Microscoping NAHCON’s 2017 Hajj Reforms

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By Muhammad Ajah

The 2017 Hajj exercise which practically began on July 30 with the airlift operations from Abuja International Airport has started recording greater successes, no doubt. This is because the reforms put in place by the Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad’s led commission have started manifesting, as the operations continues smoothly in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

 

After critical analysis and review, I want to briefly share some experiences by explaining some of the key reformation indices initiated by the commission for far-reaching results for the year’s Hajj. These are policies initiated and implemented for the benefit of the Nigerian Muslim Ummah in general and the pilgrims in particular. 95,000 pilgrims from Nigeria would be expected to go for Hajj this year, thus the reforms would greatly and positively affect all the key stakeholders in Hajj management.

 

By law, the commission has the mandate to license any establishment that involves in the organization of Hajj and umrah operations in Nigeria. It also has the mandate to properly prequalify and screen all service providers in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia namely: air carriers, excess luggage carriers, accommodation providers in Makkah and Madinah, food caterers, transport providers, tent providers, zamzam providers, amongst others. Agreements are signed between each service provider and the commission on behalf of the Nigerian pilgrims. Every bit of the contracts, mostly written to favour the pilgrims, is clearly spelt out. Let us peep into some of these 2017 Hajj reforms.

 

Licensing and grading of state boards, agencies and commissions

All the state boards, agencies and commissions, have been licensed this year, just like the tour operator companies. Section 4 subsection 1 (a and i) of the NAHCON Establishment Act 2006, empowers the commission to license, regulate, supervise and perform oversight functions over organizations, associations (corporate or non-corporate) or similar bodies engaged in Hajj and Umrah operations as well as issue guidelines and rules that will ensure that states pilgrims welfare agencies provide appropriate welfare services and guides for pilgrims. Some states call their Hajj bodies as boards; some are instituted by their assemblies as agencies or commissions. Altogether there are 38 entities conducting Hajj under government quota (75,000 this year) – 36 states, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and the Nigerian Armed Forces.The commission embarked on the mission to ensure that the boards, commissions and agencies have adequate operational facilities and manpower to provide the services rendered to pilgrims during Hajj exercises. The commission on that note allocated the 2017 Hajj seats to the states according to their licensing grading which is rated from A to D.

 

The commission had constituted a committee made up of members of the Licensing, Inspectorate and Legal Units of the Commission to visit all the state boards to inspect their office accommodations, facilities and manpower which are prerequisites for the issuance of licenses to them. It was a very welcome initiative accepted by the states because some state governments were swift in giving facelifts to their Hajj regulators to conform with NAHCON’s required standards for licensing. Some states immediately acquired magnificent buildings and equipped them with adequate facilities and manpower. Head of the team, Alhaji Muhammad Usman Liman reported that states like Sokoto, Yobe, Gombe, Bauchi, Yobe and many other states merited grade A. States like Kogi, Kwara and Edo merited grade B. States like Ebonyi, Rivers and states of Southeast and Southsouth merited grade C, while states like Enugu, Akwa Ibom and Imo merited grade D due to poor facilities and lack of adequate manpower. The policy has engendered competition amongst the states, few of which upgraded from lower categories to higher grades after the exercise.

 

Allocation of seats to the states, FCT and Armed Forces were concluded in February immediately after the signing of 2017 Hajj Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. The allocations ranged from 47 to over 7000. States that have exhausted their initial allocations and have requested for more seats are considered as long as they have remitted the fares required by the commission.

 

Easy payment for Hajj fare

The commission, in consideration of the economic situation in the country, devised means to ease the payment of Hajj fare for intending pilgrims this year. The plan was made public early December 2016 that intending pilgrims should deposit a monthly minimum of N250, 000 for five months (December 2016 to April 2017) to their respective state boards to make up N1,250,000 (One million, two hundred and fifty thousand naira). This was proclaimed by the Commissioner for Policy, Personnel Management and Finance (PPMF), Alhaji Yusuf Adebayo Ibrahim to pressmen after NAHCON’s meeting with Chief Executives of the state boards in Abuja. In other words, it is the hajj saving scheme being gradually and systematically implemented as enshrined in the NAHCON Act.

 

At that very important meeting, the acting chairman forum of chairmen and secretaries of state boards/agencies/commissions who is the Zamfara state chairman, Alhaji Abubakar Sarkin Pawa and the executive secretary of Nasarawa state board, Nalaraba Abubakar in separate responses gave the assurance that the states were prepared to cooperate with the commission to ensure a better 2017 Hajj in all aspects including the e-registration, hajj fare collection and remittance, pilgrims’ education and enlightenment and other areas.

 

And due to the reforms in Makkah and Madinah accommodation, the Hajj fares for 2017 Hajj differed from state to state. In other words, there was no uniform Hajj fare this year because accommodations in both cities were negotiated according to their merits: proximity to Haram, facilities and age.  However, this year’s Hajj fare was seriously affected by the high official exchange rate of the dollar on which the fare is computed. The Hajj fare ranged between N1.48m and N1.53m including US$800 BTA for every pilgrim. But without the reforms achieved, the fare would have been about N2m.

 

Improved licensing processes of Hajj and Umrah operators

Private Hajj and Umrah operations have been sanitized more than ever before. They have been forced to play by the rules and regulations guiding the holy trips as released by the commission. They have also been instructed to comply strictly with the regulations governing their operational licenses, to stamp out corruption and quacks from the industry. In collaboration with Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUON) led by its President, Alhaji Abdulfatai Abdulmajeed, the commission was able to clamp down on illegal and unlicensed operators in the industry

 

On 16th November 2016, the commission set up three teams on routine inspection of tour operators for its three zones: Kano, Lagos and Abuja. The teams identified all unlicensed companies by NAHCON and served them “notice of non-compliance” with a 21-day notice to regularize their companies with the commission or risk further actions. Investigations showed that some unlicensed operators place adverts in print and electronic media while some operators who possess either Hajj or Umrah license were operating both outings. At the end of the exercise, a total of 79 licensed tour operator companies and 17 unlicensed ones equaling 96 were recorded in the Lagos zone. The Kano zone recorded 63 licensed and 78 unlicensed companies while 75 companies were identified in the Abuja zone. In the whole, 312 Hajj and Umrah companies were inspected, 204 were legal operators while 108 were unlicensed. Kano zone has the highest number of illegal companies with 78 representing 25%, followed by Lagos zone that recorded 17 illegal companies representing 5.5%, while Abuja zone has 13 unlicensed companies representing 4.2%. For 2017 Hajj, 133 companies have been licensed with grade A to C with allocations ranging from 60 to 990. For umrah operators, about 142 companies have been licensed by the commission for the 2017 season, according to information released by the head of the section, Alidu Shutti.

 

Online registration and e-visa processing of pilgrims  

The commission has insisted on its online registration for the 2017 Hajj exercise. This was introduced in the last two years. There have been challenges. But this year, NAHCON has entered partnership with the Pakistani’s Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) to actualize the dream. The PITB team led by Saima R. Shaikh who is also the Director Training and Development of the board was in Nigeria to access the actual requirements of the commission. The team showcased over 20 modules including, online registration of Hajj applications, selection of pilgrims through transparent e-balloting, automated flight scheduling and building/rooms allocation, automated and centralized Hajj camp and batching of pilgrims, amongst others which will be employed electronically to ease the entire operations.

 

It would be recalled that NAHCON, PITB and the Pakistani Hajj Mission met in Makkah in October 2016 and agreed to develop Hajj management Information Technology System for online registration of 2017 intending Nigerian pilgrims. On its part, the commission has mobilized its ICT unit for the exercise. In the past, staff of the unit spent sleepless nights on the e-visa processing. But with the new development, it is expected that the processes will become hitch-free and consume less time. It will also eliminate all frauds related to pilgrims’ registration, documentation and visa acquisition.

 

Medical reforms

The commission reviewed its policy on medical service delivery for this year’s Hajj. In collaboration with state boards, serious measures have been arranged to ensure improved services and drug-free 2017 Hajj operations. The renewed policy is primarily aimed at saving costs for both the state and federal governments.

 

According to the policy, NAHCON will provide 40 percent of the total required medical personnel while state will complement the remaining 60 percent. Also, the commission will provide 70 percent of all medical consumables while state will be left to provide the balance of 30 percent. By this, Nigeria will have one integrated national medical team, reduce the number of clinics in the Holy Land, exercise frugality in cost and personnel management for the Hajj. The Chairman/CEO of the commission, Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar explained further with passion: “These medical personnel are needed in our hospitals. The reform will drastically reduce the number of personnel who would be useful in our state and federal hospitals and medical centers.”

 

Airlines: pilgrims and luggage management

Pilgrims and their 8kg (hand) and 32kg luggage are airlifted by airlines which are thoroughly screened by NAHCON but finally approved by the Presidency. This means that NAHCON has no direct hands in the final approval of airlines to airlift pilgrims to Hajj since 2007. The exercise is always very rigorous that many applicant airliners surrender halfway due to lack of required documents and documentations. The same thorough exercise is conducted for applicants for pilgrims’ excess luggage management. The exercise has not been concluded for this year’s Hajj. But for last year, the Federal Government approved six air-carriers which were: Medview, Max Air, Dornier, Top Brass, Azman and Flynas Air a Saudi Arabian designated carrier. Two companies were approved for excess cargo: NAHCO Aviance and Medview International Travels and Cargo.

 

However, despite concerted efforts by NAHCON on the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) to accord the appointed carriers all the necessary logistic and consular supports to enable them have smooth plan and execution of their assignments, only three: Medview, Max and Flynas were approved by GACA which has the final say on Hajj air fleet matters. Diplomatic channels and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) did their best but to no avail.

 

Last year, over 80% of the flights from Nigeria were direct to the Prince Muhammad Abdul-Aziz International Airport, Madinah while only 44 flights landed in the King Abdul-Aziz International Airport, Jeddah. The pilgrims were therefore transported from Jeddah to Madinah. This meant that 100% of Nigerian pilgrims visited Madinah before Arafah thus the Miqat palaver that often raise some dust among the Nigerian ulama was completely overcome. Last year, no pilgrim complained of lost luggage, neither the hand nor the main and excess ones. Although there were insignificant cases of delay in the Saudi-bound journeys mostly from pilgrims’ late arrival to departure centers, the entire airlift operations recorded the highest level of success. The return trips were smooth and hitch-free. Nothing less is expected for 2017 Hajj.

 

This year, four airliners: Medview, Max, Flynas and Azman applied, were prequalified and approved to airlift pilgrims while four companies: Medview Cargo Limited, Taura Travel, Cargo Zeal and Zenith Carex applied to airfreight pilgrims’ cargoes.

 

Accommodation: Madinah, Makkah and Masha’ir

This is an area that the reform has yielded great results. All Nigerian pilgrims stay within the Markaziyyah axis mostly around the Grand Mosque of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Madinah. This area is very expensive, indeed. But it has been discovered that Nigerian pilgrims had been exploited by the service providers in both Makkah and Madinah. The policy, therefore, is to ensure that accommodations for pilgrims in both holy cities and sites are high class in affordability and comfort.

 

NAHCON’s Commissioner PPMF Alhaji Yusuf Adebayo said it all: “We are maintaining the accommodations in the Markaziyyah areas in Madinah and want to extend it in Makkah. We want to ensure that accommodations for Nigerians in Saudi Arabia will not be more than 1km to Haram in the two cities. We want to improve on the gains of last year, if you plan well, you get better results.”

 

At the holy site of Mina and Arafah, NAHCON has negotiated better accommodation for the pilgrims. Cooling system was introduced last year. All lapses recorded in the cooling of Nigerian tents in both sites have been taken up with the Saudi authorities who have promised for positive change this year. The reform in accommodation arrangements for 2017 Hajj has saved the state and federal government a lot. NAHCON leadership defiantly bulldozed the chains of agents who used to cause the high cost of hotels for Nigerian pilgrims. All these would translate to “no augmentation” for 2017 Hajj accommodation because in the past years, many state governments were duped of heavy sums of money by agents in the name of augmenting accommodation costs for their respective Hajj contingents. Just last year, states lost heavily to agents. Kano alone lost over N460 million. That is why NAHCON had to take the hard decision and it is yielding fruits.

 

The commission prequalified applicant hotel managers who underwent thorough screening exercise with large capital shares and huge bank deposits as guarantees to ensure ability and reliability to successfully execute the accommodation contracts drafted by NAHCON team of Nigerian and Saudi lawyers.

 

Summarily, by this pilgrims paid between 500 to 900 Riyals less for 2017 Hajj in Makkah, while in Madinah they paid  614 Riyals less for better accommodation. The reduction in the cost of Makkah and Madinah accommodation affected the 2017 Hajj fare. The previous regime of pegging the benchmark of the accommodation at SR4,000 is, therefore, over. Results from the Madinah accommodation negotiations show that over US$12.3 million was saved as compared to previous years. In Makkah, over 18 million Saudi Riyals was saved. All these reductions had some affects on the 2017 Hajj fares, a worthy achievement to note.

 

Caterers: Madinah, Makkah, Masha’ir

Feeding of Nigerian pilgrims in Makkah, Madinah and holy sites (masha’ir) used to be characterized by exploitation, filth and hazards. Gradually, unified feeding arrangement was introduced and stabilized. As implemented in the past few years, pilgrims would be served two meals: breakfasts and dinners in their hotels. This year, pilgrims will have their meals according to menus chosen for them by their respective state boards. The commission prequalified applicant caterers who underwent rigorous screenings. The chosen caterers have been mandated to employ the services of Nigerian cooks to ensure that Nigerian menus are perfectly prepared and serviced to the 2017 pilgrims.

 

It is noteworthy that the huge sums of money recovered by the commission every year from service providers and returned to pilgrims are mostly resultant from un-rendered services in relation to the duo of accommodation and feeding. It is still fresh in memory that over N1.7billion were recovered from different service providers and returned to Nigerian pilgrims through their various respective state boards after the 2015 Hajj. There were also significant returns after the 2016 Hajj.

 

Transportation

On transportation, Nigerian pilgrims are poised to have better buses that will commute them throughout their stay in the Kingdom for Hajj. From the two arrival airports to Madinah to Makkah to the holy sites and to Jeddah, high quality buses (2017 and 2018 models) would be used. Though at no extra cost, NAHCON has taken the position with the Saudi General Car Syndicate to guard against situations where old buses without adequate comfort facilities used to be allocated to Nigerians pilgrims. Pilgrims had complained bitterly on this especially when they compared the quality of buses enjoyed by some other nationals. In connection to this, the shuttle system (Taraddudiyyah) – dedicated transport routes to the holy sites – introduced for Nigerians and other African countries is expected to record more successful operations this year. The 2017 Hajj pilgrims are enjoying it.

 

Management of Basic Travel Allowances (BTA)

In an effort to fight sharp practices associated with the procurement and distribution of Basic Traveling Allowances (BTA) which is an integral part of Hajj package, the commission has decided to take it over from the states. The BTA which is US$750, US$1000 or US$1500 used to be paid in naira to the state boards which processed and collected the dollar equivalent from their designated banks and then distributed to pilgrims before departure to the Kingdom. The process was abused badly by some states. For instance in previous years, there were several complaints of pilgrims shortchanged of their BTA. The delay, whether intentionally or not by some states often caused delay or cancellation of flights. Such delays or cancellations caused heavy losses to airliners and distort departure schedules for the commission.

 

Last year in particular, the executive officers of several state boards were involved in the BTA scandal by paying pilgrims less what they deserved and paid for. Some of the boards, investigations showed, collaborated with agents who sort for pilgrims for such boards. Pilgrims who fell victims paid heavily above Hajj fares announced by the commission, yet did not get the BTA they paid for. NAHCON decided that the BTA naira payments should be made to the commission along with the Hajj fares. Then the commission will direct the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to release the dollar equivalent to states as at when due. By this, all information of each pilgrim’s BTA will be centralized, coordinated and properly managed. State executives will have no option than to release the BTA to their pilgrims according to the list, number and amount released to them by the CBN. This year, the commission will only guarantee BTA of US$750 for each pilgrim. Those who want anything above will have to source the balance from their individual banks at the prevailing official rate.

 

Management of the Hadaya

The method for Hadaya (sacrificial animal) has been reviewed. It is being well coordinated in such manner that the Jaiz bank has been commissioned by NAHCON as the sole collector of funds for the holy sacrifice from all Nigerian pilgrims under their state boards for onwards transfer to the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) which is the sole manager of the holy rite in the Kingdom. Nonetheless, NAHCON monitors the bank to ensure compliance with laid-down rules and regulations guiding the Hajj duty without which a pilgrim’s Hajj is not complete for the Mutamatti’ and Qarin­ – performers of lesser Hajj combined in prescribed order and conditions.

 

National media team

The introduction of national media team has been very fruitful and wonderful. The new policy was precipitated by the ugly manner which the media reported the 2015 twin tragedies of 2015 Hajj – the crane crash at the Ka’abah Grand Mosque on 11th September and Mina stampede on 24th September, 2015. Nigeria lost hundreds of pilgrims, indeed. As expected, the media went weird publishing conflicting reports, unsubstantially out blown numbers of casualties and scant/scaring news items. Some went further to initiate blame game. Naturally, there were a lot of claims and counter claims. But, in all these situations, NAHCON’s leadership was resolute in releasing only confirmed, correct and accurate information and figures that have not been countered by any constituted authority be it media or others.

 

The national media team which was initiated last year was made up of representatives of renowned media organizations in the print, audio-visual and social media circles. And frankly, the team performed wonderfully. Recall that last Hajj witnessed cases of drug trafficking which the national media team was able to handle in a very professional and mature manner. For 2017 Hajj, the team was reinforced with seasoned journalists whose interest will not only be to report events as they occur but with the ultimate goal of protecting the image of Nigeria and Islam.

 

Luggage management

The era of luggage mismanagement is gone. NAHCON constitutes specially luggage committees that ensure the screening and actual airlift of the pilgrims’ luggage to Nigeria. It is known that pilgrims used to lose their belongings in the past. Since the birth of NAHCON, the menace was seriously tackled and gradually subdued. As at last year, no single pilgrim complained of lost luggage. Yes, there may have been delays or misplacements as some luggage may have been airlifted to zones, all pilgrims with such cases were eventually reunited with their belongings in the shortest possible time.

 

Zamzam handling

Coming home from Hajj with holy Zamzam water is a must to every pilgrim who employs all possible means to procure and transport it to Nigeria. This is now history. Every pilgrim is guaranteed a five-liter of the holy water which is collected on arrival to Nigeria at each pilgrim’s respective departure point. In the past, airliners used to be mandated to provide it to their pilgrims. It was not quite totally executed as there continued to be pockets of complaints by pilgrims not getting their shares. Last year, NAHCON procured the water by itself and used the instrumentality of its zonal coordinators to ensure that the new policy was fully executed. And so it was that no single pilgrim complained of not getting his or her share. This year will surely not be different.

 

Umrah monitoring

The commission has taken full control of umrah operations by monitoring tour operators involved in the yearly exercise. Every Ramadan which records the climax of the umrah activities, NAHCON constitutes two powerful teams of monitors to follow all steps of the tour operators in Nigeria and in Saudi to ensure conformity with the standards set by the commission. Though umrah allocation is not limited, pilgrims, tour operators and airliners are interviewed to gauge the level of success for each exercise. It is a very rigorous duty which the commission has taken up to guard Nigerian umrah travelers from fraudsters. It is on record that NAHCON has dealt with such illegal operators, one of whom was charged to court and is serving prison sentence for many years.

 

Pilgrims’ enlightenment, orientation and education

This is one of the most difficult areas tackled by NAHCON every year. The truth is that over 80 percent of Nigerian pilgrims for every year’s Hajj come from the rural areas and they are also first-timers. Another fact is that there is high level of ignorance about Islam amongst these rural dwellers. Additionally, most of them are not well-read or read at all, thus are not abreast with modern environments and facilities. Again, some of them are not conversant with the religious dynamism and therefore find it difficult to differentiate between the religion and their culture.

 

For 2017 Hajj, NAHCON made education and enlightenment programmes as one of the compulsory criteria to qualify a pilgrim. Zonal coordinators monitor every state under them and report periodically to the NAHCON headquarters. And with the 2017 Hajj around the corner, all states have concluded or nearly concluded all training requirements for the pilgrims. Medium employed this year include mobile cinema on Hajj at reception centers, radio/telephone programmes e.g. hannu-da-yawa, advocacy programmes with ulama who conducted radio programmes for tafsir in Ramadan and the national ulama team on Hajj.

 

General aspects

Stringent conditions have been mapped out that must be accomplished by intending pilgrims to qualify them for the holy journeys to Makkah. One, intending pilgrims must produce highly placed citizens who must be chief Imams of Jum’at Mosque within the pilgrim’s vicinity, traditional ruler or a civil servant not below grade level 12 at the federal or state service.

 

NAHCON has gone into collaboration with the National Orientation Agency (NOA), the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and other relevant governmental and non-governmental organizations on the move for hitch-free Hajj in related areas of specifications. The commission paid courtesy visits to media outfits to seek cooperation especially in the areas of pilgrims’ enlightenment, orientation and education which is often a great challenge due to the fact that over 70 percent of pilgrims every year are usually first timers who require intensive information on all aspects of Hajj and could be properly reached through the media.

 

The numerous supports by state governments to their respective hajj boards are always appreciated. The states have been partners in progress with NAHCON in the continuous reform of Hajj management in Nigeria. The leaderships of state Hajj boards must however, guard against corruption which has been a great problem and which President Buhari had mandated the Mukhtar Abdullahi’s led Hajj commission to fight to a standstill. With all these reform, Nigerian pilgrims will receive the maximum services due to them during the 2017 Hajj. These initiatives introduced in all the critical components of Hajj are laudable. Kudos to NAHCON team! I wish Nigeria pilgrims a successful, memorable and spiritually rewarding 2017 Hajj.

 

Muhammad Ajah is an advocate of humanity, peace and good governance in Abuja. E-mailmobahawwah@yahoo.co.uk.