By Sani Tukur
The Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, has moved to ease Hajj visa processing difficulties that could be faced by intending Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia in 2018.
To this end, a formal letter to King Salman Bn Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia, was conveyed, Wednesday, by Nigeria’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Isa Dodo, accompanied by Nigeria’s Consul-General, in Jeddah, Muhammad Yunusa, and the Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Abdullahi Muhammad.
While delivering the letter, Mr Dodo expressed the concern of Mr Buhari over the present difficulties faced by intending pilgrims in securing visas during the Umrah season as a result of the newly introduced policy of biometrics capturing of applicants.
A statement Thursday signed by the Head of Public Affairs at NAHCON, Fatima Usara, stated that at present “the data capture is being handled by a company assigned by Saudi Authorities which has not prepared fully to handle visa applications in Nigeria.”
In his address at the meeting, NAHCON chairman, Mr Muhammad, observed that the process of introducing the new policy began in 2014 through formal communication by the relevant Saudi Authorities.
However, he said, the commencement of the policy was not properly communicated to the relevant Nigerian authorities in charge of Hajj and Umrah.
In addition, Mr Mohammed said the facilities deployed to implement the policy are grossly inadequate.
He added that visa applicants are subjected to long travel to where biometric capture centers are located with the attendant security risks as well as challenges of accommodation and other logistic issues.
“The chairman therefore reiterated Nigeria’s request for a suspension of the policy for Hajj 2018 until such a time when the company is ready or it opens at least a minimum of 23 centres across Nigeria and to make such centres accessible to intending pilgrims across the country,” the statement said.
It also said Mr Mohammed seized the opportunity to request the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to adequately regulate the issuance of Gratis (Mujamala) visas for Hajj in view of the abuse of such visas in some quarters.
He said beneficiaries of the special visa are often sent to Saudi Arabia without adequate accommodation and other arrangements.
Responding on behalf of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Director General in Charge of Makkah Branch, Jamaal Balkhoyor, undertook to make appropriate recommendations to accompany the letter.
He recognised the right of the regulatory Hajj authorities in Nigeria to be adequately informed about new policies on Hajj or Umrah affecting Nigerians as well as their right to designate biometric capture centres in consideration of the nation’s peculiarities.
He said in spite of the challenge, about 50,000 biometric records have been captured since the policy commenced in 2017.
He also assured the delegation that Gratis visas are issued by the Saudi Ambassador after fulfillment of all conditions such as having complete arrangements for accommodation, transportation and other requirements.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in December 2017, started implementing a policy that requires all applicants for Hajj and Umrah visas to present themselves for biometric capture at three centres situated in Kano, Abuja and Lagos.
The usual practice is for data capture to be done on arrival at the Kingdom.
The Nigerian government formally objected to the introduction of the new policy due to a breach of communication protocol as well as non-preparedness of the company implementing the policy.
The Saudi government later increased the centres to nine which, NAHCON insists, are still considered inadequate.