By: Abubakar Bello Kaoje
Hajj fare is one of the most sensitive and vital aspects of the Hajj operation which requires paragmatic and vigorous approach to manage. If carefully or carelessly handle, it can mar and un mar any heterogeneous nation like Nigeria.
Since the re-election of the present administration, tagged as the “next level”, critics have been using the 2019 Hajj package to smear the government of the day and even ridiculing that the next level of the present administration for Nigerians is the escalation of Hajj fare from 1.5 Million last years to 1.8 or even 2 Million Naira this year.
The objective of these criticisms is to make the masses become despair to the confidence they reposed in the government. It is commonly known that government of the day was voted into power, consequence upon the popular support of the masses, obviously one can affirm without contradiction that after Oil and Power sectors, the pilgrimage operations is another area that deeply touch the lives of ordinary masses in this country and therefore becomes a strong tool for use in bringing down the government and paint it in a bad light before the masses.
In this circumstance, since the spread of the trending rumor streaming through the social media, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria being saddled with the responsibility of Hajj operation in the country, therefore did not take such cynicism as kid glove and never rest on its oars to allow the impending speculations of Hajj fare for 2019 get to the alarming level before taking appropriate action to nib it in the bud.
Towards this direction, during the latest Management Staff meeting, the Chairman/CEO of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria Barr. Abdullah Mukthar Muhammed, seriously raised the issue and there and then directed that he wished to see that the issue of Hajj fare for 2019 is concluded as soon as possible to overcome the prevailing rumor coming especially through the social media and that the Commissioner Personnel, Policy Management and Finance and that of the Operation departments of the Commission should with the immediate effect summon considerable number of states with a view to arriving at a realistic Hajj package for 2019 and in order to counter the impending rumor of the Hajj fare.
With this development, the two Commissioners swung into action and randomly sampled some States across the six geo–political zones and invited them for discussions on all the Hajj components, one after the other and to see the possibility of making some downwards reviews that can at least bridge the gap of the universal 100% increased by the United Agent Transport Service Providers in Saudi Arabia.
One cannot easily understand the intricacies involved in arriving at the Hajj fare. Infact, in Hajj fare package, there are lots of components. Some of these components are beyond the decision of the Hajj Commission and the States. The components such as those emanating from the Saudi Service Providers are not within the purview of the Commission or even the Nigerian Government to decide, This year, for instance, the basis for which some of these critics lay their agruement for the inevitable astronomical increase of Hajj fare is from the sudden 100% increase of the United Agent fee which used to be as of last year 675.575 Riyal and is suddenly now jerked to 1351.15 Riyals.
The critics were therefore confident that there is no magic the National Hajj Commission could do to avert the fare from going upward with the increase of 675.575 SR, translating N109.908.45. The components like the pilgrims accommodation in both Makkah and Madinah always depend on the vagaries of market forces in Saudi Arabia and the quality and the proximity to the two Holy Mosques. The only major component of Hajj package which the Commission and the States are actively in involved in its decision is the Airfare. Thus, the only area where these two agencies can add value is by subjecting the Airfare to a rigorous negotiations with the selected Airlines and even then, the exchange rate control are beyond all the agencies involved in the negotiations. It is interesting to know that for the past about ten years, there is no any significant increase in the Airfare, almost the same range of the amount of $1,850, keeps surfacing year in year out. Other external components like the transportation in Saudi Arabia is another uncontrollable phenomenon.
The sudden 100% increase of the United Agent Fee is not only bound on Nigeria but is a worldwide phenomenon. The question one would ask, what magic can the National Hajj Commission perform in order to bring down the fare? Actually, initially the Commission was in a dilemma but instead of staying aloof watching helplessly, the Commission in its wisdom began to explore ways to caution the anticipated effect by critically revisiting some of the components so called local components which are within the jurisdiction of the States, such components like, the Administration charges, Luggage, Uniforms Local transportation in Nigeria, Registration form, Yellow cards, Identify cards etc were x-rayed with aim of reviewing them downwards so as to bridge the gap created by the 100% increase in the United Agent Fees.
This scenario necessitated the invitation of some of the states. The exercise which lasted almost two weeks gave the Commission a ray of hope for getting out from its challenge.
At the meetings with the various states either individually or in group, all the Hajj components were brought out to them in totality and one after the other, they were debated upon, components which seem obvious to bring down for the benefits of the intending pilgrims were reviewed and analyzed and brought downwards. The minor components like, the registration form for the intending pilgrims was made uniform for all the States at the rate of N500, yellow cards, pilgrims Uniforms, pilgrims enlightenment, identity cards were all made uniform except where there are genuine reason to differentiate them. For example, some States actually transport their pilgrims from one States to another to Airlift their pilgrims. State like Zamfara falls into this category of transporting its pilgrims from Gusau to Sokoto Airport, also some states gave the reason for charging double fare for pilgrims uniform and for the fact that they issue two pairs of uniform to help the pilgrims appear neat throughout the period of Hajj, which was also considered as a reasonable.
Often times, critics would ask why the delay in the announcement of Hajj fare? To them is just a matter of computing all the components and come out with a final Hajj fare. Realistically, this assertion is not true and not practicable. Even if one knows all these components what about the approval of the concessionary Foreign Exchange rate by the government. Are we not aware that government use to approve a concessionary rate for either Hajj or Christian pilgrimage to make the journeys affordable to the intending pilgrims. If for instance the exchange rate were left at the open prevailing market of say 360 Naira for dollar. How much could the pilgrimage cost the ordinary intending pilgrims.
The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria has to therefore wait for the usual gesture of the government to grant a concessionary rate before the final announcement of the fare. The concessionary exchange rate graciously approved for this year is 306 for a dollar and Alhamdulillah this single gesture of the Federal government considerably brought the Hajj fare to the present status of less than 1.6 million Naira only.
At end of the consultative exercise with States, the analysis reveals that the States with the highest Hajj fare package is within the range of 1.560 Million Naira while the lowest rate came up to 1.540 Million Naira respectively. Out of this rates, it is worth to note that the Basic Travels Allowances BTA for the intending pilgrims is inclusive in the package, the BTA which is pegged parallel at $800 dollars for all the pilgrims which if is converted at the open market rate of N 360,000 for a dollar will translate to N 288,000 Naira which in essence means that the Hajj package services paid by the pilgrims is not more than 1,252,000 or so.
The effort of the Commission in trying to bring down the Hajj fare rate did not stop there. At present, some states especially those states on the rate of 1.560 Million are still requested to further go and sit at the negotiation table with their Makkah Accommodation Landlords to see to the possibility of the reduction of even 50 or 30 SR which can impact the pilgrims. In my opinion, this is one of the outstanding issues that delays the official announcement of the Hajj fare package for Hajj 2019.
I want to use this medium to erase the wrong impression of some of the cynics in the social media, who always just mention some rudiments of Hajj components and then compute to arrive at a far from truth Hajj package. To these types of critics, they only know Makkah/Madinah accommodation Airfare, royalty and transportation. For the avoidance of doubt, there are about 25 components in Hajj package with Hadaya (Animal Sacrifice) exclusive for being optional and depends on the type of Hajj the intending pilgrim intends to embark. We should also note that, the pilgrims feeding on arrival at the Airport and when leaving the Holy land are built into the package. If we were to make a critical calculation of the whole Hajj package components, what the pilgrims would pay to service providers is within the range of only 1 Million Naira, all other items go directly to the pilgrims themselves. Whatever the mischief from others, the National Hajj Commission has done the unexpected wonders by bringing down and maintaining the last year’s Hajj fare despite the 100% percent increase by the United Agent Fee and the Commission has put the cynics to shame, their baseless criticisms is now in a state of comatose