The allocation of 95,000 slots to Nigeria for 2023 hajj by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah of Saudi Arabia indicates that the pilgrimage is back to its pre-COVID pandemic era. Nigeria’s allocation last year was 43,000 slots.
The nature of the allocations, the timing of the announcement on whether pilgrims from outside the kingdom would participate in Hajj after the two-year hiatus due to the pandemic and general lack of information from both Saudi and local Hajj authorities took their toll on Hajj 2022, leading to the apparent failure of the operations compared to recent past.
Challenges such as cancellation of visa, selection of airlines, controversy over the Hajj Saving Scheme and underhand dealings in the payment of Basic Travel Allowance (BTA) to pilgrims by some states Muslim Pilgrims’ Boards hampered the conduct of Hajj 2022. As a result, reports suggested that over 3,000 intending pilgrims who paid for seats were not able to travel and perform the Hajj.
However, it appears that the Saudi authorities have learned from the mistakes of last year and have taken steps to avoid a repeat. This can be seen from the fact that they have not only announced slots allocation on time, but they have also organized a Hajj Expo for all participating countries, and used the period to sign all Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the countries.
The ball is now in the court of the Hajj participating countries to do what is right and expected.
We are aware that the leadership of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Executive Secretaries of States Muslim Pilgrims Boards and Private Hajj and Umrah operators are currently in Saudi Arabia meeting and signing agreements with various service providers.
We are calling on NAHCON to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the Saudi hajj ministry and immediately announce the cost of Hajj 2023 after concluding their agreements with the service providers and Hajj Air Carriers.
Importantly, NAHCON needs to impress upon Saudi-based Hajj service providers that Nigerian pilgrims want to enjoy the services they paid for and not to be refunded for un-rendered services thereafter.
The commission should also make sure that the unnecessary squabbles over the use or otherwise of the Hajj Saving Scheme (HSS) that characterized Hajj 2022 is not repeated this year. All grey areas must be fine-tuned and the commission and all stakeholders should operate on the same level as far as the HSS is concerned.
NAHCON should also ensure that only airlines with proven capacity are engaged for this year’s Hajj. A situation where some airlines were using the small Boeing 737 to ferry Hajj pilgrims must not be allowed to repeat itself. There must be proof of wide-bodied aircrafts before any airline is engaged this year. NAHCON has a Hajj airlift contractual agreement with airlines that specify terms and conditions of airlifts. It is our belief that these agreements are signed for implementation for each party to comply with its specified terms. NAHCON should be ready to deploy its power of oversight on hajj service providers for result-oriented services in 2023 hajj.
ARTICLE 6 of the hajj airlifts agreements under CARRIER’S OBLIGATIONS which specifies Aircraft Type and Configuration stated that, “The Carrier shall deploy a wide body aircraft with a minimum seating capacity of about 300 and a maximum seating capacity of 540 with a provision of leg-room allowance of about 33cm and above for the entire operation, or where necessary, similar substitute thereof approved in writing by the Commission and certified by the NCAA and Saudi GACA.”
In the same vein, Article 6.8 1 of the Hajj airlift agreement under Flight Schedule and efficient operation states that, “the Carrier fully understands that accurate and reliable flight schedule and efficient operation are critical aspects of Hajj planning as many other elements are dependent on them. These include, cost of living of the pilgrims, cost of accommodation in Makkah and Madinah due to over stay, release of pilgrims to Jeddah Airport and the need for the avoidance of hardship to the pilgrims due to avoidable flight delays and cancellations.
Article 6.8.2 further states that, “In recognition of the seriousness of the issue, the Carrier hereby undertakes to operate in line with the Commission’s directives and to provide accurate and reliable schedule and flight numbers for the entire operation at least 30 days before the commencement of each leg of the airlift and shall liaise with the Commission on the number of pilgrims to be airlifted directly to Madinah in the first leg of the operation.” This shows the strategic importance of Hajj airlift in Hajj operations.
The state’s Muslim pilgrims’ boards, on the other hand, must ensure that pilgrims are mobilized to camps strictly based on allotted time to avoid cases of missed slots. The state agencies must improve on its communications channels to pilgrims during hajj airlift to avoid unnecessary delays. States has no option than to comply with NAHCON directives especially during Hajj airlift.
It is worrisome that some States Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Boards are yet to officially begin registration of 2023 intending Hajj pilgrims despite the 95,000-hajj seat quota granted to Nigeria. Early preparations, impactful enlightenment and education, timely documentation of pilgrims’ information for operational use will guarantee seamless Hajj operations.
NAHCON must work with the states and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to quickly lock down all the needed amount needed for BTA on time. The embarrassment of Hajj 2022 must simply not be allowed to be repeated. NAHCON should ensure that states ‘fund’ their BTA account as at when due to avoid a latter-day story. A special committee for that purpose will be desirable.
Finally, we call on all involved in carrying out various mandates for Hajj 2023 to remember that they are serving the guests of Allah, monies coming to them are not from government coffers but the sweat of intending pilgrims who wish to travel and fulfill one of the major commandments of Allah.