Monday, February 25, 2013


                                  NAHCON Chairman, Malam Muhammad Musa Bello

The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) placed a paid advertorial on page 35 of LEADERSHIP Friday, January 11, 2013, exactly a week ago, informing ‘pilgrims who participated in Hajj or Umrah in the year 2012 that it will commence the renewal and issuance of Hajj and Umrah licenses to Tour Operators and general preparations for Hajj and Umrah for 2013.’ Therefore, NAHCON ‘requests any pilgrim with complaints against anybody or institution that rendered services during Hajj or Umrah in the year 2012, to forward same to the Commission not later than 2 weeks from the date of this publication. The complaints will assist the Commission in planning for the 2013 Umrah and Hajj activities and in arriving at decisions of renewing the licenses of companies or otherwise.’

Let me start by commending NAHCON for early preparations of this year’s Hajj operations. Everybody should include the Commission in their du’aa for Allah to bless its efforts in sanitising the Hajj and Umrah industry in Nigeria. Things are getting better every year; we are at the verge of entering the Promised Land.

Viewed through the lens of a tour operator, that advertorial by NAHCON was one-sided, confined to Hajj and Umrah tour operators, and excluded other stakeholders, as well as service providers in Hajj operations, like state pilgrims’ boards and agencies, airline operators, etc. It is indeed apparent that NAHCON was calling on anybody with complaint against any tour operator ‘that rendered services during Hajj or Umrah in the year 2012, to forward same…’ as that ‘will assist the Commission in … arriving at decisions of renewing the licenses of companies or otherwise.’ In other words, operation licenses of companies found guilty of defrauding pilgrims shall not be renewed.

Any Hajj and Umrah tour operator worth their salt will not have any problem with this advertorial; it is unlikely that clients will have any genuine complaints against any operator that plays strictly by the rules. Pilgrims who participated in Hajj or Umrah in 2012 have at least up to next Friday, in line with NAHCON’s time-limit, within which to present their written complaint against any of us. I humbly entreat those pilgrims served by my company, for example, to help us serve them better by complying with NAHCON’s request of putting forward a formal complaint, if there are any, against us for necessary sanction where we are found guilty by the Commission! This is very good for the industry, and all genuine tour operators must assist NAHCON in this regard!

We may be wrong in our perception of the Commission, but what we see, as tour operators, is that NAHCON assumes, as attested to by this advertorial, that Hajj operational lapses come mainly from tour operators, while we only cater for 10, 000 out of 95, 000 Nigerian pilgrims. The state pilgrims’ boards and agencies are responsible for 85, 000 pilgrims. This call by NAHCON for written complaint should encompass those boards and agencies of state that served the bulk of the pilgrims.

I was inclined to believe NAHCON meant everyone who rendered service to pilgrims in 2012 when they wrote: “…requests any pilgrim with complaints against anybody or institution that rendered services during Hajj or Umrah in the year 2012, to forward same to the Commission…” However, when I read the part that said the complaints “…will assist the Commission in … arriving at decisions of renewing the licenses of companies or otherwise.” It was clear they meant just tour operators.

If some Hajj tour operators are accused of giving less than the due to their pilgrims, many of the state pilgrims’ boards are not immune from such vile conduct. We heard of poor people who sold their cows, paid for Hajj seats to some dubious state pilgrims’ officials, and ended up not travelling for Hajj or even getting their money back.

Some tour operators, in the same vein, fail their pilgrims by way of false presentation of services to be expected during Hajj, or by collecting pilgrims’ money and disappearing into thin air. A witness narrated the ordeal of some pilgrims in Kwara State in 2012. The intending pilgrims paid to a tour operator who said he would get them visas for hajj in Ghana as the visas were not forthcoming in Nigeria. He transported everyone by road to Ghana where he abandoned them and returned to Nigeria. Their money, time and dignity had suffered at the hands of this rogue. The hapless people rented some ‘luxurious’ buses back to Ilorin and complained to the Emir who took action by assuring them he would investigate while he paid back their expenses.

Some state pilgrims’ boards do no better. But for the effort of the current crop of management of NAHCON, Nigerian state pilgrims were hitherto subjected to the worse in terms of accommodation and other logistics in Hajj; yes things are much better now, I must say, but there are rooms for improvement. The point is those pilgrims who suffered at the hands of state pilgrims’ arrangement should form part of those to complain to NAHCON for justice and appropriate sanction against the erring state.

The tour operators will do well to cooperate with NAHCON in weeding out bad elements from our midst and raising the standard of our services to pilgrims, by doing the right thing according to conditions enshrined in our licenses, passing the right information to the Commission on what assistance we desire in relation to Saudi service providers, and being accountable to Allah with respect to whatever we do to His servants fulfilling the fifth pillar of His religion.

NAHCON should find out from us how pilgrims are being treated by Saudi hotels; in case we desire their intervention at any point. Are our pilgrims getting what they paid for at Minaa and Arafah from the Mu’assasah? Have they been given enough mattresses, blankets, pillows, etc.? Is the food adequate? When we take money to the Mu’assasah to make payment for this service, are we treated with respect or with disdain? NAHCON may not know all these until we inform them. We should not suffer in silence; if we have issues with the Mu’assasah in which our pilgrims are short-changed we should help the Commission help us; they have to know.

My company, for instance, was given only 50 Hajj seats last year. We requested for more; we were given additional 25. We vowed not to buy visas from unserious colleagues who live on Hajj visa trafficking. We prayed Allah to put barakah in the 75 seats. We told our teeming clients that we could not serve all of them due to the limited number of our allocation; that they could travel through other arrangements or be patient until some other time in the future when we can have them on board. If you are not able to make Hajj this year, wait for another; don’t seek for Hajj visa by all means necessary. Some tour operators will go to all length even to another country, issuing foreign passports with Hajj or Umrah visas to Nigerians to travel to Saudi Arabia, without minding what will happen to such pilgrims in the event of death or other calamities. If you go into Saudia with a Moroccan, Malian or Nigerien passport, how will it be possible for the Nigerian Hajj authorities to help you or even prove that you are a Nigerian? We refused to do that! Besides, is anyone looking at what they send forth to the Lord of the Worlds? Is money earned in this way halaal for them to spend or are they eating the fire of Hell in their bellies?

We did our best with 75 pilgrims and left the rest with Allah. Our clients saw our predicament; they kept praying for us during the Hajj, at every point of the operation. Allah accepted their du’aa, blessed our effort and made us witness His Bounty even more than when we had 316 pilgrims!

It is high time NAHCON started the dual use of stick and carrot in its attempt to rid the Hajj and Umrah industry of bad eggs. Let pilgrims complain to NAHCON about poor services they got from state boards and tour operators, but let there be another side of the coin. NAHCON would do well to encourage pilgrims to come forward and commend state pilgrims’ boards, agencies or Hajj tour operators that gave them excellent services during Hajj or Umrah operations. NAHCON’s tradition of sending inspection teams to assess and ascertain the extent of services offered pilgrims should be continued with additional brief of coming up with the best state or company in giving the pilgrims value for their money in all stages of the Hajj exercise – from movement out of Nigeria until the timely return to Nigeria. I suggest that the terms of reference of NAHCON inspection team should include, among others, how information is passed to the pilgrims on the cost and type of services available in the company’s brochure. Here, the team should look out for lazy Hajj tour operators who cannot think for themselves, but are in the habit of plagiarising the contents of the brochures of serious companies. There should be sanctions for intellectual theft especially in an industry with religious background like Hajj. Also, the team could attend Hajj induction courses that are organised before pilgrims’ departures, and see how each company prepares its hajjis for what to expect and how to behave during the pilgrimage. Other areas of interest to the team should be arrival arrangement which involves meet and greet at Madinah or Jeddah airports, transportation to places of accommodation, proximity of hotel or pilgrims’ apartment to Haram according to what was advertised to the pilgrims, as well as the standard of their food. Minaa and Arafah accommodation is another area that NAHCON team should pay more attention, as a different service provider, the Mu’assasah is in charge of the tents, feeding, etc.

NAHCON could now use the report of its inspection team and pilgrims’ complaints or commendation to come up with names of the companies and states’ boards that should be given either the stick or the carrot. In the case of the former it could be in the form of cancellation of license or reduction in the number of Hajj seats allocation. While the latter could be called NAHCON best Hajj tour operator award, or best state in Hajj operations award of the year, to be presented to the recipients in a well-publicised banquet under the chairmanship of His Eminence, the Sultan and Permanent Ameerul Hajj of Nigeria, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar. 

Every year, His Eminence, the Sultan moves around the VIP tents in ‘Arafah. This is good, but he should add to that visits to the A, B and C tents in Minaa and ‘Arafah; he should interact more with the pilgrims and ask about their welfare. I have the honour of welcoming His Eminence to our tents in ‘Arafah every year but I humbly request him to go farther. That way, he would be more in line with the ways of the Abubakrs and ‘Umars of this deen, who bore the title of Ameerul Mu’mineen before him and it would endear him to more people not to mention the fact that he is the Ameerul Hajj.

One thing is certain; we shall account for all these one Day. We shall be asked what led us to such practices; the answers we will give should be forming in our minds from now. Would we be able to argue our way out of it as we often did while we were on earth; justifying our actions, no matter how wrong? Would I have any excuse for short-changing the guests of the Most Exalted? I don’t think so; what about you?