The 2022 Hajj management by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria has come with its challenges that are not unique to the annual Muslim rite. Other sectors such as the economy, sports and entertainment, leisure travels and even businesses are feeling the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic which has disrupted every human endeavor.
It should not be forgotten that for two consecutive years the world Muslim community was barred from performing this single most important physical and spiritual journey every Muslim loves to embark on. Even in our home country, we were subjected to a very uncomfortable and unusual protocol of wearing face masks and observing physical distancing while praying in mosques.
The challenges experienced by Nigerian pilgrims during this year’s Hajj exercise should be regarded as part of the new normal imposed on humanity by the global pandemic, and may remain with us for a long time to come.
Those challenges are in three categories namely, those related to timing, technology and innovation, and crisis management. The timing for the announcement of Hajj Quota by the Saudi authorities came as a shock to many organizers and managers of Hajj tours because it allowed only two months of preparation for an annual event which involves a lot of logistics, documentation, and decision making at the highest levels.
When the Saudi authorities announced the one million quota for both international and local pilgrims on June April 9, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria seems not be prepared for the exercise but did not want disappoint Nigerian Muslims who have been yearning for the lifting of ban of pilgrimage to the holy land. Under normal circumstance and in an ideal society, the NAHCON would have suspended the exercise until the following year or register only a percentage of the 43,008 quota allocated to it for the 2022 Hajj to ensure efficient management of the exercise.
But it went all hog to hold the bull by the horns by giving every intending pilgrim that applied a chance to participate in the exercise. This is why one must commend the NAHCON for its remarkable performance under the circumstance instead of condemnation.
The new post covid-19 policies introduced by the Saudi authorities regarding visa processing and PCR certification also posed a serious challenge to NAHCON because a good number of Nigerians performing the Hajj are not computer literate, or internet compliant.
The new policy demand pilgrims to obtain a negative PCR result 72 hours prior to their arrival in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which the two months interval could not accommodate. As if to add salt to injury, the authorities in KSA introduced a new visa application process which is domiciled in a new online platform which many of the pilgrims cannot access without a third party assistance.
Considering the time available and the number of pilgrims to be captured, there was no way NAHCON could have recorded a 100% success in the exercise which was largely not under their control as they were at the mercy of the approving Saudi officials.
Although NAHCON was able to navigate through most of the challenges with appreciable results, it was unable to persuade some critical stake holders to accept the reality of the situation and look at the bigger picture, which was to ensure that every pilgrim arrived in KSA before the deadline given by authorities of that country.
The grandstanding by some state pilgrims welfare board regarding visa processing and the entry of their pilgrims on to the Hajj Savings Scheme portal not only created some bottlenecks but led to over a thousand intending pilgrims losing the opportunity to perform the Hajj. This is indeed painful and sad!
But behind every disappointment there are lessons to be learnt. What are the lessons to be learnt from the experience of Hajj 2022? The first lesson is that Hajj management requires a long term planning. The NAHCON and SPWBs need to change their approach to Hajj Management, which should be an all-year plan instead of seasonal. It is gratifying to note that the Chairman of NAHCON, Alhaji Zikiruallah Kunle Hassan has made it clear that the Commission has already begun planning for next year’s Hajj. That should be case whether the indication is that the KSA is announcing quotas or not. It’s better to be prepared than be caught off guard.
The second lesson to be learnt is that coordination is central to the success of any project or undertaking. The NAHCON as the regulator of Hajj activities in Nigeria has the mandate to coordinate the management of Hajj with the support and cooperation of the SPWBs, which are the major players.
The controversy trailing the integration of the states’ pilgrims into the Hajj Saving Scheme should be nipped in the bud for things to move forward. Before embarking on the HSS project, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria has toured all the six geopolitical zones to sensitizing the Muslim population about the new scheme and its benefits to both the intending pilgrims and other stake holders.
The commission also launched an aggressive media campaign on both radio and television, in addition to other new media platforms to create awareness about the new scheme and how intending pilgrims can register to join. The expectation therefore, was that all the SPWB’s will encourage their pilgrims to join the scheme which promises so much for subscribers.
One wonders therefore why some state pilgrims welfare boards ostensibly resisted the move to register their pilgrims into the scheme. This is an issue that the NAHCON and SPWBs need to resolve before the next Hajj to avert any crisis that may mar the 2023 Hajj operation.
The SPWBs should consider the benefits of the new scheme to their pilgrims above every other consideration. First, it will enhance transparent queuing system as obtained in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia where selection of pilgrims is on first come, first served basis. The new scheme will facilitates long term planning, subsidizes hajj for many depositors, and promote inclusiveness especially for those whose source of income cannot suffice to pay the Hajj fare lump sum.
The SPWB’s need to understand that NAHCON as the representative of the Government of Nigeria is the only recognized entity that can operate an IBAN account for the Hajj operation. This is in compliance with the diplomatic protocols of the KSA.
For the Private Tour Operators, they were registered as facilitators in the Hajj management, not as competitors. Their role is clearly defined under the NAHCON Act. They should operate under the guidelines from NAHCON, hence any decision they take to the detriment of their clients should attract penalty from the Commission. This is one area that NAHCON needs to look into with a view to getting the Act amended by the National Assembly.
I understand that the Malaysian Tabung Hajj even imposed fines on pilgrims who withdraw from performing Hajj after they have been registered or even issued visas. This should be captured in the NAHCON Act to instill discipline in the conduct of Nigerians pilgrims who patronized quacks and touts, but later come back to blame NAHCON for their inability to perform the Hajj.
For the future, one may like to suggest that NAHCON be restructured and given additional responsibility of operating as a cooperative society that can set up a micro-finance bank to serve as the collection house for all deposits by intending pilgrims instead of using a third party for this purpose.
The benefits of having a micro-finance bank are in multitude. Besides providing a legal framework for easy financial transactions, it will give the commission the leverage of investing the deposit in profitable businesses that can yield dividends for depositors and pump more funds into the economy.
The NAHCON should wear the new look of a limited liability company like the NNPC instead of just a regulator. That is the spirit of the Malaysian Tabung Hajj, which has investments in real estates, transportation, ICT, and even offshore stocks and indexes that bring high returns to the depositors. That is why it is able to subsidize Hajj for many intending pilgrims to the tune of over 75% of the expenses.
With a population of over 100 million Muslims in Nigeria, NAHCON is sitting on a goldmine that needs to be activated through an amendment of the NAHCON Act.
For effective management of Hajj in Nigeria, NAHCON in collaboration with the SPWBs need to develop Hajj Management Chart that should be internalized by every intending pilgrim to ensure efficiency, orderliness, and decorum in both conduct and performance of pilgrims while preparing for the Hajj and in the holy cities. The chart should provide a clear outline of activities or services that will be carried out by the Commission and SPWBs from the first day of announcing the Hajj to the day pilgrims completed their Hajj rites in the holy sites. This is to serve as a road map for the pilgrims to understand the process and tag along with it.
It is my candid opinion that the 2022 Hajj was a great success despite the hitches encountered by both the managers and the pilgrims. For an exercise in which 43,080 persons are registered but more than 42,000 performed the Hajj successfully, one can conclude that it was an excellent performance.
Ibrahim Dan-Halilu is an Abuja-based media and communications consultant. He can be reached by email at [email protected]