By Ustaz Abubakr Saddeeq Muhammad
I was the Guest Speaker in the One-Day National Symposium on Hajj organised by Manara TV Satellite Television at the Lady Kwali Conference Hall, Sheraton Hotel, Abuja, on Saturday, March 10th, 2018; the paper I presented is what I share with my readers today. Enjoy: Let me start by congratulating Manara TV for organising this National Symposium. I hope its management will make it an event, bringing together Hajj stakeholders to speak on the operations of this fifth pillar of our faith. You should consider giving awards for excellence to State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards and agencies, as well as private Hajj operators in the future.
This will encourage better service delivery to the pilgrims. Let me address the topic: Nigeria’s Travel Agencies: How Genuine? How Committed? There are travel agencies, and there are private Hajj operators. Every private Hajj operator is a travel agent, but not every travel agent is a private Hajj operator. A travel agency is a going concern the directors of which could be Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The company could have among its commercial activities the sale of alcohol and other non-Islamic activities. A private Hajj company, otherwise called Hajj tour operator, must be wholly owned by Muslims, and its article and memorandum of association must not contain dealings in any Islamically proscribed business.
Thus, the topic should have been: Nigeria’s Private Hajj Operators: How Genuine? How Committed? Formal Hajj tour operations in Nigeria started since 1948 from Kano. ’The trip was by road. It was a joint business owned by three merchants. The leader was Alhaji Muhammadu Nagoda. They bought lorries which conveyed pilgrims to Sudan, which was the land route terminus for all West African pilgrims for centuries, and they put them on ships at Port Suakin, close to Port Sudan to cross the Red Sea and arrive in Jeddah. They charged each pilgrim 20 pounds. The journey usually lasted six months. This was the beginning of what my company and hundreds of other companies do today. ‘When in 1948 the trio of Alhaji Mahmud Dantata (1922-1983), Alhaji Haruna Kassim and Alhaji Ibrahim Musa Gashash, established the West African Pilgrims Association (WAPA), the first private Hajj company, things took a rapid turn for the better. There were more lorries and buses which conveyed pilgrims from Kano through Borno then Chad to Sudan. From Sudan, it was as before; they boarded ships from the coast of Sudan across the Red Sea to Jeddah. ‘WAPA later founded Hajj Air Limited when aircrafts were available. In the same city of Kano, Pilgrims Aid Society (PAS) also arranged air travel for Hajj pilgrims.
This went on through the 1950s. Compared with the arduous 6-month ordeal the pilgrims went through by road, air travel was very easy and fast. The West African Airways Corporation (WAAC) was the airline in those days.’ Then, of course, the private Hajj operations passed through many stages to the present era where it is regulated by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). In times gone by, some miscreants, in the name of organising Hajj, collected people’s fortune and disappeared into thin air either here in Nigeria. In some cases, upon arrival into Saudi territories, the agents absconded and left the pilgrims stranded. Such dubious characters had no offices or a definite address where they could be reached. Their offices were in their briefcases and the countless telephone numbers with which they lured the deceived people. This image of the swindler was what many grew up knowing about the private operators of Hajj in Nigeria, commonly referred to simply as ‘agents’. Another set of Hajj operators would not run away after collecting people’s money, but whatever they told their clients was a farce. Yes, they had fixed office addresses, members of staff and telephone numbers. But the package they advertised was total guesswork as they only made an assumption on the rates of services in Saudi Arabia, and thus such arrangements did not have the names of hotels in Makkah and Madeenah. The package only mentioned three or four-star hotels, close to the Haram, with good transportation within the holy territories. Vague. The names of the hotels were not mentioned because the agents were guessing at random; they did not have any particular hotel in mind. They did not know the kind of standard of the transportation and other logistics. Unfortunately, these uninformed citizens, who subscribed to such uncertain but enticingly cheap packages, suffered a great deal. The agents kept them in any hotel, however far they were from the Haram since no specific name was given when the package was sold.
The same happened in the area of logistics, movements from point to point within Saudia, as well as, in the case of Hajj,in Mashaa’ir – Minaa and Arafaat. I related all these in the past tense because no decent Hajj operator can try such thing now as sanctions will follow from NAHCON. Today’s NAHCON-brewed Hajj tour operator is more sophisticated than his predecessors in the industry. His office and relevant documents must conform to the standards stipulated for a going concern in that line of business. NAHCON inspectors have been known to give only 30 minutes’ notice before showing up in a tour operator’s office. May Allah help you if your documents are not in order – Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) incorporation certificate, share capital of₦30,000,000, updated International Air Travel Association (IATA) licence, current tax clearance, etc. The members of staff must be trained with at least two of them certified by IATA for the purposes of ticketing and reservation. Even the ambience of the office will not escape the notice of inspectors who, in order to ensure the safety of life and property, will frown at the absence of fire-extinguishers within the office premises. The inspection extends to the services Hajj tour operators render to their pilgrims in Saudi Arabia – hotels, feeding, transport and the stay in Minaa and Arafaat. The packages are now well thought-out with designated hotels, their proximity to the Haram, and the standard (four or five star) of the accommodation. A meal plan is also mentioned: bed and breakfast, or bed, breakfast and lunch, otherwise called, half board, or bed, breakfast, lunch and dinner, also called full board. Not only that; reservations for the rooms have been made months ago with contracts signed and sealed in terms of payment and general conditions for occupancy, check in and check out time. There is no room for guesswork for any serious company. At the Mashaa’ir, private Hajj operators are only allowed to keep their pilgrims, starting from, the B tents.
There are categories of tents from C which is the lowest, to B, then A, and the highest A Plus. The State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards and agencies accommodate their pilgrims in the C category tents. But the starting point for tour operators is B. There are some who use the A tents. Still, for the companies that offer VIP services, their pilgrims enjoy the Additional Services of A Plus tents, which are the zenith. What these tents have in common is that, unlike what obtained in the period of chaos, pilgrims have mattresses, pillows and blankets. Decent food is provided, full board, and where the meal fails to meet the standard set for feeding pilgrims at Minaa and Arafaat, NAHCON ensures that those affected receive a full refund from the service provider.