From Oxford Street to Shepherd’s Bush in London, Souk al Baddu to Khan al Atareen in Saudi Arabia, naira was conveniently spent in the 70s and early 80s as it was a convertible international trading currency in many countries.
While the naira was hovering high over the dollar and riyals in the bygone years, the currency is today hardly recognized in Maradi or Agadez market in Niger Republic. Even within Nigeria, perhaps because of the level of worthlessness of our lower denominations, N1 coin, N5 and N10 notes are slowly becoming endangered species.
There have been hues and cries since the announcement of this year’s Hajj package for 21 State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Boards, FCT and the Armed Forces by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).
While stakeholders explained that about 98 per cent of Hajj services rendered by NAHCON in Saudi Arabia are determined in US dollars, those oblivious to the reality that exchange rate is everything to unproductive economy like ours raised questions.
When we were lamenting the free fall of naira sometime last year, some Nigerians quickly began catcalling in this queer rhetorical device: Da tashin bam gara tashin dala (Rise of dollar is better than rise in bomb attacks). Isn’t weak economy concomitant with rise in vices and prices?
Intending pilgrims are rightly complaining as they have to augment their deposits to be able to go. But why should Nigerian pilgrims pay more when pilgrims in other countries pay less?
Criticism upon criticism, explanation upon explanation, no one seems to explain this year’s increase in Hajj package than the chairman of Med-View Airline, Alhaji Muneer Bankole. This stakeholder, who has been in the system for over 30 years, succinctly cited issues that led to this year’s increase in Hajj package.
Alhaji Bankole said the rate of exchange is principally the major cause of this increase. He also explained that airlift of Hajj pilgrims is done on a charter not schedule basis. According to him, when an aircraft carried pilgrims from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia, it carries no single passenger on its return leg. And when the airlift is completed, the aircraft are not allowed to remain in the kingdom, in which case they have to return empty and go back again empty to start airlifting pilgrims back home.
And again, on each trip, airlines have to pay $6,000 charges for flying over Chad and Sudan to Saudi Arabia.
While others wondered why pilgrims from countries like Pakistan pay less than Nigerian pilgrims, an official quipped that Pakistan enjoys some overfly waivers from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries. Again, why do international pilgrims pay less than the regular pilgrims? The explanation given sounds cogent to me: While the former spend 17 days, the latter spend 40 days and enjoy certain privileges.
Last year, when the exchange rate was officially 197 to $1, the pilgrims paid less – but government had to cough out N68billion to subsidize pilgrimage.
In this year’s budget, the exchange rate is pegged at N305 to $1. So when you multiply it by $4,805, which is the total cost per pilgrim, you will arrive about N1.5 million.
But what a lot of people are unaware of is that the federal government is, in a way, subsidizing this year’s hajj. A top government official told me last week that on each pilgrim, Nigerian government will have to pay N302,4000 to make up for the prevailing dollar rate. If you multiply this amount by 75,000 pilgrims, you will arrive at over N22billion.
Nigeria is in recession. Workers are unpaid. There is hunger in the land. Poverty is everywhere. It makes no economic sense to ignore these maladies and subsidize pilgrimage. I believe the reward of feeding the hungry citizens is higher than subsiding the Hajj.
It baffles me how a government that cannot subsidize fuel, garri and rice for the common man will go about subsidizing Hajj for the rich; and even more baffling is to see a person struggling to put food on the table supporting subsidy for the Hajj.
In his commentary of Quran 3:97, which says “And, pilgrimage to the House is duty on mankind to Allah for those who can find a way there”, Bilal Philips wrote:
“Similar statements of the Prophet (peace be upon him) define ability as being sufficient provisions and transportation. Hence, a Muslim has to be economically able to make the trip. If he has to borrow the money to make the journey, Hajj is not compulsory on him…”