The National Hajj Commission (NAHCON) is anxious that no intending pilgrim from Nigeria is disenfranchised from undertaking Hajj 2018 due to misinformation or lack of it. That is why the commission embarked on a nationwide rigorous campaign to clarify some salient matters which many Nigerian Muslims take for granted in respect to Hajj and which this time around may cost some direly if steps are not retracted early.
Zones thus far visited for this important dialogues are Lagos which covers some South West states and armed forces, Sokoto for Kebbi and Zamfara states , Kaduna under which are Jigawa and Kano states, Abuja under whose domain are Nasarawa, Kogi and Benue states. Others are Katsina, Niger, Bauchi, Gombe, Yola, Ilorin, Port-Harcourt and Borno.
To address its concerns, NAHCON identified and engaged particular local imams, ulama and well respected Islamic opinion leaders in its fora. The belief here is that if these Islamic leaders are well informed, they will help pass on the message to their immediate communities who they meet at least five times a day during prayers or once a week during Juma’at services. And should these community members have worries to clarify pertaining Hajj administration, the above identified persons are more accessible to educate them one-on-one than radio, television or NAHCON representatives. This underlies the importance of involving these set of persons in this sensitization campaign that also gathered other Hajj stakeholders, journalists and any interested parties in the parleys.
Prominent in these talks are the headaches that accompany delay in paying for Hajj fares until a certain period. The chairman of NAHCON, Barrister Mukhtar, in the Abuja forum expressed concern that most intending pilgrims and other sponsors such as state governments that sponsor officials, habitually delay paying for Hajj seats until the Islamic month of Ramadan. Although this payment deferral is unnecessary, this time around, it is even catastrophic. In the past, NAHCON used to make adjustments to accommodate this peculiar Nigerian Muslims’ goof, however, even NAHCON is constrained this time around. This is because the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), has set the month of May as deadline for closure of its Hajj portal which corresponds with the month of Sha’aban of Islamic calendar; precisely a month before Ramadan. Therefore, walking in to pay for Hajj during or after Ramadan is futile. And the person’s best option is to wait for next year’s Hajj; not even NAHCON can help him/her.
It is in order to correct this misjudgment and to avoid a logjam that NAHCON is reiterating upon the 31st of March deadline for payment of 1.5 million Naira as deposit for Hajj seat in Nigeria. It has urged all interested parties to pass this message on to those who may be affected, especially among those who hold the misconception that they can walk in to pay for Hajj any time before the month of Dhul Hijja.
Also among the contentious issues discussed is the misconception that NAHCON arbitrarily decides on Hajj fares and is insensitive to the dilemma of believers yearning to seek the acceptance of their Lord. This erroneous belief is even more serious presently considering the case that cost of services has escalated within the KSA and in Nigeria, likewise the Dollar exchange rate has deteriorated against last year’s. This ultimately will rebound on the final Hajj fare computation. When one recalls the uproar that greeted last year’s announcement of 1.5 million Naira as fare, one would have a picture of the radioactive fallout of the outrage that awaits NAHCON should this year’s seat cost more. For no fault of theirs, NAHCON is entrapped in a mess. It is not within NAHCON’s capabilities to negotiate a reduced exchange rate for pilgrims which would have certainly decreased Hajj fares. Only federal government can decide an exchange rate amnesty to pilgrims if it so desires: it currently stands at 360 Naira to a dollar. But recall the fuss that Nigerians spewed the last time government legitimately did so in 2016, it then leaves the situation better imagined. So unless government is willing to stake its neck for pilgrims, rate of foreign exchange will always determine how the final fare stands.
The third worry which NAHCON shared with stakeholders and its Muslim participants is the compulsory biometric data capturing exercise for visa processing as required by the KSA. The trouble lies in the few number of centers approved by Saudi government versus the large number of pilgrims that have to go through the exercise within a short time span and from distant places. Although NAHCON at each of the gatherings assured pilgrims that the commission is negotiating a way out of this quagmire, however, pilgrims should take this as a condition laid down by the host country and comply by the rules so that no one gets disenfranchised.
If NAHCON’s headache stopped here, it would not have been a nagging headache at all, but when one again recalls pilgrims’ reluctance in coming forward when departure flights are announced, one realizes that there is still a rough road to ride since Saudi Arabia plans to be strict on flight schedules this time around. The bad news is that if any flight is cancelled for any reason, the country loses that spot until another window emerges. Thus, the various speakers cautioned intending pilgrims on the need to be punctual to avoid the consequences of flight rescheduling.
These aside, NAHCON representatives at the parleys specifically cautioned Ulamas to be mindful of standing as guarantors for persons whose objective for embarking on Hajj is doubtful else such persons land them in trouble should they abscond or engage in any illegitimacies. They were implored to stand for only persons whose character they can vouch for. They do contrary at their own peril.
In summary, there was an all round lively interaction between NAHCON officials at the sessions and attendees: discussions that most times had to be curtailed due to insufficiency of time.
Fatima Sanda Usara [email protected]