(Published on 13th November, 2009 in LEADERSHIP)
For the first time in decades, Nigeria will be beating the deadline in the airlift of Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, without rancorous beginning and end.
Already, over 80,000 pilgrims, representing about 92 percent out of a total of 85,000 participants, have been airlifted from various take- off points across the country.
As at last night, a total of 83,718 pilgrims were successfully airlifted to the holy land.
The official closing date for airlifts is eight days away on November 21.
This also means that the country is left with less than 2,000 pilgrims, and that can be concluded between today and tomorrow.
With this development, by Sunday all the intending pilgrims would have been airlifted to the holy land.
LEADERSHIP investigation indicated that this positive result is due to diligent and early preparations embarked upon by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).
It is equally in line with the resolve by the leadership of the commission headed by Muhammad Musa Bello to professionalise Hajj operations in the country.
This is a significant improvement on the part of Nigeria's Hajj operations and a boost in the Nigeria-Saudi diplomatic relations.
Until now, nearly every year Saudi authorities had to be begged by their Nigerian counterparts to extend their deadline for Nigeria's pilgrims due to the latter's poor logistics and usual planlessness, especially the lack of respect to timed programmes.
The airlift, which started on October 25, is being coordinated from Lagos, Kano, Gombe, Sokoto and Maiduguri airports.
Already, ahead of the arrival of the national Hajj team representing Nigerian higher authorities to be led by the National Amirul Hajj, Senator Kanti Bello, an advanced team representing the main body, led by Alhaji Liad Tella, are in Saudi Arabia to fine-tune necessary arrangements.
Senator Bello had at various fora during interactive sessions with licensed airliners urged for efficient service delivery.
The airlines handling the Hajj operations are Kabo, Meridian, Medview and Max Air.
The airlift started about three weeks ago, with Lagos sending off the first batch of 295 pilgrims. Oyo sent 540, Zamfara, which uses Sokoto Airport, airlifted 540 initially.
Max Air was the first carrier to finish the airlift of the 30,400 pilgrims allocated to it. The airline attained this feat on Monday.
Kabo Air Limited completed the airlift of 31,324 pilgrims yesterday, which was the total number allocated to the airline this year. This shows that the airline was able to conclude the exercise in less than three weeks since the first batch left Sokoto on October 24.
The pilgrims were from Bauchi, Benue, Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, Kogi, Niger, Taraba and Zamfara states.
The manager, Corporate Affairs, of the airline, Alhaji Aminu Hamza, explained that the last set of pilgrims left Malam Aminu Kano International Airport on Tuesday, a week to the November 17 deadline given by the NAHCON to all carriers to complete the airlift.
The Managing Director and Chief Executive of Kabo Air Limited, Captain Sa'idu Mohammed, attributed the success to experience and dedication on the part of the management and staff of the company spanning about 30 years.
He called for the continued cooperation of all stakeholders and assured of the airline's readiness to make the return leg a successful one.
Meanwhile, some Nigerian pilgrims are as usual visiting Saudi Arabia through privately arranged international routes, such as Lagos-London-Jeddah, Kano-Cairo-Jeddah or Kano-Holland-London-Jeddah.
These arrangements are made through licensed international travel and tour agencies.
Our correspondent in Saudi Arabia spoke to Dr. Abubakar I. Kana, the head of the medical team, who said: “The Saudi government has not rejected Nigeria's immunisation exercise and yellow cards,” which are part of requirements to enter the Kingdom.
Our correspondent disclosed that the Saudi government has been administering polio vaccines and antibiotics to all Nigerian pilgrims as an administrative measure.
The remaining pilgrims from Kebbi and Zamfara states will be airlifted tomorrow by Kabo Airline at the Sultan Abubakar III International Airport.
This was made known to our correspondent by the coordinator of Kabo airline, Mr Steven Ishaya, in Sokoto.
The remaining pilgrims, comprising officials of the two states, who are about 100 in number, would be airlifted in a small aircraft carrying 189 passengers.
Over 18,000 Sokoto pilgrims, were airlifted from Sultan Abubakar III airport.
LEADERSHIP also gathered that cases of lost pilgrims, which used to be rampant in the past, are minimal.
The success in this area has been attributed to awareness campaigns instituted by the NAHCON, as well as efforts of various pilgrims welfare boards in the states.