On the 24th of May 2015, the baton of leadership of National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, NAHCON, changed hands from those of the gentle but devoted Mallam Musa Bello, to those of the firm but sincerely “unapologetic” Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad.
The duo had one thing in common — to salvage the Muslims’ annual pilgrimage from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia from its embarrassing nadir to a peak where Nigerian pilgrims would be reckoned with prestige in the holy land, travel with high dignity and return with high esteem, not like paupers. After four years in command, the question is: is Abdullahi leaving the Commission where he met it?
For starters, Barrister Mukhtar received the baton of NAHCON leadership at a time when it was obvious a tactical retreat in leadership approach was demanded. This was apparent since his predecessor’s courteously persuasive style did not deter those violating essential Hajj arrangements from doing so.
Being an old school in the Nigeria-styled Hajj system, Abdullahi Mukhtar’s first task upon assumption of office was to draw a definite line between what was and what should be. Undoubtedly, it costs an overdose of courage and defiance to insist on what should be. Thirdly such a stance charges one not to veer as well because unforgiving hawks are always lurking for an opportunity to hit. Mukhtar combined all. He steered the policy unit of the Commission to formulate policies that would safeguard smooth Hajj experience for the pilgrims. He dared the consequences empowering staff towards hounding all concerned for strict obedience to the reforms. It did not matter to him whether it was a staff, friend or fiendish foe that contravened the rule, consequences must follow.
Yes, sanity was restored, but not without a price. For those who understand, they know Barr. Mukhtar was not fighting a selfish war. They knew that he went out of his way to get things done and would identify with those willing to walk the talk with him. He is a leader who always carries a plan ‘B’ in his kitty as preclusion to failure.
Did he deliver? Without going far, this writer will dwell on only one year’s plans set by the former chairman and what was achieved by the end of the 2018- 2019 target. This writer recalled during that year’s post Hajj meeting with NAHCON management staff where the ex-Chairman outlined 10 targets he wished to accomplish within the period. They were staff training and welfare, Hajj Savings Scheme, Hajj Development Levy project, reforms in Makkah accommodation feeding and transportation, renovation of Metro Plaza now Hajj House, technical foundation of Hajj Training Institute and one other item that escaped this writer.
Taking staff training for instance, this received a boost. In 2019, all levels of staff received various capacity training totalling over 40. From Abuja, Benin, Cairo to Zaria and more; from aviation matters to broadcasting, crowd control and dealing with stress, economic, financial and hospitality coaching; from managerial to operational, the head of the fourth NAHCON board explored every legitimate chance to make the trainings happen. He took the extra trouble of reaching out to multinational corporations and financial institutions such as the Islamic Development Bank for these trainings to materialise.
Staff welfare took a new meaning, a first of its kind. Whether they appreciate that or not, there is no denying the extent the former chairman went to get the feat actualized for own benefit.
Barr Mukhtar did not confine himself to what government can do for the Commission. Due to these extra channels he often hunted for, the Hajj training institute is a dream awaiting government’s blessings to sail. As he informed the fourth board during handing over, funding for the institute is safely in the accounts; funds starting from construction to furnishing have been 100% sourced for the institute to roll.
The Hajj House target has also been accomplished, though not as the honourable Chairman had wished. Indeed, as stated by Alhaji Modibbo Saleh during the groundbreaking ceremony of Kaduna pilgrims’ camp hotel, but for procurement deferments, the projects under Hajj Development Levy funds would have gone far. Nonetheless, works are on-going across over 10 states.
Because he is an achiever, failure was not an option. I recall during the last Hajj when the Commission ran into a dilemma majorly caused by a slight hitch from the Enugu airport. About 196 pilgrims from the South-South were stranded and closure of Jeddah airport was just a matter of hours. There was an aircraft on its way back to Nigeria to convey NAHCON operational staff overseeing the airlift from Nigeria. Instruction was sent out to the NAHCON staff to suspend their scheduled journey in favour of the pilgrims left behind. But that was not where the problem lied. It was on how to transport the South-South pilgrims to Abuja in good time. The logistics of flying them to Abuja was not captured in NAHCON’s budget and would be too expensive to be charged the pilgrims or the state’s board. The option was to transport them by night bus to cut cost, and run the risk of Jeddah airport closure. While this option was being debated, only the Almighty knows how the NAHCON Boss and Chief Ibrahim Eziene, the South-East Commissioner on NAHCON’s board did it. Maybe they used their personal funds, maybe their connections, maybe they sought assistance from good Samaritans. However he did it, the pilgrims were flown to Abuja by air on board two chartered aircrafts without a dime released by NAHCON. Glory to the Almighty, the Commission airlifted all its pilgrims ahead of closure of Jeddah airport. NAHCON staff, whose bags were already packed, stayed back with chin in palms, waiting to know, whether they would make it to Saudi pre Arafat, or make it post Arafat. Fortunately, the NAHCON Boss talked up the Saudi airspace authorities and they obliged. FlyNas, a Saudi Arabian airline with a home advantage was then given clearance to land into its country’s airspace few hours after airport closure with NAHCON staff, at no extra cost on the Commission. This is the meaning of Barr. Mukhar going out of his way to get things done.
If Barr Mukhtar is to be assessed based on his 2018-2019 target, one would gladly award him 8/10. May the Almighty continue to guide and bless his future endeavours. May the Controller of hearts give him the strength to continue being unapologetic on the side of appropriateness.
May the Almighty keep the new board guided.
Usara is with the Public Affairs Unit, NAHCON