There are strong indications that about 45,000 Nigerians who paid the 2023 hajj fares may miss the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia over visa issues.
LEADERSHIP Friday gathered that, in the last two weeks, the affected intending pilgrims could not secure visas due to the delay in the remittance of their hajj fares to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).
Consequently, the CBN couldn’t remit the funds to the pilgrims’ agencies and tour operators’ bank accounts in Saudi Arabia for the payment of hajj services.
State pilgrim officials and private tour operators have confirmed that throughout last week and this week, no pilgrim visa was approved because of NAHCON’s delay in remitting hajj funds to CBN to credit the pilgrims’ International Bank Account Numbers (IBAN).
The non-remittance has made it impossible for tour operators and state pilgrim boards to log onto their various pilgrims’ portals to pay for hajj services that include accommodation, feeding, transports and tents before finally securing visa.
Insiders at CBN said that before now, the hajj commission remitted fares to the apex bank two to three months before the airlift of pilgrims.
But the officials, who said they were not authorised to speak on the matter, noted that this time, the commission remitted the fund to CBN barely two weeks before the inaugural flight on May 25, 2023.
The ongoing transition and probes of the hajj commission by anti-graft agencies “have fueled CBN’s suspicion of NAHCON foreign transactions. CBN has to be very meticulous in funding these foreign accounts,” a top official of the bank said.
A staff of the CBN said that the apex bank was alarmed by the hajj commission’s transactions “when it tried to move about $400 million to Saudi Arabia in one tranche. This single incident forced CBN to be more cautious.”
Findings revealed that apart from the visa issue, the commission had not mobilised the five approved airlines for the hajj operations two weeks after the commencement of the airlift.
“The airlines are complaining. They have not been paid a dime two weeks into the airlift operation,” an official of the commission said.
At this rate, it is not surprising if the airlines fail to airlift all the pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. The commission had airlifted a little over 30,000 pilgrims as of Wednesday, leaving behind 45,000 others.
It was learnt that a supremacy battle between the NAHCON leadership and a commissioner in charge of a critical office was one of the factors that slowed down the operations.
The official allegedly disregarded a superior’s order for making payments.
“He does it with open audacity even though he has zero experience in hajj operations. He deliberately slows the system,” a NAHCON official said.
There are fears that many pilgrims may miss the hajj, with the commission having only 16 days to evacuate the remaining 45,000 pilgrims to the holy land.
For NAHCON to meet up with the deadline, it must henceforth airlift an average of 2,812 pilgrims daily, which requires at least six Boeing 747 – 500 passenger capacity aircraft, which will operate daily for the remaining 16 days.
Sources say that Vice President Kashim Shettima has intervened so that CBN can fast-track the funds transfer.
A tour operator said the development may further worsen the precarious conditions of many tour operators.
“NAHCON did the same thing last year. We paid money to it but it failed to remit it to the CBN in time. A majority of tour operators’ pilgrims missed the 2022 hajj. Many of our members are either bankrupt or facing litigation or probes by the EFCC and police,” a tour operator who doesn’t want his name mentioned said.
Saudi Arabia has granted Nigeria 95,000 slots for the 2023 hajj pilgrimage, 75,000 for state pilgrims, and 20,000 for private tour operators.
NAHCON spokesperson, Mousa Ubandawaki, however told journalists that the visa suspension was due to “technical hitches” on the part of the CBN.
Ubandawaki blamed a federal government’s directive that bars CBN from remitting funds to foreign accounts for the visa stall.