Thursday, December 19, 2019

TO THE OUTGOING CHAIRMAN OF NAHCON (2)



                                NAHCON CHAIRMAN








MEDIA TEAM

My dear Barrister, the media team you met, if there was any before you came, you altered radically, and created in place thereof an enduring Media Team, a showcase for Nigerian journalists as topnotch professionals in educating the world concerning up-to-the-minute information on Hajj operations. No aspect of the various happenings in Hajj was left to chance -  from the signing of contracts to the return of pilgrims from the holy land. To your eternal credit, Hajj was no longer a seasonal affair; every day of the year treated as part of the preparation for the next Hajj. As if you had made adequate arrangements for all this media strategy ere your appointment as chairman of NAHCON. It is now apparent that you recognised the power of the media early enough, to make or mar, that you arranged the media in the pattern that the Commission’s goals were met in information dissemination - Hajj programmes on myriad radio stations in major Nigerian languages as well as the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), and effective use of the social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.). You spared no effort or expense on the media, the rumour gained the currency that you were instrumental to the creation of some media outfits that were “battle-ready to douse any personal stereotype around” your towering figure “or against” you “or against the Commission.” Thus every “negative story was explained or quenched” in the bud. 

What is indisputable, Mr Chairman is no Hajj administration in the history of Nigeria has been able to "mobilise and galvanise the media" to so potently serve the guests of Allah the way you were able to efficiently do! 

What I discovered in the composition of the Media Team during your tenure was a list of representatives of media organisations. Letters were sent to various media organisations to send representatives that made the list to the Media Team. When I promised to interrogate the charge levelled against you of alienation and discrimination of journalists from the South, I thought the names were selected by NAHCON. If LEADERSHIP Newspapers for instance which is in the North sends a journalist who is from the Kano-Kaduna axis, NAHCON should not, to my mind, be accused of choosing a Northern journalist in its Media Team since it has not dictated to LEADERSHIP who to send. I have seen in one of the lists that Daily Trust gave another journalist from the South as its representative in that year’s Media Team. My advice to the incoming chief executive of NAHCON in this regard is to find ways of including more media practitioners from the South,  ensuring adherence to federal character in the composition of the Media Team in order to have balance and forestall the lurking of rancour in the hearts of brethren inadvertently created through a fair process of asking for representations from media entities.


TOUR OPERATORS

Mr Chairman, you met the tour operators in a demeaning state by the time you came in as the Commissioner in charge of Operations. We were seen as mere troublemakers, cheats and fraudsters. During functions organised by NAHCON, tour operators’ mention did not make it even to the agenda. Hajj was discussed as if we had nothing to do with its operations; we were not treated as stakeholders. It took us time to understand your modi operandi in moulding us to what you envisioned a Nigerian tour operator to be. Every new law or condition you enacted was viewed with suspicion. We saw you as an avowed enemy of the tour operators who purposed to obliterate us out of business. Some of us have not in the least altered that assumption to this moment in time! They are the ones who repelled change and vehemently refused to move with the time, thus closed shop for failing to uphold NAHCON regulations, and ultimately hastened, just but recently, to litigation with the President because he suffered you to tarry longer than they could bear as Acting Chairman. 

But gradually things started changing with your career trajectory from a Commissioner to the head of the Commission. Tour operators were embraced into the NAHCON family. The leadership of our association, AHUON was treated with courtesy and had access to NAHCON authorities at all times. The President of AHUON had functions to undertake in Hajj programmes organised by the Commission. We were part of the officials in the annual delegation to Saudi Arabia for ratification of Hajj contracts and service agreements with the Mu’assasah in Makkah.

Moreover, you saw to it that our companies were properly registered with local and international bodies; that the people behind a going concern in the Hajj industry as well as its areas of business must not be anonymous; that the company should have bank accounts, and the share capital raised to an acceptable value - N30,000,000. Our office addresses should be reachable and our staff qualified, properly trained. By this registration and authentication, you commenced the weeding process which involved NAHCON inspections team’s unscheduled visits to our offices to verify our claims, and the outcome of such verifications was either sanctioning of the erring companies or certification and Hajj seat allocation to the healthy ones. Your reforms expelled briefcase-tour-operators of old who were wont to swindle unsuspecting pilgrims out of millions of naira and disappear without a trace. Those who were obdurate and persisted in shortchanging the guests of Allah, you pursued and brought to justice, sealing off their offices and saving the pilgrims from their evil mercantile.  

On the standards of services that licensed tour operators render to pilgrims, you maintained that we are not in competition with the state pilgrims boards and thus what we offer must be higher, distinct and more qualitative than what obtains in the states - tickets arrangement, transportation within Saudia, hotel accommodation, feeding, tents in Minaa and Arafaat and other logistics. You went further to offer us gratis legal advice, by requesting that our contract documents with service providers in both Nigeria (like airline companies) and Saudi Arabia (hotels, transport companies, etc) be submitted for your perusal and counsel. You assured us that being part of the process would enable NAHCON to offer better assistance to us in case of litigation or when it is expedient to compel a service provider to shield us from impending loss.   

For years tour operators were given 10,000 Hajj slots out of the 100,000 or 95,000 seat-allocation to Nigeria by the Saudi Hajj authorities. When you came in and saw the difficulty of distributing these 10,000 seats to about 200 companies, and how the meagre number that each company got at the end of the division was emasculating our businesses, you doubled the slot to 20,000 seats for the tour operators. That was a reason for us to be grateful.

Your ascension to the chairmanship of the Commission coincided with the tough but necessary measures introduced by the Buhari administration to restrict foreign currency transactions either through bank transfers or physical movement of cash via airports.  That was a serious debacle to tour operators. Many of us who tried to travel with a lot of foreign currencies to meet datelines with Saudi service providers for Hajj operations were arrested at the airport only to be released after your intervention by establishing contact with the security personnel at the airports. You did not only solve the problem by integrating our fund transfers into NAHCON system with the Mu’assasah and then to our IBAN accounts, but you also opened a forex window for tour operators to access concessionary rates as enjoyed by the state pilgrims. Unprecedented! 

Whether we saw it, appreciated it or not, your envisagement was now a reality. Many a Nigerian tour operator could compete with any private Hajj operator in the world. Quite a number of Nigerians that used to register for Hajj services with companies in Canada, USA, UK, etc. are now convinced that what we offer as NAHCON registered and licensed companies is by far better than what they get from European and American Hajj companies! On a lighter note, Mr Chairman,  some of us had exceeded your expectation that even the Commission adopted some aspect of what we do - an archetype of Hajj operations. My company, for example, was the first to spare the pilgrims the trouble of travelling with Zamzam at the end of their Hajj. We freight the holy water ahead of them to Nigeria where they collect it after their return. Another is the annual Hajj Documentary that airs on Sahur On NTA Channel 5 throughout Ramadan yearly and which programme features all aspects of the operations of a particular year, with the pilgrims expressing their feedback freely and assessing the standards of our services. Of course, when NAHCON bought the idea, under your leadership, it thrust both into the limelight by giving Zamzam to all pilgrims here in Nigeria upon their return from Hajj and sponsoring, on primetime, a weekly Hajj documentary - As You Answer The Call - on NTA Network. NAHCON should then pay my company royalties per one and all pilgrims that are given Zamzam in Nigeria as well as for each Nigerian that watches As You Answer The Call on NTA! But seriously, Barrister, the credit goes to your versatility as a leader who can adopt and adapt to whatever and from wherever provided it facilitates the Hajj for our pilgrims.

Mr Chairman, on a sombre note, both during your tenure and that of Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello, NAHCON had often encouraged tour operators to consolidate; many companies working together as stronger players in the industry. One of the areas (if not the only one) that tour operatorS did not enjoy in your leadership was the highhandedness shown in punishing one company because of the iniquities of another. Company K, for instance, had issues with the Commission and because of which K was not given Hajj seat allocation. K approached company S for collaboration in line with the Commission’s vision but unknown to S that K had problem with Commission, and in the absence of any caveat from the Commission against KS entered into an alliance with K in Hajj operations - serving pilgrims from both companies, obeying in the process the Commission's guidelines and regulations. Mr Chairman, why on earth will NAHCON refuse to refund any residue funds due to S from Hajj operation because of the said collaboration between the two companies? What I think is fair and just is for the Commission to henceforth issue a declaration on the dos and don’ts of collaboration between two or more companies and eligibility of both in that regard. And, honesty, Mr Chairman, it did not make any economic sense, if K’s problem was as a result of its indebtedness to the Commission, to block any avenue through which K would be able to effect repayment of the debt. This policy neither helped the Commission in recouping its money from K nor did it help K in going out of its predicaments as a company. Ultimately, the industry was the looser. 


THE MU’ASSASAH IN MAKKAH

What started during the tenure of Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello like an experiment with the Mu’assasah as the service provider for transportation and other services (board and lodging) in the tent city of Minaa became the norm. Many did not know what you did after Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello's tenure regarding NAHCON’s interactions with the Mu’assasah. You made it plain that there was a new regime that was ready to divorce itself of the baggage of acquiescence to any authority other than that of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; that you were willing to get superlative services for our pilgrims at the right price; that the letter and spirit of ratified agreements must be followed, and where such services were not rendered or poorly delivered adequate refund shall be paid to the pilgrims through the Commission. Moreover,  you refused to renew the contract (worth hundreds of millions of naira) of the Minaa A tents where Hajj officials were domiciled and spoilt a little, far removed from the poor pilgrims they came to serve. You chose to instead stay within the C tents, (the last category in the Mu’assasah standards of tent services), with everyday pilgrims, to be at their service as and when they needed you. That was a bold, nay radical position, a complete departure from the spendthrift tradition of old! 

Mr Chairman, your choice of the C tents as your camp in Minaa raised the standards of services rendered to our pilgrims there - pillows, blankets, mattresses, feeding (which later assumed new arrangement outside the Mu’assasah), etc. Of course, there were many instances when refunds had to be made in line with the proviso stated earlier. Doubtless, the Mu’assasah is manned by very hardworking individuals, very nice people, but the businesslike posture you brought into the interactions made all people dealing with Nigerian pilgrims to beware of their duties towards them because there were consequences in the event of any breach of contract.  

I did not think, when I started writing, that this epistolary piece will exceed two parts. I hope to conclude it in the third where I will address what you could not achieve as Chairman of NAHCON. 




















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