Before new rules and regulations governing the affairs and activities of Hajj and Umrah was introduced, Nigeria was not having a common standard for pilgrims’ registration and provision of basic services such as airlift, accommodation, catering and medical services.
Thanks to the administration of the President Muhammadu Buhari who has given the present leadership of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, NAHCON, a free-hand to oversee reforms that would have direct bearing on the quality of Hajj and Umrah services expected of any government agency in the country.
Accordingly, in December 2015, after careful deliberations and wide consultations, the chairman of the commission, Abdullahi Muktar, issued out rules and regulations to guide the operation of Hajj and Umrah.
The rules, which have been gazetted, provide a framework for Hajj and Umrah Operations by all entities.
The introduction and gazetting of rules and regulations guiding these activities have provided a bench-mark against which the services can be assessed and improved.
In the area of licensing, the Commission has introduced for the first time, licensing of State Pilgrims Welfare Boards/Agencies/Commissions in line with the provisions of NAHCON(Establishment) Act and its rules and regulations in order to provide services delivery framework.
The regulatory framework has seen to the improvement in the quality/capacity of Hajj and Umrah service providers.
The framework has also raised the standards Tour Operators, Accommodation and Catering Service providers from briefcase companies, to full-fledged companies with permanent an verifiable addresses, bank accounts, adequate share capital and qualified staff to carry out their activities.
However, Nigeria used to go Hajj with a medical team for each state as well as a Federal medical team. The combined manpower prior to 2015 used to be over 2000 personnel that include, Doctors, Nurses, Pharmacists and Environmental Health workers to serve 95,000 pilgrims.
This duplication of efforts and wastage was curtailed from 2016 when a single National Medical Team to serve all States was formed. The entire team was less than 500 and it served all Nigerians.
Under Mr Muktar’s leadership, the commission witnessed an increase in efficiency of airlift and related activities. Notable among which is the conclusion of all phases of Airlift ahead of schedule.
Before the establishment of the Commission, it was a norm for Nigeria to be unable to airlift its pilgrims. In 2005 for example, over 10,000 pilgrims missed the Hajj exercise due to inability of Nigeria to airlift them to the Holy Land. Remarkably, in 2015 and 2016, the airlifts were concluded 2 and 5 days ahead of schedule respectively.
There is also a marked reduction in time spent by pilgrims at Camps during Saudi-bound airlifts. Before now, pilgrims usually spent many days at Hajj camps across Nigeria awaiting airlift to Saudi Arabia.
Now, better coordination with the assistance of a newly established Command and Control centre, makes airlift more efficient. Pilgrims hardly spend 24 hours in camps without being airlifted to Saudi Arabia.
There is a complete departure from the past as there is now direct landing and arrival into Madina before Arafat. The efficiency of pilgrims’ airlift and arrivals into Madina saw a marked improvement.
For example, arrival into Madina in 2014 was 57%, in 2015 it was 64% while in 2016 the arrival reached all-time high of 67%.
The same thing goes to visiting the Madina before Arafat. While in 2014 it was 89%, in 2015 and 2016 the figures have risen to 92% and 100% respectively.
There is also a reduction in time spent by pilgrims at Jeddah airport during Nigeria-bound airlift from days to hours. Pilgrims used to spend days in Jeddah airport during the return journey to Nigeria.
The Commission initially introduced lodging them in hotels and charging the airline or State that caused their delay. However, in 2016 pilgrims only spent hours before departing for Nigeria.
The commission now ensures a total conveyance of all pilgrims’ luggage together with or ahead of their owners. Pilgrims normally spend days and some times, weeks awaiting the arrival of their luggage at various Hajj camps.
This practice has stopped and pilgrims now collect their luggage on arrival at Nigerian airports because the luggage arrive with them or ahead of them.
The commission has now taken over the responsibility of delivering Zamzam water to Nigeria for all pilgrims. A brief comparison of Zamzam delivery to Nigeria shows that in 2014, it was0%, while in 2015 and 2016 it was 82% ans 100% respectively. With this development, all pilgrims in 2016, had their Zamzam upon arrival in Nigeria after the Hajj.
NAHCON has now ensured a reduction in cases of multiple hand-luggages by some defiant pilgrims. It used to take between 6 and 8 hours to screen a 500 load flight of Nigerian pilgrims at Jeddah airport.
With the introduction of Pre-airport screening, the same flights are screened in 2 hours or less thereby ensuring timely departures of flights.
The commission has remarkably seen to the improvement in quality, the Pilgrims’ Accommodation in Saudi Arabia. Before 2015, Nigerian pilgrims were usually accommodated in furnished apartments mostly about 20 – 30 minutes’ walk from the Haram in Madina.
Now, pilgrims are all accommodated in 3, 4 and 5 star hotels that are in the high-brow Markaziyya area of Madina which is between 1 – 5 minutes’ walk from the Haram.
A comparison of the grade of buildings used in Madina will show that while in 2014 and 2015 only 15 and 7 Grade A buildings were respectively used, 27 of such buildings were used in 2016.
Also in Grade B, because in 2014 and 2015, 15 and 7 of such buildings were secured for the pilgrims while in 2016 25 of these were secured for the same purpose.
Grade C did not receive any attention from NAHCON in 2016 as against the 18 and 17 of such buildings that were used in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Another milestone recorded by the Commission is the reduction of Madinah accommodation.
The commission has also worked hard for the downward revive of rates for pilgrims accommodation in Madina from 2,313 Saudi Riyals per pilgrim in 2016 to 1,690 Saudi Riyals in 2017 thereby saving pilgrims and the Nigerian Government a total 12.3 million Dollars in foreign exchange. This was achieved through direct negotiations with Landlords/Owners of the properties instead of agents.
In Makkah also, Pilgrims used to be accommodated in 108 small and medium houses mostly of grade B and C standard between 10 and 30 minutes’ walk away from the Haram. Now, they are accommodated in 88 larger buildings mostly of A and B standards.
As was the case in Madina, accommodation rates were crashed by the Commission when it eliminated agents and obtained houses from landlords or owners of properties in Makkah which resulted into a total savings of 13.6 billion Naira.
The breakdown is as follows: in 2014, a total of 108 buildings were occupied and 32 out of which were of A grade while 41 and 35 buildings used belonged to the categories B and C respectively.
In 2015 also, a total of 99 building accommodation were rented. About 53 were in grade A category while 34 and 12 of the buildings used were selected from categories B and C respectively.
Lastly, in 2016 a total of 88 buildings were used and 41 of which were of grade A category. While 40 and only 7 belonged to the categories B and C respectively.
This clearly shows a complete departure from the old norm of lodging pilgrims in filthy accommodations unbefitting of our Nigerian Hajjis.
The Commission has similarly abolished financial augmentation on accommodation rates by state governments when it negotiated best rates for pilgrims with Landlords.
Pilgrims Welfare in Masha’ir
The standard of pilgrims’ accommodation in Mina and Arafat has been upgraded to one that is at par with other top ranked countries. Our pilgrims now have matrasses and blankets it Muna, Desert coolers in Arafat and improved sanitation in both places which was not the case before.
Another milestone by the commission is the relocation of Head Office from Jeddah to Makkah.Before now, the Commission’s operational Headquarters was situated in Jeddah.
However, the need to be closer to pilgrims made the Commission to relocate its Hajj operational headquarters to Makkah to be closer to pilgrims.
Similarly, Nigerian officials usually stay in ‘A’ area of Minna which is about three kilometers away from where pilgrims are situated. The Commission now decided to move to where Nigerian pilgrims are to supervise and enjoy the same standard of services with them. This has assisted in proper supervision of the services rendered to pilgrims during the period of main Hajj activities.
The commission has remarkably reduced the Cost for Administering Hajj as well as reduction of Hajj officials. The Federal Government was known for sponsoring many officials to assist pilgrims. This practice of recruiting officials was pruned to essential medical and security personnel as well as institutional representatives.
The present leadership of the commission has also seen to the reduction of dependence on Government for Financing. The Commission, through prudent management of resources as well as abolishing of Amirul Hajj Delegation, was able to reduce dependence on Government for funding of its off-shore operations.
While NAHCON had received 69% and 68% of its annual budget from the federation account, in 2016 it only received 28%. However, through prudent resource management, the commission has been able to perform optimally by leveraging on its internally generated revenues.
The commission has introduced a completely new trend of immediate Refunds to Pilgrims for Un-rendered or Poorly Rendered Services. Notably, in March 2016, the commission refunded the sum of 1.75 Billion Naira to Pilgrims Boards of the 36 States of the Country and the FCT for onward refund to pilgrims.
This refund was as a result of services not rendered or poorly rendered during the 2015 Hajj exercise. It was a demonstration of commitment to ensure that Nigerian pilgrims got value for money.
In view of the importance of opening up new frontiers for partnership, the commission has fashioned new ways of opening collaborations with Hajj Missions from other countries.
Notable among which is the NAHCON’s collaboration with the Pakistani Hajj Mission which has resulted in a bilateral arrangement in which the commission will enjoy the development and deployment of Hajj Management System free of charge which would have cost the Commission about $500,000 to obtain.
Furthermore, the commission, has expanded the prism of Public Enlightenment and Engagement through the introduction of Radio and Television Enlightenment.
The programme, tagged ‘Hajj: As You Answer the Call’ is always aired on NTA Network Television on weekly basis with the aim of enlightening pilgrims as well as showcasing activities of the Commission.
The same programme is being conducted through the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, FRCN, network.
The Commission also established various public engagement mechanisms through use of Social Media to inform, enlighten, engage and receive feedback from the public about its activities.
The commission’s account on Facebook; Twitter and Instagram handles @nigeriahajjcom took off from 2016 to complement print and broadcast media coverage of the Commission’s activities.
In the aftermath of the unfortunate stampede 2015 in which 317 Nigerian pilgrims and officials lost their lives, the Commission resolved to establish a DNA bank for Nigerian pilgrims through the collection of buccal swabs from pilgrims.
The measure was to enable the Commission quickly identify and trace pilgrims in the event of death and absence of any form of identity. It will address the challenge of identification that was faced in 2015.
Part of the commission’s on-going activities is the securing a permanent site for NAHCON. The Commission, since its establishment, and movement from its initial base at Malumfashi Close, Garki, has been housed in a rented property.
Efforts to secure a befitting property to serve as the Commission’s Headquarters have reached an advanced stage which will hopefully see the Commission residing In its permanent site by the end of 2017 God-willing.
More so, one of the core mandates of NAHCON as provided for in section 7 of its (Establishment) Act, is providing a Hajj Savings Scheme which will provide for gradual payment for Hajj and reduce dependence on Government for funding through investments.
The Commission has commenced the process of implementing the Scheme which is expected to take off fully before the end of the tenure of 3rd NAHCON Board.
However, in view of the non-existence of professional training for Hajj Managers in Nigeria, the Commission initiated the process of establishing a Hajj training Institute in collaboration with local and foreign institutions.
The proposed institute will serve as a professional training centre for all Hajj Managers in Nigeria and neighbouring African Countries.
By B.M. Tambuwal, Secretary of the Commission