By Muhammad Ajah
One of the greatest challenges regarding the forthcoming Hajj is how to meet the March 31 deadline for all payments for onward remittance to service providers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia recognizes only NAHCON which represents the Nigerian government in Hajj operations and transactions. With the aggressive sensitization programmes so far conducted by the commission over the 2018 Hajj, not up to one third of the Hajj slots have been paid for. It is really worrisome and a great challenge to the exercise.
However, some civil society groups and prominent Muslims have asked NAHCON to shift the deadline. Independent Hajj Reporters in a statement by its Chairman, Ibrahim Muhammad, said that for Nigeria to maximally utilise her 95, 000 slots for the year, the deadline had to be reviewed. Its findings showed that less than a month to the deadline, states pilgrims’ boards were yet to register 40 percent of the allocations given to Nigeria by the Saudi Arabian Government.
The early announcement of the Hajj fares is another challenge that will determine the response of pilgrims to quick registration across the country. In the past, late announcement of the fares contributed to late registration. Last year’s fares which stood at about N1.5million caused trepidation amongst the Nigerian pilgrims who had waited for intervention by the parliamentarians but to no avail. NAHCON, on its part and considering its deadline, should liaise with the relevant government organs to compute and announce the fares. All government interest groups should avail the Commission of all possible support to do the needful in this regard.
Closely following announcement of the Hajj fares is the pivot of Hajj operations. It is the official exchange rate of naira to US dollar and its effects on Hajj fares. It was difficult to believe that last year’s Hajj fares were less than that of 2016 Hajj. It was difficult to convince the pilgrims that the assumption that the 2017 Hajj cost was high was misplaced because the official exchange rate of the US dollar astronomically went up from N197 in 2016 to N305 in 2017. All explanations by NAHCON received little commendation from the pilgrims. Except for financial experts, NAHCON being the Hajj regulator in Nigeria, was criticized badly, irrespective of the fact that almost all payments for services made by the pilgrims in naira have to be converted to the US dollars. The money is transferred to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the US dollars and reconverted to the Saudi Arabian Riyals for onward payments to service providers in the Kingdoms. For now, it is not possible to source Riyals directly from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
With the above analysis, the possibility of the 2018 Hajj fares being less than 2017 Hajj is definitely slim except if the official exchange rate is reduced. In consideration of the official exchange rate of N360 to a US$1, the Hajj fares would be above N2million. On that, a non-governmental organization, Media Awareness Initiative for Hajj (MAI-HAJJ), has urged the Nigerian Government to assist the country’s intending pilgrims with low concessionary exchange rate for pilgrimage in order to have a hitch free 2018 Hajj exercise. The association’s national Chairman, Malam Garba Ubale Dambatta and Publicity Secretary, Muhammad Kabiru Yusuf, in a statement said that the government’s action will help reduce the cost of the pilgrimage as well as enable the pilgrims participate in the religious exercise with ease, especially considering new policies the Saudi Arabian government introduced for 2018 Hajj.
The Saudi Arabia new policies, it noted, include 5% VAT on all services, increased cost of electricity supply by almost thrice the 2017 price, increased cost of petrol almost by 200%, the new accommodation policy which allows only four pilgrims in a room, biometric data capturing and the introduction of 2,000 Saudi Riyals for Hajj and Umrah second timers, amongst others.
Also, the Emir of Lafia, Dr. Isa Mustapha-Agwai, wants NAHCON to reduce the fares for the 2018 Hajj. He believes that the astronomical fares deprive Muslims in the country from performing a very important religious obligation. He wants NAHCON to engage the Presidency and Saudi authorities to reduce the fares to enable more Muslims partake in the holy pilgrimage.
The biometric data capturing is another thing of great interest to the commission. There are only three centers situated in Abuja, Lagos and Kano. Umrah pilgrims are already telling different stories of woe in the exercise. Due to NAHCON’s official protest to the new policy, the Saudi government has agreed to increase the centers to ten. How the ten centers will be distributed among the 30 states of the federation is going to be a herculean exercise. Muslims in Nigeria are not comfortable with this new policy and they have appealed to the president to officially solicit the Saudi Arabian Government to shelve this policy.
With such high fares which demand that pilgrims dip deeper into their pockets to pay for the Hajj, more than ever before is the need for NAHCON to put more effective mechanism to ensure that pilgrims are not shortchanged by their agencies. Instances of tour operators collecting less amounts but without provision of facilities for their pilgrims in Saudi Arabia should be checked. If it is possible to prevent such practices, the Commission should do so because “prevention is better than cure”. After Hajj, some very dedicated and faithful pilgrims do not report such cases to NAHCON but would prefer to leave any ill-treatment done to them to God, thus granting opportunities to such fraudsters to continue business. Assuredly, NAHCON has sanctioned many operators and state boards for sharp practices in Hajj. That should be continued and intensified. Other sharp practices at board and agency levels must be checked. Likewise, the collection of the cost of Hadaya and remittance of such to Jaiz Bank as the sole collector appointed by NAHCON, administrative charges by individual state board and local arrangements for pilgrims by states must be checked.
Pilgrims’ enlightenment on all aspects of the holy trip: Hajj rites, facilities in Saudi Arabia, health and hygiene, security tips and manners expected from pilgrims is even a greater challenge. Every year, over 80 percent of Nigerian pilgrims are first timers. This means that they have to be undergoing trainings for an accepted Hajj. State boards, in collaboration with NAHCON, are doing well in this direction. Besides all these, how the commission is going to implement its resolution that all intending Hajj pilgrims get their National Identity Number (NIN) as part of their clearance for the 2018 pilgrimage is still hanging.
Muhammad Ajah is an advocate of humanity, peace and good governance in Abuja. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.