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On NAHCON and 2022 Hajj

By ‘Yinka Raheem     On  August 1, 2022, hundreds of Nigerian pilgrims from Lagos, Enugu, Rivers, Ebonyi and Kano states protested at the King Abdulaziz International…

By ‘Yinka Raheem    

On  August 1, 2022, hundreds of Nigerian pilgrims from Lagos, Enugu, Rivers, Ebonyi and Kano states protested at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The pilgrims protested after spending nearly 48 hours at the airport waiting to be airlifted back to Nigeria.

From the viral video footage of the protests, the pilgrims said they were left stranded 24 hours after their screening for boarding. 

This embarrassing incident has once again placed Nigeria in the international limelight for an odious reason. The last time the country recorded such an incident was more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, the country is being taken back to those days when Nigerian pilgrims had to protest to be airlifted to and back to their homeland after the pilgrimage. 

 The pilgrims’ protest was one of the many ugly incidents that shaped the 2022 Hajj in Nigeria. The Jeddah protest was only an anti-climax of the 2022 Hajj operation conducted by the Zikrullah Kunle Hassan-led leadership of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). 

During the pre-departure operations in Nigeria, pilgrims from Lagos State protested over hajj fare. At the peak of the airlift, Oyo State pilgrims protested and it took the personal visit of the state governor to calm them down. In Kano, hundreds of intending pilgrims who paid hajj fare through the Hajj Saving Scheme protested over their exclusion. It was the same story in Kwara and Niger where the Niger State Executive Secretary publicly tried to block the NAHCON chairman from boarding a plane while thousands of pilgrims were stranded. 

As the only constitutional hajj and Umrah regulatory agency in the country, NAHCON’s mandate is pilgrims-centric: Protecting and serving the hajj and Umrah pilgrims who have paid money to perform the fifth pillar of the Islamic faith. 

There are, however, attempts to divert attention from the colossal failure through various PR stunts from the fact that the commission had failed pilgrims who toiled to pay the N2.5 million hajj fare. 

It was public knowledge that many pilgrims spent many days at the various hajj camps in Kano, Niger, Lagos, Kaduna and Katsina, among others. 

Hajj seat racketeering, which was a thing of the past, reared its ugly head again in the 2022 hajj. As reported by many state pilgrims’ welfare boards, their allocated visa slots were allegedly hijacked. Hajj seats officially sold at N2.5 million were later reportedly sold in Abuja for as high as N4 million. 

Also on accommodations in Makkah, for instance, there were reports that the commission had achieved a reduction in the cost of hotel accommodation in the holy city. But the truth is: the prices of accommodations crashed because the Saudi authorities slashed the number of foreign pilgrims from over two million to 800,000. Also, prices of hotel accommodations usually rise during peak periods such as before Ramadan, the last 10 days of Ramadan and Hajj, compared to non-peak periods. For this year’s hajj, it was non-peak because the full quota was never used. Naturally, the cost of the accommodation needed to crash to barely one-third of the original price.  

Thus, the commission’s reintroduction of benchmarking of hotel accommodations in Makkah, which was cancelled by the previous administration because it was a corruption aperture was never in the pilgrims’ interest. The commission’s benchmark of 2,000 Saudi riyals was suspicious. This is because these accommodations are not the same in terms of quality, distance to Haram, location and quality of services. As such, there can’t be a benchmark for accommodations that are not the same from a qualitative and quantitative point of view.  

Findings revealed that the actual cost of some of these accommodations used by Nigerian pilgrims as paid by other countries who stayed in similar accommodations is about  1,100 to 1,200 Saudi riyal. In fact, even some NAHCON staff had secured their own accommodations within the same vicinity at the rate of  1,100 to 1,200 Saudi riyal for the whole 2022 hajj season.

Therefore, there is a need for anti-graft agencies to probe the whereabouts of the 800 Saudi riyals charged per pilgrim. If an individual can secure the accommodation at the rate of 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi riyals, NAHCON should have negotiated for lower prices because of its numerical advantage. Even tour operators with smaller number of pilgrims had negotiated for 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi riyals per pilgrim. There are fears that the commission paid 2,000 Saudi riyals for accommodation, which actual value is 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi riyal to some rogue agents. 

There were protests by various state pilgrims over poor accommodation, low quality food in Makkah and Mashair-Muna and Arafat. These pilgrims duly paid to be at the holy land. They deserved the best services. In many press releases, the commission itself admitted to some of these poor services in Mashair. 

The commission also admitted to a series of flight delays, diversions and outright cancellations occasioned by the commission itself or as a result of its poor supervision.  

The private tour operators were some of the worst hit by the hajj commission’s unprofessionalism, subjective and suspicious decisions in the 2022 hajj operation. 

On July 8, 2022, the Association for Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHOUN), in a press statement signed by its National President, Nasidi Yahaya Suleiman, accused NAHCON of abandoning their pilgrims in Nigeria even though the operators have paid N500 million to the commission to procure rescue flights for them. 

The tour operators have incurred monumental losses with some of them going bankrupt due to the commission’s mismanagement of hajj seat allocation. The commission discarded the licensing and allocation system on ground. It impulsively allocated slots to tour operators upon which they booked and paid for hajj services only for NAHCON to backtrack and give them flat slots of 50 pilgrims across board despite their licensing categorization. It gave them what it didn’t have making them incur billion naira losses on accommodation and other services.  

This explains why the critical stakeholders such as the tour operators and state pilgrims’ boards decided to keep mute during the usually interactive meetings of pre and post-Arafat in Makkah.  

It was on record that NAHCON sponsored many officials and ad hoc staff to the hajj 2022, the highest in recent history. Many of these officials and ad hoc staff, cherry-picked for reasons other than merit, didn’t do anything while at the Holy Land.  

 It is instructive to state that the constant requests for money by the commission’s leadership from the federal government is an overt invitation for the implementation of the Oronsaye Report, which recommended scrapping of the commission and reversing to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a department.  

The commission’s leadership had drawn the ire of the three most critical stakeholders in Nigeria’s hajj ecosystem – tour operators, state pilgrims’ boards and NAHCON staff – through conflicting policies and maladministration. 

There is no gainsaying the fact that no amount of superfluous publicity stunts would erase the embarrassment engraved in the psyche of Nigerian pilgrims throughout the 2022 hajj operation.      

 

Raheem can be reached at raheemy2050@gmail.com