This will likely run into a series, I should warn from the outset. It will also contain some bitter truths. The objective is not to let you taste the bitterness but to take the truth, regardless of its taste.
I will also start by making full disclosure: some of the people I will mention here are well known to me; friends, even. The Executive Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Mohammed was my school mate; we both studied Law. At one point, as juveniles are wont to do, we were ‘enemies’. That was many years ago. In Abuja, after we met again, in his capacity as the Commissioner, Operations of the Hajj Commission, maturity overruled all that and we became friends again. Not close friends, but friends enough to visit each other once in a while in private capacities.
Another disclosure I want to dispense with is that I am a Hajj and Umrah Tour Operator. By this, I mean I own a travel agency which also provides Hajj and Umrah services. I am also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Tour Operators of Nigeria (AHUON). I am not writing in that capacity, but this is our matter and it should concern everyone concerned with Hajj and Umrah.
These disclosures are necessary for anyone who knows how the Nigerian mind works on issues like the one I am about to discuss. The default thought on a write-up like this one is that it must have been sponsored. So, there!
In Saheehul Bukhariy, Anas bin Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that Allah’s Apostle, blessings and peace of Allah be upon him, said, “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one.” (Hadeeth 623). This article is not just to help the oppressed, but to help the oppressor too. However, before I start discussing the topic, I want to lay some background.
Hajj and Umrah operations by Nigerian entities were at best shambolic. With so many failures recorded in 2005, things came to a head. The government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, unable to contain the feeling of national embarrassment, constituted a Presidential Committee on Hajj in 2006. A year later, in 2007, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) emerged from the defunct Presidential Committee.
The pioneer chairman of the Commission is the current Honourable Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello.
Before the coming of NAHCON, anyone could organise Hajj or Umrah. This even included non-Muslims who knew next to nothing about the Hajj rites. Everyone wanted the profit but abhorred the commitment to service delivery. The pilgrims suffered while the service providers smiled to the bank. It was like a gold rush; everyone wanted a ‘piece of the action’ and they got it.
When NAHCON was created, the government backed it up with an Act of the National Assembly. The Act effectively repealed the Nigerian Pilgrims Commission Act Cap. 321, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990 and empowered the Commission to license, regulate, perform over-sight, and undertake supervisory functions over agencies and other bodies. According to Section 2 of the Act, the Commission shall be a body corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal and may sue and be sued in its name. The sole intent was to protect the pilgrims from unscrupulous service providers and to bring sanity to the industry.
When NAHCON came to organise the industry, it was clear that some people, who benefited from the old, chaotic way of doing things would revolt. You do not fight corruption without corruption fighting back.
People in the past would charge pilgrims for hotel accommodation and subsequently take them to leased, multi-storeyed serviced apartments with sometimes as many as ten persons in one room. Such multi-storeyed buildings often had no elevators, and poor service. For people who are in a foreign land where the language is also foreign, this can be very disconcerting.
There were more cruel cases. Some would collect the pilgrims’ money for organising the Hajj and disappear without a trace. They never had any intention of rendering any service. Others would announce very low fares which are unrealistic, wait for the travel date to be close and then inform their clients of an extra payment to be made. Those who could not make the extra payment were often not refunded their money.
Others still would obtain only visas for their clients, pretend that all arrangements have been made in Saudia and desert the pilgrims at the take-off point in Nigeria. The pilgrims upon reaching Saudia get stranded. Even with the presence of NAHCON, some of our colleagues in the industry still short-change the pilgrims. Each year has its own stories of woe.
In a particular year, an ‘agent’ collected payments from more than 50 pilgrims in Kwara State. He claimed visas were not forthcoming in Nigeria and chartered two luxurious buses to Ghana, where he assured the trusting group he would secure visas. He alighted from the bus and fled. The pilgrims lost both money and the opportunity to perform that year’s hajj.
From the foregoing, you will agree with me that people cast in that mould will never want any change. NAHCON, the regulating authority, and AHOUN, the umbrella body of Hajj and Umrah Tour Operators, have both been combating these ills in the industry. More of these criminals try to join the ranks of genuine service providers each year and more are exposed each year.
NAHCON over the years has introduced policies aimed at eliminating these disturbing tendencies in some service providers and sanitising the processes leading to the annual pilgrimage. It has not reached the peak yet, but there has been immense progress. Although my own company has felt the sting of NAHCON’s policies a number of times, I can categorically say those policies have made us better and they were for the good of everyone in the end.
One of the policies NAHCON used to weed out briefcase Hajj and Umrah Operators was the minimum share capital for companies. To begin with, the companies had to be at least limited liability companies and they should have at least 30 million share capital. Companies with just business name registration did not make the cut. This alone dealt the fraudulent ones a great blow. However, in no time, most companies complied. Other reforms were added which included the insistence on accrediting only companies having the International Air Transport Association (IATA) license. This put many companies out of business. Again, after a while, this became a standard and all companies, including yours truly, complied.
NAHCON routinely inspects the offices of registered Hajj and Umrah service providers. This discourages the dishonest practice of registering an office for the purpose of accreditation only. When they visit our offices, they ask us to produce our staff list, staff ID cards, payroll, evidence of paying rent on the property in which the company is situated or ownership of it. They demand to see our tax clearance certificates, certificate of incorporation and the Memorandum and Articles of Association. In Saudi Arabia, the same thing is done. They visit the hotels, which service providers claim to procure for pilgrims and request for evidence that the operator has a contract with the hotel. They also speak to a few pilgrims in the hotel to be sure they are not short-changed. This is tedious work and only Allah can adequately reward those who do it.
Based on the reports of these inspections, the financial strength of the companies, experience, the level of compliance with extant rules and past performances, NAHCON uses a rating template to categorise companies into three: categories A, B and C. The lowest category is C. This categorisation determines the number of Hajj seats the company gets. Some players in the industry detest this and do all they can to frustrate it. Some of us have also tried to suggest ways to improve rating system and make it more transparent and less acrimonious.
For the first time since the inception of NAHCON, last year, it publicly announced the refund of about 1.7 billion to state pilgrims welfare boards as money recovered from service providers for services they did not render completely or which they only rendered partially. This was obviously done in the interest of the pilgrims. The service providers had mixed reactions to the move. While some hailed the steps taken, others yet criticised the move. They made allegations, spread rumours and some wrote petitions. Some of these petitions threaten the conduct of Hajj this year and any stakeholder in the industry should be concerned.
What you shall be reading from next week, insha Allah, is a thorough analysis of such claims, allegations and petitions. I have decided to arm myself with facts which are publicly available. You will see where the Commission has erred and can improve and you will see the allegations and accusations for what they really are. I beseech you to withhold judgement until such time as I will conclude the write-up. May Allah spare our lives.