I can't help but oversimplify the Hajj issue that has posed such a challenge to this country for so long. I would have thought that going to Mecca entailed some very easy steps: step one – decide to go to Mecca; step two – contact a travel agent; step three – choose an airline and a date; step four – buy your ticket; step five go to the airport; step six – fly to Mecca. Nothing could be simpler than this; it is not as if it amounted to building nuclear weapons or doing pinhole surgery.
Unfortunately, we have got to a point that if you were a local prophet hard pressed for credibility you would do no worse than grow a long beard and predict that sometime next year there will be a Hajj fiasco, which will see thousands of would-be pilgrims sleeping rough around the airport. We can all bank on it: next year, Muslims will be stranded at the airport without fail.
Over the last four years (it could go back even further but my recollections are circumscribed by the period of my physical presence in the country) the Hajj has, in the popular newspaper parlance, been bedevilled with problems, and the trend is apparently getting worse. I remember arriving at the Accra International Airport four years ago around the time of the pilgrimage and meeting a sea of disappointed and sad wannabe Alhaji and Hajia faces filled with sadness and anxiety.
Reasons were given; lessons were said to have been learnt; promises were made that never again. I have had the pleasure of witnessing the departure and arrival of Hajj pilgrims from many countries in our West Africa sub-region over the past several years, and my recollection is of happy occasions as friends and family either see off or welcome pilgrims embarking on a very important personal and religious voyage.
I remember last year's fiasco because of the close attention paid to it by Peace FM's morning show host Kwami Sefa-Kayi. He wouldn't let it go, and in a very fine exhibition of relevant journalism, extracted promises from all the important players that Fiasco 2006 was the last and absolutely the last. My recollection includes attempts to link the Vice President to the mess and the efforts he and the government made to extricate the entire state machinery from the saga of another Hajj mess. The important point is that everyone said the same thing: IT WILL NOT HAPPEN AGAIN.
So why are we in the same bad place that we were four, three and two years ago? At the risk of sounding like an old, scratched gramophone record let me state the obvious in four words: corruption and bad planning. I don't have any evidence but I don't need any evidence; most reasonable people will have to come to the same conclusion. Perhaps, somewhere in all of this will be some persons trying to use the Hajj as a vehicle to enrich themselves, or perhaps become power brokers in the Muslim community.
There is an extrapolated principle behind the general mess that we are in: people profit from it. It is as simple as that. By implication, a smooth and untroubled Hajj operation would be costly to someone, even if it would bring joy to the pilgrims. It is a distressing fact that this is the lie of the land: a small minority profits from the misery of the majority of the people. As the Akan proverb goes, when you see a fellow baring all his teeth in a happy grin you can bet that some other fellow is in serious trouble. But that grinning fellow would not feel so triumphant if he feared the arm of the law was making a grab for him.
Therein lies the trouble. People do bad things because they get away with it all the time, so with time a pattern of impunity sets in and wrongdoers even become surprised when they are challenged for breaking the law. In other words, every previous Hajj fiasco has an “owner” who should face some sanctions but it has never happened like that. The culprits get away with it; a new committee is formed only for the same thing to happen again… and again.
I cannot imagine that there was a single person who passed by the airport or even saw the stranded pilgrims on TV this last week and didn't feel the urge to strangle the people who did this to our fellow countrymen and women. I felt that way, and my rage has not subsided because I wouldn't stand for it for one microsecond if it happened to me. Why should we tolerate when it is happening to other people.
Dear reader, imagine for a second how you would feel if this happened to you: because of your religious belief you have handed over more than two thousand US dollars to some one who promises to fly you to your place of pilgrimage. On the appointed day you arrive in Accra and make your way to the airport. When you get there, there is no reception party for you neither is your plane waiting on the tarmac. There is no one, not even the one who collected your money, to tell you anything at all. After many anxious hours, you are taken from the airport and dumped at the Aviation Social Centre with no food, drink, toilet or toiletries for days. How long would it take before you go lethal, mental or legal? Not a lot.
So why does it happen every year to Muslim pilgrims? I think that the answer lies in using the wrong approach to this Hajj situation. I can't see that there is anything specially Islamic about transporting pilgrims to Mecca, therefore there is no need for a special Hajj Committee composed of the good and mighty in the Muslim Community. After all, if you won't insist on being flown in an Islamic aircraft by a Muslim pilot then it should be ok for the journey to be arranged by a competent travel agent whether the agent is Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Afrikania, or an atheist.
However, the nature of the Hajj and the historic involvement of the Saudi state demands that governments of all countries providing pilgrims must be involved in arranging the pilgrimage. But this does not call for a committee, either set up by the government or not and government's intervention must be limited to using the country's official procurement processes to select up to three reputable travel agencies to run the Hajj travel part which is not a religious rite. The tender process would ensure that there are legal guarantees in case of default as well as quality service to pilgrims.
The other thing government must do is to monitor the situation all year round even after the Hajj business is handed over to competent travel agents. If a Hajj Committee must be put in place, its role must be to monitor the implementation of the contract that the government would sign with the travel agents on behalf of the Muslim community. It would not be the responsibility of the Committee or Council to collect passports, visas, planes, hotels, etc. That must be left to those who know how to do those things well to do and be paid for their services.
So far, the main problem with organising the Hajj appears to be that a relatively simple process is being made unnecessarily complicated, which gives rise to possible corruption and definite inefficiency. Let the government play a leading role in rescuing the Hajj from the tangled web of complexity and render it back to its basics: taking a group of people from one place to another. Even tro-tro mates do that everyday and their occasional insults are better than sleeping rough at Aviation Centre.
Authored by Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng ([email protected])