“Why Kaduna Pilgrims Agency won the Saudi award”

How would you rate your first Hajj exercise as Executive Secretary of Kaduna State Pilgrim Welfare Agency?

I was appointed as the Executive Secretary a few days before the start of Hajj operations in 2022. So you can see it was not an easy task; it was a task that required commitment to see successful operations. But my training made it easier for us to conduct the operation. You know, as a member of the Muslim Society of Nigeria who became Vice President, it gave me a lot of experience in organizing people. We organized what is called IVC, where we had over 10,000 students every December. So, when I started Hajj operations, I relied on my experience of transporting thousands of students to a particular location to organize a program. So, I was used to all these ups and downs, and it allowed me to execute the mission, a few days after my appointment as Executive Secretary. So it wasn’t that difficult as such. But there were troubling moments like the selection of air carriers, the airlift of pilgrims and other logistics. All of this was worrying, but I made it through Allah’s guidance and prayers.

The agency organized a post-Hajj review exercise with the participation of important stakeholders. What were the most notable challenges that were highlighted and how do you plan to prevent them from happening again?

Most of the issues raised concerned the air transport of pilgrims from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia, particularly the issuance of visas. And I made it clear that the issue of visas is not domiciled in Kaduna State. It is a national and even international issue. So, by the mercy of Allah, those who were able to get their visas were flown to Saudi Arabia during the last Hajj. But those who didn’t get their visas, the situation was out of our control. The announcement of Hajj 2022 came late in the month of Ramadan, and we only had two months to make all these preparations, which was not easy. But on the part of NAHCON and Saudi Arabia, the preparations proved difficult, especially with regard to the issuance of visas.

Again, the second observation made by stakeholders was that one of the pillars of Hajj, the day of Arafat falls on a Friday. Some Muslims attach particular importance to the coincidence of Arafat’s day falling on a Friday. So some people decided to go to Saudi Arabia – and even those who hadn’t intended to make the pilgrimage suddenly became interested because Arafat’s Day fell on a Friday. This caused a lot of trouble for the pilgrims.

Next year we will start preparations on time, it will be easy, and it will be according to schedules and plans and not as we have done this year. So I don’t think we’ll have a lot of problems based on our review meeting. But we must understand that there are fundamental issues over which we have no control. Number one is the visa issue. Second, it’s the plane you’ll be using to transport the pilgrims because it’s not yours. Kaduna State does not own any planes so we have to negotiate with private owners. So no matter how much we plan and strategize, if we have a problem with the airlines, there will be a problem.

So our thinking is that we’ll start engaging them in time. And we can’t even hire them until NAHCON has authorized and selected the airlines for us. So you see it’s a fundamental problem. Otherwise, other issues, such as accommodation, can be quickly sorted out as these are within our control. The actual air transport of pilgrims was one of the main issues highlighted by stakeholders during the post-Hajj meeting, but we as the Kaduna State Pilgrim Welfare Agency , can do little or nothing about it.

What were your achievements during the last Hajj exercise and how do you intend to develop them?

One of the achievements is that we have airlifted all of our pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, except for those whom the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria has not issued visas. Other states in Nigeria have left several pilgrims behind. In Kano, more than 500 were left behind, which was the case for some other states in the country. It is therefore an exceptional achievement that we were able to airlift all our pilgrims who had visas for Saudi Arabia. I also see it as a feat for us to transport our pilgrims serenely. There was no animosity, no uprising; there was no protest in Saudi Arabia because the pilgrims were comfortable with all our arrangements. Accommodation was adequate and food was reasonable and acceptable. Their transportation to Saudi Arabia was well planned and organized. The pilgrims appreciated all the provisions given to them. So for us, these are achievements.

We also observed all rules of air travel, such as avoiding going to Hajj with pregnant women due to exercise stress. But some women in some states have been able to expand testing, and some have even given birth in Saudi Arabia. But for us, no pregnant women were able to scale our screening exercise. So, for me, this is another outstanding achievement that we can brag about. Another aspect is that our pilgrims conducted themselves in an organized manner in Saudi Arabia. All tours, trips, and illuminations were done in groups and in batches. All the pilgrims had the opportunity to perform their rites as they went along.

Another achievement is the support and encouragement from my staff; all were in uniform every day. Our team members were committed; they worked day and night, 24 hours a day. In some states, you can’t even identify the officials because they all took off their uniforms and wore normal clothes. So when pilgrims have a problem, they don’t know who to turn to. But for the Kaduna camp, from myself to the other leaders, we were all in uniform so that the pilgrims could identify us quickly in case of dispute. Because of all these achievements, the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia gave us an award for our excellent outing. I think the most important achievement is that we have gained experience and we will use it to improve our further operations, inshaa Allah.

During the review exercise, you officially announced the new name of the organization which is Kaduna Pilgrims Welfare Agency. What is the difference between the current arrangement and the former Kaduna State Muslim Pilgrim Welfare Board?

In Kaduna State, when Malam Nasir El-Rufai became governor, many reforms took place. These reforms include the merger of the two separate pilgrimage commissions, the Muslim and Christian pilgrimage commissions. They have been merged as part of the reforms as they relate to religious pilgrimages. An autonomous agency, a self-funded agency focused on improving and ensuring better care for pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem, is now in place. Thus, one of the essential differences is that the two front panels of pilgrims become one; they are no longer treated separately. So now we have an agency designed for Christian and Muslim pilgrims. The aim is to ensure comprehensive coverage and management of all pilgrimage matters in Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia for Christians and Muslims respectively.

As an agency, do you focus on generating revenue for the state and promoting unity between the two major religions?

Not necessarily generating revenue for the state, but we are working towards an autonomous and self-funded organization. And of course, you can see that it’s going to bring unity, to work together, as individuals, from different backgrounds. I think many states will soon start copying Kaduna when they see how we have successfully merged the two councils into one agency. Again, there will be a lot of savings on overhead and running costs, as you now have to budget for one agency instead of two.

The next Hajj is about 11-12 months away. What will your agency do during this waiting period?

We don’t even have until 11 months; as I said earlier, we are moving towards self-financing and autonomy. We are about to start Umrah in the month of Ramadan. We hope Kaduna State Pilgrim Welfare Agency will start Umrah next year; so it will no longer be a situation where we perform Hajj and come back and do nothing until another Hajj. As I speak to you, we have many advocacy meetings that we plan to do for Christian clerics and Muslim leaders. We have training. We have retreats. We have awareness. We have a lot of curriculum development for our pilgrims to respond to the realities of the times. And then we also have a lot of programs that we put in place to improve the capacity of our staff to ensure that we will triumph when we face challenges in the future.

So, we are not sitting like before, so when we come back from Hajj, we won’t have to do anything until another Hajj. This time we have a lot to do; we design advocacy programs, especially for Christian pilgrims, because we have discovered that it takes a lot of enlightenment for Christians to participate in pilgrimages. For example, this year 2,500 Muslim pilgrims were flown to Saudi Arabia, but only eight went to Jerusalem. So you can see it’s not good for us that way. We want to see how we can raise awareness and educate Christians to increase the number of pilgrims, so that we can start flying Christians directly from Kaduna to Jerusalem or Rome, without having to travel to Abuja or elsewhere. So these are things that we are trying to accomplish inshaa Allah.

HAJJ Facts:

– The Kaduna State Pilgrim Welfare Agency carried out a rigorous selection of future pilgrims before the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia – no pregnant women participated in the selection;

-Weekly sensitization of future pilgrims paid off as Kaduna State pilgrims were organized and well behaved;

-Officials also worked tirelessly to ensure a flawless Hajj exercise as they dealt with complaints from pilgrims;

-The Saudi authorities awarded the Kaduna State Pilgrim Welfare Agency an award for the orderly conduct of its pilgrims and the overall organization of the agency during the last Hajj;

-On August 24, the Agency organized a post-Hajj meeting, where the whole pilgrimage was reviewed by the stakeholders;

-Stakeholders praised the agency for organizing a successful Hajj exercise.

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