One of the most challenging annual operations the world over involves the coordination and eventual airlifting of thousands of pilgrims to the Holy Land. The logistics and other challenging chores involved are as huge as they are intimidating. This is more so in the case of a country like Nigeria with hundreds of intending pilgrims from all the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to contend with every year. Except these vital operations are well coordinated and executed to the smallest detail, performance of the all-important religious obligation by a large number of people could be botched.
To ensure that such a dire scenario wouldn’t occur, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) was established by the federal government in 2006 to, among other things, enable all Muslims who have the wherewithal to perform the Hajj unhindered. Through all-encompassing endeavours (liaising with carefully selected airlines that will airlift them, making arrangements for accommodation in the holy land, etc), Muslims can look forward to performing Hajj with little or no hassles.
Needless to say, in human affairs, not everything always goes according to expectations, despite the best of intentions. And it so happened that over the years, a number of shortcomings have been noticeable in NAHCON’s operation. Determined to make a noticeable difference in this regard, the management of NAHCON under the dynamic leadership of its chairman and Chief Executive, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Mohammed, has recorded a string of remarkable achievements in line with the change agenda of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.
Take the long-delayed introduction and gazetting of Hajj and Umrah regulations for example. This act had been clamoured for by stakeholders for long to no avail, but in December 2015, the commission actualized it by issuing rules and regulations to guide the operation of Hajj and Umrah by all entities. The rules provide a frame work for Hajj and Umrah operations by all entitles. Before now, Nigeria did not have a common standard for pilgrims’ registration and provision of basic services such as airlift, accommodation, catering and medical services. The introduction and gazetting of rules and regulations guiding these activities have provided a benchmark against which the service can be assessed and improved.
No less noteworthy is the introduction of a national medical team as opposed to the situation whereby each state used to jet to the holy land with its own medical team-over 2,000 medical personnel prior to 2015. With the introduction of a single medical team, such extravagance, nay wastage, was eliminated such that a 50-man team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and environmental health workers now serve all Nigerian pilgrims.
In the same vein, the commission introduced, for the first time, licensing of state pilgrims’ welfare boards/agencies/commissions in line with the provision of NAHCON (Establishment) Act and its rules and regulations. Apart from providing a service delivery framework, it has also initiated some other highly acclaimed policies.
Then there is the issue of improvement in the quality/capacity of service providers. NAHCON’s regulations on the involvement of various services providers in Hajj and Umrah activities in Nigeria has raised the standards of tour operators, accommodation and catering service providers from briefcase companies to full-fledged companies with permanent an verifiable addresses, bank accounts, adequate share capital and qualified staff to carry out their activities.
The increase in efficiency of airlift and related activities as evidence in conclusion of all phases of airlift ahead of schedule is also salutary. Before the establishment of the commission, it was a norm for Nigeria to be unable to airlift its pilgrims. In 2005 for example, over 10,000 pilgrims missed the Hajj exercise due to inability of Nigeria to airlift them to the Holy Land. In 2015 and 2016, however, the airlifts were concluded two and five days ahead of schedule, respectively.
Also outstanding is the fact that before now, pilgrims usually spend many days at Hajj camps across Nigeria awaiting airlift to Saudi Arabia. Now, better coordination with the assistance of a newly established Command and Control Centre makes airlift more efficient. Pilgrims hardly spend 24 hours in camps without being airlifted to Saudi Arabia.
No less remarkable is the direct landing and arrival in Madina before the religious exercise called Arafat. This is an improvement. For example, whereas visiting Madina before Arafat was 89 per cent as at 2014, it improved to 92 per cent in 2015 and rocketed to 100 per cent in 2016. In the same vein, arrival into Madina by air was 57 per cent in 2014 but rose to 64 per cent in 2015 and 67 per cent in 2016.
NAHCON’s management boldly moved to reduce the rates charged pilgrims for accommodation in Makkah. Hitherto, Nigerian pilgrims were lodged in 108 small and medium houses (mostly of grades B and C standards). Now they are accommodated in 88 large houses mostly of grades A and B standards. For instance, whereas pilgrims were housed in 35 grade C buildings in 2014, only seven of such buildings were used in 2016 – even as the number keeps dwindling – with priority accorded grades A and B.
In a courageous and patriotic move to reduce the cost of Hajj operation, the number of officials sponsored by the federal government for all sorts of duties was drastically slashed under the current arrangement. Only essential medical and security personnel as well as institutional representatives are allowed. More significantly, NAHCON has, through prudent and visionary management as well as abolishing of Amirul Hajj delegation, was able to reduce dependence on government for funding of its off-shore operations.
Immediate refund to pilgrims for un-rendered or poorly rendered services was also initiated. Example, in March 2016, NAHCON made a refund of N 1.75 billion to pilgrims’ boards of the 36 states of the federation and the FCT for onward refund to pilgrims. This refund was as a result of services not rendered or poorly rendered during the 2015 Hajj exercise. It was a demonstration of commitment to ensure that Nigerian pilgrims get value for their money.
Opening of collaboration with Hajj Mission from other countries is another giant leap forward. The collaboration between NAHCON and the Pakistani Hajj Mission has resulted in a bilateral arrangement in which NAHCON will enjoy the development and deployment of hajj management system free of charge which would have cost the commission about $500,000 to obtain.
A programme tagged Hajj: As You Answer The Call is always aired on NTA Network Television on weekly basis with the aim of enlightening pilgrims as well as showcasing activities of NAHCON. The same programme is being conducted through the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) network.
In the same vein, NAHCON also established various public engagement mechanisms through use of social media platforms to inform the public about its activities. NAHCON’s account on Facebook, twitter and Instagram handles @nigeriahajjcom took off from 2016 to complement print and broadcast media coverage of the commission’s activities.
Indeed, judging by the foregoing and other such salient facts, even the most unfair critic of the current NAHCON leadership would agree that it deserves high marks for blazing the trail in so many respects in the interest of the pilgrims.