Tuesday, October 20, 2015 8:54 pm
I am a Nigerian. I am a Muslim. And I am angry…
Almost a month has elapsed since the calamitous stampede at the Hajj in Mecca and we are no closer to any concrete answers about what really happened. The Nigerian death toll in the incident is creeping alarmingly higher – 199 at the last count with a further 121 missing. That’s 320 people. Gone. Real people with hopes, aspirations, plans for the future. Sucked from them in a crushing matter of moments. Parents cruelly stolen from children. Husbands separated forever from their partners. It’s nauseating. My close friend in Kaduna lost his wife in the tragedy and no amount of words or religious counsel can replace her. He still wakes up each morning in mourning, an empty space beside him on the bed.
The Associated Press put the current toll at 2,121 (with well over 1,000 still ‘missing’), making it easily the worst tragedy in the Hajj’s history and the deadliest crowd crush disaster to have occurred in modern times. To add insult to injury, the Saudi Arabian government has refused to amend their initial statement that only 769 perished, despite the clear evidence from figures tallied by countries involved which tripled this.
However, for me, the worst part of this tragedy is not the huge number of fatalities. It’s not the images of Saudi officials bulldozing dead bodies into a heap to ‘clean up’ in the stampede aftermath. It’s not the brazen attempts of officials to trade blames – from African pilgrims refusing to obey instructions to Iran deliberately instigating the stampede to tarnish Saudi reputation. No. The worst tragedy here is the deafening silence of the countries affected.
Rather than raising a clarion call for justice for the victims, compensation for the bereaved families and an independent investigation into what really happened; it appears most countries have swept the incident under the rug. I can’t talk for other nations but let me stir the hornet’s nest a little in my own country Nigeria. The Nigerian response to this horrific incident smacks of the highest level of hypocrisy as it sadly appears Buhari and his cohorts have chosen to tread the cowardly path of apathy.
It’s true Nigeria’s Senate President Bukola Saraki is facing heat right now over his assets but did anyone not notice what he said when a Saudi delegation visited last week? “I think it’s not about who is at fault but how do we ensure that we improve,” he is quoted as saying. Yes, that was it from Nigeria’s number three citizen. No call for justice. No demand for the real figures to be released. No talk of recompense for affected families. No insistence on an independent enquiry to unravel the truth behind the tragedy. No assertion on the need for responsibility to be duly taken. Just some wrapped up political hogwash, concluded by a call for enhancement of the visa processing between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia for prospective pilgrims. Some families still don’t know the fate of their loved ones and Saraki is already planning for the next Hajj. Is the value and sanctity of human life so easily trodden upon?
My reason for using hypocrisy as a key word in describing Nigeria’s lukewarm response is born of comparing it to the last major tragedy of ‘religious’ proportions that befell our country. When T.B. Joshua’s church hostel ‘collapsed’ or ‘imploded’ (depending on which side of the story you believe), sending 115 Christian pilgrims to an early grave, the Nigerian government was quick to apportion blame on the church and implement a predetermined court case to ascertain those at guilt. Even when CCTV footage was released by Joshua with compelling evidence that a military aircraft was connected to the tragedy, Nigeria’s government refused all requests to reveal the identity and assignment of the strange plane which encircled the ill-fated building four times, nor its occupants.
On that singular point alone, why are Nigeria and other countries for that matter not insisting that Saudi Arabia make the CCTV footage of the collapse public – if truly they have no culpability or dirty hands? It is well known that an elaborate security camera network was set up several years ago capturing every detail of the entire stretch of the Hajj journey. Perhaps the truth lies within those records – just as TB Joshua’s CCTV footage revealed the truth behind the uncanny nature of the building’s falling.
My point here is that the government deliberately tried to frame and blame Joshua for the Synagogue incident (without any pertinent consideration for the possibility of sabotage), making their nonchalance and refusal to question the Saudi officials all the more irritating. Perhaps they feel they can pick on someone like Joshua because he’s an individual and has no palpable political clout, as opposed to the oil-rich Saudi officials.
Any impartial observer will scream at the arrogance and callousness of the Saudi response to the tragedy yet it appears it’s still ‘business as usual’ in Mecca. The Hajj will continue and it’s likely no changes ‘in the system’ will result. When will Nigeria genuinely stand up for what is right and champion the cause of justice – irrespective of the religious, political or ethnic implications? I pray to Allah that my eyes would behold such a day.
Halima Babangida wrote in from Abuja, Nigeria