The next to make a presentation to the Ad-Hoc Committee was Hajiya Bilkisu Usman on behalf of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
I will tarry a while on CBN because of the central position it occupies regarding the Hajj operations. More than 80% of the services rendered to pilgrims is foreign exchange-driven.
Therefore, the rate at which the dollar is obtained determines the cost of Hajj.
Hajiya Bilkisu informed the Ad-Hoc Committee that the CBN ‘does not fix exchange rates; it only executes presidential order’, which comes ‘through the SGF’s office to NAHCON’. She said that the CBN receives ‘copy of the approval of Mr President for the BTA, and other offshore remittances for the Hajj operations’ and it acts on that wise. This is quite revealing. It shows that someone with presidential assent determines what amount the dollar would be purchased for the purpose of Hajj. However, the main beneficiaries of this exchange rate fixing shall be discussed later.
On the exchange of 197 naira to a dollar used in 2016 operations, Hajiya Bilkisu said ‘the approval was given by Mr President’, which was maintained even when ‘the currency rose to N305’ since the presidential approval of N197 preceded the devaluation. Some people, she further explained, ‘accused the CBN of giving NAHCON special, preferential rate, not knowing that N197 was used as the exchange rate for all pilgrimages, Muslim and Christian, in line with the presidential approval.’
The exchange for holy pilgrimages in 2017 was different from what obtained in 2016, according to Hajiya Bilkisu. ‘The Presidency’, she continued, ‘sought for our advice, and expert analysis as to the best rate to be used; and, as economic agent, as financial adviser to Federal Government, we had to make the financial analysis, looking at all the economic fundamentals as to the rate to be applied. And we advised the government that the best exchange rate was to adopt N305 to a dollar’, she said.
Now, that was the end of Hajiya Bilkisu’s presentation to the Committee. It was time for members to ask for explanations and further elucidation of certain points she made that might not have been plain during her submission.
Honestly, I was impressed by the quality of the questions distinguished members of the Committee put to people who made presentations. It was apparent that the senators did their homework prior to convening the Public Hearing. I witnessed, through these proceedings, genuine commitment in searching for ways to make Hajj affordable for the common folk.
The Ad-Hoc Committee wanted answers to the following questions from Hajiya Bilkisu of the CBN:
1) In an attempt to assist the ordinary people fulfil their religious obligations, why can’t the CBN propose an exchange rate that will make the fare of pilgrimages affordable for the majority of citizens, since the constitution has made serving the interest of the people a primary responsibility of the government, especially when the number of pilgrims is very negligible?
2) Why can’t the government intervene to cushion the effect of this foreign exchange regime by reducing it to, say, 50% of the official rate, to subsidise it so Nigerians can afford to fulfil their religious obligations?
In an attempt to encourage and assuage Hajiya Bilkisu’s fears, if there were any, the distinguished senators made the commitment that: ‘If such recommendations as contained in the questions asked so far will come to the National Assembly, from the CBN, we shall assist you in that regard’.
Another set of questions came from Distinguished Senator Ibrahim Danbaba who said that the ‘CBN, as an institution, generated, between 2010 to 2015, well over N660b operating surplus, which money ought to have been paid into government treasury, but it was not; between 2016 to 2017 there was additional operating surplus of N850b. If the dollar is subsidised for Christian and Muslim pilgrims, the CBN will only have its transaction cost increased, while the operating surplus will be reduced. What is the use of the operating surplus? For the betterment of the lives of Nigerians. If the CBN would give ₦200 as the exchange rate for a dollar to some institutions why is that not extended to pilgrimages?’
Finally, Senator Danbaba reminded Hajiya Bilkisu of an earlier request of submitting to the Committee ‘list of accounts, onshore and offshore, operated by NAHCON with the CBN, as well as statements of account, as contained in our letter of invitation’ to this Public Hearing.
However, just as Hajiya Bilkisu was about to respond to the questions put to her, succour came from an unlikely source, the Chairman of Ad-Hoc Committee himself, Distinguished Senator Adamu Aliero who drew attention of members to the fact that Hajiya Bilkisu has already stated that ‘the CBN applies the exchange rate to be used upon presidential approval’, therefore, ‘CBN is not in a position of determine the exchange rate; the presidency does that’. Senator Aliero said that the Committee was ‘directing questions to the wrong person, who is not a position to answer them.’
This position of the Chairman of the Committee was not accepted by the majority of members. I felt at that stage that in as much as the CBN was in a position to advise the “Presidency”, whomever that meant, they could have mentioned the surplus from which they could ease the cash crunch for the pilgrims. After all, the pilgrims are the victims of an exponential increase in exchange rates which the CBN superintended. Any act, which could alleviate their plight, should have been considered important in their considerations and final advice to “the Presidency”. Many stakeholders also saw this intervention by Senator Aliero as unnecessary.
Nevertheless, Hajiya Bilkisu was allowed to respond. ‘We at the CBN’, she said, ‘don’t pick a rate to favour a sector, a particular populace in the society; it has to go through economic or financial fundamentals and financial capability of the system.’ According to her, all the concessions that the Distinguished Senators desired ‘could be done, but it behoves the Presidency to issue what will be the official rate. From the questions asked, some are confusing the inter-bank rate, (the market-driven rate) with the official rate. What we use for Hajj is the official rate, which only the President can grant approval for.’
In response to the question on CBN advising the government concerning the exchange rate to be used during pilgrimages, Hajiya Bilkisu refuted it by saying ‘it was only in 2017 that the Presidency sought for our advice on the exchange rate to be applied for the Hajj. Remember I have sworn by the Qur’an; we have never been a party to the exchange rate to be adopted. Distinguished Senator, (the Chairman) has told you I’m not in a position to determine the rate; that lies with the representatives of the people; that is the legislative and the executive arms of the government. We are only policymakers and we use all the economic fundamentals in the analysis.’
Well, I think both the Committee and the CBN representative were talking at cross purposes, or there was a discrepancy in Hajiya Bilkisu’s assertions. She had said earlier in her presentation that ‘The Presidency sought for our advice, and expert analysis as to the best rate to be used; and, as economic agent, as financial adviser to Federal Government, we had to make the financial analysis, looking at all the economic fundamentals as to the rate to be applied’. And we advised the government that the best exchange rate was to adopt ₦305 to a dollar…’
That is why I align myself completely to the position of Distinguished Senator Ali Malam Wakil who took strong exception to Senator Aliero’s intervention on Hajiya Bilkisu’s capacity to entertain questions and her ability to advise the government on the subsidised exchange rate for Hajj.
Senator Ali said that ‘on the contrary, Hajiya, you have the expertise and capacity to respond to the questions we put to you in this dialogue of arriving at a reduced price for Hajj. The total number of Muslim and Christian pilgrims is not more than 200,000, which is quite negligible for a population of about 180 million citizens. What will it cost a government which has the welfare of its citizens as a priority in line with the provisions of the constitution, to peg ₦200 exchange to a dollar where, for example, the market-driven rate is 400? We are not saying you determine the exchange rate, but what we are saying is that you are in a position to advise, guide on this issue.
That is why you are representing the CBN Governor here, and why you are a commissioner in the board of NAHCON. If you abdicate that role, then we shall summon the CBN Governor to appear instead.’