Adherents of Islam always look forward to performing the annual Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj) at least once in their lifetime.
Due to the importance of the exercise, Muslims are always very eager to perform Hajj and become “Alhaji’’ or “Alhaja’’ whenever they return home.
However, this year’s Hajj turned sour on September24, 2015 when over 2,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede.
The crowd crush tragedy is the deadliest disaster at Mina since 1990, when more than 1,500 pilgrims died, while not less than 1000 others sustained various degrees of injury.
Out of this figure, latest reports indicate that the number of Nigerian pilgrims who died as a result of the September 24 stampede has gone up to 222, while 130 pilgrims are reportedly missing.
The tragedy occurred during a stampede when the pilgrims were going to the Jamarat complex (stoning site).
Many of the injured were in semiconscious state due to the harsh summer weather, which also compounded the problem.
Although the Jamarat area, where pilgrims perform the symbolic stoning-of-the-devil ritual, had witnessed similar stampedes in the past, this year’s stampede was somewhat unique.
Many observers believe that the latest stampede ought not to have occurred, following the improvement of the roads linking the stoning site and the renewed efforts of the Saudi authorities, among other stakeholders, to sensitise the pilgrims to the need to be orderly.
However, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, while condoling with families and relations of the victims, said that the Saudi authorities had set up a committee to investigate the causes of the stampede.
Abdulaziz, who pledged the Saudi Arabian Government’s determination to address all the factors behind the stampede, however, attributed the incident to an act of God.
He prayed to God to grant the deceased eternal rest and their families the fortitude to bear the loss.
However, this is not to suggest that the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) failed to make adequate arrangements to sensitise Nigerian pilgrims to their expectations during the Hajj and forestall tragic incidents such as stampedes.
For instance, NAHCON on Sept. 20 organised a pre-Arafat meeting with stakeholders in Jeddah to prepare for the Arafat and other Hajj rituals, which began last Wednesday, September 23.
The meeting, which was chaired by the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Muhammad Sanusi II, was attended by prominent Islamic scholars and preachers, Nigerian Consulate-General and NAHCON officials, tour operators and pilgrims’ assistants, among others.
The Nigeria’s Consul-General in Jeddah, Amb. Ahmed Umar, NAHCON’s Chairman, Abdullahi Mukhtar, and his commissioners made presentations on the preparations for the Hajj and the measures taken to ensure its success.
Similarly, goodwill messages from representatives of the ad hoc committees on Hajj of the Senate and House of Representatives, President of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (UHUON) and representatives of the selected air carriers were delivered at the event.
Dr Aliyu Tanko, the Team Leader of the “Taradudiyya’’ (transport) and “Jamrat’’ (stoning site) arrangements, and Dr Ibrahim Kana, the Coordinator, Medical Matters, also made presentations on their preparations for a hitch-free Hajj.
In his presentation entitled “Pelting the Jamrat’’, the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Muhammad Sanusi II, who is also the Amirul Hajj, urged Nigerian pilgrims to abide by the arrangements made by the Saudi authorities for throwing stones at the Jamrat area
He also urged them to perform the throwing of stones during the time allocated to Nigeria.
“Grouping pilgrims to do the stone throwing and spreading the time to include the period of `Zawal’ (sunrise) is necessary to protect the lives of pilgrims.
“On many occasions, pilgrims have been killed at the stoning site due to stampede caused by thousands of pilgrims converging to do the stone throwing at the same time, among other factors,’’ he said.
Sanusi recalled that 266 pilgrims died at the stoning site in 1994; 251 pilgrims died in 2004; while 346 pilgrims lost their lives in 2006.
“All these incidents happened at the Jamrat area (stoning site). The frequency of the stampedes and the sheer enormity necessitated the arrangements put in place by the concerned authorities for the performance of the ritual in a way that will protect human life,’’ he said.
He said that if by performing the ritual before sunrise, lives would be protected; then, the fundamental objective of Sharia would be fulfilled at the level of absolute necessities.
The emir also said that the grouping the pilgrims to perform the stone throwing at different times of the day, even before “Zawal’’ (sunrise), would lessen the risks of pilgrims’ overcrowding and stampede.
Sanusi argued that there was no explicit statement from the deeds of Prophet Muhammad which invalidated stone-throwing at the Jamrat area before sunrise.
He, therefore, urged pilgrims to follow the instructions of the Saudi authorities, particularly those relating to stone-throwing rituals at the Jamrat area.
Also speaking, the Chairman of NAHCON, Alhaji Abdullahi Mukhtar, said that the security situation in Saudi Arabia was tight and advised pilgrims to be orderly in their conduct during the pilgrimage.
He also advised the pilgrims to drink more water because of the harsh weather, while refraining from exposing themselves to the sun.
Besides, Mukhtar urged the pilgrims to move in groups and avoid construction sites within and outside the Grand Mosque.
“We have resolved at a meeting with clerics to abide by the time given to us by the Saudi authorities to start moving to Mina,’’ he said.
He, however, warned clerics against inciting pilgrims to disobey the resolution.
Some clerics, including Sheik Yahaya Jingir, Sheik Yakubu Musa Katsina, Sheik Shehu Zakariya and Sheik Muhammad Nasir Adam, spoke in favour of Sanusi’s presentation.
They urged the pilgrims’ assistants and other stakeholders to strictly abide by the Saudi Authorities’ timetable for the pilgrims movement to Arafat and the Jamrat area to avoid any untoward incidents such as stampede.
They also underscored the need to convey the decisions reached at the meeting to all the pilgrims to facilitate NAHCON’s efforts to achieve a successful Hajj.
Observers, therefore, continue to wonder that in spite of these arrangements to ensure a successful and safe pilgrimage, the September 24 tragedy, which claimed several lives, still occurred.