By Dr. Mustapha Adebayo Bello
One of the many challenges this year’s Hajj has thrown up is the plight of pilgrims on international scheduled flights by private operators. This set of pilgrims often referred to as “International” pilgrims chose to come for this annual spiritual retreat with a pre-planned programme specifying information about the arrival and departure dates to and from Saudi Arabia on their travelling tickets, location of accommodation in Makkah and other such information which would make their stay in the Holy Lands shorter and less strenuous. Unlike other pilgrims through the State Welfare Boards who signed for a minimum of 42 days, these elite pilgrims many of whom are businessmen, employees of private firms and other individuals who cannot stay out of their jobs for such a long time expect nothing but promptness, precision and top-notch services from their agents.
This expectation is not for nothing because the Hajj fare (excluding Basic Travelling Allowance) charged by the private operators (Agents) is far above what the states charge. So, when some of these pilgrims faced difficulties in getting airlifted to Saudi Arabia to the extent of being stranded at our airports for days, got caught up in the inadequacies of tents at Mina just like other pilgrims and are still holed up here for over two weeks after the completion of Hajj rites, there is a need to provide an explanation.
It is important to state that except for accommodation/feeding in Madinah, facilitating the allocation of tents in Mina and Arafat through their chosen Mutawwif, rendering sundry services such as medical outreach to them (as Nigerian citizens on Hajj) and attending to any other challenges facing them while in the Holy Lands, NAHCON has no business with the airlifting of these elite pilgrims to and from Saudi. The pertinent question begging for an answer is that at what point did NAHCON get involved in the airlifting of these pilgrims?
This is imperative considering the insinuation in some quarters that the commission is responsible for the delay suffered in Nigeria and what some of them are currently experiencing. Let me state that I also fall into this category but because I have information on how we got to this junction, my pilgrims and I are not complaining rather we are cooperating with the commission to make our homeward journey possible within the available opportunities provided by the airlines.
It is on record that of the 95,000 pilgrim slots given to Nigeria, 20,000 were allocated to private operators. This number was generously allocated to mitigate the shortfalls and losses many of them suffered in the two years of postponement of Hajj due to COVID-19. Though few of the operators succeeded in securing booking of travelling tickets with some airlines like Qatar, Turkish and Egypt Air, others couldn’t because of the lack of capacity of these airlines to airlift the entire 20,000 pilgrims within the limited time approved by the Saudi Arabia Civil Aviation Authority and other stringent measures.
It was at this critical point that the operators under the aegis of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Tour Operators of Nigeria (AHUON) ran to #NAHCON to bail them out. The regulatory body mindful of its mandate to guarantee that Nigeria fully utilize the 95,000 slots allocated to it pre-qualified two airlines to facilitate the airlifting. The association negotiated directly with them and NAHCON only stood as a witness to the business contract. AHUON chose and signed with Arik Air which relied heavily on its Saudi partners for the airlifting after the aircraft earlier presented for the exercise was rejected by the Saudi Arabia Civil Aviation Authority.
The Saudi partner “Manasik” did commence the airlifting and this encouraged most of the operators to move their pilgrims to the Murtala Muhammad International Airport in anticipation of the dates of airlifting indicated on their tickets. However, trouble started when “al-Manasik” couldn’t continue with the airlifting as a result of a contractual dispute with Arik Air. So, at the height of the cries in the media on the plight of stranded “international pilgrims” at MMA, NAHCON once again brokered a business arrangement between Arik and Max Air (one of the airlines airlifting pilgrims from the States) to rescue it with its aircraft.
This was possible for Max Air to accomplish having completed the airlifting of its assigned share of pilgrims from the States. This rescue operation was effected in Abuja and Lagos from the 22nd to the 24th of June before the closure of the Saudi air space. I am also aware that Aero Contractor was also drafted into this emergency rescue operation. It was at this stage that I thought it should be clear to the private operators that the status of their pilgrims so airlifted through the rescue operations had changed. They could no longer determine the departure dates of their pilgrims unilaterally as their fate is now in the hands of Max Air and Aero Contractor who have primary/contractual obligation to the States first before attending to them. This is the reason why some “international” pilgrims are still here.
While I have addressed the reasons for the Mina treatment which did not spare any pilgrim in my first release, any other difficulty experienced by them cannot be ascribed to either NAHCON or Saudi authorities. This is because of a problem that AHUON as a professional body is quite aware of. There are sub-agents without AIATA licenses and not registered with NAHCON yet operated as touts assisting the registered agents in getting pilgrims to meet their allotted numbers. These sub-agents often do not present themselves as canvassers but as real operators collecting huge Hajj fares from unsuspecting perspective pilgrims only to hand them over to the real operators at the nick of time without disclosing the financial transactions they have had with them.
NAHCON must work with AHUON to sanitize the polluted environment of private Hajj service if the body cannot self-regulate itself. This is because in most cases many of these unscrupulous individuals often ascribe any hardship suffered by their pilgrims due to their own negligence or financial undercutting to NAHCON. The pilgrims in most cases believe them out of ignorance because, after all, the name on the lips of every Nigerian pilgrim for whatever “headache” they suffered is NAHCON. Therefore, moving forward, the commission must be courageous enough not only to review the airlift exercise of tour operators but the criteria for licensing them to separate the chaff from the wheat.
From the above, therefore, it is thus clear that NAHCON got involved to save an embarrassing national disaster of having many pilgrims registered with the private operators not performing this year’s Hajj. An act of rescue and goodwill which is commendable by all standards should therefore not become an act of blame!
Dr. Mustapha Adebayo Bello