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N6.8m hajj fare: Intending pilgrims demand refund

Following the decision of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to jack up the 2024 hajj fare by N1.9 million, many intending pilgrims yesterday…

Following the decision of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to jack up the 2024 hajj fare by N1.9 million, many intending pilgrims yesterday asked the state Muslim pilgrims’ welfare boards to refund their deposits, Daily Trust can report. 

This is just as prominent civil society organisations and stakeholders, yesterday, called on President Bola Ahmed Tinubu to save this year’s hajj from “flopping.” 

NAHCON on Sunday increased the fare for this year’s pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia by N1, 918,032.91 while setting a deadline of March 28, 2024. It had in December 2023 fixed a fare of N4.9 million per pilgrim based on an exchange rate of N897 to a dollar. 

However, on Sunday, the commission asked those who had paid the initial amount to add N1.9 million, raising the total amount to N6.8 million. 

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 “Intending pilgrims that still wish to participate in the 2024 hajj are by this release advised to proceed and pay a balance of N1, 918,032.91 latest by 11:59 pm of 28th March 2024. The commission will shut down its system by 29th March and no other payment would be accommodated after,” NAHCON’s spokesperson, Fatima Sanda Usara said in a statement. The announcement, however, came as a shock to intending pilgrims, majority of whom had started approaching their pilgrims’ boards to seek a refund of the N4.9m deposit, it was learnt. 

Findings from pilgrims boards across the North and South of the country showed that only few intending pilgrims had started topping up; while many of the intending pilgrims have requested for a refund as they cannot afford the N1.9 million balance. 

 Kano 

In Kano, there is uncertainty among intending pilgrims on the actual fare for the 2024 hajj exercise. Officials at the Kano State Pilgrims’ Board said they were yet to decide but an agreement was billed to be reached within the next 24 hours. 

“You know how this kind of development works, the information was just received this morning (Monday). So we are trying to sit down and see how to go about it. 

“The board is going to sit with all the centre officers across the 44 local government areas, deliberate and agree on how much will be announced as an increase,” one of the officials, who does not want his name mentioned, said. 

However, expressing concern, an intending pilgrim, Mustapha Ahmad, said while he envisaged going to hajj even once in his lifetime, he got the opportunity this time around through a loved one whom he cannot go back to with the news of increment. 

The case is almost the same with Hafsat Yusuf, who got involved with colleagues to raise her hajj fare. 

She said: “I am even speechless, we are waiting for the Kano Pilgrims’ Board to announce their own increment but I don’t know how to go about it. 

“I spent almost a year saving into contributions with friends. I received mine, sold a plot of land and paid for hajj. Now, what am I going to sell again or where would I go to get money to pay the balance? God will provide but we are in a state of confusion and only God knows how many of us could be able to afford the increment.”

Another intending pilgrim in Kano, Hajiya Rakiya Abubakar, said she could not sleep when she heard the news about the increment of hajj fares. 

“When I heard the news of the increment, I couldn’t sleep. I am thinking of where to find the money to complete the payment. This is incredible,” Rakiya said. 

Another pilgrim said that he lost interest in going for the pilgrimage again as he is not in the position to add anything to what he had deposited. 

Kwara 

In Kwara State, sources at the pilgrims’ board said many people have turned up to seek a refund, saying they would not be able to raise the balance.

“As I am talking to you, not more than 50 people have turned up to pay the balance today and we have just two days after today (Monday) for intending pilgrims to complete the money,” a source said. 

One of the intending pilgrims, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “All along I have been praying that NAHCON would not announce an increment in fare but alas, this is a bitter pill to swallow, I doubt if I would still be able to go.” 

Lagos 

In Lagos, our correspondent also gathered that many people turned up yesterday to seek a refund, saying they don’t have the extra payment. “Some people came and said they can’t get that money while we have people who have equally turned up to complete the payment. It is a mixture that we are having. We still have today (Monday), tomorrow and next tomorrow,” an official said. 

When contacted, the spokesman for the state pilgrims’ welfare board, Taofeek Lawal, said the state would give an update by Wednesday when the deadline would elapse. 

Also, a resident of Lagos, Abolaji Shehu, said he had long deferred the sponsorship of his mother even before the increment was announced, saying the cost is too prohibitive. 

CSOs seek FG, states’ intervention 

A civil society organisation with focus on Hajj and Umrah reporting, Independent Hajj Reporters, said it had become imperative for governments at both the federal and state levels to provide intervention, else, hajj 2024 would witness the lowest Nigerian contingent ever, adding Nigerian pilgrims may miss the opportunity of a lifetime to perform this year’s hajj. Coordinator of the CSO, Ibrahim Muhammed, said, “As a civil society organisation with ears to the ground when it comes to hajj matters, we are sure that over 90% of those who paid the initial deposit of N4.9 million cannot afford to raise additional N1.9 million within four days. 

“It has, therefore, become imperative for us to call on the state governors and the federal government to come in and provide immediate succour to the pilgrims by providing additional payments as a form of subsidy. 

“Currently, NAHCON is on the verge of missing out on the deadline of 29th April set by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah to process visas for Nigerian registered pilgrims – there will be no hajj without a visa. 

“For example, it will take states’ Muslim pilgrim’s welfare boards a minimum of one week to make announcements in their various states for pilgrims to be aware of the new increase. Over 65 per cent of those who have registered for the 2024 hajj are farmers and it will take an additional one week for those who have the means to be able to raise the N1.9 million increase announced by NAHCON. 

“If the pilgrims were able to pay the additional increase, then states Muslim pilgrim’s boards will need a few days to transmit the collection to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for the apex bank to begin the process of transferring the said sum to NAHCON’s International Bank Account Number (IBAN) in Saudi Arabia. It is only after this that payments can be made to Saudi based service providers. 

“With visa processing scheduled to close 35 days from now and the airlift of pilgrims billed to commence in 45 days, President Bola Tinubu should come to the rescue and provide the needed support without asking pilgrims to pay an additional increase for 2024 hajj. 

“Anything short of this will see Nigeria travelling to hajj 2024 with less than 10,000 pilgrims out of the allocated 95,000 slots with a potential risk of Nigerian pilgrims missing out on 2024 hajj. 

“We are, therefore, appealing on behalf of all Nigerian Muslims that emergency interventions are provided so that pilgrims who have at least paid the initial deposit of N4.9 million are not denied the chance to fulfil this all-important religious obligation” IHR said. 

Don’t over charge pilgrims – MURIC 

Also, the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) has warned hajj operators not to charge intending pilgrims higher than the current exchange rate of between N1, 476.247 and N1, 480 per dollar. 

Its Executive Director, Professor Ishaq Akintola, in a statement, said,  “As time draws closer for the 2024 hajj season and intending Nigerian pilgrims are struggling to meet the deadline set by hajj authorities to register for the spiritual exercise, we are constrained to cry out on behalf of intending pilgrims against the astronomical exchange rate being demanded by hajj operators. 

“MURIC has it on good authority that intending pilgrims are told to pay an exchange rate of N1,625 per dollar whereas the current official Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) rate as at yesterday 24th March, 2024 is N1,476.247 (selling) and N1,477.247 (buying). Unconfirmed reports say CBN is actually selling to Bureau de Change (BDC) at N1, 300. 

“Data from the federal government trading portal showed that as from Saturday, 23rd March, 2024, importers will be charged N1,448.386 per dollar for import duty. The new rate represents a 7.89 per cent reduction from the previous rate of N1, 572.507 per dollar. 

“We find the rate given to intending Muslim pilgrims discriminatory, irrational and unjustifiable. We are therefore constrained to demand a reasonable reduction in the exchange rate to be paid by 2024 prospective pilgrims. Charges being demanded by hajj operators must have a human face because hajj exercise is not necessarily a commercial enterprise and those engaging in it must manifest the fear of Allah (taqwah).” 

A former Commissioner for Home Affairs in Lagos State, Mohammed Oyinlomo Danmole, also called on the president to intervene in the high cost of hajj. 

He said, “As a result of different regimes of rates of exchange given the tour operators and the state pilgrims’ board, it has become difficult for private tour operators to keep their clients.” 

Don’t borrow to balance hajj payment’ 

A former National Commissioner with NAHON, Prof. Lanre Badmus, in an interview with Daily Trust, advised intending pilgrims not to take cooperative loans to complete the hajj fare even as he stated that the demand for subsidy from the government might not be feasible as Nigeria is a secular nation. According to him, intending pilgrims who cannot afford additional N1.9 million should keep the deposit “until another year when Almighty Allah would make it possible.”

 

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