By Mousa Ubandawaki
It is with great emotional stress that I write and bring to the attention of the public, the situation about the National Air Service (NAS) otherwise known as FlyNas participation in the Nigeria Hajj airlift operation over the last four years. It has been observed that every year, especially during the screening or preparation of Hajj, the issue is reawakened perhaps to cause some distraction and derail the programme of the Commission.
For the past two years or more, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) and indeed the chairman/Chief Executive Officer of the Commission, had been the butt of criticism and flying flaks over alleged imposition of NAS Air into the air-lift of Nigerian Pilgrims to the Holy Land. Besides, he has also been accused of single handedly appointing Nigerian carriers without recourse to the screening process.
Essentially, what one tries to do or what this write up will be doing is to provide information on the processes and circumstances leading to appointment of the Air carriers and FlyNas especially in Hajj airlift. Indeed, one has been unnerved by these two allegations because the Commission’s position had been explained and re-explained in several fora including the National Assembly, yet those who think ‘pigs could fly’ would not desist from flying the kites, especially some disenchanted persons and organisations who have continued to feed the press and unsuspecting members of the public with half-truths and outright lies.
It has been discovered that some of these reports in the media showed a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Commission and particularly the personality of the current chairman/CEO, Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, FCIA, MON. And if these were not corrected, it may turn the lies to truths which have the tendency to leave a very negative impression of the Commission as well as casting a negative shadow on the patriotism of the management and leadership in the minds and hearts of the unsuspecting members of the public.
Let me start with the background on how air carriers’ appointment are made. The process to appoint an air carrier for Hajj Operation starts with advertorial in major national dailies after the issuance of quidelines by the Nigeria civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and this has been the pattern since the inception of NAHCON and it has not changed.
It should also be mentioned that the process to appoint carriers have followed due – diligence over the years and it’s still being adopted now in order to ensure that appointed carriers not only meet our needs as a nation. We also take into account the technical and economic benefit it would accrue to the nation, this is why the Commission had to sometimes bend backward to accommodate the interest of the nation even though the aviation industry does not live much on sentiment.
The Screening process is not solely undertaken by the Commission’s staff or management, but in attendance and overseeing the processes are other major stake holders from the Aviation Industry, which include the technical staff of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, (NCAA), National Aviation Management Agency (NAMA), Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NIMET). These stakeholders draw up and score the applicants on the criteria set up by them especially those that have to do with technical aspect. In this respect, we have an excellent group of Aviation team players who are always keen to guide the Commission even on the pricing and fixing of Hajj fare components.
The Technical Screening Committee report is then filtered, collated and forwarded to the Federal Government for the final appointment of the air carrier contrary to the claim that the Commission’s chairman/CEO makes the decision on which airline to be appointed or not.
The other allegation being promoted as truth to the public is the NAS air participation in the Nigeria Hajj industry which was attributed to the current Chairman/CEO of the commission, Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad. This indeed is a poison chalice that has been fed even to some state governors in the past who also caught the bait until confronted with the facts.
It should be mentioned that the seed of NAS air participation in the Nigerian Industry has its root in NAHCON’s successful battle not to pay the customary 75SR Royalty per pilgrims to Saudi Airline in line with the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) between the two countries.
Consequent upon this, Saudi Arabia, not wanting to lose the cool allure of such economic benefit, resorted to the hand-twisting tactics to regain what it had lost in terms of free money, introducing the measure to acquire 50 percent passenger traffic of Nigeria pilgrims flying to Saudi Arabia for their own designated carrier.
As would be shown later in the course of this write up that this policy was not targeted at Nigeria as they had the same subsisting policy with nations like Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangadesh, Malaysia and many others even who, unlike Nigeria, have a national carrier with enough equipment and capacity to airlift their pilgrims without external assistance or inputs.
As earlier said, the path to NAS involvement began in 2008 which predates the current board led by Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad. In fact the issue had largely flown under the radar until 2010, when the Saudi authority changed its tactics from a persuasive demand to banging the drum, which our nation was not prepared for, but which the Saudi authority was ready to drive.
Even at this, the board fought to delay the implementation by advocating for a phase implementation of the agreement from 2010, even though an agreement duly signed on behalf of the Federal Government by the then Senior Special Adviser to the President, Capt Shehu Usman Iyal and later sealed by former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nurudeen Muhammed, after several talks at both the diplomatic and ministerial levels, failed to resolve the issue.
Below is the Background Summary of steps to appoint NAS Air as a Nigeria pilgrims’ carrier and allocation of 50 percent of Nigeria passenger traffic.
2009: NAHCO’s request for the refund of royalty paid from 2007 and 2008 to Saudi Airline 2009: NAHCON successfully negotiated the refund of 2007 and 2008 Royalty from Saudi airline.
April 2010; GACA formally wrote a letter designating NAS air as a National carrier and request to airlift 10,000 quarter of Nigeria pilgrims. (GACA) issued 2010 – 2011 Hajj Instruction National Guidelines governing the carriage of pilgrims by air which formally designated NAS air as a Saudi National carrier and also demanded for the allocation of 50 percent of Nigeria pilgrims to it.
June 2010: NAHCON responded with a letter dated 9th June, 2010 which claimed that it had no power to admit NAS air into Aviation business except it had clearance of NCAA.
July 2010: GACA restated its position and categorically warned the Commission against turning a blind eye to its request. It threatened to withhold slot allocation to the already approved Nigerian carrier. It expressly and unequivocally states in Paragraph 4 of its letter:
“Therefore we will not be able to process your application until all the listed requirements mentioned in paragraph I above are completely fulfilled and the Saudi carriers are given the legitimate traffic rights to operate into Nigeria to airlift the Nigeria pilgrims within the 50 percent of Saudi quota”
24/09/2010: A Six (6) page response from the chairman of NAHCON, Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello, pleaded for the understanding of GACA and to thread softly: and even expressed readiness to re- commence payment of royalty to the Saudi Arabia airline. He wrote “ Having been pushed to this point, we want to state in clear terms that the Nigeria Hajj Mission (NAHCON) is ready to pay royalty to the Saudi Arabia Airline based on its BASA Agreement with Nigeria airlines.”
27th Sept, 2010
At a meeting with GACA in Saudi Arabia, the Nigeria delegation, led by Capt Shehu Usman Iyal (CON) the then Senior Special Adviser to President (Aviation) signed an agreement on behalf of the government to give 50 percent of Nigeria pilgrims’ airlift to the Saudi designated carrier in 2011. Paragraph 2 and 3 of the agreement reads: “The Nigeria delegation has confirmed their concurrence to give Saudi carrier the right to carry all available International pilgrims.”
“The Nigeria delegation has confirmed their acceptance of the participation of Saudi carriers in next year’s Hajj operations as part of their 50 percent of the total Nigeria Government quota in accordance with the bilateral agreement between the two states.”
Between 2011 and 2013, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), the NCAA and the Federal Ministry of Aviation made sprinted effort to challenge the GACA position on the allocation of 50 percent passenger traffic to the NAS Air. In a separate letter, the three bodies restated their opposition to the idea. One of the letters written and signed by Barr. Abdullahi, then Commissioner in charge of operation on 1st Sept, 2011 to Capt Muhammed Ali B. JamJoom, vice president Safety and Economic Regulation, GACA reads:
- Mr. President may wish to recall our various correspondences and meetings on this subject matter since it first arose in 2010 in which the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), guided by the spirit of brotherliness has shown sincere commitment towards respecting all laws, rules and regulation governing the performance of Hajj as well as observing standard aviation procedure and bilateral agreements between our countries.
- The subsisting agreement between our countries, including the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Hajj 2011 signed in March, 2011 by their Excellences, the Nigeria Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Saudi Minister of Hajj, do not provide for any 50:50 sharing of Hajj flights between the two countries. Please refer to copies of the agreements signed and also the explanation given by the Head of Nigerian delegation to the meeting on the subject hosted by your distinguished Authority on 11th May, 2011 by Dr. H.O. Demuren. In line with the conclusions of the above meeting, we advise that this issue should be treated at Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) level between the two countries’ competent authorities.
23rd April, 2014: The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia issued an ultimatum to NAHCON in a letter which reads “The authorities concerned in Nigeria have adopted (on annual basis) the habit of complicating the efforts made by the Saudi Arabia National carriers to partake in the airlift of its quota of pilgrims from Nigeria, as agreed by both parties.”
“Saudi Arabia wishes to inform the authorities concerned in Nigeria that “the principle of reciprocity shall be applied to application from Nigeria air carrier who are willing to operate in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
- July 9, 2014: A follow up letter was issued and this time more threatening, it states inter-alia.
- That the airlift of pilgrims shall be shared at 50 -50 ratio with National air carriers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
- The airlift of pilgrims must be taught known and approved airlines companies and not hired planes.
The implication of this guidelines/regulation is that no – Nigeria airline would have been eligible to make direct airlift or carry Nigeria pilgrims to Saudi Arabia as the country did have a National Air carrier.
In order to forestall this embarrassing outcome, meeting was held with GACA at its Head Office in Saudi Arabia on 11th August, 2014 with the then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs at the Head of the Nigeria delegation. The meeting resolved among others: “That based on the Nigeria extant procedure, Saudi Arabia airline is granted approval to airlift 9,500 pilgrims from Abuja and Kaduna airport in Nigeria.”
- 16/17 February, 2015: The Nigeria delegation, led by Ambassador Danjuma N. Sheni, permanent secretary, Federal Ministry of Aviation signed an agreement with GACA on the following issues:
- That Nigeria will allocate 16,000 (25 percent) pilgrims to Fly Nas for the year 2015, subject to fulfilling the necessary documentation and compliance with the Nigeria Rules and Regulation growing the airlift of pilgrims, and.
20 That there will be a yearly increment of the number of pilgrims allocated to Saudi carriers as follows: 2016 – 35 percent, 2017 – 45 percent and 2018 – 50 percent of the total Government Hajj quota.
- From the foregoing facts, it should be clear to every objective minded person that neither the appointment nor allocation of 50 percent of Nigeria Hajj quota to NAS Air was a product of Barr. Abdullahi’s personal machination, rather it was a by- product of Saudi Arabia to harness Hajj for its own economic benefit by all means for which one cannot fault them as the often trite “use what you have to get what you want” to hang Saudi authorities’ pursuit of its interest on Barr. Abdullahi was an attempt to give the proverbial dog a bad name only to hang it.
– Ubandawaki is a member of Staff of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Abuja.
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