The Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Accommodation, Logistics, Feeding, Onshore and Offshore of Nigerian Pilgrims wrote a report, which stood reason on its head. I analysed and wrote a rebuttal of their findings in three articles spanning the last three weeks. Now let us examine what they recommended. They recommended 20 things. In that portion of the report, you will see what justifies my outrage and the outrage of any fair-minded, right thinking person.
The first recommendation was to order NAHCON to constitute, immediately, a Procurement Planning Committee, which it already has. The last (20th recommendation) exposes further the hands behind the puppet strings in that Committee, for there was mention once again of Max Air, which was earlier mentioned as ready to airlift pilgrims for Umrah at $1,000. It says, “Max Air, and any other interested and qualified indigenous carriers should be allowed to airlift pilgrims at a reasonable rate of $1,000 (or even negotiated lower) per pilgrim”. While this might sound altruistic at first, it is not. You have to know what brought up the name of a specific airline in a Senate Committee report. The part the report skipped is that Max Air has been lobbying for more seats earlier, which NAHCON did not grant.
The report also failed to mention that scheduled flights during Umrah season are way cheaper than chartered flights and that Umrah season is not the same as Hajj season. Even scheduled flights during Hajj are more expensive than those of the Umrah season. Every frequent traveller to the Holy Land knows this except our Senate Committee. This mixture of ignorance, mischief and ulterior, self-seeking motives mars the report and its recommendations. This is neither to say there was nothing good in all they recommended nor does it mean NAHCON has no faults as well.
The report called the following charges by NAHCON “unnecessary”: Hajj development levy, administrative charge, immunization fee for obtaining the WHO Immunization certificate (known as yellow card) and the registration forms. It, however, failed to tell us where the alternative source of funds to run the Commission would come from. The amount realized from these charges were what transformed NAHCON into a self-sufficient agency of government when it used to be a recipient of government handouts at inception.
The report recommended the amendment of the NAHCON Act and the Utility Charges Act “to bring them to be in conformity with present-day realities”. Surely someone will tell us what that really means but for now, let us agree that the statement means very little in practical terms.
I agree with the next recommendation, which seeks to sanction NAHCON for violating relevant sections of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the Public Procurement Act and the NAHCON Establishment Act but on the condition that there were actual violations and not fictitious ones as contained in the report.
Their fifth recommendation is that the Presidency should stop overseeing the affairs of NAHCON but that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should. This is what happens when there was little research done before reaching a conclusion. NAHCON and its immediate predecessors, the Directorate / Office of Pilgrims Affairs (DPA / OPA) were set up with the aim of removing the bureaucracy and interference of the sort the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would definitely cause by asking it to oversee NAHCON. Unknown to the authors of that report, the Foreign Affairs Ministry used to oversee Hajj Management and it did a terrible job. Is it that Nigerians do not learn from past mistakes?
Their sixth recommendation is ridiculous unless you know nothing about air travel. It recommends that local airlines should be given preference over foreign ones and that airlines should charge the same amount for both Umrah and Hajj seasons. That is totally unrealistic. Airfare at different seasons is not uniform anywhere in the world and that fact is not based on rocket science. It is the sum of the charges airlines have to pay at various airports and airspace, the taxes, the cost of the aviation fuel they use, the running cost in the countries they operate (staff, office, maintenance etc.), the demand for seats and the type and capacity of aircraft which determine how much they charge.
Nigeria has some of the highest charges at her airports and the cost of running an airline in Nigeria is significantly higher than in neighbouring countries like Ghana, for example. The airport taxes Saudi airports charge in Hajj are higher than what is charged during Umrah. How can anyone who knows this ever recommend uniform fares? How?
The seventh, thirteenth and fourteenth recommendations will form the crux of my next piece, inshaa Allah. That Committee is set to bring Nigeria on a collision course with the government of Saudi Arabia. Stay tuned.
Their eighth recommendation asks NAHCON to stop negotiating the prices of houses in Saudia on behalf of the SPWBs. Again, this is a reflection of how poorly they researched the subject. The truth is that without NAHCON’s intervention, companies and house owners had been ripping off the SPWBs. This was why NAHCON had to intervene. Those who want the Commission to stop helping in reducing the price of accommodation could not possibly have the best interest of Nigerian pilgrims at heart. And if they are not protecting the interest of Nigerian pilgrims with that recommendation, it is important to ask, ‘Whose interest are they protecting, exactly?’
In the recommendation, the Committee accused the NAHCON of monumental fraud in the provision of accommodation in Madeenah and other procured services between 2015 and 2018. This period covers exactly the time the current Chairman of the Commission has been in office only. This is despite the fact that many of the charges, the practice of renting accommodation in Madeenah and the charges they allege were fraudulent, started before his tenure. I hope you are reading between the lines. Another curious thing the Committee did was to request for the account statement of the Chairman, going beyond their terms of reference. They then recommended the EFCC to investigate the NAHCON. I support an investigation and I believe this is not the first investigation against the Chairman. You do not block the means of syphoning possibly billions of naira without the beneficiaries not fighting back.
The eleventh recommendation was for NAHCON to stop renting accommodation longer than the number of days that Nigerian pilgrims are supposed to spend in Madeenah and that the amounts realised from subletting the accommodation should be refunded to the pilgrims. This recommendation did not consider why the rooms are kept for the number of days the pilgrims should spend. The committee did not know or ignored the history of the practice. Each year, one delay or the other can keep pilgrims in Saudia longer than they should and this causes serious embarrassment for the country. The excess days rented are a sort of safety net to take care of these emergencies.
The next recommendation is bizarre. The Committee recommended that Shuraka Al Khair Group of Companies should be stopped from rendering services to Nigerian pilgrims and that Nigerian-owned Saudi-based companies should be given preference henceforth! How anyone could write this recommendation still beats me. The company in question is not the only non-Nigerian company which renders services to Nigerian pilgrims and, indeed, pilgrims from other countries. Not just that, they have a great track record to the point that the Committee chairman, Sen Aliero, used their services for a whole tenure as governor, year in, year out and he introduced them to his successor as governor in Kebbi State. I doubt that he read the report. Again, how does a report target a specific company, without the company being involved in any malpractice? On what grounds would the Committee exclude it from those who bid to render services to the pilgrims each year? Would it be something like, “Messrs Shuraka Al Khair is hereby singled out for exclusion from this bidding as they have been patronised by too many SPWBs for the comfort of the Committee”? The reality is that you cannot do that in any decent sort of way. And to think the Committee is surreptitiously calling for the reinstatement of companies that defrauded Nigerian SPWBs of millions as service providers. This is really sickening!
I fully support the fifteenth recommendation. It recommends a forensic auditing of NAHCON’s accounts since inception. I believe in transparency. I wish the Senate were as transparent in their financial transactions as they demand of others, though.
The sixteenth recommendation is merely a differently worded version of the eleventh recommendation and does not bear a repetition.
The seventeenth and nineteenth recommendations are about the most valuable in all the report. Summarily, they call for a better managed SPWB in each state via legislation in those states and a reduction in the airport taxes and charges, which are part of the huge airfare Nigerians have to pay, by 50%. The only problem with this thinking is that the government is moving away from subsidizing or funding pilgrimage in any way. By asking the FAAN and NCAA to reduce their normal tariffs by half, you are asking the government to pay up the balance.
The eighteenth recommendation is another admission of ignorance by the Committee. You cannot ask the Hajj Commission to review the Hajj fare from about ₦1.5 million to ₦1 million without considering what makes up the former fare. How does it profit the Hajj Commission if our yearly quota of pilgrims given by the Saudi Hajj Ministry is only half filled? Surely, they must see that the higher fares are a reflection of the higher exchange rates because in reality, the fares in dollars have been reducing but the exchange rates have been growing. This is the main problem and we should recognise that and move towards reducing the exchange rate.
My last piece on the report will centre on the agreements Nigeria made with Saudi Arabia, and the statutory payments which the report recommendation seeks to demolish. Before the committee misleads the larger house of the Senate, something must be done to educate everyone and clear these misconceptions and deliberate misinformation.
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