By Ismail Omipidan
When American comedian, Groucho Marx, defined politics as “the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies,” he may not have had Nigeria in mind. But his definition of politics aptly describes the current brouhaha over the hike in hajj fare for 2017.
Interestingly, the House of Representatives has waded in, to investigate the matter. Ironically, the same House had in the past carried out one or two investigations over allegations of corruption against certain officials of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON.) It is, however, yet to make its findings public. It is only time that will tell if the Hon. Mohammed Umaru Bago-led Adhoc committee on 2017 hajj, charged with the responsibility of carrying out the investigation would act like other panels before it.
NAHCON is charged with the sole responsibility of managing hajj affairs in Nigeria, while the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), under the leadership of its President-General and Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, is saddled with the responsibility of superintending the affairs of Islam and Muslims in Nigeria. And since hajj is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam, the NSCIA should have more than a passing interest in what happens in NAHCON.
Daily Sun however learnt that not a few NAHCON officials believe that the NSCIA was becoming too overbearing in its perceived oversight function over NAHCON. Conversely, from day one, persons around the Sultan have also complained openly that NAHCON chairman, Alhaji Abdullahi Mohammed, has refused to carry the NSCIA along in the running of NAHCON. This fact, Daily Sun recalls was lent credence to when in May 2015, NSCIA wrote formally to the National Assembly and the presidency to protest the appointment of Mohammed, as NAHCON chairman.
However, since it was the former vice president, Namadi Sambo, that ensured his appointment into NAHCON, first, as Commissioner in charge of Operations in 2011, and later as chairman, there was little or nothing NSCIA could do to stop his appointment. His appointment as chairman formed part of the series of the appointments made in May 2015, by former president Goodluck Jonathan, shortly before he handed over to President Muhammadu Buhari.
Daily Sun’s investigations revealed that since then, NAHCON and NSCIA, has managed to patch along with politics and intrigues most times defining their relationship. It, however, got to a head recently, when NSCIA, again fired NAHCON publicly, accusing it of hiking hajj fare beyond the reach of an average Nigerian Muslim.
Interestingly, long before NSCIA’s statement, many stakeholders have also chastised NAHCON for hiking the fare. And just a week before NSCIA’s statement, Amb. Usman Darma, a Kano-based international tour operator and Managing Director of Darma Air Services, argued on a radio programme that this year’s Hajj fare was inflated and that NAHCON has for years been “extorting” Nigerian Muslims in the name of hajj.
NSCIA, which called for the urgent review of the Act establishing NAHCON, equally wants the Federal Government to hands off sponsorship of pilgrims, adding that if given the opportunity to manage hajj affairs, pilgrims would certainly pay lower than the over N1 million being charged for this year’s hajj, which NAHCON pegged at about N1.5 million.
In a statement signed by its Director of Administration, Ustaz Isa Okonkwo, a copy of which was made available to Daily Sun, the body said: “The position of NSCIA on hajj remains as: Whatever concession is given any other Nigerian travellers (including non-Muslim pilgrims) is due and should be accorded to Hujjaj (Nigerian pilgrims to Mecca).
“Nigerian Muslims do not demand any other special concessions since hajj is a religious duty for which we are responsible. The Federal Government of Nigeria should hands off hajj-matters (except consular and security) to the NSCIA. It is government’s involvement that is responsible for the high cost for obvious reasons.
“The committee set up by the NSCIA, under the leadership of Gen. A.B. Mamman, to work out the modus-operandi of transfer has not been given the required support (particularly in the area of statistics) by NAHCON. Hajj should not be commercialised at the expense of the masses who struggle to fulfill their religious obligation, hence the need to explore the cheapest cost for a comfortable and safe-hajj performance. The NAHCON Act is due for an urgent amendment to remove the wrong notion that Muslims rely on national purse for the performance of their religious obligation.”
In a swift reaction, which came barely 24 hours after the NSCIA’s statement was released to the media, NAHCON also fired back, insisting that the NSCIA was “fully” involved in negotiations that led to the 2017 hajj fare.
NAHCON said the rise in the fare was due to the high exchange rate of naira to the dollar. It also said about 98 percent of the hajj component is in dollar while only two percent is in naira. While dollar exchanged for N197 last year, the exchange rate for this year is fixed at N305 to the dollar, adding that it is “of the view that hajj-fare can be less than it is, if all parties are genuinely consulted for an appropriate solution and strategy.”
Speaking at a media parley organised by the FCT chapter of Nigeria Union of Journalists, (NUJ) in Abuja, Secretary to the commission, Alhaji Mohammed Tambuwal, argued that the position espoused in the statement could not be that of the NSCIA, as it has a member, named K.K Oloso in the NAHCON Board who “is a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies in the University of Ibadan, and he was part of the committee that fixed the hajj fare”.
Alhaji Tambuwal also said apart from the NSCIA, a representative of the Jama’atu Nasril Islam also sits on the board and was also part of the negotiating team on the fare. Sultan also heads the Jama’atu Nasril Islam.
Even before NAHCON’s outburst, the chairman of the commission, Alhaji Abdullahi Mohammed, has consistently defended the Commission’s position, saying that” in actual terms, the component that determine the hajj fare is the dollar; the official exchange rate last year was N197 to a dollar but this year, it is N305 and when you multiply it by 4,805, which is the total fare per pilgrim, it will give you about N1.5 million”.
Mohammed said further that “the bottomline is the exchange rate, which NAHCON has no control over. Government considers the sensitivity and the importance of hajj and allows us even to enjoy the official exchange rate. If we are to use the prevailing bank rate of N368 to the dollar, the cost will be between N1.8 million and N1.9 million.”
But a tour operator, who is also major stakeholder, has consistently punctured Mohammed’s arguments. For instance, Amb. Darma, who featured alongside NAHCON chairman on a radio programme where the issue was thoroughly analysed, argued that if NAHCON would justifiably charge the right fees for the 23 items all intending pilgrims are required to pay for, that made up the N1.5m fare, the fare should not be more than a million naira.
The 23 items, he noted, comprises air fare, accommodation, feeding, suitcase, uniform etc, adding that each of the 23 items making up the Nigeria’s fare were allegedly inflated.
Amb. Darma insisted that pilgrims from Nigeria should not be paying more than $1,000 for air ticket, as against the $1,650 being charged, saying that Pakistan and Bangladesh, which are farther from Saudi Arabia than Nigeria have their air fare to Saudi Arabia costing between $900 to $1,000.
Responding to the poser during the said radio programme, the NAHCON boss said Pakistanis are paying lesser fare because they are a Gulf Cooperation Country (GCC), adding that since Pakistan was a GCC member, flights from there to Saudi Arabia do not pay any over flight fees. He further argued that by the GCC treaty, those flights are assumed to be flying their country’s air space, whereas flights from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia pass through Chad and Sudan air spaces and that the flights pay as much as $6,000 to and fro.
Regardless, from all indications, most of the Nigerian pilgrims, who had initially made deposits for this year’s hajj, are not likely to be able to make up the balance, and as such may miss out from the spiritual odyssey this year. The indications were further strengthened at the weekend when the commission urged intending pilgrims who have made initial deposits for the exercise to pay the balance. It lamented that registration by intending pilgrims was not encouraging following complaint about the hike in fare.
This was disclosed by NAHCON’s Commissioner in charge of Policy, Administration and Finance, Alhaji Yusuf Ibrahim, at a meeting with stakeholders and Ulamas in the South-West zone on the 2017 Hajj fare, held in Lagos.
Alhaji Ibrahim, however, assured Nigerian pilgrims that if anything happens and the fare comes down at the end of day, it would refund whatever was the excess to the pilgrims, adding that but for the ingenuity of the commission, which bypassed agents in negotiating accommodation in Makkah, which helped in no small measure to reduce the fare, this year’s fare would have been between N2 million and N2.5 million.