Before the advent of National Hajj Commission (NAHCON), the story of Hajj in Nigeria was everything but inspiring, gratifying, enervating or even reassuring. It was that of poor coordination, gross inefficiency and wastage of resources, among others. To put it succinctly, the list of the recurring woes plaguing Hajj and Umrah operations in Nigeria was endless.
To fittingly paint the ugly scenario, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, asserted that Nigeria continuously sought for an extension of airport closure deadlines for three consecutive years namely; 2004, 2005 and 2006. Yet, the country was unable to airlift all of its pilgrims. “This was in addition to the tension and anxiety pilgrims are subjected to at airports during departure or return to Nigeria,” Mukhtar said, in a keynote address, at the 2018 World Hajj and Umrah Conference in London.
The immediate-past Chairman/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NAHCON, added that the Nigerian Government incurred huge financial losses in form of additional operational expenses or penalties for violations caused by poor arrangements. The erstwhile NAHCON boss, who spoke on, “Developing a Sustainable Hajj and Umrah Sector With Sustainable Growth”, explained that Hajj mission, hitherto, depended completely on Federal Government funding of Hajj, not to mention the haphazard manner in which Hajj activities were coordinated in Saudi Arabia with Federal and State contingents operating almost independent of each other. Said Mukhtar: “Other challenges that bedeviled the Nigerian Hajj and Umrah industry include rowdiness and long hours wasted in screening and boarding
Nigerian pilgrims during return journeys, demonstrations by some Nigerian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia as a result of long stay at Jeddah or related problems, and likewise, the unorganized Hajj and Umrah flights which resulted to Nigerian pilgrims spending days at airports in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. “Then, there is lack of quality and value for money in various services enjoyed by pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, problem of accommodating Nigerians in Madinah, in addition to death of pilgrims caused by road accidents, and late or non-delivery of pilgrims’ luggage after conclusion of Hajj exercise.”
But when the Federal Government deemed it fit to permanently address the knotty issues encumbering smooth Hajj operations, it initiated a reform in 2006 to establish NAHCON—a body which would be independent of the bureaucratic bottle-necks and other interferences of any Government ministry. Though, NAHCON is just 14 years-old, but the Commission has achieved, attained and recorded innumerable giant strides and sterling feats in terms of revolutionizing the manner in which Hajj and Umrah exercises are organized for pilgrims. More remarkably and interestingly, it has succeeded in stabilizing Hajj operations. Reeling out the successes attained by NAHCON, Mukthar, equally informed delegates to the World Hajj and Umrah Conference that the days when Nigeria sought for extension of deadlines for airport closure are gone everlastingly. His words: “The usual rowdiness associated with pilgrims’ airlift both in Nigerian and Saudi Arabian airports has been virtually eliminated. Pilgrims now travel in a more organized manner with more comfort compared to what obtained before the establishment of the Commission.
These efforts and many more made the Chairman of the United Agents Office tell us in 2007 that Nigeria has moved from being one of the worst to being one of the best Hajj missions in the world.” At the global level, Barr. Mukhtar, emphasized the need to ensure an even and continuous development in the Hajj and Umrah sector without adverse effects on the spiritual essence of the sacred exercises. He explained that it is time for the global Hajj and Umrah community to truly professionalize the management of Hajj and Umrah, by having a global body that will set industry-specific standards, processes, accreditation and related issues.
He called on stakeholders in the Hajj industry around the globe, to rally round the Kingdom’s vision 2030 as it affects Hajj and shun politicizing the historic religious event. Meanwhile, it is pertinent to note that NAHCON, not too long ago, refunded N465,179,009 for basic services not provided to entire Nigerian pilgrims during the 2019 Hajj. It directed the State Welfare Boards/Agencies to ensure that refunds are made directly to the bonafide pilgrims in line with the Financial Regulations Commission of Nigeria’s guidelines. NAHCON, in a statement, said money not paid to the bonafide beneficiaries by the State(s) before the end of 2019 fiscal year must be remitted to the Commission. The Head, Public Affairs of the Hajj Commission, Mrs. Fatima Sanda Usara, while acknowledging the invaluable contributions and superlative works of Mall. Mukhtar, said the ex-NAHCON Chairman fought many battles during his time in Nigeria’s Hajj industry to take pilgrimage out of the dungeon.
“From the moment he stepped into the shoes of former Chairman, Mallam Musa Bello, it was with a resolve to battle all forces of criminality in the holy industry. And this group were the mainstream. Mukhtar and his team were on a head-on collision with accommodation crooks in Makkah and Madinah who used to feed fat on pilgrims’ innocence. “Pilgrims were at that time, made to pay, for example, up 7,000 Saudi Riyals for rooms that cost less than 3,000 Riyals. Government used to augment pilgrims’ accommodation fees with obscene amounts of money that ended up in the pockets of the agents. He ended the obnoxious trade through commanding direct inspection of accommodations and direct negotiation with homeowners, in the presence of both NAHCON and state welfare board staff.
“The team also fought down dollar racketeering. It is so annoying the number of persons that used to turn profanely rich bourgeois with each turn of the Hajj season. From dollar dealings in banks and state boards to Hadaya fakers; tour operator touts waiting to prey on pilgrims’ devotion to their Lord, to state boards introducing bizarre charges on pilgrims in order to accommodate emirs and their entourage to participate in the Hajj exercise; halting the trend was not a war for the feeble hearted,” Usara, first said. Continuing, the NAHCON spokesperson added: “The pilgrim was then like the milk cow that must be fleeced mercilessly. To the glory of the Almighty, Mukhtar ended this battle that others before him had started. This was achieved through introduction of and enforcing policies blindly, no matter who was at the receiving end. They were policies that earned him friends and foes.
“The Hajj Development Levy Projects started by him across the country’s Hajj transit camps include construction of hotel-like accommodation for pilgrims, construction of clinics to be used by pilgrims free-of-charge during Hajj airlift and by the community at a subsidized rates. Others are construction of event centres for revenue generation, construction of mosques and other amenities in pilgrims’ camps. Some of these projects have been completed and handed over to the state welfare boards and some are in different stages of development. “Barrister Mukhtar pursued staff perfection with the same vigour. Staff were constantly sent for trainings. He encouraged each department to come up with ideas on staff capacity building and other initiatives. He promoted staff welfare packages. He would admonish, coax staff, and wielded the big stick at indolence that refuses to give way.
He would even employ open bashing to get things done. “He would scrutinize every file and seems to know everything of every department. He ran an open door policy allowing each department in the Commission to nominate participants in each activity. He liaised with sister agencies in committee activities, wooed international organisations and embassies to partner in NAHCON’s developmental projects, which have borne fruits.” At an event organized by Manara Satellite TV/Radio station on March 10, 2018 in Abuja, to honour the former NAHCON boss, Sheikh Abdullahi Bala Lau, National Chairman of Jama’atu Izalatil Bid’a wa Iqamatis Sunnah (JIBWIS), genuinely acknowledged and lauded the transformation of Hajj management in Nigeria under Mukhtar. Said Sheikh Lau: “The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) under the leadership of Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad deserved a special mention.
I commend the executive chairman (then) and NAHCON as an agency for their selfless service for ensuring successful Hajj operations year in year out.” His achievements in Hajj management made late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua to confer him with the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) national honour, in 2010. This is in addition to 58 other awards and honours bestowed on the amiable, pragmatic, visionary and articulate Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, locally and internationally.
Mahmud, a staff writer with PRNigeria, writes from Wuye, in Abuja. He can be reached via: email@example.com, and 08067492272.