On September 14, 2022, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) declared that it recorded 95 percent success in the 2022 hajj operation. The commission Chairman/ CEO, Barrister Zikirullah Kunle Hassan, disclosed this during a media parley in Abuja. I only write now because the chairman has officially spoken on some of the salient issues I raised in my earlier article.
During the course of the media briefing, Mr Hassan spoke extensively on how the commission he leads recorded huge achievements despite many hiccups. The chairman blamed the challenges of airlift, seats racketeering, feeding, visa issuance, on other hajj stakeholders, except NAHCON.
The Blueprint newspaper of September 15, 2022 quoted the NAHCON chairman as saying that, “…let me say here that despite the daunting challenges, we recorded a 95% success during the last hajj operations. Of the 43,008 pilgrims, by the grace of Almighty Allah, we got over 41,000 down to Saudi Arabia. He added that, “Alhamdulillah, we had low mortality rate during Hajj 2022, 95% travelled despite challenges, return journey ended earlier than scheduled, there was reduction in the cost of Makkah accommodation and also reduction in the number of days pilgrims spent in Saudi Arabia.”
I would like to fact-check some of the chairman’s claims, starting with the purported reduction in the cost of accommodation. As stated in my earlier article, the purported reduction in the cost of hotel accommodation in Makkah is a farce. The truth is that the prices of accommodations had crashed during the 2022 hajj because the Saudi authorities slashed the number of foreign pilgrims from over two million to 800, 000.
It is a common secret that 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.
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.
Investigations have shown that even at that the 2,000 Saudi Riyals benchmark 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 from a 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 Hassan was celebrating is actually a riff-off of about 800 Saudi Riyal per pilgrim. There is a need for anti-graft agencies to follow up on this. It is bereft of any common sense if an individual can secure the accommodation at the rate of 1,100 to 1,200 Saudi Riyal, only for NAHCON to pay 2,000 Saudi Riyals for the same accommodation. What is expected for the commission was to negotiate 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.
On the lower mortality rate, the chairman’s claim is anything but funny. This is because of the lower number of Nigerian pilgrims and even the world over, coupled with the Post-COVID superlative health system deployed for the 2022 hajj by the Saudis that include banning of pilgrims above 65 years. Thus, it was not surprising if zero mortality was recorded during the holy ritual. Besides, this is not the first time lower mortality rate was recorded. Nigeria recorded almost the same fatalities when it transported over 90,000 pilgrims to the holy land in the past.
The claim on recording 95 percent success in the airlift of pilgrims is ridiculously laughable. What would the chairman tell Nigerians if we had our usual slot of 95,000 pilgrims? In the past, Nigeria airlifted 95,000 pilgrims within the same days he struggled to airlift 39,000 pilgrims in 2022. But the chairman has failed to airlift less than 50 percent of that number despite extensions twice, dozens assurances and promises, and only for him to exit (leaving behind thousands of pilgrims) to the holy land in broad day light which triggered the bold attempt by the Executive Secretary of Niger State Pilgrims Welfare Board, Alhaji Umar Makun Lapai, to stop him from boarding the plane at the Abuja airport.
On the return journey, in the past, Nigeria used to airlift 95,000 pilgrims from Saudi Arabia to Nigeria three to four days ahead of schedule. His claims that he did that two days ahead of time is no news. It is better imagined than experienced if he had 95,000 pilgrims. Only God knows the number of extensions he would have sought if he had the full quota. Mr Chairman, your operation was a massive failure.
On the number of days spent by pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, the chairman made the biggest fallacy, unless if his data analysts fed him with fake information. It was on record that the Inaugural Flight from Borno state departed on June 9, 2022 and returned to Nigeria on July 16, 2022. This means that the pilgrims spent 38 long days which exceeded even the NAHCON – approved 35 days stipulated in its hajj fare breakdown. This is the highest number of days ever spent by any Nigerian pilgrim in Saudi Arabia in the last one decade. Before 2022, the average number of days spent in hajj was 22-27 days. However, the chairman needs our thump up for extending the average days to 35-37 days.
This is curious because the NAHCON Commissioner for Policy Personnel Management and Finance (PPMF), Alhaji Nura Hassan Yakasai, during an interview with a foreign broadcast station, had once questioned why Nigerian pilgrims should stay over 30 days in Saudi Arabia while “hajj is done within five days.”
Mr Hassan should check with experts on logistics and transports to know that the lower the number of pilgrims, the lower the number of days spent in hajj. By this, if logistics expertise has been fully utilized, the 39,000 Nigerian pilgrims couldn’t have spent more than two weeks in Saudi Arabia.
On the pre-hajj activities, we have all witnessed how the online visa processing was hijacked and centralized by the commission leading to arbitrary cancellations. Even the BTA distribution was mired by crisis as some states were unable to process BTA for their pilgrims.
On the airlift, it was simply a mess as airlines were allowed to bring planes with as low as 100 passenger capacity contrary to their contractual agreement, as well as allowing some of the crafts to fly to Saudi Arabia with almost 100 empty seats. It was an open secret that some of them were made to wait at evacuation airports for more than 24 hours waiting for pilgrims. This is not to mention the fact that some NAHCON-approved airlines mixed official pilgrims with private ones during operations without any sanction as provided for in the contractual agreement. Of course, they can’t be sanctioned because of the alleged compromise between the commission and some of the airlines. As at Wednesday 14 September, the commission was yet to make the third tranche payment to airlines, at a time that it should normally be doing reconciliations. This has overstretched the airline’s financial elasticity. It is not surprising if the airlines falter because everything in aviation is cash-backed.
Another issue was that of an over-bloated medical team that were ferried to the holy land, with more than 65 percent of them dormant throughout the operation in Saudi Arabia. In fact, some of them were not qualified, but were still picked during a selected process marred by alleged nepotism and favoritism. It was on record that the commission brought drugs with shorter expiration dates which will lead to massive loss because before the next hajj the drugs would have expired and can’t be used. Unlike in the past when drugs with long expiration dates were procured not only to save cost but to fill the gap before another procurement is done.
The chairman blamed his poor performance on the short notice from Saudi Arabian authorities. This is grossly unfair. The timing of preparations for this year’s hajj was not any different from those of the past. That is why it is only Nigeria that complained. It is only Nigeria that was unable to ferry its 43,000 pilgrims to the holy land. It is better imagined the chaos if Mr Hassan’s leadership had the usual 95,000 pilgrims slot.
Mr Hassan is being clever by half here because at the peak of COVID pandemic in 2020, he kept on assuring Nigerians of the possibility of hajj. He was only muted by the Saudi’s bombshell of “No Hajj.” He started again in 2021, even when nobody was planning for hajj, he kept on assuring of hajj by making countless trips to Saudi Arabia for “preparation” only for the Saudis to say there was no hajj again. In 2022, the chairman jetted out to the holy land severally without any official invitation or appointment with any hajj official. Again, when Saudis said there would be hajj, he reportedly took over 90 staff to Saudi Arabia for “preparation.” In fact, the number of trips he made to Saudi Arabia since his assumption of office has surpassed those made by the first, second and third NAHCON boards combined. You can go and verify it. All these trips were mere jamborees and apertures of spending public funds. Leadership deficiency, not Saudi short notice, is responsible for the poor conduct of 2022 hajj. A lot would be uncovered if the anti-graft agencies and National Assembly would sincerely probe the commission’s expenditures, activities and the entire 2022 hajj operations.
On hajj fares reduction, the chairman also failed despite assurances and subtle deception of Mr President. On March 20, 2020, he told President Buhari that he had succeeded in reducing hajj fares by some meaningful percentage. The president curiously cautioned him that he hoped the reduction was not at the detriment of the prevailing quality services enjoyed by the pilgrims. At the time Mr Hassan met with the President, he neither have that year’s hajj fare breakdown nor signed any agreement with the airlines, or Saudi service providers. Question is: how did he arrive at that fake reduction? He also reintroduced uniform hajj fares across the 36 states and FCT irrespective of the quality of services render by them. The truth was laid bare when he jerked up the hajj fate from N1.4 million to N2.5 million.
On Mashair services, NAHCON had publicly complained of the poor services in Muna and Arafat, but only later to end up hosted to a lavish dinner bankrolled by the same food contractor that shortchanged the pilgrims. What he fails to realize is that the sumptuous dinner he ate with his army of staff was in lieu of the refunds for the Mashair poor feeding. And time shall tell.
It was clear that Mr Hasan’s NAHCON has placed premium in sponsoring friends and family members to hajj (having sponsored over 600 adhoc staff to hajj in 2022), instead of its primary role of providing oversight. This is not to mention the other 400 sponsored pilgrims vaguely designated as ‘stakeholders’.
It is safe to say that those sponsored to applaud the commission over this year’s hajj are oblivious of the pain of raising N2.5 million hajj fare, trauma of missing hajj, disappointment of having poor services, among others. That is why no state pilgrim agency or tour operator is commending the commission for any “job well done.” As a Muslim, I take solace on the fact that we will be held accountable for what we say and write.
The hajj industry has been subjected to needless crisis, as NAHCON board members petitioned the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF), while the executive members are not working in harmony, leaving the staff to exploit the situation to do what they want. Already, pilgrims are threatening court cases, while dozens tour operators are going bankrupt as they count their NAHCON-induced losses. During the operation, the commission was allegedly reduced to a market square, with free-for-all racketeering. The honest staff in the commission have became onlookers who resorted to prayers for change.
This is a wrong time to celebrate the 2022 hajj as successful. Rather, it’s a time for sober reflection, serious stock taking and soul searching. Instead of playing the ostrich before the cameras, the commission leadership should convene a meeting of all stakeholders and sincerely analyze and address the mundane issues that messed up the 2022 hajj. Even in secular societies, any leadership that is fraught with these glaring allegations of incompetence and financial improprieties should honorably quit. Mr Chairman, ẹ bẹ̀rù Ọlọ́run.
Mr Raheem can be reached at [email protected]