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Wishing Nigerian pilgrims spiritually rewarding 2017 Hajj

By Muhammad Ajah
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It is something of great joy to congratulate the Nigerian pilgrims who, despite the economic recession witnessed in the country and the controversies over the hike in price, were able to complete their 2017 Hajj fares and make it to the Holy Land of Makkah to fulfill their religious obligation, the fifth and seemingly most difficult pillar of Islam. It is a manifestation that whoever Allah calls to that all-important spiritual journey, He (Allah) will provide the means. My elation overflows and I wish them Allah’s complete reward: happiness, safety, security and everlasting bliss in this world and the hereafter.

The other thing that pricks my veins is to mention the national Hajj regulator, all the state boards and stakeholders for standing firm on the path of resilience, patience and focus in facilitating all the tedious processes required by the pilgrims for the journey notwithstanding all the challenges that cropped up all through the time the 2017 Hajj fares were announced. Amidst the turbulent waves that greeted the tail end of the preparatory stage of the first phase of the operations, these Nigerian patriots were able to impress the citizenry in general and the Muslim Ummah in particular with the assurance of service delivery to the pilgrims. How smoothly the airlift of the pilgrims has been going on!

The long awaited journeys to Saudi Arabia which commenced on Sunday July 30, was a great relief to many Nigerians some of who invariably developed pessimism on the successful takeoff. The airlift operations were kick-started with a Boeing 747 flight number XY5702 belonging to the Saudi-designated airline, Flynas, with registration number ERB-AC and with 460 pilgrims made up of 291 males and 161 females under the FCT Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board and 20 officials who comprised mostly of medical personnel for the pilgrims. They departed the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja to the Prince Muhammad Bn Abdulaziz International Airport Madinah, around 15.17 local time.

Attended by the highest political and traditional institutions in Nigeria, the event witnessed good wishes and tough warnings for the pilgrims and Hajj maangers. The pilgrims were warned on the dangers of disobeying the rules and regulations guiding Hajj as laid down by the Saudi Arabian government as well as the severe implication in carrying contraband things, like kola nuts, into the Kingdom. They were urged to be good ambassadors of Nigeria while in the Holy Land, to pray for themselves, their families and the nation. On the other hand, the Hajj managers were warned against shortchanging the pilgrims in anyway. Particularly, the national Hajj regulator, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) was commended for its coordinated efforts in making the year’s holy trip a reality.

Acting President of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo extolled the hard work and dedication of NAHCON’s leadership and other stakeholders and congratulated them for good preparations and successful beginning of the Saudi-bound airlift operations. Represented by the Minister for the Federal Capital Territory, (FCT) Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello, who was the pioneer chairman/CEO of NAHCON, he urged officials at all levels of Hajj administration to officiate with the fear of God, charging the pilgrims to be of good conduct and law-abiding, saying: “As the largest single group of Nigerians to a foreign land, you are ambassadors of Nigeria.” He enlisted the holy travelers to pray for President Muhammadu Buhari to return home in good health to continue his good work for the country.

On his part, the chairman/CEO of NAHCON, Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, appreciated all the stakeholders for their support even as he recalled the controversies that resulted from the increase in Hajj fare. He thanked God that over 79,000 Nigerians, made up of 60,000 under state boards/agencies/commissions and19,000 under private tour operators were expected to perform this year’s Hajj. It would be recalled that Nigeria has 95,000 Hajj slots, considering the fact that the 20% global reduction of Hajj allocations due to the expansion projects of the Holy Mosque of Makkah was restored to all participating countries of the world this year, thus returning Nigeria’s quota from 76,000 it utilized since 2011. He disclosed that 25 percent of the officials at all levels have agreed to sacrifice their Hajj for effective monitoring and rendering of services to the pilgrims and in the spirit of the change mantra of the current administration. Muhammad appealed to the pilgrims to see officials as human beings who are bound to make mistakes so that when such happens, the pilgrims should pardon and offer maximum cooperation for proper representation of Nigeria at the global gathering.

The President General of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), the Jama’atu Nasril-Islam (JNI) and the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, said that upon all the quarrels over the Hajj fares, only those enabled by God will perform the year’s Hajj. Represented by the Emir of Bauchi, Alhaji Rilwanu Suleiman Adamu who would lead the delegation of NSCIA to 2017 Hajj, he described Hajj as an act of worship and not tourism, observing that pilgrims must ensure strict compliance to Hajj rites to avoid vitiating their Hajj. Other well wishers included the chairman House committee on Saudi Nigeria Interparliamentary Relations and Hajj Affairs, Dr. Abdullahi Balarabe Salame, representatives of the Chairman Senate committee on Foreign Affairs and the Acting Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), the local government chairman of Abaji, Emir of Abaji and a host of others.

With this successful start, three things amongst others come to fore: the need for some officials to serve the pilgrims without performing Hajj, the late intervention of the National Assembly in matters relating to forex exchange and the mandate of NAHCON to eliminate corruption in Hajj management which is primarily one of the major factors that resulted to the gang-up against it. Besides, it is noteworthy and laudable the commission’s resolve to tackle the frauds committed by some self-acclaimed Hajj managers in the past in some components of Hajj such as accommodation, Hadaya and Basic Travel Allowances (BTA).

The efficacy of voluntarism in Hajj is another initiative worthy to note. It is no more an issue of public debate or criticism because in reality it is difficult to effectively combine performance of Hajj and officiating as one of the duties would be subjected to low attention and ultimately yield poor results. In 2016 Hajj, like the pioneer chairman often did in the past, the chairman/CEO forfeited his Hajj to serve the pilgrims. Few other officials joined suit. The commission, therefore, after wide consultations with relevant stakeholders from across Nigeria, found it very necessary to make it a policy from this year and also encouraged state pilgrims’ boards to key into it. The NAHCON boss was optimistic that the policy will be very useful because, as he put it, if Nigeria does not do it, there will come a time when Saudi Arabian government will impose it.

The result of fully monitoring the pilgrims was quite great because low casualty rate among Nigerians in 2016 Hajj was recorded; cases of pilgrims roaming about under the sun were minimized; they were made to stay inside their tents for praying and supplicating to Allah despite the hot weather during the Hajj period and medical cases were very low. This year, 25 percent of NAHCON’s and states’ officials will serve the pilgrims without donning their white garments.

The effect of the late intervention of the National Assembly to reduce the Hajj fares was obvious. Many pilgrims who had deposited over one million naira awaiting the final announcement of the 2017 Hajj fare by NAHCON became reluctant in completing their deposits as they awaited in vain. The Senate, however, recommended that the federal government should grant a concessionary exchange rate of N200 to US$1 for pilgrims embarking on 2017 Hajj, a recommendation that was widely criticized by many and opposed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on the grounds of the economic recession faced by the country. The official rate granted by government for 2017 Hajj is N305 to US$1 and there have been controversies on whetherreligious pilgrimages fall under economic activities and institutions classified by government under the critical sectors that should access the dollar at N305.

The commission also intensifies effort to block the leakages linked to Hajj management. State governments in the past used to be lured into paying huge sums of money in the name of subsidy or augmentation for the costs of their pilgrims’ accommodation. Katsina, for instance, according to the chief executive officer of the state, Governor Aminu Masari, has been spending N1b yearly on Hajj. States like Kano, Kogi and others just last year spent millions of naira to augment the accommodation costs of their pilgrims, which was discovered by NAHCON to be fraud hence the new initiative to eliminate agencies in accommodation contracts in Madinah and Makkah.

Moreover, there used to be cases of frauds by some state officials and Nigerians business men in the Kingdom who swindled pilgrims and state governments in many ways including Hadaya. They would collect little amounts for the sacrificial animals, sometime half of the official prices announced by the sole administrator of the Hajj rite in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) but they either do not perform the rite at all or they use deformed animals that are against the Islamic prescription. The pilgrims used to be shortchanged and the fraudsters capitalized on the official exchange rate to make millions of naira for themselves in the name of Hajj. During last year’s Hajj, the commission discovered several states that were entangled in such financial messes; that is why a flat BTA of US$800 was settled for any pilgrim travelling for 2017 Hajj under state boards and under the official rate of N305 to US$1. To God be the glory that these initiatives are yielding good results.

By all measures, the 2017 Hajj will record significant successes regardless of the challenges that greeted its preparatory stages. Nigerian pilgrims will go and come back safely to their motherland and will enjoy the special privilege to worship, glorify and seek Allah’s blessings in the purest parcel of land on the mother earth. Their airlifts to the Kingdom have been steadily hitch-free; so will be their return trips. I wish them all very memorable spiritual trip of their lives. Hajj is really a full life event, prescribed once in a life time, for those who have the means to perform it. It should not be a ‘do or die’ affair. Hajj mabrur in advance!

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