This year’s annual pilgrimage exercise came to a close on July 30, with the airlift of the last pilgrims from the Holy Land, Saudi Arabia, three months after the start of the operation on April 25.
Hajj, an annual event, is incumbent on every adult Muslim, who can afford it. It is one of the five pillars of Islam.
This year’s hajj came after the major interruption occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 and 2021, the whole exercise did not take place while in 2022, many countries were only allocated half of their usual slots. In 2023, Nigeria was allocated 95,000 seats out of the more than two million people who performed the rites.
It is gratifying to observe that this year’s operation by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) was an improvement from last year’s which was characterised by open disagreements among officials both at home and in the Holy Land. Last year, more than 700 intending pilgrims from a number of states were left out of the exercise due to the failure of airlines to transport them.
This year, all of Nigeria’s pilgrims were flown to and from Saudi Arabia. But this was not without a lot of hiccups which NAHCON only managed to overcome at the last minute. First, some of the airlines contracted to lift the pilgrims showed glaring incapacity to undertake such task. We had two emergency landings by a particular airline carrying pilgrims to Saudi Arabia while another airline could not secure landing rights which resulted in its inability to start its outbound flights on time. Also, NAHCON had to intervene to save some pilgrims due to the inability of another airline to fulfill its obligations to airlift thousands of pilgrims allocated to tour operators.
At the Holy land, there were reports of poor feeding and accommodation arrangements. Many pilgrims were forced to feed themselves from their meagre travelling allowance while some were also forced to stay in overcrowded rooms. NAHCON blamed Saudi companies that were contracted to provide such services for the development. But this also shows that there was no due diligence in choosing service providers.
It is really surprising and disturbing that more than 60 years since Nigeria first sent pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, the same problems keep rearing their heads with every operation. Many of these problems persist due to selfishness on the part of officials who want to cut corners to the detriment of the innocent pilgrims. Also, Hajj operations in the country have been largely politicised, where in some instances, incompetent party loyalists are put in charge of operations at both state and federal levels, sometimes at the last minute.
One also wonders why NAHCON will still contract the same airline company that failed in its obligations the previous year to airlift pilgrims again the subsequent year. It is the same story with service providers in Saudi Arabia. In 2022, NAHCON had to force some of them to make refunds to pilgrims for poor services, yet the same situation was repeated this year. Many pilgrims were said to have been served two meals per day for several days while others were lodged in overcrowded rooms.
State pilgrims welfare agencies make matters worse by showing gross incompetence in the arrangements leading to the exercise. Many were late in collecting pilgrims’ fares, processing and preparing their respective pilgrims. There were reports that officials recruited to guide pilgrims in the Holy Land were found to be generally inexperienced in Hajj rites, as some of them were there for the first time.
All these resulted in many Nigerian pilgrims encountering problems in Saudi Arabia.
Daily Trust strongly believes that it is time to address these recurring issues by sanitising the Hajj management at the state and federal levels. It is sad that pilgrims who paid huge amounts to fulfill a lifelong ambition are often shortchanged by those entrusted to run the affairs.
We believe that the government must take the bold move by handing over Hajj operations to the private sector. NAHCON should go back to its primary role of being a regulatory agency, ensuring that all those involved in any of the operations are competent to carry out their responsibilities. We believe that a situation where NAHCON is both a regulator and operator of Hajj affairs will only continue to lead to a conflict of interests and dereliction of duty.
We also call on the federal government to investigate the numerous complaints by our pilgrims during this year’s pilgrimage with a view to ensuring that they are adequately compensated for the services that they were denied after they fully paid for them.
Daily Trust hopes government will seize this opportunity to address these issues once and for all.