‘I pray before taking certain decisions’  

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Mallam Abdullahi Muktar Muhammad, a lawyer, is Executive Chairman, National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). In this interview with Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf, he takes an introspective look into the just concluded hajj exercise vis-à-vis lessons learnt and preparations for 2018 hajj operations as well as a peep into his management and organisational style. Excerpts:

What is your assessment of the 2017 hajj exercise and what are the challenges and lessons learnt if any?

As the man on the driving seat I won’t like to assess our performance I would rather allow the public and other stakeholders to assess us. But if you ask me what public opinion has been and what is the view of other stakeholders, who assessed us based on their own comments, submissions, engagements, interactions with the media and the feedback we’re receiving through other mechanisms either established channels of communication by the Commission or through the court of public opinion, I can say it’s a huge success. It’s a success in the sense that despite all the challenges and initial attempts by some people to derail us from our main focus during the controversy over the hajj fares, we were able to remain committed to the cause of delivering hajj as planned. We were successful in airlifting all the pilgrims under the States Pilgrims Welfare Boards, commissions and agencies across the country, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Armed Forces, that is 38 entities. Not only that, we were also able to intervene by ensuring that pilgrims who also paid through the private licensed tour operators were airlifted into the Saudi Arabia Kingdom because we had challenges whereby some of the licensed tour operators couldn’t get scheduled flights to bring in their pilgrims. So the Commission as a regulator had to intervene by organising special flights out of Kano and Abuja to bring in those pilgrims so that they are able to meet up with their hajj exercise. And this is the first time in many years that the Commission intervened or had to rescue the tour operators in airlifting their own pilgrims. So if you look at the inbound operations critically, there was this challenge of the discourse on the hajj fares which nearly, if not removed us away from our focus, so much so that we could have withdrew completely and lose track of the whole exercise. Yet, we were able to overcome it and get everybody airlifted.

The aspect is the offshore. If you look at our arrangements in Medina, it’s an improved version of last year. All the pilgrims were accommodated within the highbrow area called Markasiya that is the prime area of Medina which is just some few minutes walking distance to the Grand Mosque of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (SAW). The feeding in Medina was also an improved version of what it used to be. This was attested to by the pilgrims and state officials themselves. We also had improved transportation for Nigerian pilgrims. The busses we used this year compared to what it was in the previous years, of course, you can say that there is really no basis for comparison at all. These year’s busses were VIP busses with refrigerators, toilet facilities, internet facility, fully air-conditioned, television services, and tracking devices. The busses are new in terms of their make so there were no reported cases of busses stopping on the roads due to mechanical breakdown and all that. I think out of the movement of almost 90, 000 people there was only one reported case of a vehicle that developed fault on the road. So if you compare that with previous statistics, it’s a great success. In the previous years on daily basis, you have reported cases of vehicles breaking down and rescue operations had to be arranged for passengers and all that.

Medina medical services had improved version of what it used to be. If you look at the activities in Mecca, most supervised by the Commission, is also an improved version of what it used to be. Most of the states were able o get houses in more accessible areas and straight route to the Haram (mosque), not hilly paths and easily traceable that the pilgrims don’t have to miss their way. The medical arrangement in Mecca was better coordinated compared to last year. Of course, anybody who visited any of our clinics will agree with me that it’s really an improved version of what our medical services used to be.  The records of patients being seen in the clinics was unprecedented so also the recorded keeping which were all computerised and of real-time online basis which has eliminated the chances of pilgrims visiting multiple clinics at a time for the purpose of getting drugs that would take back home. The coordination and synergy between the states and the federal team in the medical arrangement is superb. Having said this, in a nutshell from the assessment of our stakeholders so far so good, we thank God for seeing us through.

Given the fact that the hajj fare is largely dependent on the exchange rate, what should Nigerians be expecting, in terms of the hajj fares next year bearing in mind the flexibility of our exchange rate?

Well, from what happened this year I think the coast is very clear that whatever is the official exchange rate that should be our yardstick for computing the hajj fares. So, let’s continue to pray, all Nigerians should pray and work hard by supporting the government in its drive towards stabilising and growing the economy so that the dollar/naira disparity will be improved to the extent that naira will take its rightful position in terms of exchange rate to dollar. If we are lucky the dollar crashes, the total hajj fare will also come down because the dollar component which makes up the hajj fare, which is about 8-9% of the total hajj fare, some did not increase even with $1 compare to last year. In fact, it has reduced with about $300-350 depending on the states. And even in some states, it’s up to $400. So, impliedly, the dollar component reduced but the exchange rate has increased. The exchange rate used in 2016 was N197, which was the official exchange rate when we consummated the transaction with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). But this year, the official exchange rate is N305 so already there is a gap of N108 I think. So in simple layman terms assuming the hajj fare for 2016 was just $1 that each pilgrim paid to perform hajj, by 2017, the fare has reduced to $0.73. But the exchange rate last year N197. The exchange rate this year is N305, so no matter the reduction in the dollar component, the impact will not be felt by the ordinary pilgrim because he has been affected by the exchange rate. That is the simple explanation. If the exchange rate remained at N197 or lower, which means, the pilgrim will benefit and he will know that yes, efforts are being made by the government to down the hajj fare itself. But despite this hiccups, it is important for the pilgrims and other members of the public to know that the fare prices would have been much higher than what it was this year if government said pilgrims should go and source for their dollars at the interbank rates, which then was about N362-365 and in some cases N368, respectively. But the federal government was magnanimous enough to look at the sensitive needs and importance of the pilgrimage and religious services for both Muslims and Christians and allow us to enjoy the official exchange rate, which is N305. I think we should be grateful for this gesture of the government and continue to be prayerful that the naira appreciates against the dollar as low as N1 to the dollar. If it reaches that level, which means hajj fares will become N5, 300 or even less! May be by that time only God knows how many people will be rushing to go and perform the hajj. We hope the economy will get better. But just to summary the answer to your question, what shall we expect in 2018 in terms of hajj fares, the answer is whatever the official exchange rate that would be the basis for our computation of the hajj fare.

When does your typical day begin?

Well, I really don’t know because during hajj operations, you can say that we work for 24 hours here. So, I have very odd time. I work very late, may be sleep a little but without compromising my health and my footings and I try not to lose my balance over issues. So far so good.

Could you tell us your management style, what works for you?

I believe in consultation and I believe nobody has monopoly of wisdom. So I believe in reaching out to people who knows to ask them about what I don’t know. Even what I know love to hear difference of opinion and I am a very good listener of critics because critics strengthen me more.

In terms of motivating your staff, do you apply the stick and carrot approach?

Yes. In fact, I appreciate any staff that is very hardworking and I don’t treat them as a boss-servant relationship but as a friend-boss relationship. Sometimes you see me working into the office of my subordinates and very junior staff.  I can walk down into their office, sit down with him or her and do the work together just to do the needful. And if anybody excel, I believe he or she should be rewarded. And there are different ways of rewarding the staff. There could be personal appreciation, official appreciation, official commendations, fast tracking his or needs and going out of your way to assist what they least expect you will even be there for them. And of course, the stick formula is also needful.  For one, I don’t tolerate indiscipline at all and I hate people who are deceptive, especially people who fail to do their job until may be compromise is being made. That really irritates me. And I can do away with any person who I believe is not adding value and he/she is becoming a stumbling block in the process of the exercise. But I can say we have very wonderful staff here, as such I can gladly recommend them for any challenging responsibility anytime any day and I think they deserve more than what they get in terms of reward. And if Allah gives me greater opportunity to reward them better than what we are doing now, definitely, I will do that.

As the CEO what has been the toughest decision you have had to take ever since you came on board?

Well, I think the hardest decision is if it comes to matter of somebody’s future. I find it very difficult to be part of any negative history of somebody. So I don’t want to pinpoint a particular example but that’s one of the toughest things that if it comes to my table I embark on serious prayers for God’s guidance because it’s better to set somebody free than to decide on him in an unjustifiable manner or just out of sheer sentiments. So most decisions that has to do with people’s future is difficult for me to take; the reason being that I don’t want to take wrong decisions over somebody who hasn’t committed any offense at all. There are pilgrim officials, my staff or anybody. But once I’m convinced that an offense has been committed and there is ample evidence, and there is no sign of remorse from the offender, I can take that decision and go to sleep. But if there is any slight ambiguity or doubt really it gives me some high level of discomfort because I don’t want to be remembered on the negative side of history.

Talking about legacies what legacies would you want to leave behind as the CEO of NAHCON?

I want to be remembered for anything good that I have initiated, participated or assisted in bringing into the hajj operations of my country. And I want to be forgiven for any mistake that I have done knowingly or unknowingly.

The Nation