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Monday, March 4, 2019

THE SENATE AD-HOC COMMITTEE ON HAJJ REPORT: A STRANGE CONCOCTION (2)


As I promised last week, I will conclude on the allegations raised by the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee Report on NAHCON’s activities.

E. The committee alleged that NAHCON breached several provisions of the Public Procurement Act PPA in its yearly advertisements on the airlift of Hajj pilgrims and cargo airfreight in the following areas: 

a. The charging of a non-refundable fee of N1,000,000 for airlines bidding for the airlift of pilgrims and half of that for those bidding for cargoÑairfreight. The PPA empowers procuring entities to charge for only the cost of printing and the cost of provision of the bidding documents to suppliers or contractors and consultants.
b. The submission deadline for the bids is one week short of the six weeks required by the PPA
c. The advertisement NAHCON makes required the bidders to obtain an application form instead of bidding documents.

F. The report alleges that the 2017 Hajj airfares of $1,650 for the North and $1,700 for the South of the country “were grossly exorbitant”. The Committee then mentioned the airfares for scheduled flights for other countries to the same destination - Saudi Arabia - for comparison with the figures lower than what NAHCON-approved airlines were charging. This alone tells you that the committee did a really shoddy job and did not know the vast difference between a chartered flight and a scheduled flight. To further betray their ignorance, they went on to compare the price of scheduled flights by Max Air to Saudia during the Umrah season with chartered flights during Hajj season. Subhaanallah! I will come back to this later, inshaa Allah.

G. The committee alleged in the report that the Fly Nas, a Saudi airline, which airlifted 50% of Nigerian pilgrims in 2017, was emboldened by the high charges. They also mentioned that another Saudi Airline, Al Wafeer Air, a scheduled flight operator, would have charged just $1,300 for the same trip. Again, the ignorance of the authors of the report is outstanding. They alleged in the report, also, that the Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) with Saudi Arabia, which allowed a Saudi Carrier of the country’s choice (read Fly Nas) to airlift 50% of Nigerian pilgrims is unfair and that other countries have pulled out of the arrangement. They also claimed that Nigeria was targeted for the BASA because our airfares were the highest.

H. Another claim in the report was that NAHCON was not using the ₦5,000 development levy it charged each pilgrim annually judiciously. The report further stated that the charges were unjustified as they fell under the social responsibility of the government.

I. The report alleges that the company it has been accusing NAHCON of giving an undue advantage, Shuraka Al Khair, was contracted to screen the luggage of pilgrims when NAHCON had already constituted a committee on screening staffed completely by its own employees. The same company was contracted to move the main luggage of the pilgrims from their accommodation in Makkah to the airport in Jeddah.

J. The report also alleges that NAHCON secures, negotiates and pays for accommodation for all pilgrims and fixed a benchmark price for the accommodation prices. It equally alleged that NAHCON chooses the accommodation and service providers which the State Pilgrims Welfare Boards (SPWBs) were constrained to patronise. The allegations also include the fact that NAHCON reviewed the prices of accommodation in Madeenah downwards but that of Makkah continued to vary each year.
K. The report alleges that NAHCON paid for 75 days’ accommodation in Madeenah although the Hajj season lasts only 30 days. It alleges that the excess 45 days was to allow NAHCON rent out the buildings to other nationals and make money illegally. It even went as far as alleging that the revenue collector’s receipt used for issuing the receipts for renting out the excess bed spaces for the excess period of 45 days was ‘fraudulently sourced’. 

L. The committee alleges that Saudi-based Nigerian-owned companies (not to be confused with Nigerien-owned) were sidelined in the provision of services and accommodation to Nigerian pilgrims by NAHCON sign deliberately stringent conditions it knows the companies cannot meet. It also alleges that NAHCON eliminated competition in the process of selecting accommodation providers in Makkah and that this has resulted in the escalation of prices of bed spaces. They stated that NAHCON gave 65% of all contracts in Saudia to Shuraka Al Khair Group Ltd, which is not owned by a Nigerian. Another issue their report raised was that NAHCON rented apartments that were up to 10 kilometres away from the Haram for the pilgrims. It mentioned the issue of ‘unilateral levies’ imposed on the Saudi based service providers by NAHCON since 2015 when the current chairman was appointed.

M.The senate ad-hoc committee alleges that NAHCON issued dud cheques to a service provider. This is a very serious allegation but as you shall see, it is based on fiction and not fact.
N. Another strange aspect of the report was that NAHCON simply succumbed to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without a fight to include feeding into what Saudi-based service providers would give the pilgrims. The committee insisted that other countries opted out of the arrangement and fed their own pilgrims with their local dishes. They allege that Messrs Shuraka Al Khair Group was given special preference by NAHCON to provide the catering services for 23 different states’ pilgrims.
O. The drama did not end as the report alleges that NAHCON doubled the cost of transportation in Saudia without commensurate improvement. The committee also believes that the introduction of a reputable bank, Jaiz Bank, for collecting and remitting the hady fees per pilgrim instead of the pilgrims paying a higher price individually was a bad idea.

P. The committee also alleges that NAHCON sponsors an outrageous number of officials to Saudia during the Hajj season and that many of these are merely cronies and family members of the officials in the Commission. It also alleges that NAHCON does not pursue the interest of the pilgrims.
Let us look at these allegations briefly, starting from the ones I mentioned last week. The next piece will centre around their recommendations, insha Allah.

1) Allegation A: I am aware that there is a resident procurement officer deployed by the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) to the Commission that heads the Commission’s procurement department. When the Senate Ad Hoc Committee alleged otherwise, it was clear no one tried to confirm this. Contrary to the claim of the report that the Commission has no procurement committee, its Procurement Planning Committee is headed by the Commissioner in Charge of Policy, Personnel, Management and Finance. Before him, it was the Commissioner for Planning and before that, it was the Commissioner for Operations. Where the Senate Committee got its information is only imaginable.

For matters relating to Hajj, every country with a sizeable Muslim population designates a body equivalent to our Hajj Commission to represent it. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs once supervised Hajj and the bureaucratic bottlenecks that occasioned led to the management being removed from the Ministry. Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Malaysia, to mention countries with a high number of pilgrims, have autonomous bodies for Hajj affairs and in the case of Saudi Arabia, a full-fledged Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. The committee wishes to take us back to the days of chaos because they have not studied the history of Hajj management in Nigeria and the events that led to the current structure.

2) Allegation B: Last week, I already dismissed the second claim because it was based on pure ignorance. Statutory charges were made to look like NAHCON imposed charges.

3) Allegations C, D and E were also based on lack of due diligence on the part of the Committee. The BPP and NAHCON have had a running argument over the difference between its procurement processes and its licensing role. The Commission requested the BPP to seek clarification with the Attorney-General of the Federation over the two roles because as far as the Commission understood, both are not guided by the same Public Procurement Act. The licensing fees NAHCON charges were deliberately represented as charges that were unknown to a non-existent procurement process of Commission. All procurement processes are governed by the PPA whereas the same cannot be said for licensing. Besides, the licensing fees and all the charges collected by NAHCON are captured in their yearly budgets, which the Presidency submits to the Senate for scrutiny. All these years, no one has raised an eyebrow until this Committee came up with this concoction of a report.

4) Allegation F and G: This is a recurring display of ignorance by different Committees of both legislative chambers. Alhaji Muniru Bankole of Med-View Airlines aptly explained this to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing to which I alluded earlier. In the Umrah season, pilgrims travel by scheduled flights. In the Hajj season as well, pilgrims travelling in small groups organised by tour operator companies like mine travel on scheduled flights. For large airlifts, the Saudi Hajj ministry stipulates the use of chartered flights that will ensure that a lot of pilgrims are airlifted over a short period. Imagine if you have to travel on the few airlines doing scheduled flights to carry the large contingent of more than 90,000 Nigerian pilgrims. More importantly, the cost of a chartered flight is always higher as you will pay for both the used leg and the unused return leg of the flight (outbound and inbound flights). This is not surprising because international air travel laws forbid a charter to pick passengers from the host airport after discharging its passengers. The return flight is always empty and yet the flight crew, all taxes and fuelling fees will still be paid. The NCAA also confirmed this as they and the airlines are always present during the negotiation stage to license the airlines to be used for airlift. There was even a breakdown of the cost per head to the airline on the day Alhaji Bankole made his presentation.

5) Allegation H: The development levy the Committee alleged was being improperly used is not paid into the account of the Chairman and he cannot access for his personal use as it is domiciled in a special account with the CBN. The committee was given this insight when it questioned the Chairman of NAHCON but it was mysteriously omitted in the report.

6) Allegations I, J and K: The allegation of giving Messrs Shuraka Al Khair undue advantage is a lie. This part of the report is the most telling of bias and vendetta. The process for choosing service providers by NAHCON is not shrouded in mystery. It is well known to genuine and experienced operators in the industry. No SPWB is coerced into choosing a service provider. All NAHCON ensures is that providers meet the minimum standards it sets and improves upon yearly. After shortlisting successful service providers and licensing them, the states are requested to choose their preferred provider. The majority have always picked the company in question since before the time of the current chairman. In fact, when the chairman of the Ad-Hoc Committee, Senator Adamu Aliero, was the governor of his state, he personally used to choose the same company.
In the same vein, NAHCON has never asked any SPWB to choose a particular accommodation provider or caterer. They only screen the companies and invite the SPWBs to make their choice from the screened ones. Mr Ibrahim Suleiman, who has variously petitioned the House and Senate to investigate the Chairman of NAHCON, was actually working for a company owned by his Saudi wife, Island Economic Ltd. This company defrauded the Kano State Pilgrims Welfare Board by inflating the cost of accommodation and was thus blacklisted from giving accommodation to the pilgrims. This was what the Committee referred to as edging out Nigerian owned Saudi-based service providers. What manner of lies are these?

I must continue with the rest of the piece in the third and final part next week, inshaa Allah.


Date Published: Friday, November 2nd, 2018

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