The high cost of hajj fares announced by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria,(NAHCON) has triggered series of controversies which have pitched the Commission against many stakeholders who saw the increment as unjustified.
In fact, the controversy must have compelled a critical stakeholder, the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) to urge the Federal Government to strip NAHCON of its role in Hajj matters and hand it over to them claiming that the Hajj activities have been commercialized by the agency.
The Hajj, which is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, is a mandatory religious duty for adult Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime in so far as they are physically and financially capable of undertaking the endeavor. This is however not a religious obligation that is meant to display opulence as often done by some Nigerians.
The perception of many Nigerians on the NAHCON has been that of extortion of intending pilgrims who want to perform their religious obligations, but the agency is quick to clarify that the official rate of the dollar in 2017 has been the key reason for rise in the cost of Hajj fares.
However, NAHCON chairman, Abdullahi Mohammed, has defended the high rate, saying that “in actual terms, the component that determines the Hajj fare is the dollar whose official exchange rate last year was N197 to a dollar.”
The Chairman noted that this year’s official rate is N305 to the dollar and when it is multiplied by $4,805, which is the total fare per pilgrim it would give a total sum of about N1.5 million.
It must be stated here that the cost of the services for Hajj is less this year in terms of dollars but the fact that Naira is our local currency and our official medium of exchange a lot of people fail to understand that most of the affairs of Hajj are run in the foreign currency.
The bottom line is the exchange rate, which NAHCON officials claimed that they have no control over. The government must have considered the sensitivity and the importance of Hajj in allowing the pilgrims to enjoy the official exchange rate. If the prevailing bank rate is used at the sum of N368 to the dollar, the cost of the pilgrimage services would have hovered around N1.8 million and N1.9 million.
At the inauguration of Hajj Media Team for 2017, NAHCON chairman clearly stated that the agency got a massive discount on the airfare which used to be 1,700 dollars but has been reduced to 1,650 dollars through adequate negotiation with the airlines. The price of accommodation in Makkah and Medina is also reduced by over 200 dollars.
After all these deductions on the airfare and accommodations for pilgrims, the agency went extra miles to increase the stipends given to Nigerian pilgrims from 750 to 800 dollars. What more should be expected from a government agency like NAHCON?
But what a lot of people are unaware of is that the federal government is also, in a way, subsidizing this year’s hajj. A top government official told popular blogger, Jaafar Jaafar that on each pilgrim, Nigerian government would have to pay N302,400 to make up for the prevailing dollar rate. If you multiply this amount by 75,000 pilgrims, you will arrive at over N22 billion.
At a period when the recession is at its peak, the government is subsidizing the Hajj for Muslim pilgrims by over N22bn, which is more than the N14bn allocated as counterpart funding for the Lagos-Kano, Calabar-Lagos, Ajaokuta-Itakpe-Warri railway, and Kaduna-Abuja railway projects.
We should appreciate the efforts of the National Hajj Commission and the Federal Government of Nigeria in bringing down the cost of Hajj as the dollar which serves as a major component of Hajj is at its peak and cannot be compared to its prices in the past years.
It is pertinent to note that the current economic recession has increased the prices of goods and services in the country. The pilgrimage for Hajj is not an exception in this regard.
Mr Shuaib is a graduate student of Media, Campaigning and Social Change at University of Westminster, London