On 1 August 2022, hundreds of Nigerian pilgrims from Lagos, Enugu, Rivers, Ebonyi and Kano states protested at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The pilgrims protested after spending nearly 48 hours at the airport waiting to be airlifted back to Nigeria. From the viral video footage of the protests, the pilgrims said they were left stranded 24 hours after their screening for boarding.
This embarrassing incident has once again placed Nigeria into the international limelight for the odious reason. The last time the country recorded such an ignominious incident was more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, the country is being taken back to those dark days where Nigerian pilgrims had to protest to be airlifted to and back to their homeland after the pilgrimage.
The pilgrims’ protest is one of the many ugly incidents that shaped 2022 Hajj in Nigeria. It was therefore appalling when I came across a publicity stunt delivered as a pilgrim’s diary by Dr Tunde Akanni, titled ‘The NAHCON intervention in Nigeria’s diplomatic profiling,’ and published in some selected newspapers.
The Jeddah protest was only an anti-climax. During the pre-departure operations in Nigeria, pilgrims from Lagos state protested over Hajj fare. At the peak of airlift, Oyo State pilgrims protested and it took the personal visit of the state governor to calm them down. In Kano, hundreds of intending pilgrims who paid Hajj fare through Hajj Saving Scheme protested over their exclusion. It was the same story in Kwara and Niger where the Niger State ES publicly tried to block the NAHCON chairman from boarding a plane while thousands of pilgrims were stranded.
Dr Akanni said he served as a member of the NAHCON – sponsored National Media Committee of Hajj 2022. As expected, he whitewashed the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria and its Executive Chairman Zikrullah Kunle Hassan.
To many pilgrims who performed this year’s Hajj and even the intended ones who NAHCON failed to airlift to the holy land, Akanni’s crude attempt to cover NAHCON’s representational symbolism of systemic failure, gross incompetence and primitive greed is to say the least irritating.
As the only constitutional Hajj and Umrah regulatory agency in the country, NAHCON’s mandate is pilgrims-centric: Protecting and serving the Hajj and Umrah pilgrims who have paid money to perform the fifth pillar of Islamic faith. But from Akanni’s PR stunt, NAHCON had reneged from that act, and instead pampered the few “sponsored ones like Dr Akanni” at the detriment of the pilgrims who toiled and moiled to produce the N2.5 million Hajj fare.
From the article, it was clear that the likes of Akanni who were sponsored with public funds, had a seamless odyssey from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia and back. They didn’t spend more than one or two weeks at the various Hajj Camps like the original pilgrims from Kano, Niger, Lagos, Kaduna, Katsina, among others, did. They were also fortunate to be ferried to the Holy Land unlike the thousands of state pilgrims and those of private tour operators who were abandoned in Nigeria by NAHCON, despite paying the fare and securing visa.
On his way back, NAHCON facilitated Akanni’s smooth ride back home. He was not made to spend days at the Jeddah Airport like hundreds of pilgrims from Lagos, Ebonyi, Rivers and Kano did. Unlike the real pilgrims who had to protest to be airlifted to the Holy Land and back, the author of the article didn’t protest. These are some of the ironies of Akanni’s futile attempt of sweeping away the unprecedented gross incompetence exhibited by the commission leadership in managing less than 45,000 pilgrims.
The author, as expected, was oblivious of the Hajj seats racketeering that dominated the Hajj operation superintended by NAHCON. As reported by many state pilgrims’ welfare boards, their allocated visa slots were allegedly hijacked by the commission’s officials. Hajj seats officially sold at N2.5 million were later reportedly sold in Abuja as high as N4 million.
It was clear why Nigeria’s Hajj administration was reduced to this level. The reason is: NAHCON leadership has abandoned its statutory mandate by nose-diving into what doesn’t concern it. Like the author said, the commission has usurped the functions of the Nigerian Consulate in Jeddah and the Nigerian Embassy in Riyadh, by attending diplomatic functions in Makkah.
He marveled at the reduction in the cost of hotel accommodation in Makkah. What he fails to understand is that the prices of accommodations crashed because the Saudi authorities slashed the number of foreign pilgrims from over two million to 800, 000. Also, prices of hotel accommodations usually rise during peak periods such as before Ramadan, the last 10 days of Ramadan and Hajj, compared to non-peak periods. For this year’s Hajj it was non-peak because the full quota was never used. Naturally, the cost of accommodation needs to crash to barely one-third of the original price.
Empirically speaking, the commission had reintroduced benchmarking of hotel accommodations in Makkah. The system that was cancelled by the previous administration because it was a corruption aperture. Even at that, the benchmark of 2,000 Saudi Riyals set by the commission was fraudulent. This is because these accommodations are not the same in terms of quality, distance to Haram, location, and quality of services. As such, there can’t be a benchmark for accommodations that are not the same in qualitative and quantitative point of view.
The actual cost of some of these accommodations used by Nigerians as paid by other countries who stayed in similar accommodations is about 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi Riyal. In fact, even some NAHCON staff had secured their own accommodations within the same vicinity at the rate of 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi Riyal for the whole Hajj season. Thus, what Mr Akanni is celebrating is actually a riff-off of about 800 Saudi Riyal per pilgrim. There is need for anti-graft agencies to probe this. If an individual can secure the accommodation at the rate of 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi Riyal, NAHCON should have negotiated for lower prices because of its numerical advantage. Even tour operators with smaller numbers of pilgrims had negotiated for 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi Riyal per pilgrim. The reality is: the commission has paid 2,000 Saudi Riyal for accommodation which actual value is 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi Riyal to some rogue agents working in cahoots with some of its officials.
Is the author not aware of the protests by various state pilgrims over poor accommodation, low quality food in Makkah and Mashair- Muna and Arafat? These pilgrims duly paid to be at the holy land. They deserved the best services.
It is on record that even the commission itself admitted some of these poor services in Mashair in its series of press releases.
The commission also admitted to series of flight delays, diversion and outright cancellations occasioned by the commission itself or as a result of its poor supervision.
The private tour operators were some of the worst hit by the Hajj commission’s unprofessionalism, subjective and suspicious decisions in the 2022 Hajj operation.
On July 8, 2022, the Association for Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHOUN), in a press statement signed by its National President Nasidi Yahaya Suleiman, accused NAHCON of abandoning their pilgrims in Nigeria even though the operators have paid N500 million to the commission to procure rescue flights for them.
The tour operators have incurred monumental losses with some of them going bankrupt due to the commission’s leadership mismanagement of Hajj seats allocation. The chairman discarded the licensing and allocation system he met on ground. He impulsively allocated slots to tour operators upon which they booked and paid for hajj services. Only for NAHCON to backtrack and gave them flat slots of 50 pilgrims across board despite their their licensing categorization. The chairman gave them what he didn’t have making them to incur billion naira losses on accommodation and other services.
This explains why the critical stakeholders such as the tour operators and state pilgrims boards decided to keep mute during the usually interactive meetings of Pre and Post Arafat in Makkah.
It is glaring that Mr Akanni is not well schooled in the Hajj ecosystem hence his laundering of the commission’s soiled image. From the pre-Hajj activities of Hajj fare fixing, visa processing, airline screening and allocation, BTA acquisition, medical screening; to camps administration and airlift; down to local transport of pilgrims from Jeddah/Madina to Makkah, then to Muna and Arafat, their feeding and medicals, and finally their airlift back to Nigeria, which one was done by the commission without challenges? The commission has severally admitted its incompetence by officially issuing series of apologies for these avoidable lapses. Which yardstick is Mr Akanni using in giving NAHCON excellent marks in 2022 hajj operation?
For the first time in more than a decade, the commission had avoided the media at the end of the airlift for obvious reasons.
It was on record that NAHCON sponsored over 600 officials and adhoc staff to the hajj 2022, the highest in recent history. Worst of it, these officials and adhoc staff cherry-picked for reasons other than merit, didn’t do anything while at the holy land.
This even led to the commission leaving nobody in charge of its headquarters in Abuja during the operation.
It is instructive to state that the constant requests for money by the commission leadership from the federal government is an overt invitation for the implementation of the Oronsaye Report which recommended scrapping of the commission and reversing it back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a department.
It is therefore appalling for Mr Akanni to praise sing the same leadership that drew the ire of the three most critical stakeholders in Nigeria’s hajj ecosystem – tour operators, state pilgrims boards and NAHCON staff – through conflicting policies, mal-administration and clannish tendencies.
It’s high time that anybody that was sponsored to hajj to keep mute. This is because no amount of superfluous publicity stunts would erase the embarrassment engraved in the psyche of Nigerian pilgrims throughout 2022 hajj operation.
Mr Raheem can be reached at [email protected]