By Mousa Ubandawaki
The attention of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has been drawn to the lead story in the Friday, July 21, 2023 edition of The Guardian newspaper with the caption ” Tears, Complaint Trails Nigeria’s Hajj… N304 Billion Capital flight to Makkah.”
The Guardian as one of the leading lights of Nigerian print journalism for decades has a reputation for promoting fair reportage and analyses of issues and events.
This, however, was not the case with the seemingly sponsored story under reference purported to be The Guardian’s evaluation of the yet-to-be-concluded 2023 Hajj exercise.
Incidentally, The Guardian has decided to ignore the report of its own editor and a reporter who performed Hajj this year and were both witnesses to the truth.
We however noticed that the writer of the story with the mischievous and clearly unprofessional headline did not leave the shores of Nigeria as it was not on record that she performed the Hajj exercise this year. One therefore wonders why her own report should be considered as more authoritative than the reports of her boss, an Editor and her Kano-based colleague who performed this year’s Hajj were both witnesses to all that transpired in the Holy Land.
The headline, Hajj 2023: “Tears, Complaints trail Nigeria’s Hajj N304 Billion Capital flight to Mecca” is not just misleading, it might be misunderstood to give the general reading public the impression that the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) is involved in money laundering or corruption activities which is not the case.
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We therefore deeply deem it appropriate to clarify and explain some of the misrepresentations contained in the report so as to clear any doubts in the hearts and minds of readers who might have been misinformed.
Unlike what the newspaper wants the readers to believe about the 2023 Hajj by tucking the achievements as a footnote in the report, it was not all tears and despair.
Though there was some storm in the process of airlift, it was eventually all smiles during the outbound airlift to Saudi Arabia. For the first time in a long while, the Commission was able to ferry all the 95,000 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia in record time. The paper may wish to recall that previously, it had been a very difficult and herculean task to achieve this but this year, the mission was accomplished.
Secondly, our pilgrims can also attest to the fact that the services provided to them in Madina were those that can, at best, be found in first rate tourist destination hubs anywhere in the world.
Our pilgrims were accommodated in the exclusive Markazziyah quarters of the second Holiest City, where state pilgrims irrespective of status were lodged. It is the highbrow area of the City where pilgrims only had to come down from their hotel rooms into the prayer area of the Masjid Al-Nabawi.
Of concern also is the report’s refusal to, as proclaimed in its motto, truthfully acknowledge and report clearly the giant strides by the Commission to the fact that also for the first time in the Commission’s history that over 98 percent of the pilgrims of the state pilgrims welfare boards were able to visit the Second Holiest city, a no mean feat never before achieved since the establishment of the Commission in 2007.
The newspaper may have done well in trying to turn the light on the plight of Private Tour Operator pilgrims but it must be reiterated and emphasized that the Commission’s offence if it can be regarded as such, was that it tried to assist all intending pilgrims irrespective of their category.
The Commission was, as clearly reiterated by an AHOUN chieftain in The Guardian, only involved in the airlift of pilgrims by private tour operators in a rescue effort when it became glaring that the majority of their 10,000 pilgrims may not eventually make it if they were left to wait on the contracted Arik Air mandated to airlift them.
Also, as a matter of fact, the situation at Muna was, sadly, not peculiar to Nigeria alone. Most other nations went through the same ugly incidence. Many people can attest to the fact that the NAHCON Chairman, Alhaji Zikrullah Kunle Hassan, at a press briefing in Makkah expressed his displeasure over the state of facilities in Muna and also followed up with a formal complaint which culminated in the emergency allocation of additional 10,000 tents as accommodation for Nigerians.
The Commission is also well ahead to secure restitution or compensation for services not provided while the Company of Muttawwif of African Non -Arab has tendered an unreserved apology to the country. The Commission’s daring steps may have forced other Hajj Missions around the world to follow suit.
On the amounts quoted by the newspaper for the annual pilgrimage, we do not want to assume or subscribe to the insinuation that the report was intended to cause mischief or religious tension in the country.
It needs to be stated however that Hajj fare is for services rendered to our pilgrims in Saudi Arabia which include the cost of air ticket, feeding, transportation and other services and Basic Travel Allowance (BTA).
It also needs to be emphasized that the Commission is not oblivious to the fact that the Hajj should not only serve as religious juvenation but also an avenue to make economic benefit through the exportation of goods and services
This was the reason why the Commission, at a recent meeting with the Islamic Development Bank, IDB, in Jeddah expressed the need to explore the economic benefits of Hajj where it canvassed for the importation of livestock from Nigeria for Hadaya. This was with a view to earning foreign exchange for the country.
In the same manner the Commission in signing the feeding agreement inserted and insisted on partnership with Nigerian companies which will guarantee the employment of Nigerian chefs in the preparation of food for our pilgrims.
It is worth noting that the report acknowledged that the fluctuating exchange rate was the major factor responsible for the high cost of Hajj over the years.
The Guardian however failed to highlight the fact that since the inception of the present board of the Commission, a lot of efforts have been made to change this narrative with the institution of the Hajj Savings Scheme (HSS) which aimed to overturn the annual increase in the Hajj fare.
The scheme which is still at infancy is expected to be the long term solution to the Hajj fare increase. The HSS is a contributory payment scheme that allows intending pilgrims to register and deposit money for the sole purpose of performing Hajj.
Apart from giving participants the opportunity to perform Hajj without government patronage, dependence on rich families or relations, or disposing of their hard-earned properties it also enables the Commission to make long-term commitments to service providers who would not have to charge for service at current or prevailing rates. Moreover, it would enable the commission to plan well ahead of time and remove the bottleneck associated with obtaining flight slots/schedules and other logistics.
Therefore, if we must change the narrative of the high cost of Hajj, facilitate the easy movements of our pilgrims to Haj and also reduce the outflow of funds, then HSS and investment in our Air Carriers to enable them to compete favourably with their counterparts in other countries must be pursued diligently. On the part of the commission, for well over five years, it has been self sustaining in the area of Off Shore activities which is the major plank of its mission. The federal government only lends a hand in the payment of Staff salary, allowances and other personnel costs.
We can’t wait to see the newspaper give this response the same prominence it gave the initial report.
Mousa Ubandawaki is the Deputy Director, Information and Publication Division of NAHCON writes from Abuja.