The announcements of the 2018 hajj fare by pilgrims welfare boards/agencies across the states of the federation have been greeted with sighs relief by pilgrims.
Over the last three months, intending pilgrims and even members of the public had awaited the announcements with bated breath. The development was not surprising as hajj fare has become a subject of national discourse. Commentators, public affairs analysts, hajj experts and even layabouts have aired divergent opinions on how hajj administration should be done in Nigeria.
The range of opinions is, however, also often used as an avenue to get under the skin of administrators and leaders of the various hajj boards, especially the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).
What then is the good news this time? This year, unlike previous years, the hajj fare dropped. From Lagos to Port Harcourt and Maiduguri to Ilorin, there has been excitement as the fare went down from N1.5/6 million to less than N1.5 million – about N100,000 differential in most cases.
This is an incredible feat in this part of the world where prices of goods and services that go up hardly ever come down.
Before the announcements, many Nigerians had feared another possible increase in the hajj fares. The fear had stemmed from the news of the signing of the 2018 hajj Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government had concluded arrangements to impose a Value-Added Tax (VAT) on goods and services in the Kingdom during the 2018 hajj, in addition to the increase in the cost of transportation in the Kingdom.
So, what magic did NAHCON perform to achieve this feat? What changes did it make to record this achievement?
The process was set in motion with a reform the commission embarked upon last year. The reform was built on change, a deviation from the norm of putting negotiation at the whims and caprices of middlemen/agents. In other words, the commission’s management had to extricate itself from the webs of middlemen.
The commission became streetwise and took matters into its own hands. It did this by setting in motion, direct consultations and negotiations with service providers, especially accommodation providers in Makkah and Madinah, thereby giving middlemen, agents and their proxies, who usually pushed prices up, a kick in the teeth.
The stoppage of the anti-people and scandalous activities of middlemen was one reason why NAHCON could bring the fare down. The commission would not suffer fools gladly. A group of these disgruntled middlemen soon waged relentless wars in the media and other public spaces to undermine and ridicule the leadership of the commission, which culminated in appearances before the National Assembly almost on a daily basis. The vindication, the defining success was, however, recorded this year.
The second step taken to insulate Nigerians from the expected price increase as a result of the newly introduced policies was to persuade the Saudi authorities to maintain the status quo for the 2018 hajj, which is why the prices of accommodation, transportation and feeding would not be affected by the VAT and transportation prices adjustment.
Perhaps the masterstroke was the negotiation of the cost of services during the 2017 hajj. The decision to enter into contracts during the low season saved the country enormous resources, contrary to situations where such services were contracted during peak seasons in previous years. And this definitive stance would see Nigerian pilgrims maintain their Markaziya accommodation in Madinah – a posh area which is just a stone’s throw from al-Masjid an-Nabawi – at a low cost.
To further clear the mistrust and misgiving about the negotiation, state pilgrims boards officials, the Nigeria Consulate/Embassy in Saudi Arabia and members of the National Assembly committees performing their oversight on the commission were part of the negotiations and agreement signings with service providers.
The fourth step taken on this delightful journey was the considerable offer by all the stakeholders – NAHCON, airlines, state pilgrims welfare boards/agencies – to waive some service charges payable by pilgrims, so that they could pay lower hajj fare.
This demonstration of sacrifice would allow pilgrims and the administrators have self-fulfilment, as captured by the chairman/chief executive of NAHCON, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammed, who always maintains that the commission remains committed to ensuring that Nigerian pilgrims perform hajj in an atmosphere of comfort and in accordance with international best practices.
Ubandawaki is the Head, Print Media Section, National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON)