By Murtala Adewale
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the window for remittance of 2024 hajj deposit will come to an end by 31st December, 2023. Going by this estimate, intending pilgrims who fail to meet the deadline set to pay the initial N4.5 million may risk losing the golden opportunity to perform next year’s pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
Worthy of note still, is the new timeline stipulated for processing and issuance of visas to potential pilgrims scheduled to commence 1st March, 2024 and terminate April 2024, about 45 days to Arafa, a clear departure to previous tradition.
Other components on the road to hajj 2024 as announced by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah are exhibitions for Hajj and Umrah Services which opens January 8th, 2024.
During the exhibition, participating countries across the globe converge on the Kingdom to seal contracts with service providers, essentially food and transport vendors and others with relevant services.
Similarly, Nigeria will resume negotiations with other nations in February next year and finalize agreement on pilgrims’ accommodations in Makkah, Madinah and Mashaer (Minna and Arafat).
The authorities have so far licensed 166 buildings in the holy city of Makkah alone to accommodate pilgrims during next year’s pilgrimage. The licensed buildings comprise a total of 26,710 rooms estimated to house 1116,697 pilgrims. Like previous years, Nigeria was allotted 95,000 seats to participate in the spiritual exercise.
In the same vein, the General Authority of Civil Aviation, (GACA) had activated electronic track to capture airlines transiting pilgrims into the Kingdom during the season, begun October and ends January 2024. By the pre-dated plan, pilgrims’ arrival in Saudi Arabia will begin on the first of Dhul Qaidah, the 11th Islamic month, equivalent to 9th May, 2024.
Over the years, Saudi Authorities have accepted responsibility for pilgrims discomfort upon hitches on accommodation shortage, unsatisfactory feeding and congestion, many a times at the sacred cities of Minna and Arafat. Besides being responsive to some indisputable faults, the Kingdom would offer compensation and sincere apology for the inadequacy.
With commitment to correct unintended abnormalities of previous experiences, the Saudi government resolves to shift the paradigm away from the usual system to a more pragmatic and innovative approach to transform hajj management. The new approach begins with early schedules and preparedness for 2024 spiritual exercise.
Though the early plan promised to ease unforeseen challenges, dawdling response of Nigerian intending pilgrims’ to the timelines especially to the deadline placed on payment of initial deposit is a major concern to National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).
The slow pace of registration is evidenced from available records gathered in Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, Katrina, Niger, Sokoto, Katsina states. With the low turnout, there is apprehension Nigeria may find it difficult to exhaust the national allocation.
Critical among other burdens before the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) ahead of hajj 2024, are concern rising rate of dollar and its resultant consequence without concessional intervention, safety trust of pilgrims in the choice of selected airlines as well as quality of accommodation and feeding of pilgrims in commensurate with the charge. Also demanding crucial attention is the activities of Tour Operators, in particular the perceived fraudulent disposition of some.
Conscious of the depth of thrust and the enormous expectations of Nigerians who could not afford another excuse of inadequacy, the new acting Chief Executive Officer of NAHCON, Malam Jalal Ahmed Arabi was quick to settle down for real business.
Assuming duty on 21st October 2023, few days after his appointment was announced, the ‘New Sheriff in Town’, came out clear from his first day in the hajj house, about his vision and mission to strengthen hajj mission in Nigeria with the sole aim of improving pilgrims’ welfare.
Coming on board with intimidating credentials in public service and wealth of experience as seasoned technocrat, Mal. Arabi inundated the management and staff of the commission with the mission to achieve set goals through a three-mantra bordering on Trust, Sacrifice and Allah Knows Best (TSA). He never loses sight in his commitment to consolidating the modest record of success bequeathed by his predecessor.
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According to him, “My appointment was a privilege. I am lucky to be called upon to serve the Guests of Allah, knowing fully well that the reward for serving the guest of Allah will be both Here and Hereafter. I know like all establishments, we have our mission, vision and it has been pursued vigorously before now but certainly there is always room for improvement in whatever endeavour.
“Of course, without prejudice to what we intend to achieve through our vision and mission, I have come with three nouns that will be so cardinal and of course will be building on the tripod. I call them ‘TSA’ and my definition is entirely different from the TSA you know.
“Let me start with my T – trust. I know most of us, if not all, know the burden of trust and responsibility on any Muslim that is so charged to carry that trust. My ‘S’ is sacrifice. Whoever is entrusted with trust knows that he or she makes sacrifice and my A is Allah. Allah knows all.” Mal. Arabi noted.
Soon after resumption, Mal. Arabi, a retired permanent secretary at the presidency, set out to accomplish his mission, first was visitation to Islamic leaders across the notable sects and foremost foundations in South west where he sought support for NAHCON on the timeline of hajj 2024.
The new helmsman who placed much credence in the authority of the Islamic leaders also wanted the clerics to drive the advocacy on the new reality of hajj down to the grassroots. From Kano, Sheikh Karibullah Sheikh Nasiru Kabara leader of Kadiriyyah; spiritual leader of Jama’atu Izalatil Bidi’a, Sheikh Abdullahi Bala Lau and Chief Imam of Lagos, Sheikh Sulaimon Oluwatoyin.
Still in Lagos, the NAHCON boss extended a similar visit to the National President of Ansaru Deen Society of Nigeria, Alh. AbdulRafiu Sanni and leaders of NASFAT in the south west.
“ I am here to remind our scholars and leaders of their religious duties to help educate our people. We cannot afford to ignore the critical roles they play in the affairs of Muslims. As Masters of change, we want you to join hands with us so that we can make the president happy and also the Nigerian Muslims who rallied around him too happy. Together, we can achieve the Renewed Hope of Mr. President”. Mal. Arabi informed the Chief Imam of Lagos.
With his eyes on the ball, the acting Chairman’s penchant for success and successful operation of hajj exercise under his stewardship compelled him to constitute operational committees to review various components of hajj exercise. The committees include feeding and accommodation, Aviation, National Medical Team and Tour Operator.
Members of the committees are entrusted to develop new operational guidelines that enhance process and procedures as well as recommend fresh approaches that stimulate effective and efficient experience of 2024 hajj.
While inaugurating the national medical team for instance, Mal. Arabi tasked the committee to develop new ideas that will replace the archaic and obsolete practices in existence.
While expressing his trust and confidence in the committee members, the NAHCON CEO advised them to be flexible and follow the extant regulations and guidelines. He further urged members to put their expertise into play with a view to achieving maximum results, adding that they should not fail at all.
“ The national medical team is so important in the performance of hajj activities. It is fairly disturbing that some of its process and procedure needs to be tinker with if we must achieve better results. We need to inject new ideas in the way its task is being implemented as some of its processes and procedures have become archaic and obsolete.
“As with all human endeavors, the team has faced overwhelming challenges. Therefore, we need to think outside the box and explore other ways. Though adventurous, it is the only way we can reposition their activities. In tinkering with the guidelines, please take cognizance of the extant rules so that we can achieve maximum results”. Arabi said.
Mindful of the sensitive role of Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) in the coordination of aviation safety during pilgrims airlift, the NAHCON chairman also raised the need for urgent provision of navigation equipment and facilities at hajj terminals across the nation’s airports.
While hosting members of FAAN’s hajj committee, Mal. Arabi, in a statement signed by Mousa Ubandawaki, Deputy Director, Information and Publication, NAHCON, said “ You are a formidable partner in the hajj operation. Though, there are certain considerations put in place during hajj transportation, we expect you to tell us the state of the various airports used for transportation of pilgrims.
The committee should be time conscious as they would have limited time to carry out their assignments, going by the timeline set by Saudi Arabia for all nations to conclude all hajj arrangements.
In another engagement ahead of the deadline, the NAHCON boss also met with chief executives of states hajj board essentially to explore strategies to overcome the underlying requisite for next year’s hajj, more pronounced, early remittance of N4.5 million initial deposit.
During the engagement, Mal. Arabi was so passionate about the welfare of pilgrims’ and the genuine cause to reduce the hajj fare to ease the burden of the average Muslim. Little wonder the acting Chairman asked the state’s chairmen and board secretaries to explore possible ways of reducing hajj fare for intending pilgrims’ in their domain, even as stakeholders anxiously await the unveiling of the final fare.
With the ray of hope on a successful hajj in 2024, the new helmsman at NAHCON may need to beam critical search light on the operations of tour operators to check unwholesome practice of some of the practitioners, already defaming the image of the genuine.
These unwholesome characters mostly rear their nefarious manners in the yearly maltreatment of unsuspecting pilgrims’ who patronize them. Failure to fulfill the mouthwatering promises often claim that some of the operators would abandon their pilgrims’ after collecting the exorbitant fare.
The new management should not tolerate this iniquity henceforth. Considering the special interest focus on the credibility of the tour operators in the allocation of 2024 hajj seats, equal weight of sanction is expected to be met on any operator who failed to render packages they promised to offer pilgrims’ at the holy land.
Recall that Saudi Arabia granted additional 30 slots for private tour operators participation in the hajj 2024 against the previous 10 slots allocated to Nigeria. However, allocating the 40 seats among the 70 selected operators is generating concern even as other operators who could not meet the criteria set by NAHCON also faulted the selection process.
In commitment to transparency and integrity, NAHCON has decided to suspend further activities related to the allocation of Hajj seats to the tour operators to address the accusation on the selection process.
Fatima Sanda Usara, Assistant Director, Public Affairs, NAHCON, said the commission has invited members with legitimate grievances pertaining to the qualification of any tour operator.
In the release, “NAHCON promised to ensure a fair and impartial investigation into the allegations. If the accusations are substantiated and found to be true, the necessary actions will be taken to rectify the situation.
However, it has been emphasized that if the allegations are frivolous, NAHCON warns that there will be consequences for those found to be making baseless claims”.
NAHCON should not equally lose sight of abuse of pregnancy tests and other medical procedures by female intending pilgrims’ which eventually lead to transporting expectant mothers to Saudi Arabia on yearly basis.
For instance, NAHCON confirmed that 75 pregnant pilgrims, who might have evaded the pregnancy test, were discovered during the 2023 hajj. Besides the fact that the pregnant pilgrims’ had ignored advisories against embarking on the spiritually and physically tasking nature of pilgrimage, the affected persons had needlessly risked their lives for what they ought not to.