10 YEARS OF NAHCON: THE GAINS. CONTROVERSIES AND CHALLENGES
"And proclaim to the people the Hajj (pilgrimage). They will come to you on foot and on every lean Camel; they will come from every distant quarters."- [Quran 22:27]
There were no rolling out of the drums, neither were there any form of trumpets blowing, or the familiar praise singers having a field day, nor were there any rendering of energized songs by hired groups as usual with most anniversary celebrations in Nigeria.
The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) ten years’ anniversary was, in most sense, a time for a sober reflection on Hajj operations in the country over the decades and most importantly the contribution of the Hajj Commission towards achieving one of the most important cardinal pillars of Islam – the Hajj.
And the organizers, presenters and discussants at the recently successful, well coordinated and properly organized ‘National Hajj and Umrah Stakeholders Conference and NAHCON 10th Anniversary’ held at the National Mosque, Abuja, did justice to the challenges facing Hajj operations in the country with the theme: ‘’Hajj Management in Nigeria: Honouring the past, Treasuring the Present and Shaping the Future’’ under the chairmanship of the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Abubakar Sa,ad III .
No doubt that Hajj operations in Nigeria over the decades has witnessed a number of innovations and changes, including various controversies and challenges. But to comprehend these elements it is important to critically study the historical background of Hajj operations in the country and the various bodies and management saddled with the responsibility of discharging this enormous task.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF HAJJ OPERATIONS IN NIGERIA
Hajj operations in Nigeria prior to the NAHCON Establishment Act 2006, had seen the establishment of various management and board composition with statutory responsibilities. Among these boards were the Northern Nigeria Pilgrims Licensing Board and the Western Region Pilgrim Welfare Board set up in 1958 to regularize travel agencies. And in 1967, 10 out of the then newly created 12 states established their own Pilgrims Boards and agencies. Subsequently the Federal Government established the Nigerian Pilgrims Commission (N.P.C).
According to a paper presented by Dr Usman Bugaje at the two day NAHCON conference titled: ‘’Hajj Management In Nigeria: Some Thoughts For The Future’’, the then British imperial administration, having recognized the great potential of Hajj, did everything to discourage it. Historically the first attempt to organize Hajj in modern Nigeria was made through a motion by Alhaji Abubakar Imam, in 1953 in the Budget Session of the then House of Representative in Lagos. The motion was tabled for the establishment of a Nigeria Office in Jeddah to cater for the welfare of Nigeria Pilgrims going to Saudi Arabia for the yearly Hajj.
NAHCON ESTABLISHMENT (ACT 2006) AND FUNCTIONS
The new face of Hajj operations in the country came about with the replacement of the Nigerian Pilgrims Commission N.P.C Act Cap 521 of 1990 with the present National Hajj Commission ACT 2006, which forms the functions of the commission. Topmost among these functions is to ensure the establishment and management of pilgrims’ camps and related facilities, deal with the establishment of an adequate information system and libraries of books and other relevant publications to provide a huge opportunity to stimulate reading culture and also promote literacy among Muslims. The Act also mandated NAHCON to establish and maintain a biometric data bank of all intending pilgrims for Hajj and Umrah and also conduct educative and enlightenment campaigns on Hajj and Umrah in all states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory. Another important function of the commission is to regulate and control all matters concerning the welfare of Nigerian pilgrims.
Many analysts and commentators have continued to give kudos to NAHCON since its establishments by pointing out some of the various revolutionary changes that have taken place with regards Hajj operation in the country in the past 10 years. Notably, these commendations center around the period of the pioneer Chairman of NAHCON Alhaji Muhammad Musa Bello, the current minister of the Federal Capital Territory and Alhaji Adullahi Muktar Muhammad the current Chairman and Chief Executive of the commission.
The Musa Bello era is credited with making a major shift to e-passport, the online Visa issuance (MOFA), elimination of payment of royalty and the elimination of the scandalous Pilgrims Luggage abandonment. The Abdullahi Muktar era is credited with ensuring that pilgrims fly into Medina before Arafat, elimination of the controversial third party involvement in accommodation arrangement, including the strengthening of the NAHCON ICT unit for full computerization of Hajj operation.
In addition to these, the introduction of National Medical Team to cut cost and the improvement in the quality and capacity of service providers, and the introduction of benchmark for the assessment of Hajj and Umrah services are among some of the remarkable and commendable successes recorded under Abdullahi Muktar, whose tenure also has to its credit the recent acquiring of a new befitting headquarters for the Commission with the recent ownership of the popular Metro Plaza in Abuja.
The above listed functions and achievements of NAHCON since its foray into Hajj operations in the country has also been some of the elements that has trailed its existence as the commission recently finds itself in series of criticisms and other knocks from opposing quarters. Top on the list is its current Hajj fare for Hajj 20017, a controversy that is still ongoing among those who believe that the $4,839 (about N1.5Million Naira) was rather on the high side for Nigerians Pilgrims to the holy land this year.
According to some of its critics, if the Hajj Commission would equitably charge the right fees for the 23 items that all intending pilgrims are required to pay, comprising of air fare, accommodation, feeding, suitcase, uniform etc, to make up the N1.5 million naira fare, Nigerian pilgrims to this year’s Hajj would not be made to pay more than N1 million naira.
But the chairman of the Commission, Abdullahi Muktar, while defending this year’s Hajj fare, has repeatedly told Nigerians that each pilgrims will pay one hundred and forty three dollars less in 2017 Hajj fares than what was paid in 2016 and that there is no uniform fare for the 2017 hajj. He pointed out that this is as a result of the new measures taken by the commission to eliminate third party interference in the important process of accommodating pilgrims. “Due to the economic situation in the country the commission has found ways to make sure that the Hajj fare does not go up this year, we looked into those related services that we can renegotiate and have a better deal and we have started doing that”.
Shedding light more on this issue, the Commission’s Chairman added: “In Madina, the second biggest holy city where pilgrims usually spend part of their day while in Saudi Arabia, we had direct dealing with the accommodation providers not through agents and not through any broker and that reform will make Nigerian pilgrims this year to pay less, six hundred Saudi Riyal compared to what they paid last year so we are able to save twelve point three million dollars which would have gone into somebody’s pocket”, he pointed out.
Clearing air further on the controversial fare the chairman said the Commission consulted stakeholders and relevant government agencies before agreeing at each component of the 2017 Hajj fare. He said NAHCON did not just fix figure as cost of air ticket, accommodation, feeding and other relevant services for the pilgrims but explained that the cost of each component that made up the fare was arrived at after reviewing the entire negotiation and discussions between service providers and NAHCON team. He also pointed out that the U.S dollars constituted about 98 percent component of the fare, and that the commission used the dollar to pay for all services that would be rendered to pilgrims in Saudi Arabia.
“So in actual terms, the component that determines the hajj fare is the dollar; the official exchange rate last year was N197 to a dollar but this year, it is N305 and when you multiply it by 4,805, which is the total fare per pilgrim, it will give you about N1.5 million. The bottom line is the exchange rate, which NAHCON has no control over. Government considers the sensitivity and the importance of Hajj and allows us even to enjoy the official exchange rate. If we are to use the prevailing bank rate of N368 to the dollar, the cost will be between N1.8 million and N1.9 million”.
Another controversy the commission has tried to clear the air on is the issue of accommodation, an issue that has generated many criticisms, opposing the Commission’s fees and location of the accommodation. In answering this criticisms, the chairman explained that the price of accommodation is determined by the location, by the quality of house and by the proximity of these houses to the Holy Mosque.
The decision by NAHCON to introduce the e-Wristband during the 2016 Hajj, though a sound, innovative and laudable decision, also suffered a barrage of criticism. Some critics even went further with a petition to the Civic Society Network Against Corruption(CSNAC), an anti corruption group, who in turn asked the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission(EFCC) to investigate the matter. According to reports, the anti-corruption agency at the end of their investigation found no evidence of wrong-doing against the Abdullahi Muktar led management team.
Another important issue that has dominated the controversial board of this year’s Hajj is the vital subject of the Amirul Hajj, the leader or head of the pilgrims whose responsibility among others is to act as the leader of the yearly pilgrimage from the country to the Holy land.
The Presidency had recently canceled the Amirul Hajj after it announced that there will be no federal government delegation for the 2017 hajj pilgrimage. The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, in a statement, said the decision will save government an estimated $1m and N30million in local expenses. However, the government promised that it would sustain consular, medical and welfare support to all pilgrims as expected and would also not fail in its obligations to the citizens. This clearly has not gone done well with many stakeholders and analyst as well, as some have continued to criticize the government decision pointing out that every group of human gathering, especially large group of travelers needs a leader to guide and caution them on their journey.
The Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III who is also President of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) recently called for the return of Amurul Hajj to better the lots of Nigerians pilgrims in Saudi Arabia during the annual pilgrimage. He made the call at the National Hajj and Umrah Stakeholder’s Conference and 10th anniversary of NAHCON.
The Sultan pointed out that the role of the Amirul Hajj is important for thousands of Nigerian Muslims performing the pilgrimage and that it does not need financing from the government. Other stakeholders at the two day conference also lend support to the Sultan’s call, explaining that it has been the tradition of Hajj operation in the country right from the era of the late Sardauna of Sokoto , Alhaji, Ahmadu Bello who was the pilgrim leader throughout his time as the Premier in 1954 until his death in 1966.
As the National Hajj Commission daily tries to wriggle its image and operations away from criticisms, it has not been left out of the call to hands off Hajj operation totally by some critics and other scholars alike. The call resounded at the two day stakeholders conference where few speakers advised the body to hands off Hajj operation entirely to agents and tour operators; a call that the chairman himself defended reasonably. He explained that every nation that participates in the Hajj has its representative on Hajj operation and has a body to ensure that the organizing and airlifting of pilgrims goes according to schedule and plans.
Again, one of the discussants, Sheikh Adam Idoko, reminded the audience that there was already an Act of parliament which established NAHCON and vested it with some functions which the Commission has been carrying out diligently despite the challenges, so the call for the Commission to hands off Hajj operation therefore to agents or Tour travelers sneers at the NAHCON Act established by law.
However in a communiqué issued at the end of the two day Stakeholders meeting, the Hajj and Umrah Stakeholders appealed to the Federal Government not to remove its hands from the management of Hajj and Umrah operations in the country.
The Stakeholders according to the communiqué insist that the Commission should remain under the Presidency and reject calls for its return to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Every organization as expected, has its own peculiar challenges and the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria NAHCON has not been left out of this. And apart from the challenges it faces as regard to government policy and funding, some paper presenters at the stakeholders conference were able to identify some challenges the commission is currently facing among which is exorbitant fares as a result of economic downturn, this according to Professor Badmus Yusuf in his paper ‘’Historical Analysis of Hajj Management in Nigeria: Pre-NAHCON era and NAHCON era’’ He also identified the Non-Issuance of adequate ‘all areas’’ Batagha (pass) as one of the challenges, including delay in issuance of waiver for screening of pilgrims luggage leading to delay in evacuation and the need to shorten the number of days pilgrims spend in Saudi Arabia.
In his paper presentation at the stakeholders conference Dr Usman Bugaje submitted that just like every sphere of government activity must have a clear policy, which guides it and reviewed from time to time, like economic policy, agricultural policy, industrial policy, etc, so also it should be with the Hajj and that so far there has not been any National Policy on Hajj and that the absence of such a policy cannot but create constraints in the realizations of some of NAHCON functions. And that the past ten years has been the establishment of the office and also pointed out that the commission still has a lot of work ahead.
Perhaps one factor that has mitigated against NAHCON’s functions and operations is the issue of politicizing Hajj operation in the country by politicians and other elite individuals with interest on how the Commission carries out its duty during the Hajj exercise. Instances of vested interest and bickering over which state or zone should have the right to use their airport for the yearly Hajj inaugural flight has been part of the challenges confronting the Commission over the years.
Overall, the ten years existence of NAHCON as the government agency saddled with Hajj operation in the country by law as submitted by various stakeholders has been more of a success than failure and the importance of ensuring that it carries out its mandate to full capacity should be paramount in its agenda.
Again, it is also important to involve more Muslim youths in Hajj participation in the country as research carried out by this writer shows that majority of the country’s young Muslims who are into various entrepreneurships and jobs and have the means to participate in this important pillar of their religion are not adequately enlightened to see the importance of going to the Hajj, rather some of them would prefer spending their money on materialism like cars and other man-made toys to upgrade their status.
Another aspect that this writer believes NAHCON should look into is the relevance of taking their messages to higher institutions in the country where majority of Muslim youths who are the future leaders of Islam in the country and by large political leaders are concentrated. The plan by NAHCON to soon establish a Hajj Saving Scheme is also commendable and encouraging more Muslim youths across the board to take the opportunity and participate in the scheme will, without doubt, contribute to its success.
Finally, it is also very important and necessary that the Commission ensures and maintains its focus of deploying modern technology in Hajj operation and its overall activities. The fact remains that the internet with all its social media apparatus has come to stay in this 21century, and any organization that ignores its presence and relevance does so at its own peril.
In conclusion, it is no gain saying that the ten years of NAHCON in Hajj management in Nigeria so far has been tremendous and meaningful. Also commendable is the large pool of partnership and synergy it has been able to cement among various stakeholders. And its recent bold decision to acquire a more befitting headquarters is a clear indication that the Commission has come to stay.
By Ahmed Dodo
Editor-in-Chief of SEE Magazine
Copy Right, SEE Magazine 2017