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2017 Hajj: Between fare payment delay and time-frame

By Muhammad Ajah
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The announcement of the 2017 Hajj fares by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) generated arguments from individuals and organizations against and in support of the fares based on assumptions and realities. There have been inordinate criticisms, claims and counterclaims on why the fares are presumably high, despite earlier indications that the fares would be lower than last year’s Hajj. NAHCON had reformed its policies to tackle the cartels which had in the past caused the high costs of accommodations for Nigerian pilgrims in Madinah and Makkah. And it is worthy to acknowledge these reforms, without which, the 2017 Hajj would have risen to N2million approximately with the current foreign exchange rate.

Fortunately, the Commission has explored all available media avenues to explain to the public the primary cause of the seemingly rise in the fare, though in the actual fact, the 2017 Hajj fare is lower than that of 2016. The intending pilgrims can be assured that their interest is paramount and that the Commission itself is fully prepared to phase out all the quacks and exploiters of Hajj in Nigeria and in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrims, therefore, can rekindle their trust in NAHCON and pay for their spiritual journey to Makkah, having in mind that the determining cause of the fare is the official exchange rate which was based on N197 to US$1 in 2016 Hajj and N305 to US$1 for the forthcoming 2017 Hajj. With all components of Hajj fare being same as last year, it is crystal clear that the increase would be apparent despite NAHCON’s efforts.

However, since the Hajj fare controversy ensued, there have been calls on the Federal Government from well-meaning Nigerian citizens and civil society organizations to review the official exchange rate downward to at least N200 to US$1. The most appealing intervention was from the National Assembly whose committees had invited NAHCON to explain how the fares were arrived at and to parley on possible ways to bring the fares down. The committee promised to press on the Federal Government to reduce the exchange rate for the pilgrims to make this year’s Hajj affordable. And this stand of the federal lawmakers had caused the low response from pilgrims who had individually deposited over a million naira with their respective state boards, with the hope that the National Assembly will bring a positive result in that connection.

It is imperative to note that NAHCON has been very cautious over making payments to the service providers in Saudi Arabia due to the low pace at which intending pilgrims have been completing their Hajj fares with their state board. Out of 75,000 Hajj slots for Nigerian conventional pilgrims, only about 54% have guaranteed their journey by making complete payments for their slots. Others seem to have been waiting for any reduction of the fare, an action whose fulfillment don’t seem in sight just three weeks to the airlift operations. The Commission cannot but plan to pay for only the number of pilgrims who have effected full payments because the Saudi authorities are exhausting their patience waiting for the actual figures from Nigeria to perform this year’s Hajj. Moreover, payments from Hajj missions across the world are time-bound.

The fares differ from state to state, according to the disparities in the prices of accommodations in Makkah and administrative charges by each state. Out of the 38 Hajj boards i.e. 36 states of the federation plus the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and the Nigerian Armed Forces, Ondo state has the lowest fare of N1,485,096.07, while Oyo has the highest of N1,584,069.02. One policy that the Commission initiated this year is that every Hajj board appeared before a powerful national Hajj team to defend, just like budget is done, the additional charges each required to ease its operations according to peculiarities. This initiative curtailed the indiscriminate fees which used to be collected by the boards from the pilgrims. In some cases, additional fees put forward by states were either rejected out-rightly or reduced very low.

The pilgrims, therefore, have to complete their Hajj fares without further delay. It is a tradition in the Commission to make refunds to state boards on behalf of their pilgrims for any services not rendered to the pilgrims. In some cases, the Saudi authorities would refuse to make the refunds because of the signed agreements which require mentioning numbers of pilgrims to be served. Time is not on the side of Nigeria. Saudi Arabia will close its airspace for Hajj on August 24 and it is dangerous to continue to take the chances of delaying the payments to service providers who also provide the same service to all nations of the world. With the level Hajj operations have reached in Nigeria, it will be a slap to ask for extension of Hajj airspace for Nigeria from the Saudi Government. God forbid!

Hajj is a call by Allah. Hajj is a very tedious journey that demands both material and spiritual capabilities. That is why it is compulsory only ONE TIME in life for ONLY for those who can afford it. Every Muslim craves to accomplish this religious obligation. Earliest Muslims travelled to perform it with great difficulties, yet they mostly adhered strictly to conditions attached to it. Modern Muslims, now filled with luxury and laxity, often ignore the conditions and seek the journey by all lawful and unlawful means. And due to the ignorance in modernity, selfish people capitalize on the overzealous interest of some pilgrims to swindle them.

In the past, going for Hajj was like going to war and no one was sure of returning home safely. People died on the way. Others would decide not to come back to their homes due to the rough experiences on their ways to Makkah. All these did not deter Muslims from embarking on the journey every year. Today, people only need to pay the Hajj fare and get the luxury. In Nigeria, Hajj with tears was more pronounced at the advent of and return to democratic governance in Nigeria: such times when pilgrims paid for Hajj but were uncertain of being airlifted to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj; times when no pilgrim was sure of safety because there were hazardous preparations for their trip and careless arrangements for their stay in Saudi and return without tears. Going to Hajj today in Nigeria is as simple as embarking on any other international journey save the Hajj exercises. So, if Allah (SWT) calls one to Hajj, He Allah will make ways for the Muslim to observe it.

The inaugural flight of this year’s Hajj exercise will hold on July 30 from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja. It was among the resolutions of a two day National Hajj and Umrah Stakeholder’s Conference and 10th anniversary celebration of the Commission where presentations by various prominent Nigerians in Hajj management, extensive deliberations and discussions and key resolutions were made. The Saudi Arabian airspace would be opened on July 24. That means Nigeria will be starting one week after and will have only three weeks to complete the airlift of its 75,000 conventional pilgrims. Recalled that NAHCON had indicated interest to commence airlift operations on July 24 but the delay in the remittance of fares by pilgrims has forced the shift by one week. By this, the operations are before the yellow light, and awaiting the red is precarious.

The Federal Government, stakeholders at the just concluded NAHCON’s Conference have appealed to, not to hands-off Hajj affairs in the interest of the Nigerian citizens who are potential pilgrims even as they commended and appreciated the support of Mr. President and the Ag. President on Hajj matters. Further in the recognition list at the end of the conference were the Ag. Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senate and House Committees on Foreign Affairs, the architects of the NAHCON Establishment Act 2006 whose actions brought about the standardization of Hajj management in Nigeria, State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards/Agencies/Commissions, the Tour Operators, the Air carriers, the Security Agencies, the Nigeria Immigration Service, the media all relevant Ministries, NCAA, FAAN, NAMA, NIMET, AIB, the 2017 intending pilgrims, as well as all the paper presenters and discussants.

I use this medium to personally thank all those who are working hard to ensure that this Hajj is possible. NAHCON and its leadership must be supported by well-meaning Nigerians to succeed in the task of taking Hajj management to the next level. Undoubtedly, there are unseen hands toiling to frustrate the Hajj exercise from the Nigerian financial institutions. There are also known hands pushing hard to discredit the Hajj Commission and undermine its achievements over the years. There are those working round the clock to cause disaffection amongst Hajj managers in Nigeria. On the other hand, there are patriotic, faithful, trustworthy and God-fearing citizens especially in the financial institutions who have fought to ensure certain level of stability in the forex market so that Nigerians travel to perform their religious and other personal obligations outside the shores of the country. God sees and knows all and will reward every effort for or against Hajj accordingly.

Muhammad Ajah is an advocate of humanity, peace and good governance in Abuja. E-mail [email protected]

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