The upper legislative chambers of the National Assembly held a two-day Public Hearing on Hajj under the aegis of the ‘Ad-Hoc Committee on Accommodation, Logistics, Feeding, Onshore and Offshore of Nigerian Pilgrims’, on Wednesday 17th and Thursday 18th January, 2018 at the Senate Hearing Room 1, White House, National Assembly Complex, Abuja.
Well, if I may start with the name of this Ad-Hoc Committee, I think ‘Onshore and Offshore’ is not necessary. If it refers to ‘local and international’ services rendered the pilgrims, let it be so stated, but ‘onshore and offshore’ does not denote a benign phraseology.
The two-day public hearing was well-attended by Hajj stakeholders countrywide – officials from various state Muslim Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards and Agencies, airline companies, aviation industry professionals and Central Bank of Nigeria representatives. Others present at the hearing were the Secretary-General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affair (NSCIA), Prof. Is’haq Oloyede, represented by the Deputy National Legal Adviser, Barrister Harun Eze, the Director Administration, Ustaz Christian Isa Okwonkwo, private Hajj operators and officials of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) led by its Chairman, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar.
In his Opening Remarks, the President of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Senator (Dr) Abubakar Bukola Saraki, CON, who declared the Public Hearing open, represented by Senator Ahmad Sani, Yariman Bakura, informed the gathering that ‘as a religious country,’ entering the new year heralds the formation of ‘new year resolutions’ which may involve making of renewed ‘pact with God’ and thus lead to ‘the fulfilment of one of the tenets of faith – the religious pilgrimage.’
In respect of ‘the Muslim Ummah’ the President of the Senate said, ‘the Hajj (pilgrimage) is the fifth pillar of Islam, to be fulfilled by the faithful at least once in a lifetime, for those who are able.’
Saraki stressed the fact that Nigerians strive to put God first in all their undertakings due to their strong faith and the seriousness with which they treat religious matters. Given this commitment to faith, he said, it ‘is perfectly understandable’ to see the yearning of people towards the journey to Hajj culminating in an ever-increasing number of Nigerians on the yearly religious journey. ‘No fewer than 81,000 Nigerians’ he averred, ‘performed the Hajj (pilgrimage) in 2017, and I understand we have about 95,000 slots for this year. Little wonder our country contributes the fifth highest number of pilgrims to Mecca each year.’
On the reason behind convening the Public Hearing, the President of the Senate informed attendees that it all started ‘about six months ago – with a motion sponsored by Distinguished Senator Ibrahim Danbaba, which focused on the ‘Extortion of Pilgrims’ on annual pilgrimage. A number of issues had been raised around the conduct of the annual religious exercise as overseen by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria.’
The above sentiments were echoed earlier by the chairman of the Ad-Hoc Committee, Distinguished Senator Muhammad Adamu Aliero in his address where he decried the sordid practices of ‘some government agencies and individuals saddled with the responsibilities of regulating, controlling, assisting and monitoring all matters concerning the performance of this religious exercise’, ‘at the expense of gullible and helpless Nigerian Pilgrims.’
Senator Aliero mentioned certain allegations levelled against NAHCON, ‘of fraudulent extortion and imposition of charges’ ‘through shoddy deals in accommodations, transport fare and feeding.’ He also stated as part of the allegation that ‘Nigerian Hajj fare is (the) highest in the world. While Nigerian pilgrims were normally accommodated in dilapidated, overcrowded and very far hostels from the Haram, their counterparts from other countries enjoy better and more conducive accommodations throughout the Hajj exercise.’
The President of the Senate’s Address added other aspects not covered in Senator Aliero’s. Senator Saraki included ‘the apparent discrepancy between fares charged by the Commission and independent tour operators;’ alluding to the misadventure undertaken by people like me who claimed to offer to pilgrims similar services offered by state pilgrim boards at a lesser price than the one announced by NAHCON, to which I shall revert later. Other points in Senator Saraki’s address that were not mentioned by Senator Aliero’s were ‘exorbitant and unsustainable charges; the suspicion that some service providers are ‘cutting corners’; mixed quality in terms of service delivery; the exchange rate that should apply to pilgrims; the rate of the Basic Travel Allowance (BTA)….’
These allegations against NAHCON should remain as they are rightly described by both the President of the Senate and the Chairman of the Ad-Hoc Committee – allegations – which (Ad-Hoc Committee) assures the general public that it will unravel ‘and come up with far reaching recommendations that will guarantee transparent Hajj operations free from all sort of abuse.’ That was why the Public Hearing was convened to avail distinguished members of the Committee the chance ‘to hear a wide range of experiences, opinions and expertise on’ Hajj operations. That was also why the President of the Senate urged ‘all stakeholders and interested parties’ to ‘make their submissions without let or hindrance, so that we can truly have a rancour-free pilgrimage exercise in this country.’
After the opening ceremony and departure of some dignitaries the Hearing commenced heads of state pilgrims’ boards and agencies or their representatives. FCT, Benue, Kaduna, Lagos, Sokoto and Kebi were some of the states that made presentations and answered questions from the members of the Ad-Hoc Committee. Each state pilgrims’ board’s leadership explained the process of receipt and disbursement of Hajj seat allocations, the amount charged per slot, the air carrier assigned for airlift of pilgrims from the state, and foreign exchange given to each pilgrim as BTA.
After each presentation a cannonade of questions was directed at the presenter. The Ad-Hoc Committee desired to know if the state was able to sell the entire allocation, and if not what reasons occasioned the low patronage; was it due to the economic downturn in the country, or was it because the package was very expensive? How far was the distance of pilgrims’ accommodation to the Haram in both Makkah and Madeenah, and what is the room configuration? How did the state arrive at the designated air carrier for its pilgrims? Did it play any role in the screening, selection process, and negotiation of ticket fare? How much was paid to NAHCON for the Hajj services, and was VAT included in such payments? How much was spent by the board or agency in the sponsorship of Ameerul Hajj or any other committee accompanying the pilgrims? Is there any form of subsidy that the pilgrims enjoy in the payment for Hajj services? What level of control does the state agency have in the issue of securing accommodation for its pilgrims in Madeenah or Makkah? Does that state pilgrims’ agency feel comfortable with NAHCON handling part of the accommodation of its pilgrims?
Answers to the above questions were provided by respondents during their presentations, but of course, they were not in a position to respond to all queries; it is only NAHCON that can do that. These questions and the answers likely to be elicited therefrom will assist the Ad-Hoc Committee in unravelling the allegations alluded to by the two addresses mentioned earlier. NAHCON’s response I shall present in subsequent parts.