Last week, I dwelt on the first allegation by the Nigeria Arewa Foundation of Makkah, Saudi Arabia against the Executive Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Mohammed. The allegation was baseless, considering the enabling laws establishing the Commission and the fact that those deductions were approved by the President, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The deductions were not only statutory; they have been in force since 2007 and the same petitioner has been acquiescing to them under the previous leadership of NAHCON without any objection. It is curious that the objections came only when the current Chairman was appointed. The amounts have not changed, by the way.
Today we will examine the second allegation from the Nigeria Arewa Foundation. They allege that the Chairman, without the consent of the State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards, is unjustifiably negotiating for an increase in the pilgrims’ transportation fees in Saudia from the sum of SR180 to SR360; a 100 per cent increase. They further described the alleged increase as impromptu and unjustified. The Chairman responded by stating that the allegation was not only misinformed and malicious, it was also mischievous and borne out of crass ignorance or a deliberate misrepresentation of facts. I could not agree more with this assessment. Let me explain:
In January 2017, there was a ministerial meeting between NAHCON, the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Saudi Minister of Hajj, Dr Muhammad bn Saleh Benten, and his team. The Nigerian delegation was led by the Honourable Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Hon. Khadija Bukar Abbba Ibrahim. The Nigerian foreign mission heads in Saudia and the NCAA attended this meeting. It was at the meeting that the Minister of Hajj informed the Nigerian delegation that there are new guidelines for the 2017 Hajj season. One of the new guidelines was the restoration of the Hajj slots for Nigeria to 95,000 seats. Another was that no one should house more than 4 pilgrims in a room except in the case of members of the same family. The sixth item under the new guidelines as contained in the minutes of that meeting says, “There will be a new and improved transportation service in the Masha’er which will now cost SR360 per pilgrim”. The seventh item says, “There will be an additional service sector between Minaa and Makkah during the stay at Masha’er”.
For those not familiar with the above information I have quoted verbatim from the minutes, the Masha’er refers to Minaa, Arafah and Muzdalifah. The old transport arrangement to which Nigerian pilgrims are used is the Tradudiyyah (Mono-route) arrangement. The Mono-route arrangement is the cheapest but gives the greatest stress to the pilgrims. The buses hitherto used were also in rather bad shape. It is a common sight to see many of them broken down and overloaded.
The new fare is uniform for all countries using the Monoroute arrangement. Even with that, the Commission has been looking for ways to exit from the arrangement and get something more comfortable and cheaper. In two other meetings with the United Agents’ Office of Saudia and its General Car Syndicate (known as the Naqaabah), the Commission tried to re-negotiate the amount. It is truly baffling, to borrow the Chairman’s expression, to read a petition alleging that the Chairman is responsible for the increment, which, as we have already seen, was occasioned by the upgrade in the services the pilgrims will enjoy this year and which had nothing to do with NAHCON or its Chairman.
Let us examine the third allegation in the petition. It was that the Chairman (note that the petition makes it look like the Chairman alone made decisions on behalf of the entire Commission) unjustly levied the catering companies in Saudia the sum of $70 on each pilgrim they catered for. The petitioners claimed the Chairman could not explain why $800 earmarked for the catering of each pilgrim was reduced to $730 in 2016. The truth is a lot different from this claim. In the first two instalments of this piece, I wrote about the preparation of Revenue Estimates for the approval of the President. In the 2016 estimates, under offshore revenues we have items 4, 5 and 6. The headings of these items respectively are: 4. Service charge from caterers-Makkah ($5.33) 5. Service charge from caterers-Madinah ($1.33) and 6. Service charge from caterers-Masha’eer ($1.33). The total service charge on catering was $7.99.
The bogus claim of $70 is not just mind-boggling but mischievous. I intend to show that malice and mischief powered the petition. The sums deducted as service charges under discussion were approved by Mr President and the SGF conveyed that to the Commission. The Commission has a board which ratifies the figures before they even get to the notice of the SGF who conveys them to the President for approval. These petitioners did not seem to know there is such a process in place. Besides all these, the money is not paid into the account of anyone.
The various State Pilgrims Welfare Boards (SPWBs) pay the caterers fees along with the entire Hajj fees into the government coffers. After the pilgrims have been fed, the actual number of meals and people fed are counted and both NAHCON officials and the service providers sit and reconcile the figures. Each service provider is paid for services actually rendered as against paying a flat rate based on estimates. The balance remains in the Commission’s accounts. Unless the petitioners can prove that the Treasury Single Account was circumvented in NAHCON’s case by the Chairman and that he has been embezzling the Commission’s funds, the claim is ill-informed, malicious and mischievous. The fear of Allah should be paramount in the hearts of all Muslims but more so in the hearts of those giving service to Allah’s guests.
Within this third main allegation, the petitioners made another allegation. They accused the Chairman of appointing one foreign company to handle the catering for 22 SPWBs. Again, the ignorance of the petitioners and their mischief comes to light. To begin with, the Chairman is not in a position to appoint anyone. Once companies are pre-qualified to provide catering services, all their names are sent to each state. The states choose which company will handle their catering.
The company which handled the catering of 22 states has been providing services for over 10 years to many of the states. These states use its services in Saudia because they are satisfied with it. The petition made it look like the company is new and not owned by a Nigerian. What an irony! The main petitioner, Ibrahim Sulaiman Yusuf, is a Nigerian who is married to a Saudi woman. His wife owns the company, Island Economic Est., which he has been representing as manager. It is not a Nigerian owned company but it was prequalified in 2016 and years before that to provide both accommodation and catering services to Nigerian pilgrims until it was disqualified this year for inflating the cost of housing per pilgrim last year; a case which I suspect might have led to the current petition.
The alleged $800 per pilgrim for feeding which they mentioned in their petition is laughable. The amount earmarked for each pilgrim’s feeding in the Hajj 2016 breakdown was $280.15 which came to about SR1, 047. In the subsequent rebuttal of the Chairman’s defence, the said Ibrahim Sulaiman Yusuf changed the amount to SR800. Whether $800 or SR800, the figures are wrong. The caterers are paid only for the meals they actually supply as I mentioned earlier. After reconciliation, the balance per pilgrim is returned to the SPWBs for refund to the pilgrims. The resultant table, showing the amounts paid and the amounts to be refunded are published each year by the Commission.
Abdullah bn Abbaas (may Allah be pleased with him and his father) said that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “If people were given what they claimed, men would claim the wealth and blood of people; however, the burden of proof is upon the claimant and the oath is incumbent upon the one who denies”. (A hasan hadith which al-Bayhaqi and others have related. Parts of it are in Bukhari and Muslim).
If people had their way, they would have people removed from office on the strength of their hatred for them alone. This hadeeth was adopted by the West later in legal matters. It is known today as the burden of proof (Onus probandi in Latin). Without it, people like Ibrahim Sulaiman Yusuf would have had their way. Insha Allah, we shall examine the 4th allegation in light of actual evidence next week.