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Senate Public Hearing On Hajj (3)

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Tour Operators

The private Hajj operators were represented at the Public Hearing by the Acting National President of the Association for Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUON), Alhaji Abdullahi Salihu Butu. Yours sincerely was with him as a support and to corroborate his position. The aim of every tour operator, AHUON stated, is to make Hajj affordable to as many people as possible; the more pilgrims served, the better for the organiser to at least break even and plan for enhanced service delivery.

A question was asked on the pricing of Hajj 2017 packages where some tour operators advertised rates lower than those announced by NAHCON through State Pilgrim Boards and Agencies. I had to respond by drawing the attention of the distinguished senators to the fact that those of us who made that claim and received payment on that wise failed lamentably in delivering what was promised the pilgrims. Quite a number of tour operators who thought they could serve their pilgrims at a lesser price than NAHCON’s later realised that even the rate they charged for tickets was not realistic because the price of air tickets soared at the peak of operations. NAHCON came to the rescue and flew the pilgrims under a separate arrangement, but for that intervention, by the Commission, many pilgrims who paid to such tour operators would not have performed Hajj 2017. The nightmare did not end with the uncertainty of airlift to the holy land, as some tour operators accommodated their pilgrims in secondary schools in Makkah, I said. The much vaunted cheaper-than NAHCON private Hajj packages kept pilgrims in proscribed places of accommodation under sub-human conditions.

There is no basis, to my mind, of any comparison between what tour operators charge for their services and what NAHCON published because the packages offered and the clientele served are not in any way the same. Any private Hajj operator that deems State Pilgrim Boards as competitors, and thus looks for ways to offer similar services at a lesser cost to his pilgrims, has brought this industry to ridicule. Yes, the sharp edges of accommodation standards and logistics are becoming blunt, thanks to NAHCON consistent improvements on service delivery and ensuring pilgrims have value for their money, but still, state pilgrim standards cannot swing the pendulum against those offered by any tour operators worth their salt.

I further explained that Hajj services are not static but ever evolving to better standards. This Ad-Hoc Committee, I said, must be commended for its laudable ideals of searching for ways to lessen the price of pilgrimage for those of restricted subsistence; but the distinguished senators should let not the nobility of their task impede the evolution of the standards already attained in serving Nigerian contingents during the holy pilgrimages. In times gone by, our pilgrims were nowhere near the vicinity of the two holy mosques; they were housed in pilgrim apartments miles away from the Haram. But today pilgrim officials of other countries who thought the hotels around Markaziyyah in Madeenah are meet for their pilgrims exclusively are waking from a deep slumber, wondering how Nigerian pilgrims became the current entrants in the Markaziyyah hotels overlooking the Masjid an-Nabawiy. I concluded, therefore, by saying that the Committee should be wary of a situation where even the pilgrims will not support lesser Hajj rates at the expense of the standard of services to be offered; after all this religious exercise is for those who can afford to undertake the journey. (Aali-Imraan, 3:97)

No sooner had I finished than one of the members of the Committee, Distinguished Senator Ali Malam Wakil deprecated my position. ‘Ustaz’, he said, ‘I disagree totally with what you said. Your thinking is exploitative, anti-people, and I hope the government will not listen to your advice. We are not talking about people who have stolen from the state, who can afford expensive packages. We are speaking about the ordinary people who may have to save for the most part of their lives in order to pay for Hajj. I don’t accept that these people have no means; they do, but they are denied the opportunity.’

The distinguished senator reminded me of my ‘moving exhortations’ in both print and electronic media years ago; that my position now is discordant with that of the ‘Ustaz Abubakr Siddeeq’ that he had ‘been reading for about twenty-five years’. I bashfully lowered my head and refrained from making further comments or repudiating the distinguished senator’s sentiments, not the least as he threatened, light-heartedly, to stop reading me henceforth since I abjured asceticism as evident in my presentation to the Committee. No comment!

The Chairman of the Committee wanted to know how package prices are arrived at and what makes one Hajj arrangement distinct from another. The President of AHUON explained that the class of tickets embedded in the package as well as the standard of (3, 4, or 5 stars) hotels for accommodation account for most of the variations in package prices. Other factors include the class of tents in Minaa and Arafah and the type of transportation arrangement as well as the quality of feeding. The issue of paying additional SAR2000 in favour of pilgrims that are performing the pilgrimage for a second or a third time adds to the cost of private hajj packages, Alhaji Butu said. He also mentioned as another reason for the hike in rates, the number of days a company decides to keep its pilgrims in Madeenah and the location of the hotel. The AHUON President advocated for a long-term lease by the government through NAHCON of some hotels in Saudi Arabia. This intervention, according to Butu, will make Hajj packages cheaper as Hajj operators can guarantee accommodation way ahead of the season ‘at a reduced cost’.

Biometrics

The Acting National President of AHUON then raised an issue, which should concern anyone who has anything to do with Umrah and Hajj; the issue of the biometrics enrolment exercise. The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Nigeria has newly introduced this measure to reduce the time Nigerians spent on queue on arrival in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They contracted the task of recording the fingerprint and face of every Saudi visa to an Indian company called VFS Tasheel.

Alhaji Salihu Butu explained how the biometric enrolment exercise began and how AHUON wrote to all stakeholders, including the Senate, about the dangers the exercise portended. There were meetings with the Embassy officials and the leadership of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pleading that if the biometrics enrolment must be done, there should be modifications, as the then proposed deployment method would be cumbersome and disenfranchise many Nigerians from performing Umrah and Hajj.

The pleas did not yield any change in the mode of deployment and the result is that as at today, if you wish to get an Umrah visa, you can only get an appointment to enrol your biometrics at the VFS Tasheel office after two weeks at the least. When you get to the centre, it takes anywhere between 6 hours and 3 days to reach your turn. Nigerians now bring their mats to the VFS offices to endure an inhuman wait. They do not have enough furniture for the applicants to sit on and they have only two to three computers for enrolling hundreds of people per day.

There are currently only 3 centres in Nigeria. The whole of the South has just one centre in Lagos while the whole of the North has two centres in Abuja and Kano respectively. The centres are ill-equipped and poorly staffed to handle a large crowd. To worsen things, their computers sometimes have long down times.

AHUON had long suggested that its members be allowed to buy the enrolment devices and get their staff trained by VFS to handle the enrolment in their offices. The Association advocated for at least a centre for each major city in the country if the first suggestion does not work. For some unexplainable reason, those who should be alarmed at these developments have kept quiet. Remember that the current mind-boggling bottleneck at the enrolment offices is child’s play compared to what will happen during Umrah and Hajj.

The situation can mean at least 70% of Nigerian intending pilgrims will be prevented from performing Hajj through the delays. Alhaji Butu pleaded with the Committee to expedite action on the matter. They should visit the centres for themselves and see what a mess the whole thing has become. AHUON has written yet another letter to the Saudi Embassy, which we suspect does not know how bad things are at the centres. The letter complained about the inefficient and ineffective manner the biometric enrolment is being conducted presently. There has been no response to the letter. Time is not our friend on this issue; Nigerians may experience a bitter Hajj year with the way things are going. Those who should take action should.

Caption
L-R: Ustaz Siddeeq and Alhaji Butu at the Public Hearing





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