The incidences of the fall of a crane and the stampede in 2015 hajj are indeed, accidents too many. Just within a week, as the world tried to recover from a crane collapse at the Grand Mosque in Mecca that killed over 117 pilgrims and inflicted life injuries on many more, the unfortunate stampede (crush) happened again! The latest official reports showed that the casualties have climbed up to over a thousand.
The 2015 Hajj occurred amidst many other challenges: as regional turmoil, the hottest temperatures in Mecca in 20 years, the MERS infection and with serious tensions between Sunnis and Shias or succinctly put, between Saudi and other regional powers as Iran and Syria.
As at September 30th, Nigeria alone has third highest numbers of victims with not less than 64 deaths with 244 still missing. Among them is Tijjani El-Miskeen, a Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies from University of Maiduguri; Hajia Bilkisu Yusuf, a veteran journalist, a human rights activist and a heroine of the BRING-BACK-OUR-GIRLS struggle; two Appeal Court Judges, Justice Abdulkadir Jega who is the Presiding Justice of the Abuja Division of the appellate court and Justice Musa Hassan Alkali of the Ilorin Division. Others include Dr Hafsat Shittu, a member of the Nigerian medical team, and a first class traditional ruler from Taraba State in Northern Nigeria among many others.
While Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari described the stampede as a monumental calamity and a colossal loss of lives, Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani described the ugly incident as "heart-rending". The Federation of Muslim Women in Nigeria also described it as a regrettable incident that occurred due to ‘avoidable’ factors.
President Buhari and many other world leaders have therefore called for investigation into the stampede just as Nigeria Hajj Commission (NAHCOM) Chairman Abdullahi Mukhtar urged Saudi Arabia to involve countries whose citizens were involved in the stampede.
A statement from the presidency stated that “the Nigerian President has taken note of the assurance by the Government of Saudi Arabia that Thursday's catastrophe will be investigated and urges King Salman to ensure a comprehensive and thorough exercise that will identify any flaws in Hajj organisation with a view to avoiding a recurrence of such tragedies during the annual pilgrimage.”
Even before any investigation into the stampede has been carried out, the country's most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin-Abdullah al-Sheikh has prematurely defended the authorities, saying the stampede was "beyond human control".
Also, Sheikh Saleh Al-Talib, Imam and Khateeb of the Grand Mosque, said in his Friday sermon that Saudi Arabia is capable of managing Hajj affairs effectively.
“The occurrence of an accident due to heavy rush or stampede of some pilgrims or violation of its regulations won’t mitigate this lofty position of the Kingdom,” he defended.
The authorities have initially put the blame squarely on African pilgrims, particularly Egyptians pilgrims. It said the Egyptians ‘insisted’ on taking the same route to return to their camp after throwing their own stones.
Though, King Salman has ordered a safety review into the disaster, it has been met with a barrage of doubts, amidst accusations of incompetence across the world, with many insisting that the Saudis have questions to answer.
A statement by the Saudi Civil Defense Directorate said that the stampede occurred on Thursday 24 September 2015 at 09:00 Mecca time (06:00 UTC) at the junction between street 204 and 223 as pilgrims were en route to the Jamaraat Bridge. The Saudi Interior Ministry stated that the stampede was triggered when two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street. The junction lay between two pilgrim camp sites.
The head of the Nigerian delegation in Mecca, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, was the first to fault Saudi’s claim, saying the circumstances of the disaster need to be looked at more closely.
"First of all, as we all know, the incident happened not at the stoning of the devil's site, it happened on the designated ways for incoming and outgoing pilgrims to the site crossing each other, which shouldn't be so."
"We are therefore urging the Saudi authorities not to apportion blame to the pilgrims for not obeying instructions."
Similarly, a rights group, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) took a diverse stand from Saudi’s position. The Director of the group, Professor Ishaq Akintola said: “As eyewitnesses of the gory stampede incident, we testify that it was caused by security breakdown on the part of the Saudi authorities. We left Muzdalifah for Muna around 6.00 am on that fateful day. To our surprise, the road was blocked by Egyptian pilgrims who had cast their own stones and were returning to their camp. Instead of taking the route designated for returning pilgrims, they stubbornly took the route meant for those who were going. The road became narrow and movement became difficult. The atmosphere became charged and even breathing and visibility were affected. The few policemen who were around desperately threw water at us to save us from collapsing. It became glaring to us at that moment that a monumental stampede was just around the corner.
The Saudi authorities therefore lied when they tried to put the blame squarely on African pilgrims. The stampede would not have occurred at all if Saudi security agents had disallowed pilgrims returning from the jamaraat from taking the same route on their way back. The practice over the years has always been to take a detour but this was not enforced on Thursday. The fact that the road to the same jamaraat became very free and safe yesterday (Friday) and this morning (Saturday) when Saudi security agents strictly enforced the rules by disallowing returning pilgrims to use the same route as those going proves that our hypothesis is correct.”
The Director of MURIC also joined NAHCON in insisting that all the countries whose citizens died in the stampede be part of the investigation into the tragedy.
Another eyewitness account is the head of Kebbi State pilgrims (Amirul Hajj) and the Emir of Argungu, Alhaji Isma’il Muhammad Mira. The traditional ruler said the tragedy in Mina occurred when Saudi security, for unknown reason, blocked the way which thousands of pilgrims were passing for the symbolic rite of devil stoning.
He said the ensuing crush was as a result of the stumble from the barricade by the Saudi security officers.
The Emir, who narrowly survived the stampede, described how a Justice with the Abuja Division of the Appeal Court, Abdulkadir Jega became a victim out of their 16-member team that headed for the stoning.
“We reached Mina around 3.00a.m., and we said our early morning prayers there. By 6.00a.m., we left our tent for the Jamarat to do the stoning. We were walking up to around 10:30a.m., when we stumbled. In front of us, about 50-100 metres, we sighted Saudi security officers barricaded the road. That was how everybody stumbled. Those at the back were not aware that the front was no longer moving, and those at the front were stopped by the Saudi security.
“That was how the crush continued up to the time people began to climb up to whatever that was there. Those at the back stepped on those in their fronts to climb. And the security officials were being increased in number to ensure that they effectively blocked pilgrims from passing through.
“Then, comes cry from everywhere. Some male pilgrims desperately trying to escape even went naked. And corpses littered everywhere. Those people (securities) stopped us amidst the corpses. I did not get out of the place until 3p.m. It was God that saved me out of the place. And out of our group, 16 of us, only Justice died. But the kind of horror that we witnessed, could not be imagined,” the Emir said.
Alhaji Mira also accused the Saudi authorities of lying.
“To say that the corpses totalled 700 is just ridiculous. As an Amirul Hajj, in one of the hospitals we visited trying to determine our victims; the list of the dead people in that hospital alone was more than 1,200. And a long queue of ambulances was still there.
“Only God knows what they planned and what happened at the place. But what we know is that they barricaded our way. They were the only ones who know the reasons. That was how they stocked us in that area: young, aged, males and females. It’s hard to imagine, unless for one who witnessed it.”
The Lebanese account also put a lie to the Saudi’s narration. The Lebanon-based Arabic-language daily Ad-Diyar alleged that the convoy escorting Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, comprising 200 soldiers and 150 police officers, played a central role in the incident, by making some pilgrims turn around against the flow, which triggered a stampede. The report also stated that Mohammad and his huge entourage swiftly abandoned the scene, adding that the Saudi authorities sought to hush up the entire story and impose a media blackout on reporting Mohammad's presence in the area.
Among the nations that were terribly hit by the stampede is Iran. Tehran alone lost over 140 pilgrims to the stampede.
On September 29, 2015, the Iranian Javan Daily News released a report criticising the Saudi authorities over the secrecy surrounding the details of the disaster. The report went further by claiming that Saudi authorities tried to bury the unidentified bodies of victims. The report also referred to eye witnesses claims that Saudi soldiers had seized the mobile phones of pilgrims who had used them to record videos of the disaster.
Iran's official news agency IRNA reported that according to Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organisation more than 2,000 people were killed and 2,000 more injured in the stampede. Also on 29 September 2015 Fars News referring to Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organisation estimated that there were 2,700 people killed. Later reports by Iranian sources put the death toll at over 4,000. PressTV reported on 29 September that, "according to some reports," Saudi Vice Minister of Health Hamad bin Muhammad Al-Duweila had said the death toll in the tragedy had reached 4,173. However, the Saudi Health Ministry later denied the reports.
If Iran’s reports of the event is taken with a pinch of salt and seen as ‘politically motivated’, Lebanon and Pakistan as well as other countries like Nigeria cannot be considered as such. For instance, Pakistan's Federal Minister for Religious Affairs said that 1,250 victims of the Mina tragedy could not be identified. This is almost equal to the pilgrims reported missing by different nations. According to one member of the Mauritian Hajj Mission, stampede death toll may exceed 3000.
If the above explanations are anything to go by, the description of the 2015 tragedy by the media as the deadliest accident to occur in the Hajj since the 1990 disaster that killed 1,426 people will have to be de-classified. It will therefore not be incorrect to describe the calamity as the worst and deadliest Hajj disaster in history (from time immemorial).
Joint Investigation and Organisation
Emir Mira stressed that Saudi alone must bear the responsibility of the incidence and also lend a voice to joint investigation.
“All the vehicles and the security officers that stopped us belonged to Saudi Arabia. This is not the plea (joint investigation requests) of Nigeria alone. This is the plea of the international community, because many nationals are involved. I think all the countries need to be part of the Hajj preparation, because these people only think that the Hajj is for them alone, they arrange it the way they like. If all the Muslim countries would have a stake in the way the Hajj, preparation and the security arrangement are done, I think that will help.”
The head of Iran's Hajj organisation, Said Ohadi has insisted the incident was caused by the Saudi Arabia’s authorities' decision to close two paths near the scene of the symbolic 'stoning of the devil' ritual for the convoy of Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince. Tehran’s blamed Muhammad bin Salman Al Saud for triggering the panic that led to the stampede.
As if corroborating the Emir of Argungu and Professor Akintola’s narratives, Iran accused Saudi authorities of lying, insisting that the death toll reported at being some 700 was over 2000 according to Iran’s Semi-State Fars News Agency.
Ohadi further blamed Saudi for lack of safety consciousness: "Today's incident shows mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims. There is no other explanation. The Saudi officials should be held accountable”, he said on Iranian state television.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's went further to call on Saudi Arabia to apologise for the deadly stampede of the Eid-ul-Adha day. The call followed the speech by President Hassan Rouhani at the UN in which he called for an investigation.
Ayatollah Khamenei said: "This issue will not be forgotten and the nations will pursue it seriously. Instead of accusing this and that, the Saudis should accept the responsibility and apologise to the Muslims and the victims' families. The Islamic world has a lot of questions. The death of more than 1,000 people is not a small issue."
At home in Tehran, Prosecutor General Sayed Ibrahim Raisi said on state television that Iran would seek the trial of the Saudi royal family over its "crimes" in "international courts".
Responding, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir who was also in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, said: "I believe that the Iranians should know better than to play politics with a tragedy that has befallen people who were performing their most sacred religious duty."
While the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, a long time adviser to the kingdom's rulers, accused Tehran of playing politics, former Iranian lawmaker Elias Hazrati told Reuters by phone from Tehran that Iran was not playing politics over the hajj.
"Tehran is simply asking Riyadh to take responsibility. If this incident happened only once, we could call it an accident, but this is happening every few years. The Saudis' mismanagement is the problem of all the Islamic world, not Tehran", he said..
From the foregoing, it appears that Saudi Arabia, rather than Iran is the one playing politics with the incident. Why is Saudi jumping into conclusion by blaming African pilgrims even before any inquiry? Why were Saudi clerics clearing members of the royal family of any responsibilities even before investigating the incident? Why is Riyadh playing the blame game and refusing to either apologise or take responsibility?
And why is the Islamic Kingdom ‘hiding’ the real figures of the casualties? Why were media signals, including al Jazeerah blocked and restricted immediately the occurrence? Why were facts particularly from Iran’s perspectives being suppressed on the internet? Who indeed was responsible for the crane collapse? Was it a case of criminal negligence from the foreign construction company or sheer sabotage from unsuspected sources? What was the role of about scores of thousand hired intelligence personnel from the US? And how did the authorities arrive at the compensation for the dead and injured pilgrims from the crane fall?
According to a BBC report, one eyewitness who was caught up in the midst of the deadly crush of people on Thursday gave a sense of an "us and them" divide when he narrated how he tried to escape:
"On the left side and the right side there were tents. They closed their doors and said sorry, we can't let anyone enter. I asked the question: if you'd only open your doors, people would only come into your tent just for five or 10 minutes. And I say then, no-one would have died."
The implication of all of this is that despite the billions being spent on development of the holy sites, “there may not be enough attention paid on the basic human level of dealing with the mass influx of pilgrims so that all are treated equally, as the simple white clothes they assume on entering Mecca are meant to symbolises.”
But along with the immense prestige and honour for the Saudi royal family that the hosting of the Hajj confers, comes a heavy responsibility too; which is the ability to manage such an extraordinary logistical challenge.
The narratives of Nigerians and others stated above seem to lend credence to Iran’s allegation that the security closed two out of the available routes leading to the destination (Jamaraat) because of just a Deputy Crown Prince and his convoy, leading to deliberate closure of roads without any prior warning to nations’ hajj commissions and thereby ultimately causing the stampede.
This is where Iran and all other voices of change, including Nigeria must be taken serious. Whatever ideological divide one may belong, the voice of Iran must be harkened to in this circumstance. Islam has no voice today and Iran is inadvertently filling that vacuum. This is where Saudi has failed woefully. Corruption is everywhere and the interest of Saudi’s Monarch and members of royal family is being put above the overall interest of Islam.
What is at stake here is purely Foreign Affairs and International Relations. Iran recorded the highest casualties, losing over 140 citizens. Every nation knows the quality and worth of its citizens that goes on Hajj. Among them are irreplaceable professors, scientists, doctors, highly skilled professionals, captains of Industries- including banks and multinationals etc.
Saudi has resisted
Somebody has to be held responsible when lapses are observed. Since Saudi has resisted moves by the Muslim world to throw open the organisation of Hajj, it should therefore bear the burden singly and accept the responsibility alone. There is no doubt that the Saudi authorities were slack in crowd control mechanism in the latest tragedies.
If two million people were asked to come on Hajj, it means Saudi considers itself capable of taking care of them, just as the Saudi’s Mufti has claimed. Saudi therefore can't enjoy the benefits and the prestige associated with annual Hajj and refuses to put appropriate crowd control measure in place.
It is the responsibility of the host country to ensure pilgrims’ safety; and if anything goes awry, the host takes responsibility. That is how things run in advanced states where life is not cheap.
In sane climes, for instance, the CEO of the construction company whose crane killed almost two hundred pilgrims and inflicted live injuries on hundreds should languish in jail for criminal negligence. One million Riyal per dead pilgrims can never replace the lives and worth of many VIPs, billionaires and in fact all the souls lost in the avoidable tragedies.
If Saudi has all the luxury and wherewithal to bomb both Sunnis and Shias alike in Yemen with all the collateral deaths, including about 150 casualties at a wedding, why are they not displaying enough dexterity, concentration and capability on its real responsibility as the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’.
Without pre-empting the outcomes of the investigations, carelessness is somewhat apparent in the crane accident. For instance, why would such high level construction work which should have stopped about a month to hajj duties continued at the pick of the exercise?
Saudi’s display of outright mismanagement and lack of requisite organisational competence of Hajj Operations over the years has led to calls by many for institutions as Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to be involved in Hajj operations without necessarily pushing the ‘Custodian’ aside. And this, Saudi monarch has consistently resisted.
Other narratives, including that of Saudi put the blame squarely on the table of the African pilgrims for impatience and for refusal to follow agreed time table for stone-throwing. This must equally be seriously looked into. But then, in the final analysis, the authorities must still take responsibility for inability to properly guide, guard and control their guests.
It is quite obvious that the people (Muslims and non-Muslims) across the world are not satisfied with the explanations so far offered by the Saudi on the crane collapse and the unfortunate stampede. Without doubt, Saudi has made a lot of efforts in the past, but avoidable fatal accidents witnessed almost on annual basis put a lot of questions to Saudi’s management of the pilgrimage.
Since it will be difficult for Saudi Government to completely exonerate itself from the incidents without objective inquiries, proper investigations should therefore be carried out and anyone found culpable be made to face the music. As the real ‘Custodian of the Holy Sanctuaries”, objectivity and truthfulness are essential to put the record straight going by several reports and allegations on the cause of the stampede, some of which have indicted the Saudi Government.
Meanwhile, there are those who are of the opinion that Muslims must accept faith (destiny), that whether the dead pilgrims had been in Saudi or in their various countries they would still have died anyway.
But does Islam prevent Muslims from investigating the remote cause of such death? Of course the answer is No.
It is thus completely illogical to explain these incidents away on destiny. When things went awry at the Battle of Uhud, some people were held responsible for not following instructions to the letter, though the dead were still accorded martyrdom status.
So, as much as we seek Allah's forgiveness for the deceased and pray fortitude for the bereaved, the truth must be told and accepted and efforts must be made to prevent such avoidable wanton waste of human lives. After all, a saying of the Prophet of Islam states that: “A Muslim is not bitten twice from the same hole”.
Voice of Nigeria Lagos