168 African pilgrims dead
LATEST reports from various government and media sources indicate that at least 168 Africans were among the more that 700 killed in Thursday’s stampede in Mina, on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
The highest death toll from Africa is Morocco, with reported 87 dead, followed by Mali and Niger, with 20 killed. The nationalities of 383 are yet to be confirmed, suggesting the number of Muslims from the continent who died in the stampede could rise.
Among the three Nigerians who died is veteran journalist Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf, the first woman editor from northern Nigeria, as well as chairman of the Borno State Pilgrims Board, Professor Tijjani Almiskin.
Undergoing the pilgrimage, or ‘hajj’ in Arabic, is one of the five central tenets required of all Muslims who have the means to perform the ritual. During hajj, pilgrims march to Mecca from Medina – retracing the steps of the prophet Mohammad in 630 CE. Two million people attended last year.
Saudi officials have been blamed for causing the stampede, which is the sixth in 25 years and the second most deadly in that time; the largest death toll came in 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims died.
Since then, there have been stampede and fire tragedies that killed hundreds of people in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2004 and 2006.
Thursday’s disaster, in which at least 717 people died and more than 800 were injured according to official Saudi media, was the second surrounding the hajj this month; two weeks ago, a crane collapsed outside Mecca’s Grand Mosque, killing more than 100.
Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the head of the central Hajj committee, initially blamed the stampede on “some pilgrims with African nationalities”.
But Emir of Kano Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, head of the Nigerian delegation in Mecca, said Saudi Arabia was wrong to blame the pilgrims. “We are urging the Saudi authorities not to apportion blame for not obeying instructions, they should instead look into the issues of this disaster,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.
Convoy escorting the prince
Saudi state media stated that the stampede was triggered when two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street, while other reports suggest a convoy escorting Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Sulman al Saud prompted road closures at the junction, which disoriented the crowd’s movement.
The government embarked on a $21 billion program in 2011 to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque in Mecca to 2.5 million people.
“A lot of money has been spent in Mecca, so there will be questions about accountability,” Crispin Hawes, managing director of Teneo Intelligence, said in a phone interview with Bloomberg. “This has the potential for a nasty political firestorm for the regime, and there will need to be a political response to what will be perceived as another egregious failure.”
A ‘virtue’ to die
But the belief that anyone who dies during the pilgrimage goes to heaven dampens the incentive for the Saudi authorities to take responsibility for tragedies that occur during the hajj.
“That is among the things that happen at any large gathering,” one presenter on Saudi state television said. He closed his program by reminding viewers that it is a “virtue” to die while performing the pilgrimage and that the tragedy was only “temporary.”
The tragedies come as Saudi Arabia under King Salman, who ascended to the throne in January, is embroiled in a deepening war in neighboring Yemen while a slump in oil prices threatens the biggest deficit in decades.