Exchange rate will determine 2018 hajj fare
Repeat pilgrims will pay N2000SR extra
Hails Lagos Pilgrims on good conduct
Vanguard with some select journalists engaged the chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, NAHCON, Barr. Abdullah Mukhtar Muhammad, in a chat in his Makkah office, on the entire hajj operations. From the preparation to airlifting of pilgrims as well as their welfare and return to the country with a peep into the expectations in 2018 hajj fare among other issues. Enjoy the excerpt.
By Ishola Balogun
HOW will you assess the entire Hajj operation this year?
As a man on the driver’s seat, I will not like to access our performance; I will rather allow the public and other stakeholders to do that. But if you ask me what is the public opinion and the view of other stakeholders, who access us, based on their comments during various meetings and during interaction and engagements, and the feedback we are receiving from various established mechanisms, by the Commission, I will say it is a huge success.
Despite all the challenges and intentional attempt by some people to derail our main focus during the debate on hajj fare, we are able to remain committed to the cause of delivering hajj as planned. We are successful in the airlifting all the pilgrims, under the state Welfare board, commission and agencies across the country including the FCT.
We are also able to intervene by ensuring that pilgrims who also paid through the licenced private operators were airlifted to Saudi Arabia.
Accommodation and vaccination
This was because, at a point, some of the licenced operators couldn’t get scheduled flight to bring in their pilgrims, so the commission as a regulator had to intervene by organising special flight from Kano and Abuja to bring in those pilgrims to be able to meet up with their hajj rites.
If you look at the discourse on the hajj fare, it was so intense that it nearly derailed us completely. But we were able to overcome it and got Visas, accommodation and vaccination for all the pilgrims.
Other aspect is the arrangement in Madinah. It was an improved version of what happened last year. All the pilgrims were accommodated within the highbrow area called Markaziyya. A prime are in Madinah, which is a few minutes’ walk to the Grand Mosque of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w). The feeding was also an improved version of what obtained last year. This was attested by the pilgrims and state officials themselves. We also promised that there will be more comfortable buses for Nigerian Pilgrims and we were able to achieve that. These buses have toilets, fully air conditioned, internet facility, tracking device, etc. Theses buses are 2017 series, the newest in its generation. There was no report of vehicle being stopped on the road due to mechanical breakdown. If you compared that with what obtained last year where you had on daily basis reported cases of breakdown and delay, then this year was really a great success. Also Madinah medical services were an unproved version of what it used to be.
If you look at the activities in Makkah, they are mostly coordinated by the states but supervised by the commission. These activities were better compared to what we had last year. Most of the states were able to get accommodation in more accessible areas, easily traceable to Haram. The medical arrangement in Makkah was better coordinated than last year’s. The clinics were computerised and all-time online basis.
The airlifting back home which commenced immediately after hajj exercise was smooth. No single slot of the scheduled was missed. Last year, it was excellent return journey and the same would happen this year. We will finish the airlifting back home on record time. So, from the assessment of other stakeholders —‘so far, so good’.
According to the argument on the discourse of hajj fare, the exchange rate determines what Nigerians pay for hajj, what should Nigerians be expecting as hajj fare in 2018?
It is very clear that whatever that will be the official exchange rate, that will be our yardstick for computing the Hajj fare. So, let’s continue to pray and work hard and support the government in its efforts to revive the economy so that the Dollar-Naira disparity will be improved, and that Naira will take its rightful position. If we are lucky that the dollar crashes down, the total hajj fare will also come down. This is because the dollar component which make up the Hajj fare which is about 98 percent of the total hajj fare itself; did not increase even with one dollar compared to last year. In fact it reduced to about $300 to $350 depending on the states. This means, the dollar component has reduced but the exchange rate has increased. The exchange rate used in 2016 was N197 when we consummated the transaction with Central Bank of Nigeria, but this year, the official exchange rate is N305 to a dollar. So, in a simply layman term, assuming the hajj fare of 2016 was just $1 a pilgrim pays, in 2017; it has reduced to $0.73dollar. So, no matter the reduction in the dollar components, the impact will not be felt by the pilgrims because it has been usurped by the exchange rate. But assuming the exchange rate remains 197, the pilgrims will benefit and he will know that there is a reduction in the hajj fare. Efforts are being made by government to bring down the hajj fare itself, but despite this, it is important that the pilgrims know that the fare could have been much higher than what it was this year, if government say go and source your dollar at the inter-bank rate which was about 368 to 368. But government was kind enough to look at the sensitive nature and importance of pilgrimage and religious services for both Muslims and Christian and allowed us to enjoy the official exchange rate. We should be grateful to this gesture of the government. It is the desire of every Nigerian that N1 is equivalent to $1. If it reaches that level, hajj fare will become N5, 300. Everybody will then be rushing to pay and go to hajj.
Securing visas for pilgrims
We hope the economy will improve. But to answer your question, whatever is the official exchange rate will be the basis for the computation of hajj fare in 2018.
What is your take on the Kingdom requesting the payment of extra 2,000SR on all second-timer is it under consideration or it has come to stay?
It has come to stay because it was applied in 2017 hajj. The commission and the state pilgrims board had to come together to find a way of managing the situation, so that we will not levy pilgrims who were not aware of such policy. The reality is that I don’t see the Saudi Authorities going back on that.
They have made it very clear that anybody going on Umurah for the first time will enjoy a free visa. But if you want to go for the second time or as many times as you wish, you will have to pay 2,000SR the same thing with the hajj. Perhaps, it comes very sudden, because our expectation was that the policy will take effect from 2018; our understanding of the circular was that 2017 will be first hajj for everybody, but suddenly they changed their portal for the process of securing visas for pilgrims and re-modified it mid-way into the visa processing and introduced another link where it will show whether you are a first timer or a repeat pilgrim.
Even if you did not click a repeat pilgrim, your passport will indicate you have performed hajj before and it will deduct the 2000SR from our account. So, this year, we have paid 2,000SR on each of those who have gone to hajj before.
But as I said, we have understanding with the states on that area without going back to the pilgrims to pay more, because it was a matter that came unexpectedly. Alhamdulillah, we were able to manage it.
Come 2018, certainly, it will be part of hajj fare. We will announce it that whoever wants to repeat his hajj will pay 2000SR. Whatever is the total cost of hajj fare, he will have to pay this extra fee.
Why is the Saudi doing this?
Yes! That is the question. I think everybody should use what they have to better their economy. Saudi government has never hidden the fact that they were moving away from oil revenue to non-oil revenue.
If as Muslims, we are contributing that amount of money, to better the facilities being used in performing hajj, I think we should support them towards that direction. There is nothing wrong in supporting them, but we may also want the Saudi to continue to play the big brother role by allowing hajj visa free, no matter how many times one wish to perform. This is because there are various circumstances that lead people to repeat their hajj. Maybe they make mistake during their first hajj or they do things that invalidate the hajj without knowing, or they are performing it on behalf of somebody; such people should be exempted. Honestly, the big brother role could have been much better. The king can decide to use his royal power to cancel that and I know Allah will bless them more and give them greater capacity to overcome whatever economic challenge they may have. I am sure many more countries will dialogue with them on the possibilities of waiving the policy, but if it becomes inevitable, as Muslims, we should proudly contribute with the intent that we are contributing to everlasting cause for everlasting reward. And with the believe that that money will be used to better the facilities in Hajj.
What about the officials because there will always be officials to lead pilgrims?
There are three categories of officials. The first are the ones recognised by the Saudi authorities. These category in total are 850 for the entire Nigerian pilgrims and each state of the federation has its own quota. This extra charge is not applicable on them. Another category is the officials under each state which as far as Hajj commission and the Saudi authorities are concerned, they are pilgrims. But at the state level, they are called officials because they are given official letters and they are allowed to official identification such as the welfare personnel, preachers and guides, staff of the board among others. They are not part of officials recognised by the Kingdom. So, if you come to process their visas, they will go as ordinary pilgrims. And that remains their status in Saudi. You pressmen fall under this category. The third category is those of the local government. In some predominantly Muslim state, you will notice that local governments do sponsor one or two people to guide the pilgrims. There is nothing wrong with that, but you call them officials only at the local government level. The last two groups are not known by the Saudi, they are local arrangements. But I believe in a very near future, we are thinking of injecting a reform whereby, we will make sure that we don’t waste human resources, and public funds in financing un-needed officials. How can you explain, a state with 1000 or 2000 pilgrims having 500 or 300 officials. What for? We will continue to bring in reforms that will address that.
How do you intend to push again the issue of electronic wrist band used in 2016?
The issue of the electronic wristband in 2016 was borne out of the unpleasant stampede in 2015 where we lost 317 pilgrims. May their souls rest in peace. Part of the challenge then was identification and accounting for the Nigerian pilgrims. At the heat of the stampede, the President gave order that we should account for all Nigerian pilgrims. Thousands of people were affected. It was a very big challenge for us because we had so much similarities in terms of names and physique with our neighbouring countries. The Yoruba man from Nigeria with name AbdulWasiu has little difference with Yoruba man from Ghana or Republic of Benin, so is also the Muhammad from Chad will have little or no difference from our own Muhammad from Borno State in terms of physic and name. So, it was really a complicated and difficult assignment. You had to go through the dead bodies of all Africans and you begin to identify yours, couple with the fact that some Nigerians who are resident in the Saudi were also there to perform hajj and were also victim of the stampede, it was difficult. But we were able to account for everybody. As a proactive step, whether accident or no accident, we came up with that idea to manage the core period of the hajj. Apart from the fact that some people do not like to wear their ID card, under serious pressure, the ID card can get lost. But the wrist band was just like a wrist watch, it was water proof. It has GPRS which can indicate location. It had SOS button which the distress pilgrim can just press which will trigger the command and control center to know that that particular wristband displaying the message on the dashboard. Remember, each wrist band was customised with particular person. So, the command and Control can call that pilgrim. If the person is literate, he can tell what the situation is and if not, his location becomes known and Emergency-Rescue team will locate such person. And it did work. We noticed that some pilgrims went out of the geographical boundary and we noticed that immediately. We saw pilgrims in Makkah while they were supposed to be in Muna, and Pilgrims in Arafat when they were supposed to be in Muzdalifah and we helped them to get to the right place. One of the fundamental mistake from our own part was that a state made a mistake of bringing it in cartons. The Customs couldn’t understand, so they confiscated it and it became a big issue. Unfortunately, that year, we had security issues with people bringing in substance suspected to be drugs. One of the suspects apprehended used a video camera to plant in drugs. That also affected the wristband issue, because naturally they will suspect everything. But it is not a project that we have abandoned. We will continue to interface and dialogue with them until we are able to reach a common understanding on the importance and need for the wristband. It will help both of us and we are willing to surrender the entire monitoring technology to them. It will be a win-win situation especially during the stoning at Jamarat. If Muslims all over the world will be compelled to wear the electronic wristband, if you are there outside your time, it will show and they will know which pilgrims, and from which country are breaching that timing. It will reduce and minimise accident during the peak period of the hajj. If they don’t want some certain people to come for tawaf, the wrist band will help. If you go, the wristband will pick you. We are hopeful to rekindle the implementation of that idea.
There were some irregularities noticed in the Muna arrangement of accommodation for pilgrims. In fact the Lagos accommodation was said to have taken over by Bukinafaso, how can we avert such development in future?
Let me first commend Lagos state on how they managed the issue. It shows the State Muslim Pilgrims welfare Board has the capacity to manage crisis very well. When their accommodation was taken over, Lagos pilgrims remained calm. And when alternative was found far away from the previous one and despite that the alternative place had no bedding, they also remained calm. They said, we are here to worship, not here for luxury. That was really commendable. I really commend the entire contingent, because we made similar offer to some states, they didn’t accept.
Recall I said that the balance of payment of Hajj fare nearly derailed us. If we had closed the registration earlier than we did, we would have brought in manageable number of pilgrims, but back home there will be agitation of not allowing more people to participate and that we are not sensitive. That was why we allowed late registration. The problem of late registration, led to late declaration of actual number of pilgrims that the Saudi would provide facilities for. Without the actual figure, relevant authorities will not be able to plan for the pilgrims. Secondly, there was 20 percent rate reduction of pilgrims coming to perform hajj. Nigeria used to be 95,000 but it was reduced to 85,000. When we were 75,000 we were comfortable, but now the same 20 percent were being restored and the same space allocated to us and you know that the boundary called Muna was defined by the Prophet himself,(s.a.w). So, nobody can change the definition. The capacity remains the same within the boundaries called Muna and there is a lot of infrastructure which has reduced the space. By the official estimate, that place is supposed to accommodate 950,000, but 1.7million foreign Muslims were there in Muna. So, there will be constrain of space. But how to avert that is early registration and early declaration of the figure and early arrival to access the facilities provided. Again, the whole Hajj family worldwide needs to discuss the quota issue again. Whether we need to maintain that 1.7million or reduce the number, so that we can make best use of the facilities.
Why we did not have Amirul Hajj this year?
If I may ask, how did that affect the whole Hajj process? It is government decision and it did not affect the performance of Hajj anyway. The decision to suspend government delegation is out of economic concern. The very first time the suspension was made, the spokesman for the presidency announced the reason. Government used to spend over $1million on the delegation alone, and with economic reality of our country, government had to look at areas where it will prone down expenditure. They don’t even have any recognition by the Saudi authorities. It was a system developed by Nigerians as a way of honouring some people. If the economy improves in future, maybe government may reconsider its stand if there is truly a need for it.