Barring any last minute change, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) will charge 75,000 intending pilgrims an additional $300 (N139,350).
This despite the ongoing furore generated by the N3 million hajj fare fixed by the commission for 2023 hajj.
Impeccable sources inside the commission said the $250 increment was part of the agreement reached between the hajj commission and the four Nigerian airlines that signed the airlift agreement on Tuesday.
Last Thursday, Max Air, Air Peace, Azman Air and Aero Contractors – all local airlines – had refused to sign the hajj airlift agreement with NAHCON because of the Sudan conflict which they said the closure of its airspace has extended their flight time to Saudi Arabia by more than two hours.
Only the Saudi Arabian-designated airline Flynas signed the agreement with NAHCON last week despite the Sudan conflict without seeking for any increment.
An official of the commission who spoke in confidence said $250 of the increment goes to the local airlines, while $50 was added by NAHCON as an oversight component Saudi charge the NAHCON “forgot” to add during the hajj fare computation.
Sources told this newspaper that NAHCON will write a memo to seek President Muhammadu Buhari’s approval on the increment before announcing it to the public. This memo could be misleading, said the insider.
The NAHCON leadership, it was gathered, has a Plan B in the event President Buhari declines to approve the increment. The management, it was learned, will deduct the $300 from the $800 Basic Travel Allowance (BTA) of the pilgrims.
A veteran hajj administrator who spoke in confidence said, the NAHCON leadership is trying “to use the backdoor channel to manipulate President Buhari to pay up the $22.5 million increment ($300 x 75,000 pilgrims). This will mark a sad return to the old days where federal government funded hajj..”
The hajj fare was N1.4 million when Barrister Zikirullah Kunle Hassan-led NAHCON board was appointed in 2019. But despite the new board’s repeated vows of “reducing” the fare in 2020 and 2021, Mr Hassan- led management only succeeded in jerking up the hajj fare from N1.4 million to N2.5 million in 2022, and now over N3 million in 2023.
By this $300 increment, Nigerian pilgrims will be made to pay N3.139 million each, while those in the Southwestern states will pay N3.339 million each.
However, insiders said the executive secretaries of the State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Boards and Agencies have unanimously rejected the latest planned increment during their marathon meeting with the commission officials in Abuja that lasted from morning to night on Wednesday.
It will be recalled that NAHCON had fixed N3 million as the average hajj fare for this year, but some states in the Southwest charged as much as N3.2 million. NAHCON has so far failed to force the states to trim the fare down to N3 million.
Last Thursday when NAHCON signed the agreement with Flynas, Mr Zikirullah said the commission was not contemplating increasing the hajj fare because of the Sudanese conflict.
It was not clear why the commission reneged on its promise and now plans to slam the $300 increment on the cash-squeezed intending pilgrims.
Insiders are wondering how NAHCON will charge the $300 increment from the pilgrims. The hajj commission has allocated 28,515 pilgrims to Flynas, 16,326 to Max Air, 11,348 to Air Peace, 8,660 pilgrims to Azman Air, and 7,833 to Aero Contractors.
“It remains to be seen how the commission will deal with this matter,” an insider said. He explained that, “It was on record that Flynas didn’t seek any increase on its flight ticket fare. Is NAHCON still going ahead to additionally charge Flynas’ 28,515 pilgrims even though the airline didn’t ask for an increment? Or, is NAHCON going to charge only the intending pilgrims from states allocated to the four Nigerian airlines?”
Findings by this newspaper on Thursday revealed that an average return ticket from Abuja to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia through Egypt Air cost N887,502; while the same return ticket cost N538,841 on Ethiopian Airlines.
The air ticket component of the hajj fare for northern states was pegged at $1,780 (N826, 810 at 464.5 official exchange rate). While the southern states pay $1, 950 (N898,000).
With the $250 increment now, the flight ticket will rise to $2,030 (N942,935) for northern pilgrims, and $2,200 (N1,021,900) for southern pilgrims.
Aviation experts told this newspaper that this makes Nigerian hajj flight tickets one of the most expensive in the world.
This is clear from the way it surpassed the return ticket being charged by Ethiopian Air (N538,841); and Egypt Air’s N887,502 to Jeddah and Madinah.
This is telling because the two commercial airlines are equally spending almost 7 hours flight time to Jeddah/ Madinah from Nigeria due to the Sudan conflict which is the raison d’êtrefor the $250 hike.
Findings also revealed that the Nigeria’s air ticket component is far higher than those of other hajj participating countries, including our regional neighbors.
Investigations have shown that the latest air ticket increment is the second in recent two years operations by the incumbent NAHCON leadership.
An industry player who spoke to this newspaper over the issue said, “Barrister Hassan’s NAHCON board has carved a niche for itself in jerking up air fares for no reason.
“It was on record that the immediate past NAHCON board met air fares at $1,800 for the South and $1,750 for the North. But the board brought it down to $1,500,” the aviation expert conversant with hajj operations said.
The expert said the previous NAHCON board worked assiduously to reduce the prices of services without compromising their quality. “It was the same previous NAHCON board that created the special rates for Yola and Maiduguri departure centres because of their shorter proximity to Jeddah and Madinah,” he said.
He lamented that “instead of maintaining what they met on ground, they keep on skyrocketing the prices.
Some intending pilgrims have expressed their dismay over this planned increment. “They want to deprive us from going to hajj like they did last year. I am battling to complete the N3m fare and now this,” Malama Yasmeen has said.
Mr Isiaka Gbadebo and Malam Zaiyanu Muhammad – all intending pilgrims said the increment is in bad light and aimed at
disenfranchising them from performing the Islam’s fifth pillar.
“I have surrendered to God. Only Him can salvage me from this calamity. I don’t know how to source this additional $300,” Mr Gbadebo said.
On his part, Malam Muhammadu said, “ I am shock. I hope this increment is not real. My planned trip for hajj is in jeopardy.”
The Saudi Arabian authorities have allocated 95,000 slots to Nigeria for 2023 hajj. A total of 75,000 pilgrims will go through the states, while the remaining 20,000 will go through private tour operators.