By Bolaji Olakunle
Wednesday and Thursday- January 17 and 18, 2018 – at the White House Committee Room 1 of the National Assembly were remarkable, filled with anxiety and excitements – when facts and fiction were unveiled.
At the public hearing, officials of State Pilgrims Welfare Board and other stakeholders filled the venue of the Two-Day Public Hearing of the Ad-hoc committee on accommodation, logistics, feeding, on-shore and off-shore of the Nigerian Pilgrims.President of the Nigerian 8th Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki
The Chairman of the committee, Senator Adamu Aliero, declared that the essence of the hearing was to unravel the allegations of corruption against the commission in the affairs of fixing the 2017 Hajj fare and management of the Hajj exercise.
But soon after his opening remarks and the commencement of taking of evidence from stakeholders which included the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Hajiya Khadija Bukar Abba Ibrahim, the Director General of Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), representatives of the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) representative of the chief Executive of Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Nigeria Immigration service (NIS) Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Executive Chairman/Secretaries of FCT, Benue, Lagos, Kebbi Sokoto, Kaduna etc. and Executive members of Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUON) and Chief Executives of participating Air carriers in the 2017 Hajj – Med view, Max Air and the Saudi based airline, Flynas, it began to dawn on the participants that things were not the same as they made it look.
Indeed, the occasion afforded the public opportunity to witness how barefaced lies and falsehood which have long been allowed to fetter for so long.
In her testimony, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hajiya Khadija Bukar Abba Ibrahim told the Committee how NAHCON activities and policies have changed the Saudi Arabian authorities’ perception of Nigeria, giving it a positive image and which made the Saudi Government to rate the Commission highly in relation to other countries.
According to her, the Saudi Government praised NAHCON for its efforts which were in tune with the Country’s effort to up-lift and upscale the welfare of pilgrims and Hajj administration globally.
The Minister also opened up on the contentious award of 50 percent pilgrims traffic to Saudi-based Flynas airline. While she acknowledged the existence of the arrangement, she denied that the decision lies squarely with NAHCON. She told the Committee that she was informed that the decision was based on a BASA agreement between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia and that the Ministry was looking into it to take a corrective measure.
On the allegation of sharp practices in accommodation, feeding and transportation, the Secretaries of Lagos state pilgrims welfare board, Kaduna, FCT, Benue and Kebbi denied the accusation, saying that Madina accommodation which NAHCON was in charge was the best and the closest any country in the world can secure in Saudi Arabia. They echoed the fact that all their pilgrims were accommodated in a 5-star Hotel environment which were just a stone throw from the Haram, Mosque in Madina.
The Lagos state Secretary opined that the NAHCON Madina accommodation arrangement was the best stressing that apart from the location and quality, the idea would foster unity and oneness of Nigerian pilgrims not withstanding their ethnic, social and political backgrounds.
Also corroborating, the Minister’s submission, the Director General of NCAA, Mallam Mukhtar Usman, disclosed that, while he was aware of the BASA between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, the basis for the 50/50 percent traffic agreement was contained in the Royal Decree issued by the Saudi authority only for Hajj airlift.
In a related development, the Executive management of Max Air and Med-View Airlines attributed the high cost of air freight to the rising cost of aviation fuel in the country.
Giving their testimonies, Mallam Ishaq Na-Allah and Shyam Manwani of Med-View and Max Air respectively said that their companies had to bend backward to reduce the air fare for the 2017 as their own part of sacrifice to alleviate the suffering of Nigerian pilgrims. According to them, they had to charge between $1,650 and 1750 dollar for different nautical zone in the country in order to balance their operating cost. They however advised the Federal Government to bring down the cost of aviation fuel in order to reduce the financial burden on the pilgrims.
The Acting President and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Operator of Nigeria (AHUON) Alhaji Saliu Butu and Sheikh Sadiq Abubakar in their testimonies praised the commission for the positive role it played during the 2017 Hajj.
According to the duo, if not for the intervention of NAHCON, so many of their clients would have been stranded and unable to perform the 2017 Hajj.
The duo indicted some of their members who they accused of charging less during the 2017 Hajj in order to gain more patronage but were unable to provide the needed welfare services to pilgrims. What happened on the first day was just a teaser, compared to the second day at the session involving the NAHCON’s helmsman Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad whose testimony opened a Pandora box on several issues involving Hajj administration.
The grin on the people’s face was plain for all to see, as he reeled away all the steps and progress made since he mounted the saddled in 2015 particularly in phasing out illegal Tour Companies, reduction in the accommodation/ rent paid by states to acquire accommodation in Makkah as well as improving the standard of services to Nigerian pilgrims, pursuance of redemption and refunds for services not rendered, sanction and penalties to service providers/among others.
He showed records of the various Hajj fare since 2015, arguing that the 2017 fare was the lowest in dollar terms, but for the exchange rate of Naira to the dollar which shot up the fare.
By the time, the Commission’s boss was through with his presentation, many of the participants and committee members were nodding their heads in apparent agreement with the submission including the mover of the motion for investigation.
Though the committee is yet to conclude its assignment and without prejudice to its outcome, one can safely come to the conclusion with the unfolding facts at the 2-day proceeding that the loss of false hood would only be mourned in the same way as a rat off a sinking ship.
What is clear from the two–day proceeding is that NAHCON has recorded more than just a pass mark in its operation since its establishment.
That it was false that NAHCON forcefully imposed feeding arrangement of pilgrims as being peddled. That 50/50 percent sharing formula of the airlift of Nigerian pilgrims was neither designed, nor imposed by NAHCON, rather it was at the behest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the express approval of the Nigerian Government at the time.
That some of the private Tour Operators who charged lower fare only hoodwinked unsuspecting members of the public as they ended up suffering the Nigerian pilgrims in the Holy land.
That the accusation and allegations of corruption against NAHCON and its management on the feeding and accommodation arrangements in Makkah and Madina were unfounded and baseless.
That the 2017 Hajj fare was the best deal that could have been fixed based on the prevailing exchange rate at the time.
Olakunle is a Public Affair Analysts based in Abuja.