By ‘Yinka Raheem
After several appeals by some respected stakeholders in the Nigerian hajj industry, I had decided to turn a blind eye to the confusion and controversies that trailed the 2023 hajj – right from its nascent stage of exorbitant fares, arbitrary deduction of pilgrims BTA, commencement of inaugural flight with rescue operation, pilgrims protests in Lagos, non-payment of airlines, poor feeding and rickety accommodation in Makkah and Madinah, the unprecedented eyesore in Mina and Arafat services, discarding ‘first-in, first-out policy’ leading to pilgrims spending over 45 days in Saudi Arabia, among others.
However, I am constrained to intervene now because of some obvious calculated mischief being executed through a failed and amateurish attempt to defend the indefensible and give a dog a bad name in order to hang it.
My attention was drawn to an article authored by one Abdulfatah Abdulsalam, entitled: “Hajj Airlift: The lies of a journalist,” published in some social media platforms. The author claims to be an ‘editor’ of a faith-based blog/magazine. The author painstakingly tried to attack one of Nigeria’s reputable newspapers – Daily Nigerian – for publishing an exclusive story: “2023 Hajj: NAHCON yet to pay airlines weeks after conclusion of airlift” published on August 17, 2023. The story was authored by one of the newspaper’s prolific editors, Ibrahim Ramalan.
Mr Abdulsalam – embellishing praise singing and barefaced lies with some religious garbs – laboriously tried to discredit the story, but woefully failed due to one single reason: the story is a fact and nothing but a fact. This is evident because two weeks after the story, NAHCON didn’t come out to deny that it had violated the 2023 airlift agreement it signed with hajj carriers by not paying them as scheduled.
The mercenary author didn’t dispute the fact that the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has not yet paid the airlines that airlifted Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the 2023 Hajj, four weeks after the end of the 2023 holy pilgrimage. This is an undeniable fact.
None of the five airlines — Max Air, Flynas, Air Peace, Aero Contractors and Azman Air — contracted by NAHCON to airlift 75,000 state pilgrims to 2023 hajj has come out to say they have been paid on schedule as agreed in the airlift MoU.
It is a fact that the airlines have completed inbound airlift on 31 July, 2023, when the last batch of Nigerian pilgrims returned home, officially ending the 2023 hajj operations, and today is September 1, 2023 – exactly one month after the end of hajj, and two weeks since the story was published – but NAHCON is still owing the airlines substantial amounts.
Mr Abdulsalam didn’t deny the existence of the 2023 Hajj Airlift Agreement, signed between NAHCON and the airlines. He also didn’t deny that NAHCON had grossly breached the contractual agreement.
Article 4.2 of the 2023 Hajj Airlift Agreement provides that NAHCON shall pay the air carriers 50% of the total agreed sum after signing of the airlift agreement and presentation of a bank guarantee.
The commission would pay another 35% upon completion of the outbound airlift to Saudi Arabia.
The article also provides that the airlines would be paid 10% after evacuation of 50% of inbound pilgrims back to Nigeria; while the remaining 5% would be paid to the airlines after reconciliation.
As Daily Nigerian accurately reported, quoting relevant sources, NAHCON has failed to meet its obligations one month after the completion of the hajj exercise.
In clear violation of the agreement, the commission only paid some of the airlines the second tranche after the commencement of the inbound journey.
The author didn’t also deny that NAHCON has blamed President Bola Tinubu (for its failure to transfer funds to CBN in time), even though the president was sworn-in five days after the commencement of 2023 hajj airlift.
It was a fact that thousands of pilgrims almost missed the 2023 hajj because of the delay in visa processing occasioned by NAHCON’s late remittance of funds to the Central Bank of Nigeria. The CBN couldn’t remit the funds to the pilgrims’ agencies and tour operators’ bank accounts in Saudi Arabia for the payment of hajj services. It took the intervention of Vice President Kashim Shettima, who directed CBN to process the payment despite the late remittance by NAHCON. This is another irrefutable fact.
It was, however, surprising how the commission, while seeking for three-day extension from Saudi Arabian authorities, blamed President Tinubu for its gross failure to remit pilgrims funds to CBN in time.
In a letter dated 21 June, 2023, with Reference No: NAHCON/AN/43/, the commission blamed President Tinubu for causing the financial hiccups that marred 2023 operations.
Addressing Saudi’s Vice Minister of Hail and Umrah, Dr. Abdel Fattah Mishaat, in a letter titled “Request for Extension of Deadline,” NAHCON chairman Zikirullah Kunle Hassan specifically blamed Mr Tinubu for halting transfer of funds abroad.
The letter signed by Mr Hassan read, “There was a change of government in Nigeria and the new government directed a halt in transfer of government funds which caused serious delay in the transfer of funds into the International Bank Accounts (BAN) and this delayed our processing of pilgrims’ visa.” This is another fact.
It was also a fact that about 29,000 pilgrims from Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Niger, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi states – who traveled to hajj through Flynas had asked NAHCON to refund the $100 deducted from their BTA ahead of the 2023 hajj.
The commission had deducted the BTA of the 75,000 pilgrims and shared it with the four local airlines – Max Air, Air Peace, Azman Air and Aero Contractors – that refused to sign the airlift agreement because of the Sudan conflict.
When the newspaper contacted the spokesperson of NAHCON, Mr Mousa Ubandawaki, he didn’t deny that NAHCON was owing the airlines. What he did was to explain the reasons for the delay in the payment to the airliners.
Mr Ubandawaki said the delay was a result of the discrepancy in the exchange rate. He said the exchange rate at the time the MoU was signed was around N400 to $1, adding that at the conclusion of the exercise, the exchange rate skyrocketed to about N700 to $1.
Fact is, Mr Ubandawaki’s excuses couldn’t hold water. There was no way the fluctuations in the Investors and Exporters Window would affect hajj operation. Mr President usually gives approval for exchange rate for the entire hajj transactions.
And since NAHCON has purportedly remitted the airlines’ funds to CBN in naira, the equivalent value in dollars (as per president’s exchange rate approval) would have been credited into its dollar account. Where are the fluctuations in the exchange rate? All hajj payments are made to CBN long before pilgrims airlift begins. Thereafter, NAHCON only pays its service providers, including airlines, from its funded dollar accounts.
The commission can only speak of exchange rate fluctuations if it did not fund its dollar accounts (by remitting all hajj funds paid to it by the state pilgrims boards) as demanded by law. This would be another breach that may require the attention of anti-graft agencies.
Insiders in the commission tell whoever cares to know that the Commissioner in charge of Policy, Personnel Management & Finance (PPMF) does what he likes and ignores the professional advice of his staff, while Mr Zikirullah remains helpless and can’t call him to order because they are birds of the same feathers.
It is childish to say the delay in payments by NAHCON was because it’s doing administrative due diligence. Let’s see this: the commission got the president’s approval for hajj exchange rate at least two weeks before it announced hajj fare on April 7, 2023. There is a solid two months between that time and the beginning of airlift on May 24, 2023. What was the commission doing in those two months?
Invariably, the way the commission conducted 2023 hajj exposed its administrative naivety. If at all they were afraid of exchange rate fluctuations, what they should simply do was go back to President Tinubu after May 29 and seek the revalidation of all approvals granted by his predecessor. That was not done. Rather, they blamed him for their gross ignorance.
It is on record that this is the first time in NAHCON’s history that the commission is still talking about the third tranche of airlines’ payment one month after the hajj was concluded. I stand to be corrected. This is also the first the commission is talking about foreign exchange differentials one month after hajj. Who is now going to shoulder the differentials? NAHCON or the federal government? This is totally avoidable if the NAHCON management knows its onions.
Like I said at the beginning, my intervention is precipitated by Mr Abdulsalam’s desperate attempt to deny what NAHCON didn’t deny, by callously trying to impeach the integrity of a professional journalist, by calling him a liar. Where is the lie? Who is lying between Mr Ubandawaki and Mr Abdulsalam? Why is Abdulsalam trying to shave NAHCON’s head in its absence?
Mr Abdulsalam is truly oblivious of the Qur’anic verses and Prophetic traditions that command us to say the truth notwithstanding whose ox is gored. A wholistic review of the 2023 hajj is underway. NAHCON ti n run, ko si iye ti ikede ti o le sọ òórùn àkóràn rẹ jẹ. (NAHCON stinks, no amount of propaganda can deodorise its infectious stench).
Mr Raheem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org