam, I wonder if this new ban is technically illegal under Islamic law. The Koran requires all able bodied Muslims to make their way to Mecca at least once in their life and does not place any limit on how many times such a pilgrimage is to occur. The ban by Saudi Arabia therefore prevents Muslims who are not only able-bodied but financially capable (the Nigerian government provides financial assistance to its Hajj-bound citizens) from performing their required duty of participating in the Hajj. It goes beyond saying that the discriminatory aspect of this ban is likely against Islamic teachings as well.

As for Saudi authorities, they would do well to not forget the role they played in Nigeria's most recent incident of political uncertainty when former President Yar'Adua spent months in a Saudi hospital. It is rumored that they returned Yar'Adua so that he would not die on their soil - a situation that could have had serious consequences. Just for the amount of money spent by the Nigerian government on Yar'Adua's medical expenses alone, the ban on Nigerians should be reversed immediately.

With the secrecy that continues to shroud the last months of Yar'Adua's life, it would take but little for this attitude towards Nigerians to be turned into a story about the nature of post-Yar'Adua relations with Nigeria. Some could argue that the new approach towards Nigerians is a warning about how Nigerian Muslims will be treated under a non-Muslim president and that would further fan the flames of division in Nigeria. It would not be the first time that a foreign nation attempted to do so - Ghaddafi's incendiary comments about dividing Nigeria along tribal lines was an act of negative interference in domestic affairs.

What is sadder still is that Nigerian authorities will capitulate to the Saudi government on this issue. This incident is one more in a string of events that highlight the need for the Nigerian government to get serious about restoring the nation's reputation and stance on the international stage. It can begin to do that by successfully improving the lives of its citizens and getting strategic about it's image at home and abroad. On the latter point, it remains to be seen what progress if any Dora Akunyili, Nigeria's rebranding czar, has made on her quest to transform Nigeria's reputation. Some indication of that progress would go a long way to solving Nigeria's image issues and other related matters.

Regardless of Saudi Arabia's reasons for this new ban, it is a shame that ordinary Nigerians are once again getting the short end of the stick. Undoubtedly, wealthy and connected Nigerians will still be able to get their Hajj travel documents regardless of how often the participated in the Hajj in recent years. Poor Nigerians, on the other hand, will not. Hopefully, Nigerian and Saudi authorities will come to a compromise and it will be one that does not belittle Nigerians as they aim to participate in future religious pilgrimages.

From the Archives:
- Of Pilgrimages, Hajj & Nigerians

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