Alhaji Zikrullah Hassan is the Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). In this interview with Daily Trust, he talks about the prospect of the 2021 hajj, the new initiatives being taken to revolutionise hajj operations in Nigeria to make the commission a revenue-generating agency. Excerpts.
Considering the uncertainty over if the 2021 hajj will hold, has Saudi Arabia communicated any information regarding this?
We are yet to receive any formal communication from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, the tell-tale signs we see give us hope. At least, it is not a red light anymore. We can say it is an amber light though the green light is still on the horizon. As we speak, thousands of Muslims all over the world are in Saudi Arabia performing the lesser hajj (Umrah). As we also see, Saudi Arabia appeared to be reorganizing the hajj ministry with new appointments as well as at their airports. There is also a suggestion that there is a kind of preparedness for the hajj and for us here we are fully prepared. Nigerian Muslims who paid last year, the majority refused to collect their money and this year, many people have paid, indicating that the heart of Muslims all over the world is towards the holy land. We are hopeful that, Insha’Allah, towards the beginning of Ramadan, we will get the sign from Saudi Arabia that we should begin preparation.
If the hajj were to occur, do you think there will be a reduction of slots given to Nigeria?
That is the rumour in circulation but for us, we are fully ready. If Saudi Arabia said we should come with our usual allocation of 95, 000, we are ready; if they say less; we are ready, if they say more; we are as well ready. The Nigerian government is ready for us and has assured us of the availability of vaccines. We are doing awareness campaigns on how our people should behave in this pandemic.
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How will you distribute the slots, if allocated, considering those who paid since last year?
Whatever the number given to us will be distributed judiciously. Those who paid last year take priority. As usual, it will be an issue of first come, first serve, that is how it is going to be. No one will be short-changed. Those who have paid early will be given priority over those who come later.
There have been controversies and conspiracy theories over the COVID-19 vaccine. What are you doing to calm the nerves of intending pilgrims?
Firstly, our position is simple. We are not involved in the debate. We are a government agency that is aligning with government policies and directions. The government, through the opinion of their experts, said the vaccine is safe for us therefore it is safe.
Secondly, from all indications, Saudi Arabia will likely insist that vaccines will be a condition to perform hajj. We know our Nigerian Muslims will take the vaccine if it is a condition for hajj. That is our position. The Yellow Fever vaccine is a condition to go to Saudi Arabia and that has been in place for a while. So, vaccination for going for hajj has been there.
If the vaccine is a prerequisite for hajj, how do you intend to secure them with the little that is available in the country?
We have gotten assurance from the office (of the chairman of the Presidential Task Force, and the SFG, Mr Boss Mustapha) that the vaccine will be made available to us. The minister of health also wrote an official communication in relation to that. Between the commission, SGF and the ministry of health, there is assurance suggesting that once we are ready for it, we will get the vaccine.
Thirdly, the Director-General of the National Primary Health Care, who is primarily in charge of the vaccination, also assured us that once we are ready, we will get the vaccines.
As a veteran of hajj having led the hajj operations in Osun State, what reforms are you pushing in the commission?
One of the first goals, target and vision is to reduce the cost of hajj and I am not saying it is going to be easy. The cost of Hajj is determined by the dollar rate. Over 90 per cent of the cost of hajj is done in dollars, as long as the cost of dollars keeps going up in exchange for the naira, we will have a challenge in bringing down the cost. But making hajj affordable and one of the ways it could be achieved is the issue of the hajj savings scheme. That itself is an innovation. In Africa, the National Hajj Commission under my chairmanship is the first to launch the savings scheme which we believe will help to grow further, the ease in which people can do hajj in Nigeria. The hajj training institute will also be the first to have a one-stop-shop where you can learn everything about hajj. That also is part of the innovation. Another one is our desire to make the private organisation involved in our landed properties. Our financial contribution will be zero. They will contribute the funds and their technological expertise to bring the property up. We will share part of the revenue. These are the initiatives we are bringing to hajj operations in Nigeria that will impact positively on the hajj administration, insha’Allah.
The Hajj Savings Scheme is modelled on the Malaysian Haji Tabung, do you think it is going to be a success in Nigeria?
We are confident that whatever we do and with Allah’s assistance, it will be successful. The savings scheme itself is provided for in the act that establishes the National Hajj Commission. Various boards before us did not go to sleep, they have been trying. It is in our time that we brought it to the fore. So, it is a well-thought-out process and was not done in a hurry. Actually, we signed it in September 2020 in partnership with Jaiz Bank. We have visited all the state governors. We have discussed with the state pilgrims’ welfare executives. We have spoken with the ulamas and had chats with royal fathers. So, the stakeholders are involved and the Islamic organisation is sure of its acceptance. That was why we ensured that everyone concerned is convinced of its desirability.
In what ways will the scheme ease hajj operations for pilgrims?
Saving empowers human beings. If you want to go to hajj as a poor person, you don’t have to wait for anyone to sponsor you because if you save your money and go, you will get the greatest reward. The first advantage is that any person who wants to go to hajj knows that hajj is possible. It could be a hajj of the future and that is what we are saying. Save for the future. You can say three to five years. Also, the money will be used to invest in a halal business. For a Muslim, this is important. When we do that, there will be profits and it would be shared out. Very importantly, it underscores the fact that Muslims should not sell their properties, business or incur loans because they want to go to hajj. Our position is that even if you do so, the person may incur the wrath of Allah even though you have gone to hajj. You can’t pauperise or impoverish your family because you want to go to hajj. The truth is that you must have a surplus. One should also envisage that they might die there so you need to sort out your affairs before you go. All this presupposes that when you are saving gradually, it will not affect your business, destroy your assets or family properties. Then you can go when Allah wants.