Feature Article of Thursday, 5 April 2012
Columnist: Alfa, Abdur Rahman Shaban
Year in and out, Ghanaian Muslims have hoped and prayed that the time of year when Muslims get into the media limelight passes off without hustle. Simply put, that prospective pilgrims would be able to embark on the Hajj peacefully.
The story years back has been messy at times right from the issues of passport acquisition, payment of fees, the hajj agents, who gets access into the Hajj Village, the day of departure, life in Saudi Arabia and the return journey.
Indeed, a few years back, there had come into being the instance of court cases, when some individuals sought for accounts of the Hajj Committee to be frozen and of course the big issue of stranded pilgrims is another thorny area.
The most dangerous malady however, as far as I am concerned is of the political meddling in the process (today it’s a Board, next day a Committee, an interim board etc.) plus the free ticket that are dished out to political elements.
The passport have become to hajj, what blood is to the human system. Times past, the ‘normal passport’ was valid for the travel up till when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Passport Office reverted to the use of biometric passports.
In the era of biometric passports, we have had instances where some people especially the first time air travelers, are supposed to get biometric passports which might take longer to process in time to embark on the pilgrimage.
Sometime last year, the issue of a temporary passport came up with some resistance which I felt was down more to lack of education on why the need for a temporary passport for the evnt.
A solution lies in the National Hajj Committee (NHC) employing the use of effective communication at the time of announcing fares. So in their press release they enumerate some key prerequisites as biometric passport and health documents.
Again, they could take to using the mosques especially on Friday, Muslim journalists littered in the media, Islamic programs on radio and TV – certainly Marhaba and Zuria fm in Accra and Kumasi respectively would be great conduits of information.
PAYMENT MODULE/HAJJ AGENTS
A press release signed by Alhaji Alhasan Bene, Chairman of the NHC few weeks back, indicated that the package for the round trip was still $3,100, same as the amount charged last year.
The issue here had more to do with the payment module, which the vice president sometime back had asked to be spread over a period of time (a very laudable idea back then), yet to what extent has this been implemented?
The idea of all payments passing through the bank is definitely not going to be wholly effective as it might put Hajj agents to a disadvantage but also because the banks the NHC dealt with are limited in national spread.
The Hajj agents I must admit are doing a great job of getting prospective pilgrims from especially outside the regional capitals, but then again, there is the need to regulate their activities.
I propose the following: beyond their being registered as a recognized group, their activities should also be given a deadline, during which time they are supposed to have credited the NHC’s accounts with monies received from their ‘pilgrims.’
This should be contained in the NHC’s communication and to also charge all prospective pilgrims to pressurize their agents to submit their names and details to the committee.
The final leg would be to publish the full list of pilgrims on a regional basis on a website and in the state owned Daily Graphic, with this; the committee can iron out gray areas and firm up preparations especially with respect to visa acquisition.
NOTICE: The $3,100 payment is supposed to be made only in the United States Dollars and through accredited Hajj Agents or directly into any of the Committee’s bank accounts at either ECOBANK or the Intercontinental (Access) Bank.
VISA ACQUISITION/HAJJ POLITICS
The NHC should over the years have gotten a fair idea of the number of visas that Ghana must apply for upfront. This is to avoid the instance of asking for the Saudi Embassy to give us a special dispensation after first visa issuance.
Mind you, the Saudi government is already inundated with visas applications from the world over as other pilgrims troop into the blessed land of Mecca to answer the call of Allah.
It is at this stage that I expect the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to do the political work of pushing for enough visas. Beyond this; the Ulama (learned Scholars) should call any other person who tries to politically taint the process to order.
The very unnecessary political spinning of the process has over the year been played but in our efforts at de-politicizing the totally religious undertaking, the time to start is NOW – and we must start first with the Muslim politicians.
Indeed, we are still waiting on the vice president’s concept of a ‘Pilgrimages Board,’ as promised during the Mawlid (Celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday) some two years back.
My last take on this section is allied to the payment module. If the NHC states a deadline for payment (31st August 2012,) it should stick by that and subsequently make visa application with those numbers, bearing in mind a reasonable number of extra visas.
The days of AFGO village lodging were not only unacceptable islamically but without doubt, a slap in the face of a religion that placed premium on privacy and strict segregation between sexes.
Thanks to Allah, the concept of Hajj Village at the El-Wak Stadium area was mooted and implemented over the last few years. Laudable as it is, the system there could be better with a little effort.
The Hajj Committee should administratively structure the publication of names as above proposed in order to even get people to know when they are supposed to arrive at the village and their exact date of departure.
Services of an airline is of the essence, how it is done cannot be the concern of anyone, instead, for prospective pilgrims and concerned Muslims, all that matters is that, all people who have paid are ferried to Saudi before the boarders are shut.
It is at the Hajj Village that most frustrated pilgrims have spoken to the press and to that extent, the NHC must endeavor to give real assurances to pilgrims and always leave a representative behind to engage would-be-pilgrims and the media.
THE PILGRIMAGE PROPER
Relative to the pilgrimage proper (i.e. life in Saudi Arabia) the NHC has over the years come up with innovative means of identifying Muslim pilgrims, with females having the national flag behind their veils and the provision of document pouts.
By far the thorniest aspect of life in Saudi has to do with accommodation of pilgrims and the proximity of their places of residence to the stipulated areas of worship which differ at any point in time.
Mecca, Mina and Muzdalifah are all blessed cities that pilgrims need to lodge and it is fair for them to raise issues where they find the conditions uncomfortable. With competition for accommodation heightened in this period, the NHC as much as they seek to collect payments early must make advanced arrangements from NOW.
We must acknowledge that the Hajj event is a tedious and strenuous exercise by all standards, hence if the return of pilgrims takes the same course it adds up to double agony, indeed an agony that can be avoided.
That pilgrims arrive and they have to wait for days sometimes for weeks to have their luggage is not the best. Especially looking at a scenario where most pilgrims are resident outside of Accra.
DZIFA ATIVOR’S PROMISE
Sometime after the Hajj last year, the transport minister, Madam Dzifa Ativor, promised that come this year, pilgrims were going to be flown directly from the Tamale Airport.
That announcement in and of itself would have lessened the strain on the NHC but would also have meant, putting in place structures to cater for a smooth process in two areas.
That there was going to be a northern and southern sector for the convenient operation of Hajj affairs was exciting, but what I ask has become of that promise vis-à-vis the collaboration between the NHC and the sector ministry?
Aside the two Eid days (Fitr and Adha), the Hajj period is by far the most potent time that Muslims enjoy a sustained presence in the media. That presence has been muddy at some point and admittedly rosy at other times.
This year’s (Hajj 2012) depends on ALL of us, whether yourself, a relative or an acquaintance is involved. The NHC must engage all interested parties from now and also to stick to their guns relative to doing the right thing.
From a distance, all Muslims must always say a word of prayer for a peaceful process, as that would brighten our corner as Muslims, furthermore pilgrims should be reminded of saying a prayer for Ghana as we head into the 2012 general elections.
HAJJ is the fifth pillar of Islam, during which time Muslims the world over converge in Saudi Arabia to undertake a series of activities to seek the face of their Creator (Allah), following which men and women earn the title Alhaji and Hajia respectively.
May Allah see us through a serene and successful process this year and may the prayers for peace at the Blessed lands of Mecca and Medina steer us to a peaceful 2012 at the polls.
© Abdur Rahman Shaban Alfa [email protected], [email protected] Facebook: Alfa Allahguide Shaban