By Ismail Sokunbi
Due to economic recession and hardship which had ravaged the country and years back Nigeria just like any other country in the world has been battling with economic imbroglio which has crippled hitherto all sectors of economy and is severely affecting the nation. Hence, Hajj fare has hiked drastically despite the concessionary initiative of the Federal Government in order to abate or reduce the situation to a barest minimum.
According to 2016 National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON ), statistics, Federal Government gave foreign exchange waiver to Nigerian pilgrims performing 2016 Hajj. This was announced during an inspection visit of the Executive Chairman of the Commission, Alhaji Abdullahi Muhammed to the pilgrims’ tents in Munna, Saudi Arabia which was made available by the commission’s Head of media, Uba Mana.
Just as this was given to the Muslim pilgrims, Christian pilgrims also benefited from the gesture. Specifically, the Pilgrims’ Travelling Allowance which was minimum of Seven Hundred and Fifty US Dollar ($750) and maximum of One Thousand US Dollar ($1000) was exchanged at One Hundred and Ninety Seven Naira (#197) to a US dollar even though the official exchange rate was around Four Hundred and Fifty Naira ( #450) to a US Dollar. During the period, the slots allocated to Nigeria by Saudi authority was 76,000 as against the normal 95,000 slots received in previous years. The reduction in the year 2003 was as a result of the renovation of the Grand Mosque in Makkah and other sites at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
This year, according to the Executive Chairman of the Ogun State Muslim Pilgrims’ Welfare Board, Dr. Ishaq Yusuf, said the slots given to the country by Saudi Arabia was 95,000 which had been restored. He said the state’s pilgrims could heave a sigh of relief since the slots given to the state had increased to 1,353 by NAHCON. He explained further that the restoration of the 20 percent global allocation by Saudi Arabia Government would pave ways for the state to accommodate more pilgrims.
However, as cheering as this information was, turnout of pilgrims was very low unlike the previous year when the 1,095 slots allotted the to the state was oversubscribed. Upon this, about 91,000 pilgrims across Nigeria took part in this year’s exercise and with this figure the country was ranked fifth (5th) in the world in terms of population of pilgrims that participated in the operations.
Also during the 2016 holly pilgrimage, NAHCON statistics revealed that the entire package for the exercise was 1.1Million Naira including the Basic Travel Allowance (B T A ). Meanwhile, in 2017, initial deposit of the Hajj fare was One Million Naira (#1,000,000). Before the announcement, Ogun State Government had introduced an installment payment plan christened “Flexible Payment Plan” which gave ways for the pilgrims to pay their Hajj fare four times in order to reduce the challenges confronting some of them.
At that time, a US dollar was exchanged for Three Hundred and Six Naira, making the total Hajj package a sum of One Million Five Hundred and Sixty Two Thousand Naira, (#1,562,000) Basic Travel Allowances (BTA) inclusive.
In this regard, the submissions of the board chairman was that it is not a business as usual meaning that it was due to the economic recession which had crippled the entire process. He also explained that things cannot always be good because everything happens within the will of Allah and equally maintained that after the hardship there is ease. Commenting on previous experience particularly 2016 process, Ishaq recalled how the board’s headquarter at Oke- Mosan was besieged by intending pilgrims while the state was given only 1,095 slots which was absolutely exhausted.
Going by the submissions, one would easily understand that it cannot always be a business as usual. Not until late hour, the rate at which intending pilgrims called for Hajj forms was highly unimpressive and this resulted to stagnant airlifting schedule. As a result of this, it took the board at least 8 days interval in between the days the first set, second set and third set of the pilgrims were airlifted to the holy land.
Another hitch was the delay in the issuance of Visa by the Saudi embassy which was eventually resolved by the state government.
Apparently, the board’s Flexible Payment Plan yielded positive result as the number of pilgrims to this year’s Hajj operations was put at 1,045 out of 1,353 total slots given to the state. Fortunately for the state and its pilgrims, the return airlift timetable was favourable. The state was placed above many other states including some northern states in the return roster. The schedule which was slated between 6, 7, and 10 of September by NAHCON was strictly followed. Shortly before the commencement of the return airlift, the board’s Executive Secretary, Alhaji AbdlHaleem Kalejaiye had conveyed the message to the pilgrims which did not go well with some of them. But later when they got to know the schedule of other states, they applauded the state for the feats. Many of them who had earlier vowed not to use the board’s channel for their subsequent pilgrimage and any of their relatives or associates later changed their mind.
Aside the instalment payment plan idea, the 100 Saudi Riyadh which is equivalent to Ten Thousand Naira Nigeria money were given to each pilgrim by the state Governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun as another succour and giant strides. Some of the pilgrims who praised the Governor for the kind gesture, includes; Mr. Arikewuyo Sharafadeen and Agboola Muhedeen, saying that it was timely and they were of the view that this kind gesture is worth of emulation by other states.
Most of the stakeholders in the sector had opined that the State Government should address the area of choice of airlines to be contracted for subsequent operations. Others were of the view that the Flexed Payment Plan was very useful and should be sustained if success must be attained.
It is generally believed that the aforementioned efforts of the State Government would go a long way towards addressing the challenges confronting the pilgrims and the Hajj process only if all concerned citizens rally rounds the government in this direction.
Sokunbi, Press Officer, Ogun State Muslim Pilgrims’ Welfare Board (OGSMPWB), writes from Abeokuta, Ogun State.