Millions of Muslims in Africa share the same concerns with their brothers and sisters in faith around the world about whether this year’s hajj in Saudi Arabia will hold given the protracted lockdown prompted by the global campaign against the coronavirus pandemic.As the Islamic world waits, a climate of uncertainty clouds the horizon for prospective pilgrims – from Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa where Muslims would have been immersed in frantic preparations for the spiritual sojourn of a lifetime in Mecca and Medina.
For the very first time since its founding in 1932, the kingdom weeks ago toyed with the idea of cancelling the pilgrimage after its coronavirus cases surpassed 100,000 in May.
As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on the world, the kingdom which seems to have weathered the first real storms of the pandemic on its soil is treading carefully lest it creates a situation that could be a catalyst for a new wave of infections.
The kingdom now has over 130, 000 cases from which at least 1000 have died of the disease so there is every indication that its authorities are not in the mood to take chances with the over 2 million people descending on their two holy cities to perform hajj rituals if given the opportunity.
Saudi Arabia thus faces a catch 22 situation but the attention of Africa’s over 600 million Muslims is on Riyadth to decide on going ahead with the hajj in the second half of July albeit with a reduced volume or deferring it altogether.
Deferring the hajj which attracts millions of worshippers is also fraught with deleterious risks to the Saudi economy which accounts for a hefty chunk of its GDP.
Thus Riyadth finds itself in a helpless situation where scaling back or calling off this year’s hajj will affect the economy in more ways than one and offend the sensibilities of ardent Muslims who care more about practicing their faith than concerns for the mortal dangers posed by a disease associated with conspiracy theories.
Already time is not on anybody’s side as pre-hajj preparations that should take the better part of two months to complete may now be done within a matter of weeks given Saudi Arabia”s prolonged hesitance over what to do with hajj 2020.
The hajj is one of the world’s largest religious occasions yearly and involves Muslims from all over the world, heightening the chances for coronavirus cases to increase.
From the African perspective, giving short notice for the hajj could pose a huge logistical challenge to most countries on the continent where preparations for one of Islam’s most important pillars have been largely suspended as in Senegal and The Gambia or abandoned.
From Nigeria, the expectation is more of hope than faith in the Saudi authorities to make the right decisions which would satisfy Muslims.
The Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Alhaji. Zikrullah Kunle Hassan is optimistic that the hajj will take place without being delayed or deferred.
“Only the Saudi authorities can take the final decision. We can only take our own decision in the light of Saudi one”, the NAHCON boss told a meeting of the country’s hajj committee convened to look into the issue.
He said there are some tangible reasons for optimism given that the Saudis recently reopened mosques for prayers, eased lockdown across the kingdom, witnessed an increase in the rate of recoveries of infected persons, a reduction in positive cases of the disease.
The opening of six large diagnostic laboratories is also helping Saudi Arabia control infections.
Nigerian hajj pilgrims should however expect the 2020 Hajj to come with some restrictions as the Saudi authorities may introduce new guidelines to curb the spread of the virus such as slashing global allocations, banning Muslims from countries with prevalent case of Covid-19 from participating.
In a small country like The Gambia whose hajj allocation last year was 1700 pilgrims, those involved in its preparations have been applying a wait and see attitude to Saudi Arabia.
So are other Muslim majority countries in Africa such as Egypt and Morocco where preparations have gone from being suspended to apparently being abandoned.
So is the Muslim world set for a half or full hajj?
While the decision is Saudi Arabia;s to decide, the implications will reverberate in Africa and other corners of the globe.
The next few weeks could be a make or break for hajj 2020.