Thursday, May 27, 2021

THE COW-HATERS (2)






The cows are not aware that their hate has become the nexus of discordant political parties through which members could confer and issue edicts. Of course, there is hardly any difference between one political party or another in my country; it is only a means by which people who desire to rule over us shamelessly shuffle themselves from one party to another, for many of them, not for service but self-aggrandisement. The cows are not aware, for instance, that most of those who labelled one of the political parties as a Muslim party working clandestinely to Islamise Nigeria are now trooping into it like locusts. That is politics, they say, it's all about interest!


“There is no good in much of their secret conferences save (in) him who enjoineth almsgiving and kindness and peacemaking among the people..” (an-Nisaa 4:114). Doubtless, a conference that sought to impede the movement of herders and their cattle, a right vested in them by the letter of the laws of the land, was not dispensing ‘kindness and peacemaking among the people.’ If you describe this flouting of the law by the group of 17 haters as something of “questionable legality” their leader, like a wild dog, pants with his tongue out and attacks you (ask Garba Shehu) for working  “assiduously, for extraneous interests whose game plan stands at variance with the expectations of genuine lovers of peaceful coexistence…” as if he was not the one who “ordered cattle herders to leave” his state because according to him they had “encroached” his sanctuary, “government forest reserves''. That unlawful eviction was what Sunday Igboho and terrorists like him were waiting for to expel Fulani settlers from their dwellings, killing those who were obdurate and scorching their huts.  


One would expect a similar reaction from cattle rearing leaders, but their ability to make good judgement prevailed and they admonished caution. Governor Nasir El-Fufai ‘advised Nigerians not to allow the criminal actions of insurgents and bandits to tear the country apart.’ Rascals and vagabonds like Sunday Igboho, I make bold to state, are ubiquitous in this part of the country also, and the governors need not look far if they decide to recruit and goad them behind the scene into mischief and “expel settlers” from the cattle rearing areas! But cattle rearing folks are a special breed of homo sapiens. Dealing with animals makes them discern when a human being is acting like cattle or worse, and they will bring conscientiousness and sagacity to the table and they will not be like them. Many of God's emissaries were herders so they can be trained on how to relate with people of Mr Akeredolu's ilk. That is why people like Governor El-Rufai, at the peak of provocation, called for caution. They demarcate between criminals and law-abiding citizens; they do not paint all with the same brush. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” (Ezekiel 18:20)


These cow-haters, who pride themselves on superior scholarship and exposure, treat all Fulani as bandits and kidnappers, therefore, they and their cattle are fair game wherever they are found. To them, all cases of kidnapping for ransom go back to one source - Fulani. Now that clergymen can contrive their own kidnap case to make their flock pay the ransom, the Fulani are taking many forms. 


I like the Malami logic: open grazing is the equivalent of spare-part business for the cow rearing areas, and if the image of one is smeared with the iniquitous acts of a few - banditry and kidnapping for ransom, the image of the other is greatly associated with armed robbery, arson, drug trafficking and internet fraud, yet, nobody paints all of them with the same brush. 


As I mentioned in the first part of this piece last week, everything centres on the persona of the President; unfortunately for the cow-haters, Buhari cannot take another form other than being a Fulani. He cannot profess another religion other than Islam. He cannot be born-again to become a member of the cow-haters enclave. All these agitations will die out when Buhari is no longer there. They hate him so much that everything he stands for is gravely affected. Cow-haters are everywhere including people within the inner sanctum of the State House who are part of whatever Buhari is accused of. Why are they so deafeningly silent in the face of these acts of sabotage and hatred directed at their principal? 


O ye who believe! Take not for intimates other than your own folk, who would spare no pains to ruin you; they love to hamper you. Hatred is revealed by (the utterance of) their mouths, but that which their breasts hide is greater. We have made plain for you the revelations if ye will understand.” (Aali Imraan, 3:118)






The cow-haters, according to the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF), are encouraging “ethnic monsters and hiding behind them to whip up sentiments” to actualise ‘their sinister motive’.




“It is now clear,” said Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmad, the NEF Spokesman, in a statement on Tuesday, May 25, 2021, “that elected people sworn to protect the constitution and protect the unity and integrity of Nigeria have decided to surrender to deeply divisive or outrightly irredentist and secessionist tendencies and movements.

“Governors are building ethnic monsters and hiding behind them to whip up sentiments in a crude attempt to extract concessions no one is in a position to give or guarantee.

“A desperate but futile attempt is being made to split the North along lines that suit people who ignore its complexities and plurality when it is convenient to lump all northerners and submit them to humiliation or attacks,”

“In the South-East, governors are yielding their political turf and mandates to secessionists, criminals and subversives who think they can exterminate federal presence and Northerners from the region and achieve dubious political goals related to 2023, or break away from the country.

“In the South-West, elected leaders and pampered ethnic bullies are closing ranks to provide a front that apes the do-what-we-want-or-we-leave-the-country strategy of the marginalised leaders of the South-East.

“The South-South is squeezed between fear and uncertainty and its leaders are gambling that they can benefit from further weakening the federal administration and the North if it rides along with the rest of the South.

“The forum supports a citizen-driven national dialogue and a campaign to get the government to accord its outcome the respect it deserves.

“The forum extends its hands to groups that genuinely believe that Nigerians should demand and design the type of country we want and should not wait for people we elected to set the boundaries and conditions of our existence.

“The forum restates that the North will not be cowed and stampeded into escorting political ambitions of politicians at the cost of its rights, security and dignity,” the statement said.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Cow-Haters (1)














All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.

I don't like looking back; I absolutely adore cows.

Moo may represent an idea, but only the cow knows.

The cow is of the bovine ilk; One end is moo, the other milk.



Ogden Nash







If Ogden Nash, in the above epigraph, adores cows, some people in my country hate them with passion. But, wait a minute; is it the cows that they hate or the one that herds them? It is a triangle of hate: the hate of the President because his genome has the herder’s blood, a Fulani; the hate of the cow-owner, the herder because of, largely, his affinity to the President; and the hate of the cow. The cow is oblivious of who is the governor of a state it inhabits or the president of its country of residence, but nevertheless, the cow bears the brunt of acrimony and rancour lurking in the hearts of people who see, in every cow, the personification of Fulani or Aboki who has usurped in vanity what is rightfully theirs through one of their kinsman who happens to be President Buhari. This hatred does not stop at the tribe or race of the Fulani-Aboki, it encompasses the religion they profess.




The evil augury of the cow-haters on the outcome of the 2019 general elections came to naught. What was hidden under the façade of fighting police brutality was exposed in the aftermath of the EndSARS protests. The cows and those who herd them bear the brunt of what the cow-haters failed to achieve by the ballot and the EndSARS protests, while perpetrators of arson, murder of security personnel, and internet fraud claim innocence and compensation in Judicial Panels within the cow-haters enclave.




The cow-haters took strong exception to the image of the cows on the 200 naira note and that of a herdsman shepherding his cows on the new International Passport. Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transportation, said recently on the speed of the Abuja-Kaduna train, that “We are doing 90km/h with Abuja to Kaduna, the reason we are doing 90km/h is because there are cows everywhere, and we don’t want to kill cows.” The Minister was undeservedly criticised and ridiculed for making that statement. And yet the cow-haters love to hamper cows by all means and further exacerbate the problem. Recently, some rail track vandals were arrested; anything that favours the cow must not be spared even if it involves the destruction of critical national infrastructure.







They proscribed open grazing (on which more later); they are opposed to cattle ranching or colonies and called it land-grabbing (whatever that means), and they rejected RUGA settlements as nothing but ‘Militia Barracks’ for the herders, as they belied the National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP). They are shamelessly opposed to every solution to the problem!


One of the bitterest opponents of any move by the government to proffer a solution to cow-hating is the Governor of the-food-basket-of-the-nation, followed by his brother-governors in the cow-haters territories. In a Nollywood-style dramatisation he claimed to have been attacked by his bête noire, Fulani herdsmen who shot at him, thanks to his fitness, he “ran for more than one and a half kilometres without stopping.” The Governor ended the fairy tale of his attack by armed herders anticlimactically without evidence of gunshots on his person, his security details or any car in his convoy. The Miyetti-Allah-sponsored hitmen were so meticulous in the way they conducted their mission that no harm touched the Governor or his retinue.


This Governor-dramatist merits garlands as the best actor in the 2020-2021 Fulani-hater film festival. His neighbour, Kauran Bauchi, Governor Bala Muhammed blamed his ‘lack of foresight’, ‘controversial utterances and policies’ as reasons ‘for the negative perception of Fulani herders in the country.’




"If you don't accommodate other tribes,” said Bala to the dramatist in a public function held recently in Bauchi, “there will be challenges because we also accommodate other tribes in Bauchi and other places. We have many Tiv people farming in Alkaleri, Tafawa Balewa, and Bogoro in Bauchi State. Has anybody told them to go? No, because they have inalienable rights to be here.

"We have people living in Bauchi for over 150 years, even before the birth of Nigeria. Nobody is talking to them to go and some of them have risen to become Permanent Secretaries in the governments of Bauchi, Borno, and so on."



"You have seen what our colleagues in the southwest and southeastern states are doing. We have told them with all modesty that they are wrong. But the person that is most wrong is my brother and colleague Governor of Benue State, Governor Ortom," he said.




The Bauchi State Governor ‘further lamented that pastoralists in the country, particularly Fulani are being maligned even though most of them have become victims of cattle rustlers who have dispossessed them of their commonwealth and they’ 'have no option than to carry AK47 because the society and the government are not protecting them.'


“Some herdsmen wrote me a letter,” the dramatist responded, “that they will kill me from the way and manner my brother and Governor of Bauchi spoke in support of herdsmen carrying arms, I suspect that he is one among the Fulani who wants to kill me and should anything happen to me they should not look far…”




The dramatist missed the point or has conveniently chosen to impute blame to his brother. Bala said herdsmen suffered a loss of their commonwealth at the hands of cattle rustlers and thus ‘have no option than to carry AK47 because the society and the government are not protecting them.' But the point has been made; our governor-dramatist is the architect of ‘the negative perception of Fulani herders in the country.’




Their political party has brought about a rapprochement and the two governors have buried the hatchet, but I think, with the handles sticking out for future engagement because the dramatist still indulges in his favourite pastime; you cannot teach an old dog new tricks!




The SNGF, a body that ‘has long been moribund’, goaded by their hatred for the cows, 17 of them converged, after years of irrelevance, to discuss security issues as they affect Nigeria presently. In the Communique (which was actually a summary of proceedings for that is not how to write communiqués) issued at the end of the conference, the leaders legislated “the ban on open grazing in the South (including cattle movement to the South by foot);”. By foot? Why not by truck which is faster? The ban should be total. The movement of the much-hated cows should be stopped by all means of transportation to places that do not need them. The poor docile animals are inhumanely transported daily by trucks to the South in their thousands to consumers that begrudge naught save hatred. As I write this piece, innocent wayfarers who look like Fulani are intercepted, lynched and burnt alive, especially where they travel with locally made hunting guns as is their custom in recent times. The SNGF conference was conveniently blind to this reality as it was to daily attacks on settlements and expulsion of Fulani from their dwellings.




God has ways of exacting retribution….




Now that police stations are attacked daily with many officers losing their lives, correctional facilities are scorched and dangerous inmates let loose, and INEC offices burnt to ashes, the cow-haters are not agreed on the proper nomenclature for the perpetrators of these crimes - arsonists, armed criminals, unknown gunmen and whatnot. They are not described as terrorists. Why not christen them Fulani herdsmen that you have expelled from your enclave? Nnamdi Kanu said God has given him a new assignment. Will this be it?




A National Publicity Secretary of a party on Wednesday, (who needs to work on his elocution; he even confused the pronunciation of kiosk with chaos), was accusing the FG of not saying anything on these burnings especially of INEC offices, but if the President had spoken (and I believe he should) such people would nevertheless have said Fulani herdsmen, who, according to them enjoy the tacit support of the President, are more deserving to be addressed than the perpetrators of the crimes. Nonsense!



The cow-haters will not anoint any Fulani for the presidency except he be a wolf in sheep's clothing to devour, in their stead, the cows they severely abhor. Cow rearing folks should be wary of accepting any Fulani candidate in whom the cow-haters are well pleased!

Thursday, February 4, 2021

NEW UMRAH REGULATIONS: Survival of the Fittest






Every stakeholder in the Hajj and Umrah industry especially the private tour operators need to study the regulations and adapt accordingly. I said every stakeholder because even the states pilgrims welfare boards have been mulling over their possible involvement in Umrah operations. Either this or that, unless we have a strong determination to succeed and the ability to change as conditions change, thanks to COVID-19, we should forget about Umrah operations entirely! 



In My Umrah 2021 Experience (1) I promised that “I will write a separate piece, inshaa Allah, on how Umrah operations have evolved into something else. Every segment is digitised, from payment for hotel bookings to issuance of airline tickets; from payment for visa application to local transportation. Hajj and Umrah agents like myself should realise that the cheese has been moved; we have to move with it and with the time otherwise if we remain analogue, we become extinct….”




In the second and final part of the referenced article, I tried to explain, albeit briefly, what the Umrah process denotes during the pandemic, bearing in mind that some of the changes actually had commenced before then. I said that a Mu’tamir (Umrah pilgrim) can no longer come to Saudia securing his visa and start scouting around for accommodation as that is already included in his package. “The era of just getting the visa and arranging your accommodation in Saudia is over". I said and went further to detail how the process works. “Everything is now online and strictly controlled by the Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry on the Maqam portal that provides Umrah services through the platforms of approved Online Travel Agency (OTA) in the Saudi Global Distribution System (SGDS). Hotel rates are advertised by the OTA where your agent in Nigeria, otherwise known as External Agent (EA), having satisfied all conditions stipulated by Saudi Hajj authorities and is licensed by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), will book and pay for the Umrah services that you and other members of your group will enjoy. That done, the system will generate a twenty-digit Booking Reservation Number (BRN) which shall be used in securing your visa and other logistics within the holy cities. Visa only arrangement is dead for good! You are intricately tied to the BRN and every type of service attached to it. All the agencies listed here add various levels of profit margins to the original rate of the hotel, transport services, etc. plus 15% VAT which will be added to the cost of your Umrah package…”


What the above analyses mean is that the tour operator is now under four other agencies before he can book for Umrah services namely: his Saudi partner, the OTA (like Tripshop, Umrahme, Elaf, etc), the Maqaam portal and the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. The emphasis of the analyses was not on the extinction of the visa only arrangement. I was actually mourning the demise of Umrah operation as we knew it. The similitude of the tour operator under this new arrangement is that of a man to whom are several part-owners, quarrelling… (az-Zumar, 29) 


If the profit margin of Maqaam, GDS, OTA and the Saudi partner, otherwise known as the Umrah Operator (UO) is taken into account plus the 15% VAT, the original cost provided by the hotels will be increased by about 42.5% before the profit margin of a Nigerian tour operator, the External Agent (EA). This is just the first step. 


Next is the visa. Umrah visa has seized to be free for a very long time. For you to obtain an Umrah visa for your client you must make the following online payments in Saudi riyals: (1) Government Fees - 300 (the only one that is VAT free), Electronic Fees - 88.75 plus 15% VAT (13.31) = 102.06, Ground Service Fees (transportation, meet and greet) - 100 plus VAT (15.00) = 115.00, and Insurance Fees - 180 plus VAT (27.00) = 207.00. Now, the total will be 668.75 plus VAT (55.31) = SAR 724.06 (N94,127.8). Add this to the cost of hotel accommodation which must be full-board (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for at least 10 days. 


Normally, Umrah is a few-hour ritual or at most a day or two; one could perform it during transit in Jeddah or have a one-day stopover, visit Madeenah, come to Makkah for Umrah and then depart. Not any more. Self-isolation period, online registrations for tawakkalna and waiting for a permit through eatamarna have lengthened the Umrah to 10 or more days.


Other details that must be captured on the system before the issuance of Umrah visa are confirmed flight information of each Mu’tamir (ticket number, arrival flight number), departure city, date and time from Mu’tamir’s country; also, arrival city of Saudi Arabia. The same details must be provided for the departure of the Mu’tamir from Saudi Arabia to their country. 


What will finally nail the coffin of Umrah process as we know it and force many a tour operator to close shop is the newly introduced tourist e-visa and visa on arrival for people from certain countries. Africa is not yet included in the scheme but signs are apparent that the system will encompass all countries soon. Even before then, we should bear it in mind that many Africans have dual nationalities. Saudi Arabia is having an ambitious plan of attracting tourists from all over the world, aside from the religious pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah.  


The tourist e-visa holders are eligible to perform Umrah and can visit any city in Saudi Arabia while the holder of Umrah visa is restricted to the holy cities for the performance of the rites of Umrah. Not only that, the cost of the Umrah visa is higher than that of the tourist e-visa. What you need to pay is the Visa Fees (SAR 300) and insurance (SAR 140). Moreover, the tourist e-visa ‘is valid for up to one full year (365 days) with a minimum 90-day duration of stay at one time and multiple entries.’ But for Umrah visa, you have only a single entry which expires after you leave the country within 10 days. Whoever has the option of a tourist e-visa will forget the direction to the office of a tour operator. 


The plan that the Saudi authorities have for Hajj is more advanced and elaborate than that of Umrah and tourism. I have seen some video clips about the future of Hajj that tour operators shared in various platforms without thinking of the implication of that to our business and how we can adapt or die during the implementation of the process. 







Thursday, January 28, 2021

MY UMRAH 2021 EXPERIENCE (2)


                              Mobile Zamzam





The first part of this piece elicited some questions from readers. What is the best visa to use - Umrah or entry - for a Mu’tamir? After performing Umrah will I be allowed to observe my five daily prayers in the Haram?  Now that the number of pilgrims is lessened due to COVID-19 and thus necessitating low demand in accommodation, what is the effect of this on the cost of board and lodging in Makkah and Madeenah? Someone even pleaded with me to state ‘how much is the fine for not using’ surgical mask ‘properly?’. I will provide answers to these questions and more in this second and final part of my narration. 


I will start with the hotels; many are closed and those that open hardly operate a floor or two of the entire building. I and Malama Hauwa stayed in The Oberoi Madina, where, of course, Comerel keeps its pilgrims during the Hajj and Umrah seasons. “Oberoi is the only five-star hotel in Madeenah”, according to a travel-agent-friend of mine from the UK. Of course, there are many five-star hotels in Madeenah, but the services at The Oberoi are exceptional, top-of-the-range.  Gorgeous as this place is, and bubbling with the multitude of pilgrims at peak periods to such an extent that you scarce can get a room or even a vacant seat around the reception area, it is now eerily quiet. Struck by the apparent desertion of this magnificent hotel, I became emotional. Seeing the Haram sealed off during the total lockdown of Madeenah was indeed a hard test for the inhabitants of the City of the Prophet, sallallaahu alaihi wa sallam and for the entire Ummah that saw the images on their screens! 


Whatever the Saudi authorities dictate as precautionary measures against COVID-19, we hear and we obey, as such measures are of vital importance towards protecting the lives and enhancing the welfare of Mu’tamireen, residents and Saudi nationals. 


Unfortunately, room rates have not fallen because of the low patronage caused by COVID-19. Many hotels, especially the five-star, maintained what they charged around the same period last year or increased it a little. Intercontinental Daral Taqwa and The Oberoi, for example, go for SAR 750 (N97,500) to 850 (N110,500) per room on a bed and breakfast basis (BB). In Makkah, Daral Tauhid Intercontinental charges SAR 850 to SAR 1,075 (N139,750) per room on BB basis. When there was no COVID, the hotels operated at about 96% of their capacity. Now, with COVID restrictions in place, there are virtually no pilgrims around to enjoy any discounts or low rates that they may offer. Some hotels with 300 to 500 rooms may, on a good day, have 10 to 15 rooms occupied. The big brands - Hilton, Marriot, Fairmont, Raffles, etc. therefore, I learnt, chose to safeguard their reputation and standard in prosperity and in adversity, rather than advertise rates that are likely to imperil their business in the future. Does this make any economic sense? I am not certain. 


The choice of where to stay while in Saudia is only for holders of my type of visa. If you have an Umrah visa, your package has been determined by the choices you must have made with your agent from Nigeria. The era of just getting the visa and arranging your accommodation in Saudia is over. Everything is now online and strictly controlled by the Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry on the Maqam portal that provides Umrah services through the platforms of approved Online Travel Agency (OTA) in the Saudi Global Distribution System (SGDS). Hotel rates are advertised by the OTA where your agent in Nigeria, otherwise known as External Agent (EA), having satisfied all conditions stipulated by Saudi Hajj authorities and is licensed by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), will book and pay for the Umrah services that you and other members of your group will enjoy. That done, the system will generate a twenty-digit Booking Reservation Number (BRN) which shall be used in securing your visa and other logistics within the holy cities. Visa only arrangement is dead for good! You are intricately tied to the BRN and every type of service attached to it. All the agencies listed here add various levels of profit margins to the original rate of the hotel, transport services, etc. plus 15% VAT which will be added to the cost of your Umrah package. I will leave further details here on this for another article, suffice it to say that Umrah is now monitored strictly, more than any time in the past, by three Saudi Ministries - Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  


The eatamarna app, as mentioned last week, has segmentalized the Masjid an-Nabawy into three parts - prayers could be observed without clearance, but for Ziyaarah and Raudah you must have a permit which has distinct date and time with a barcode on the righthand corner of the page. It is very easy to get the tawakkalna clearance once your self-isolation period has elapsed. That is your first step on a long ladder. Your problem starts when you commence the online application on the eatamarna platform even at the end of the isolation period and you are denied every time you try. The system automatically regulates the number of worshipers at every given time in these prime places within the Masjid an-Nabawy. Many could not get the permit however much they tried. There is no way one can beat the security personnel at the gates to the Haram in Madeenah to conduct Ziyaarah or pray at the Raudah. Those with a permit cannot go before the time allotted to them; the ever-vigilant eyes of the men at the gates will spot the anomaly and send you back. Do not jubilate yet, in case the men at the first checkpoint allow you in by mistake; the second checkpoint is manned by people who will scan the barcode on the permit with their phones to ascertain the veracity of the details you claim. If any inaccuracies are detected they will send you back, and they are deaf to entreaties, so, just leave and do not waste your time otherwise the shurtah (police) are there to disperse the obdurate.    


Lack of access to Raudah or Ziyaarah is only an introduction to your problems. Well, some people have actually done their Ziyaarah from outside the Masjid an-Nabawy, making the Green Dome their guide. But the real dilemma is leaving Madeenah, donning Ihraam and making intention for Umrah at the Meeqaat without the Umrah permit. 


Whatever you have so far read about how well-guarded the Masjid an-Nabawy is in this article especially for the Raudah and the Ziyaarah area, know that the Masjid al-Haraam in Makkah is more so. The entire surrounding of the Haram is barricaded with various checkpoints. If in Madeenah, as stated in the first part of this piece, you could observe the five obligatory prayers in the Mosque without a permit, in Makkah you must be cleared for each prayer and for performing the Umrah. Just as the distinction in the permits for praying at the Raudah and that of making Ziyaarah in Masjid an-Nabawy, the permit for Umrah is different from that of daily prayers. You cannot use that of daily prayers to perform Umrah. There are different entrances for daily prayers and for performing the Umrah. 


One may say, for instance, if I go into the Haram with my prayer permit, can’t I evade the security personnel and perform Tawaaf? That is not possible as the barricades from the façade extend into the Haram and segmentalise the Mataaf (where Tawaaf is made) from the rest of the Haram. Only those with the Umrah permit can access the Mataaf. That is why you see the people praying around the Ka'bah or making Tawaaf are the ones in Ihraam, at least for the men, since women can use their normal apparel as their Ihraam. The prayer permit allows you into the Haram but only through the elevators leading to the first or last floor in that you can hardly even see the Ka’bah as further barriers are placed, in line with COVID guidelines, to prevent people from touching the glass walls overlooking the Ka’bah. Can I perform Tawaaf then from the first or second floor of the Haram as we used to do when the ground Mataaf was full? No, you cannot, because there are many temporary walls blocking these floors that it is impossible to go round for Tawaaf. You can also pray at the basement where all roads to the Ka’bah are as well blocked. One can confidently assert that aside from the officials maintaining low and order, everyone around the Ka’bah is a Mu’tamir. No other person can approach the Mataaf or even perform Tawaaf!


During our Tawaaf for Umrah I noticed that there were not more than 500 Mu’tamireen in the Mataaf. There are dotted lines of diverse hues - red, blue, orange, black, etc., with a distance of more than two metres between each of these lines, and every Mu’tamir moves around the Ka’bah on a designated line assigned to him by the officials of the Haram, maintaining social distancing. They are all around the place; whithersoever you turn, there is one of them gently reminding you to remain on the designated line on which you have started your Tawaaf. In the circumambulation around the Ka’bah, it is not for one Mu’tamir to overtake or outstrip another; they float each in an orbit. (Yaaseen: 40)






The Saudi authorities have ensured strict observance of COVID-19 protocols in every inch of the al-Haram al-Makky. Places that people are likely to touch have all been screened off. There are no Zamzam points here anymore. All have been removed and the taps sealed off; you find in place thereof Mobile Zamzam - people carrying a container of Zamzam on their backs dispensing the water to Mu’tamireen in disposal cups.  After you finish your Tawaaf, you cannot offer the two Raka’ah prayers behind the Maqaam Ibraheem within the Mataaf. You have to move towards the upper Mas’aa (the Sa’yi area) where a place is assigned for that Naafilah  (supererogatory prayer) with officials monitoring the maintenance of social distancing and directing people to the only Mas’aa access (around the first green lights from as-Safaa) as all other entry points are closed.





In the Mas’aa, the wheelchair-pushers are conspicuously absent. I trust you remember these people who throng the Mas’aa, making brisk business, charging from SAR 100 to more than SAR 200 for a complete Sa’yi. COVID-19 has blighted this business. If you are in need of a wheelchair for the Sa’yi you can now pay cash or by debit/credit card for a self-drive Electric Cart at SAR 57.5 or, if you are with another person, then a bigger cart for SAR 115. You are only given a few seconds of instruction on how to drive and make the cart to stop; your Sa’yi starts. 






There is also one exit after your Umrah. Every movement of Mu’tamireen has been carefully organised in line with social distancing guidelines. And lest I forget; I have not seen barbers or their agents beckoning those who finish Umrah to follow them to their salon. All shops under the King Abdulaziz Endowment building are closed. Most of the hotels within the Clock Tower, including Fairmont itself (confirmed bookings are upgraded to Raffles which is under the same management), are closed.


On the last question: the penalty of not using surgical masks properly in public places here was SAR 1000 which has now been raised to SAR 2000 the equivalent of N260,000. Once the law enforcement officer scans your Saudi residence permit or Saudi national identity card on his official phone you will instantly receive an alert on the penalty and instruction for immediate payment of same with the relevant authority. 


Everything I stated here is part of what I have seen and observed during this Umrah trip to the Haramyn. Things are beginning to change for the better gradually - more hotels are opening, more successful applications on the eatamarna platform are granted and the age limit for Umrah is lightened. Now, for the Mu’tamireen coming from Indonesia, the age limit for Umrah is extended to the 60-year-olds. May such concession be extended for Mu’tamireen from Nigeria and other countries also.  





 




Thursday, January 21, 2021

MY UMRAH 2021 EXPERIENCE (1)







I purpose to relate how travel for umrah is during this period of COVID-19, what every intending pilgrim needs to know and do at every point of his journey. 


Let me state on the onset that I and my wife used multiple entry/business visas for this trip. Ours was not the Umrah visa, therefore, we were free from many conditions that may affect a normal Umrah pilgrim.  In my case, for instance, I fall within the over-50-year range which could have prevented me from obtaining an Umrah visa. My wife could have qualified for the visa as she is below 50 years, but would not have got it without me, her Mahram. Alhamdu Lillaah for her business visa which grants her total independence from her Mahram since she can travel alone, in and out of the Kingdom - no questions asked. Also, both of us could travel together or singly, but the holder of an Umrah visa can only do so in a group of at least 50 Mu’tamireen (Umrah pilgrims) with a guide under a unified package (travelling on the same flight, staying in the same hotel and using the same transportation arrangement within Saudia).


I hope the reader will appreciate the style of narration I’m adopting in this writing. My aim is not a comparison between multiple entry/business visas and that of the Umrah or the advantages of one over the other. I only want to highlight what a Mu’tamir (Umrah pilgrim) should know before undertaking this journey even though the narrator, a travel agent himself, did not use an Umrah visa during this trip. 


I will write a separate piece, inshaa Allah, on how Umrah operations have evolved into something else. Every segment is digitised, from payment for hotel bookings to issuance of airline tickets; from payment for visa application to local transportation. Hajj and Umrah agents like myself should realise that the cheese has been moved; we have to move with it and with the time otherwise if we remain analogue, we become extinct. Thank you, COVID-19.


We left Nigeria on January 10, 2021, with Emirates Airline. Before then, doubtless, you must have got your negative PCR test certificate issued by PTF approved laboratory as a condition for travel and proof that you are free of COVID-19 72 hours from the time of sample-collection until the time of departure to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If you are travelling with an Umrah visa (we were not), your PCR test certificate must be accompanied by that of insurance which is included in the package you paid for with your agent. 


A friend once said that COVID-19 has changed the world forever; the new normal will be with us for a long time. That was evident aboard our Emirates flight to Jeddah via Dubai for transit. The ebullient cabin crew on Emirates now approach you with the utmost caution in serving the in-flight meals, their masks shielding the smile on their faces. You need more minutes than usual to unwrap the meals they serve you as almost everything is covered in layers of polythene. Passengers are, every now and then, reminded of COVID-19 guidelines within the in-flight entertainment system.


In Dubai, we stayed within the airport even though we had 16 hours to connect with the Jeddah flight and thus we could have enjoyed free accommodation and transit visa. We decided it was better to restrict contact with the crowd as much as possible. 


The check-in process for the Emirates flight to Jeddah was not like any other; checks for the validity of visas and PCR test certificates were more stringent. 


I have always landed at Madeenah either when I travelled alone or with a group for a number of reasons - having my Niyyah from the Zul Hulaifah Miqaat, and whatnot. But on this trip, we were told that Emirates is restricted to landing at the Jeddah Airport only. So, we landed at Jeddah. Every passenger must pass through the COVID verification desk where additional checks were conducted on the PCR certificates and a clearance sticker attached on each before you could proceed to Passport Control. Is it necessary to mention that all the immigration officers attending to arriving passengers at the time we arrived at the airport were all females? Well, this is the first time I witnessed this in the Kingdom, thanks to the boldness of the Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Many people such as I may take exception to certain aspects of his reform agenda, but on making women who are educated mostly abroad and are qualified to serve the Kingdom in various capacities, I  have enormous respect for his foresight in that respect. What is the essence of educating women if they would only be kept far removed from where that knowledge will have an impact on societal life and national development? I have seen many women behind the wheel also, outside the airport of course. Thank you Prince Muhammad bin Salman!


We did not think that our arrival formalities will be so easy especially with the rumours making the rounds in Nigeria about what awaits one upon their arrival into the Kingdom. 


A staff of my company was already waiting at the airport parking area with the vehicle that later conveyed us to Madeenah. One thing I observed in Saudi Arabia is that everybody wears the mask, from security personnel in charge of enforcing compliance to any other person. I have not seen anyone without a mask, either walking, sitting in a store or office, observing Sallah in the Haramyn or even driving a car. And where a law enforcement agent sees that you let your mask to drop a little bit exposing your nose in a public place - may Allah help you! I will not mention the fine or chastisement because revealing the naira equivalent will not allow you to read this piece to the end. If you are searching for total compliance of COVID protocols, come to Saudia! Doubting Thomases and conspiracy theorists on the existence of COVID-19 are either non-existent here or they have kept that belief to themselves and willy-nilly complied to Saudi COVID regulations. In the Haramyn social distancing is strictly adhered to by all worshippers.


As soon as you come to Madeenah you are expected to download two Apps: tawakkalna (we put our trust in Allah) and eatamarna (we perform Umrah) on your phone. Tawakkalna grants you access to public places like malls, supermarkets and hotels. You must show the page on the screen of your phone before you are allowed in.   Eatamarna gives you access to the Raudah, Ziyaarah in the Masjid an-Nabawy in Madeenah and to perform Umrah in the Masjid al-Haraam in Makkah. It is important to know that every prayer in the Haram in Makkah requires a separate permit through eatamarna. The permit for Umrah is distinct from that of five daily prayers with the date and the specific prayer for which the permit can only be used. The security personnel at the Haram entrances will not allow you go into the Haram to pray Zuhr, for example, if your permit is for Asr prayer. And do not even entertain the hope of performing multiple Umrahs since everything is controlled through the app. I will revert to this fully in the second part. 


During the download of each of the apps, you enter your passport and arrival details which shall be used in processing your application in line with the PCR test certificate that admitted you into the Kingdom. One important information is this: you will not start the application process until the end of your isolation period which was initially 3 days but now extended to 7 days. You can try a million times to get permission for all the activities I mentioned earlier, but unless that period elapses you will not get any. The system will reject your application every time you try. In Madeenah you may go into the Masjid an-Nabawy for the five daily prayers, but do not even think about approaching the Raudah area or Ziyaarah territory if you are not cleared yet by the eatamarna app, for every access is filled with strong warders and meteors (Jinn 72:8). This I will also explain fully next week inshaa Allah.