By Ibrahim Muhammed
Independent Hajj Reporters
The above headline emanated from the sub heading of a lecture delivered by erudite Professor Ismail Shehu of the department of Political Science at ABU Zaria. The paper titled BAD HABITS, EXCELLENT CHANGES: THE UNENDING SEARCH FOR SEAMLESS HAJJ OPERATIONS IN NIGERIA comprehensively analyze the historical challenges confronting hajj management and proffers a way forward. This year’s Independent Hajj Reporters Hajj lecture and awards comes amidst challenges confronting hajj industry owing to inconsistent and lack of stability and sustenance of policies especially at the lowest level of hajj management.
In the paper, Professor Ismail Shehu opined that There is the need for a general redefinition and appreciation of the changing dimensions of hajj. Instead of simple administrators, we need managers who would make pilgrimage to transcend the level of spiritual trip to that of an organized global business that can enhance international trade and diplomatic relations. This reality should open the vistas for greater collaboration between and among states/nations as well as business agencies that would advance multilateral economic relations”.
How NAHCON reshape hajj management
The objective and subjective way to underline the achievement recorded in the Hajj industry is to compare gains recorded after the NAHCON establishment Act 2006. Most of the challenges facing the industry today can be described as the grand daughter of problem of yester years with same genetic traces. According to the University don, “Despite the challenge of poor services experienced this years courtesy Saudi based hajj service providers, hajj industry in Nigeria has achieved a remarkable feat”.
“It is apparent, though debatable, that the turbulent years that characterized hajj operations in Nigeria began to ebb when NAHCON took off in 2007 with clear and business-like mandate of managing pilgrimage. Many past overseers were basically administrators who were bureaucratic in thinking and practice. They, of course, were not insulated from the corrupt tendencies that characterized the mainstream civil service.
One notes with keen interest how the last three Chief Executives of NAHCON, the current inclusive, have painstakingly pursued the letter and spirit of the Commission in their operational duties as chief national pilgrim’s welfare officers. They introduced management spirit by making it business-like; they reshaped and changed the status of pilgrims by making them the focal point of hajj activities. From targets of neglect and exploitation by service providers, NAHCON has made pilgrims to become clients in the business of hajj management, clients who know the value of money and must be treated like kings. NAHCON has put in place mechanisms that check and mitigate the age-long tradition of loading in BTA processing, travel agents abuse of contractual agreements and accommodation racketeering. In short, hajj operation has gradually been elevated to a coveted level of business with high sense of prudence and dignity for the pilgrims. No more rampant cases of failed airlift, evacuation and extortion of pilgrims.
The above scenario is not depicted to serve a PR purpose for NAHCON or any of its Chief Executives. My participant observation, journalist status and a being student of policy studies all qualify me to make the hunches. I was a living witness to a weighing scramble in Jeddah airport when violent contestations between pilgrims of two states left one person dead. This was during the 2000 hajj. Over time, such spectacle of anxiety and desperation over excess luggage weighing has become history. So, the point is there have been remarkable and steady improvements in hajj operations especially with the coming on board of NAHCON and its radical changes and innovations that facilitated these successes.
Virtually all the problem and fraud prone areas in the management of hajj under the Commission have been sanitized and regulated to the full benefit and advantage of the pilgrims, state and federal hajj boards as well as travel agents who feel comfortable working within the ambit of the law. Conversely, those whose major interest is to cut corners and cheat unsuspecting pilgrims in cahoots with different networks of like-minds in and outside government have never relented in the pursuit of their devilish agenda both in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. The resilience of the extortion syndicate and their cohorts is best captured by NAHCON, being the target of attack and blackmail by these anti-pilgrims’ business mafia group. In an advertorial, the Commission laments in retrospect that:
“The extortion, poor services and in many cases, outright defrauding of innocent intending pilgrims by ‘agents’ were some of the reasons governments started getting involved in hajj arrangements since 1954… Although agents seemed to have resurfaced in the guise of tour operators, many of whom are not duly registered…Many of the owners of the companies had listening ears in the corridors of power hence pursued their fraudulent activities with impunity…These companies utilize their influence to instigate investigations against the Commission.” (Hajj Reporters, 2017: 37).
“A lot can be deduced from the above NAHCON advertorial. One, there is the preeminence of agents who over the years had been defrauding pilgrims. Two, this act of fraud by agents prompted the series of government interventions since 1954. Three, fraudulent middlemen never relented in their nefarious business and even metamorphosed into what is now regarded as legitimate tour operators. Four, that these pseudo-tour operators are highly influential to the extent that have the listening ears of the ruling class, and can instigate investigations that may end up consuming any upright hajj administrator at whatever level”.
He said the “protracted negative narratives on the challenges of hajj management have shaped the policy directions of successive regimes. Both the decrees and acts of parliament that birthed the various overseeing bodies gave good enough mandates to guarantee smooth operations”.
So, let NAHCON and other hajj managing agencies be prepared to face more bashing and unfounded criticisms from politicians as well as the blackmail and sabotage of the powerful lobbyists.
On the way forward, the professor Shehu advised NAHCON to deepen its commitment to safeguarding pilgrims’ welfare by making provisions that would add value to the huge amount paid for hajj. For instance, its saving scheme can be made to roll over a period of up to five years of installments. This would reduce anxieties among intending pilgrims and imbue them with mental stability and assurance of making the trip. However, special consideration should be given to those who, for one reason or another, may justifiably be allowed to go as they pay.
The Commission should harmonize accommodation arrangements in Makkah to provide for the pilgrims the ease close proximity to the haram provides like the case in Madinah, NAHCON should take much keener interest in its training institute for hajj managers. Beyond cognate experience of potential pilgrim officers, they should be certified by the Commission’s institute or any other training school that has bearing with tourism or air travel business.
More importantly, there is need for a general redefinition and appreciation of the changing dimensions of hajj. Instead of simple administrators, we need managers who would make pilgrimage to transcend the level of spiritual trip to that of an organized global business that can enhance international trade and diplomatic relations. This reality should open the vistas for greater collaboration between and among states/nations as well as business agencies that would advance multilateral economic relations.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony said Monday that those performi…