By Fatima Sanda Usara
To start with, Saudi Arabia has made its stand clear to which there seems no retraction; any party that delays Hajj remittances for any reason, may have to wait for another year to perform Hajj. Be it the delay were from pilgrims, their officials, the State Governors or even from NAHCON, that will be end of story if it exceeds Saudi’s visa processing deadline. Hence, the Visa e-track portal, that is, the Saudi e-track portal, will be locked by 29th April, beyond NAHCON’s reach. No room for allegation of manipulation, no room for manoeuvres, neither for pleas. Saudi Arabia is ready to work with any number of pilgrims whose visas are ready between 1st March 2024 to 29th April, 2024.
It is for this reason that the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria is mustering Hajj goers and handlers to the reality that this time around, the cost of delay tactics will be dire, and demoralizing.
In the past, NAHCON would adjust to accommodate this “walk-in-payment” that has become a given in Nigeria’s Hajj rubrics. However, in Tuesday, 19th September’s virtual meeting with Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah and co., the deadline was reiterated with a countdown of 120 days within which work can flex. After that, Nigeria would be approaching danger zone.
In the over one-hour virtual meeting moderated by Dr. Badr Alsolami, the Director General and Adviser to the Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah on International Collaboration, Dr Alsolami disclosed that the Commission is expected to activate its Saudi Account and to proceed to deposit 20% Bank Guarantee from the total cost of 95,000 pilgrims’ charges on accommodation in Makkah and Madinah, the cost of their feeding in Makkah and Madinah, their air landing slots in Madinah and Jeddah, the pilgrims’ Masha’ir services (i.e tents, beddings, cooling systems, feeding and other amenities that pilgrims enjoy in Muna, Arafat and Muzdalifa), pilgrims local transportation, medical insurance etc.
The deposit is to hit the Saudi account on or after 16th of September 2023 (six days ago)! Even without knowing how much that 20% means, one would agree that the Commission has a rough road to ride given the timeframe and knowing the associated delay in remitting pilgrims’ Hajj fares to the Commission. Perhaps if only the Hajj Savings Scheme were in control, NAHCON could have transferred the 20% right away into the Saudi account without battling an eyelid.
In addition, the Nigerian Hajj mission is expected to enter agreements and finalize arrangements with service providers (close to 10 different bodies) in Saudi Arabia within the 120 green days of Hajj preparatory period as well as to finalize on aviation matters before signing of Memorandum of Understanding early next year.
Obviously, to avoid entrapment associated with lateness, NAHCON had on 5th of September announced N4.5million (four million five hundred thousand Naira) as initial deposit for 2024 Hajj seat in Nigeria. The NAHCON Chairman, Alhaji Zikrullah Kunle Hassan had urged Executive Secretaries of State Muslim Pilgrims’ Welfare boards to pass this message to intending pilgrims from their various states and to inform them that there is futility in delaying remittance of Hajj fare. Furthermore (before anyone heaps accusations on NAHCON over the increased rate of minimum deposit) Alhaji Kunle Hassan requested everyone present to convey the message in their own parlance that the jump in price of the deposit is reflective of the Dollar market rate which NAHCON has no control over. Ultimately, the final fare may be higher or lower depending on the strength the Naira then.
NAHCON is sticking out its neck for the Hajj Private Sector where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia desires to induce mergers obviously. From over 200 registered Tour Operators Company, the Kingdom has sent a request for only 10 to participate in the 2024 Hajj for Saudi Arabia’s administrative ease. NAHCON has appealed for increase in the number to climb up to 100, just as it had appealed for Mutawwif company to surrender feeding arrangement for Nigerian pilgrims’ during Mashair stay to Nigeria. These issues remain inconclusive for now.
Engineer Mazeen Bazuhair from General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA) reaffirmed NAHCON’s request to fly 90% of Nigeria’s pilgrims directly into Madinah and 10% into Jeddah airport in the first phase of 2024 airlift for Hajj while it shall be 100% through Jeddah airport in the return journey but did not guarantee to oblige NAHCON with its request for Hajj passenger sharing formula to remain 40-60 in favour of our local airlines. However, both the Commission and GACA are in harmony on the Kingdom’s proposal to reject any Hajj air carrier with less than two aircraft and a back-up in its fleet in the 2024 Hajj airlift.
Similarly displeased by the poor services rendered in the Masha’ir during the last Hajj where pilgrims who had paid fully for services in the holy sites were left with no shelter, poor sanitation, congestion and feeding confusion, Mr Alsolami appealed for patience as the Kingdom is already investigating the genesis and seeking scalable solutions to the disarray. He promised the NAHCON Chairman to hear from the Kingdom soon because investigation is nearing conclusion. There is high hope in the Commission that Nigerian pilgrims would be compensated.
The meeting was an eye opener to some of the Commission’s participating guests who appreciated NAHCON’s dilemma among whom were Chairman House Committee on Muslim Pilgrimage, Hon. Jafaru Mohammed; Clerk Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Usman Gubio who stood in for his principal and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator Abubakar Sani Bello. Other participants were NAHCON’s Executives and some staff. As the meeting ended on a successful note, NAHCON’s nagging headache was how early would Hajj fares be remitted for the Commission to beat the deadline set by the host country in whose domain the Almighty has ordained fulfilment of a pillar of Islam.
Usara is Assistant Director in NAHCON’s Public Affairs Office
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