I have written quite a bit on the report of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Accommodation, Logistics, Feeding, Onshore and Offshore of Nigerian Pilgrims. I promised my last intervention on the contents of that report would focus on the recommendations 7, 13 and 14. Before the Committee would cause us another big embarrassment and unnecessary conflict with Saudi Arabia, it is important to put things in perspective.
The gist of the seventh recommendation is that Nigeria should pull out of “the one-sided MOU” signed by NAHCON with the Saudi Authorities on giving a Saudi carrier 50% of the pilgrims for airlift during Hajj. There are several things wrong with this recommendation and the obviously wrong assumptions it made.
Firstly, NAHCON was not the main signatory in the MoU to which the Senate referred. It was one of several parties. Secondly, the MoU was not what started the 50% quota for Saudi carriers, it was a Royal Decree long before the MoU. The Decree is the equivalent of our own Act of the National Assembly. Challenging an edict of the King of Saudi Arabia is not the wise thing to do. We may decide to boycott the Hajj, but it would make a whole country foolish that our leaders did not protest a law, accepted to implement it after several violations and then signed an MoU only to go back on their words and “pull out” of the MoU. That is like pulling out of the requirements for Hajj visa, for example.
Let us examine the history of the whole issue. In 2007 or so, the then King issued a Royal Decree which made it mandatory for all countries flying pilgrims in for Hajj to give half of government quota pilgrims to a designated Saudi owned carrier for airlift. This law has been in force since then. The first carrier designated by the Saudi government for this was Saudi Airlines. The Hajj Commission did not like the idea of giving 50% of its business to a foreign country. It approached the airline in question and they agreed to use a Nigerian carrier but give Saudi Airlines royalty on each pilgrim. This worked in the subsequent years until 2010.
When in 2010 no Saudi carrier participated in the airlift of Nigerian pilgrims, NAHCON suspended payment of royalties. Saudi Arabia was enraged. NAHCON stood its grounds and the face-off continued until the Saudi government wrote that Nigerian pilgrims would not be allowed to perform Hajj in 2014 unless the 50% quota law was obeyed completely.
The issue was so serious but only those in the industry knew that Hajj 2014 nearly did not happen for Nigerian pilgrims. At last, in August 2014, President Jonathan sent a delegation under the leadership of the then Minister of State II Foreign Affairs, Dr Nuruddeen Muhammad to Saudia. The delegation argued that implementing the whole 50% quota would badly affect our local airlines. According to the minutes of that meeting, Nigeria finally agreed to give the Saudi designated carriers, 9,500 pilgrims for Hajj 2014 pending a conclusive resolution of the face-off which was on-going for three years.
In February of the following year, a bilateral meeting involving Nigeria’s Ministry of Aviation, NCAA, NAHCON, Airlines, Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) and Saudi Ministry of Hajj was held in Jeddah.
A Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) was signed by the Vice President, Safety and Air Transport of the Saudi General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA), Captain Mohammed Ali Jamjoom for Saudi Arabia and the then Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Nigeria, Ambassador Danjuma Sheni. The BASA among other things provided for a gradual compliance of Nigeria with the Saudi Decree.
Part of the agreement provided that Nigeria would yield 25 per cent of its pilgrims under Government quota in 2015, 35 per cent in 2016, 45 per cent in 2017 and ultimately 50 per cent from 2018. No country, I repeat, no country has “pulled out” of this law. On the contrary, Nigeria is the only country, which was given the concession to effect a gradual compliance. All other countries coming for Hajj, including those with their own national carriers have been complying.
Notwithstanding this, NAHCON still made efforts and in July 2018, before the Hajj season began, President Buhari constituted another delegation, led by the Chairman Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and made up of other members like the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of Representatives, Nigeria’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the Consul-General of the Nigerian Consulate in Jeddah, the DG NCAA, and a representative of the Nigeria Governor’s Forum to go and re-negotiate the full implementation of the 50:50 BASA in Nigeria’s favour.
The outcome was good news. Whereas, in 2017 Nigeria yielded 45% of its pilgrims to Flynas, the Saudi carrier designated that year, we yielded only 30% in 2018 and will yield 35% in 2019 onward, as against the 50% demanded by Saudi GACA in 2018. To my knowledge, Nigeria is unique in getting this concession. How this is not commendable, I cannot fathom.
I have taken time to give this much background so that readers can spot mischief where it lies. The Senate Ad Hoc Committee has the minutes of that meeting I have just described, but it, nevertheless, criticised “the one-sided MOU” signed by NAHCON and conveniently neglected to mention the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the main signatory to the document.
Now, the thirteenth and fourteenth recommendations are the stuff of legend. If you remember my last article, I explained that choosing a catering company for the provision of food for each country’s contingent in Makkah, Madeenah and the Mashaa’ir is a precondition for processing visas through the e-Hajj portal of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. NAHCON has no control over this, but just like the issue of the BASA above, the Committee is recommending that it be ‘scrapped’. On the dashboard of the e-Hajj portal, you will see where you must choose a caterer. No Nigerian owned company is on that droplist that NAHCON did not create. What we have are Saudi owned businesses that the government of Saudi Arabia had licensed for that purpose. What NAHCON does, as a Nigerian regulator, is to be involved in shortlisting those that the SPWBs would choose from. When they have been picked, NAHCON also requests the catering companies to liaise with Nigerian caterers in Saudia to cook Nigerian dishes. None of the companies is under any compulsion to choose a Nigerian caterer, however.
The transportation of Pilgrims is also statutory. It is another precondition for a Hajj visa. Your country’s Hajj Mission (in this case, NAHCON) must choose a travel route from the online portal of the Hajj Ministry and the price will automatically appear. NAHCON pays the money to the Saudi government. This was explained in my presence to the Committee and they have evidence of those payments before them, yet they authored this sickening report, recommending that the new fee be “discontinued with immediate effect”!
I am unable to accept that the crop of people who were on that Committee and who authored this report was the best the Senate could produce for the task. The output is so disappointing even by the standards of the Nigerian Senate if you catch my drift.
Recommending that we refuse to obey the laws guiding Hajj in Saudia means they are setting us up for a diplomatic row with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, His Royal Majesty, King Salman and President Buhari should not allow that to happen.
The leadership of the Senate must be commended, however, for promptly suspending deliberations on the report, and for availing the lawmakers ample time to critically study the document. Careful perusal of the report is certain to reveal to the distinguished senators how members of the Committee have successfully wasted the precious time of all stakeholders who attended the hearings and the money of taxpayers which funded their excursion to the Holy Land where they just took a cursory glance at the facts under their very noses and went on to write a report dripping with venom, misinformation, ignorance and personal vendetta.
I have a lot of respect for the President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki for numberless reasons, not least his conscientiousness and political sagacity. I believe he would not suffer the Senate, under his leadership, to be a source of diplomatic tension between Nigeria and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The House of Sa’ud has shown utmost reverence to the sacredness and glory of the Haramayn, sparing neither effort nor expense in making the vicinity of the sacred territories, by Allah’s grace, what it is today, as well as providing comfort and security to millions of pilgrims who throng there for their devotions. Those who choose to be blind to the services that the government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is offering to hajjis and mu’tamireen, let such people fear Allah and spare King Salman the meanness of their baseless criticisms!
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