In a bid to adhere to a regime of prudence and accountability, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has saved Muslim pilgrims $18.8 million through sanction of the manner in which service providers operate.
A breakdown of this amount shows that $12.3 million was saved from services rendered in Madina, while an additional $6.532,745 million is estimated to have been saved in the leakages plugged in Makkah.
This ensured that in 2017, unlike in 2016, pilgrims got a better deal as the elimination of middlemen engendered the provision of better accommodation services for them in Makkah and Madina.
Before now, this huge sum of money would have gone into private pockets of those who under the guise of providing accommodation to the pilgrims fleeced them and deny the apex government the desired income to invest in other useful ventures.
LEADERSHIP Friday learnt that the accommodation scam which has pitted NAHCON against a Saudi-based group known as the Nigeria Arewa Foundation, also involved many state governments, notably among which is Kano, that were fingered as allegedly abetting the commission of the unwholesome act.
In response to a lengthy petition the Arewa Foundation submitted to the House of Representatives, NAHCON observed that its decision to undertake a ‘sweeping reform’, which led to the saving of the amount earlier mentioned, also reversed the accommodation of pilgrims in sub-standard buildings that does not reflect the high sums they paid for such purpose.
Explaining its constitutional mandates of regulating, supervising and performing oversight functions over bodies involved in the provision of services to Nigerian pilgrims in Nigeria or Saudi Arabia, the commission has adopted reforms to enable it ‘eliminate briefcase companies, contractors and agents who add little or no value to services’, and reduce the unnecessary cost of services arising from their activities.
However, in its petition to the House, the Arewa Foundation had in a six point allegations indicated that the NAHCON chairman, Alhaji Abdullahi Mukhtar, unilaterally levied 50 Saudi Riyals on all companies providing accommodation to Nigerian pilgrims, negotiated to increase pilgrims transportation from SR180-SR360; and that the chairman, in 2016 levied $70 on catering companies because SR800 was earmarked for feeding pilgrims but only SR730 was paid to the companies.
Other allegations raised by the Arewa Foundation were that: the chairman of NAHCON collected animal sacrifice made by pilgrims under the pretext of facilitating donations to IDPs in Nigeria, that he imposed share capital on accommodation companies while reducing their number to 27; and that he favoured foreign carriers in total disregard for indigenous companies in 2015 and 2016.
Stating that the chairman of NAHCON didn’t arrogate powers to himself in taking the decisions he took, when he did, its secretary, Dr B.M. Tambuwal wrote that due process was followed in inviting applications from companies that want to provide services to pilgrims.
This process, he explained, include advertisements, shortlisting of companies by special committees and the ratification of such by NAHCON executive committee and NAHCON board.
Dr Tambuwal pointed out that the levying of service charges was a lawful exercise, that the increase of transportation fee was arrived at after series of due consultations with Saudi authorities and that the feeding and other costs were ratified by NAHCON board.
He added that the issue of animal sacrifice was broached by Jaiz Bank Plc in 2014. Based on the fact that the bank had a subsisting agreement with the Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah, Jaiz was appointed as the collection agent of for sacrifice payment from Nigeria.
NAHCON also denied the imposition of minimum share capital as a condition for the engagement of companies, just as it further emphasized that “the airlift of all foreign pilgrims falls under the purview of the Saudi General Authority on Civil Aviation (GACA).
Meanwhile, LEADERSHIP Friday investigation uncovers the complicity of some state governments, such as Kano, in the fraud that was allegedly perpetrated by some service providers, including Arewa Foundation.
For instance, the earlier benchmark set by NAHCON for accommodation fees was SR4000. But, in Kano State, as in other States, the service providers always inflated it. What they submit in their proposals to the state government and the state pilgrims’ welfare board often overshoots NAHCON’s ceiling.
“Pilgrims normally pay for everything they would require while in the Holy land. However, where deliberate inflation comes into play is that the states ‘augment’ the payment by paying extra to the service providers,” a source told LEADERSHIP Friday.
Some officials of the state pilgrims’ board in collusion with the service providers arrange and create an accommodation bill. The practice, it was revealed, was for the state government to wade in by contributing to augment the fees paid by the pilgrims under the guise of subsidy.
In 2011 and 2012, Kano State government and some officials of the pilgrims’ board paid the sum of thirty six million naira for accommodation subsidy of pilgrims. In 2013, 2014, and 2015 the government and the officials augmented the accommodation cost with about N66 million, N127 million and N202 million respectively. In the preceding year alone, the sum of N367 million was paid for similar purpose.
For instance, a document sighted by the paper shows that for three separate accommodation facilities with 2,405 capacity owned by Island Economic Group, some officials of the pilgrims’ board in 2016, paid the sum of SR1,544,054 million, “being government subsidy in respect of 2016 Makkah accommodation.”
In plain terms, this means an unwarranted replication of the dues already paid by the pilgrims which is statutorily domiciled with NAHCON and disbursed to all service providers for them to take appropriate action.
Instead of allowing the NAHCON benchmark to take precedence, some officials of the pilgrims’ board expended an additional SR 2500 on each pilgrim, thus spending between N169,840,000 million to N185,280,000 million on accommodation of pilgrims at the prevailing rates of N110-N120 to SR 1 last year.
Contrary to these, if NAHCON’s benchmark had been adhered to it would not have been necessary to part with the extra, outrageously astronomical and unnecessary fund paid as subsidy or augmentation.
Also, in all these years, it has become a recurring practice that despite the subsidy incurred by the state government, debts continue to pile up. For instance, last year an outstanding debt of N101 million recorded.
When the paper contacted Kano State Pilgrims Welfare Board (KSPWB), its permanent secretary, Alhaji Abba Yakubu, who averred that the board was paying accommodation subsidy in the past, said this is no longer tenable with the introduction of the reforms by NAHCON.
“The State government and the board will no longer pay accommodation subsidy for pilgrims any more in realization of the new policy by NAHCON which is geared towards nipping in the bud the activities of those engaging in sharp practices,” Alhaji Yakubu said in a telephone chat.
“Hitherto, we use to spend a lot to take care of our pilgrims. Both our board and NAHCON did not have idea of what the prices of accommodation in Saudi Arabia was. But now that NAHCON policy now is to engage accommodation owners directly we are coming to terms with what the price regime of accommodation is like in the Holy Land.
In the past it was the agents who were manipulating these things. They even earned better than the landlords. However, now that the payment for accommodation is being made through electronic payment, everyone knows the score, the permanent secretary.
He gave kudos to NAHCON for the new policy and pledged that the board will work closely with it to ensure that the new policy succeeds, stressing that consultations between NAHCON and state governments is now at advanced stage in an attempt to ensure the sustainability of the new policy.
But in a swift defense of its nefarious activities, the Arewa Foundation had ab initio levelled allegations of undue discrimination, preferential treatment in favour of some companies and corruption against the NAHCON chairman.
The Foundation, through its lawyers, Dele Olaniyan and Co., submits that: “our clients strongly suspects and it is the considered opinion of the service providers that there is deep seated corruption in the operation and running of NAHCON against the spirit and intendment of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the campaign mantra of the government of the day in Nigeria.
“This complaint is therefore calling upon all well-meaning agencies or organs of government to investigate the activities of NAHCON under the management of its current chairman with a view of detecting, exposing and wiping out corruption in the parastatal in particular and in the Nigerian society at large,” the Arewa Foundation lawyers stated.