“Your service to pilgrims is trust. Don’t attempt to give me, my staff or any official from state pilgrims’ boards one kobo…Allah will judge,” Chairman/CEO of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, warning against corruption in Hajj management.

It is quite unfortunate that at the time the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has laid solid foundations for excellent hajj management in Nigeria and competing with world best practices, there are still some Nigerians calling for its relegation to a department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Why do some Nigerians take joy in fighting what is good for the country? If there is any federal government agency that has stabilized its operations and has yielded national and international repute for the nation, NAHCON should be fingered as one.

Recently, there are some distractions from some quarters in the name of probe over operational matters that will save the nation and the Nigerian pilgrims huge sums of money. I pray the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly are not manipulated to cause harm to the plans being put in place for the benefit of the pilgrims in the forthcoming Hajj exercise. There are greater achievements every year recorded by the commission. With the plans on ground and early preparations, 2017 is not going to be an improved operation. The 2016 achievements have already thrown up the challenges that stage the opportunities for better outings during the 2017 Hajj. That is why distractions at this moment should be ultimately discouraged.

No one needs to be reminded of the difficulties Nigerian pilgrims underwent every year during Hajj before the birth of NAHCON in 2007 through its 2006 Act and during the era of former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. For the sake of God, humanity and Nigeria, this call to scrap or merge NAHCON has to be collectively fought to a standstill by well-meaning Nigerians. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should stop making this call. It is needless because throughout the period the pilgrimage body was under it, the story was all woes. The ministry should rather work with the NAHCON since it has a member on the board of the commission.

Or was the ministry not aware of the Act by the national assembly which, I am sure underwent public scrutiny and hearing before it underwent first, second and third reading at the hallowed chambers? Or was the ministry not convinced with the explanations of the architects of the Act, some of who are still alive today? Or was the ministry not satisfied with the reasons given by the then president of the Federal Republic for creating the commission? Or has the commission, in any way failed in executing its mandate of “serving the Nigerian pilgrims diligently?

The commission which was born out of dire necessity has no option than to deliver on its mandate. This is because NAHCON is one of the most supervised agencies of the federal government.  And fortunately, it is delivering. Every action taken by the commission is approved by the Presidency under the office of the Secretary to the Government of The Federation. The Senate committee on Foreign Affairs led by Distinguished Senator Monsurat Sunmonu and the House committee on Foreign Affairs and Nigeria-Saudi Arabia Parliamentary Friendship and Hajj Affairs, Hon. Abdullahi Balarabe-Salame screen every bit of NAHCON’s activity. Sen. Sunmonu on many occasions has expressed satisfaction with the operations of the commission. In many of the stakeholders’ meetings, she openly commended the commission for ensuring transparency and commitment in its activities.

These supervisions by these three organs of the federal government do not end in Nigeria. Both committees of the National Assembly, office of the SGF as well as other related committees continue their role while in Saudi. On this note, I think the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Hajia  Khadija Bukar Abba Ibrahim has every reason to defend her ministry, though her appeal to members of the House of Representatives committee on Nigeria-Saudi Arabia Parliamentary Friendship and Hajj Affairs, led by its chairman, Abdullahi Salame, who visited her was misplaced. I think she could not have made this plea if she considered the painful experiences Nigeria underwent throughout the years pilgrims’ affairs and management were in a mere department in the ministry. Nonetheless, there is no way NAHCON can operate without the support of the ministry considering what she described as diplomatic cycle.

All major stakeholders are not happy with the call by the ministry. The leaderships of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHOUN), chairmen and executive secretaries of state pilgrims’ welfare boards, commissions and agencies have condemned any move to pull back pilgrimage affairs to the ministry. President of AHOUN, Alhaji Abdulfattah Abdulmajeed, while speaking at a workshop on Hajj in Abuja strongly opposed the ministry’s stand. He carpeted any such suggestion because “It was not only out of tune, but totally unacceptable.” According to him, the events that led to the establishment of NAHCON are still well-known and fresh in operators’ memories. “Pilgrims are no longer stranded and deadlines set are met”, he noted.

Fortunately I had the opportunities to attend some important meetings with the highest authorities of Hajj in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where they, on many occasions, expressed shock that Nigeria has turned around Hajj management since 2007. They said Nigeria used to be a recurring study case of Hajj mismanagement in the past. What more testimony is required to convince the ministry and those who are fighting NAHCON that the host country, Saudi Arabia, has not made public? Honestly, the transformations going on in NAHCON are tremendous and its good leadership is restless until Nigeria becomes at par with world class hajj managers like Indonesia, Malaysia and others. It is possible because the long-term plans are there.

Recently some agents who used to shortchange the Nigerian pilgrims in the provision of accommodation services have approached the House of Representatives to investigate the leadership of the commission over alleged irregularities in the activities of the commission during Hajj operations. The petitioner, Ibrahim Suleiman Yusuf, who is one of the former accommodation providers urged the House to set up a panel to probe the activities particularly 2015 and 2016 Hajj operations. Yusuf claimed that the commission unlawfully levied all companies that provided accommodation to Nigerian pilgrims the sum of 50 Riyals and the catering companies SR70 per pilgrim. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara referred the petition to Committee on Public Petitions for further legislative action. For clarity on this, section 11(a) of NAHCON Act 2006 empowers the commission to charge fees, commissions or dues from service providers. NAHCON, investigations showed, charged 40 Riyals from accommodation providers and five Riyals only from caterers in the recent past Hajj exercises.

The commission expected the allegation because of the transformation it is carrying out in the procurement of pilgrims’ accommodation in both the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. The commission is dealing directly with the landlords of the houses to be used by the pilgrims. This means that the agents who used to cause the hike in the costs of the accommodations have to be eliminated. These agents have therefore ganged up to fight this initiative that will bring down hajj fare in 2017 to a reasonable proportion amidst economic recession.

Further insights into the NAHCON-agents faceoff in Saudi would do. Due to the economic recession and high rate of forex as well as the commission’s continuous reforms to improve Hajj operations, plans were initiated by the leadership of the commission to seek ways to curtain 2017 Hajj fare paid by pilgrims from their hard earned money. After investigations and considerations, the commission found an impressive opening in the pilgrims’ accommodation in Saudi. It was discovered that the high costs were largely due to the chains of agents that contracted the services. Surprisingly, it was discovered that in some cases over six agents stood between NAHCON and some landlords. Assuredly, each agent has a share to make from the money paid by each pilgrim for accommodation in the Holy Land in the past.

That is what prompted the insistence of the commission to take up the direct dealing with the landlords, knowing fully well its consequences. It is clear that corruption is fighting back. Some of these agents often force some state governments to pay heavily extra sums of money in the name of augmenting the accommodation costs. Millions of Saudi Riyals used to be swindled from the governments for such purposes by this category of agents who do not have the wherewithal for the services they are paid to provide. They are mere portfolio businessmen who had been cheating Nigeria and its pilgrims. They used to charge each pilgrim exorbitantly for houses which pilgrims will pay between 500 to 900 Riyals less for 2017 Hajj in Makkah. In Madinah alone, the commission will this year save the nation US$12.3 million from the initiative as pilgrim will pay 614 Riyals less for better accommodation. Elaborate analysis on these reforms by the commission will follow next.