Thousands of Nigerian pilgrims feared missing 2023 hajj over visa

There are fears that thousands of Nigerians who paid for 2023 hajj may miss the holy pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia over visa issues.

For over two weeks now, the intending pilgrims couldn’t secure visa due to the delay in remittance of their hajj fares to the CBN by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).

As a result of that the Central Bank of Nigeria couldn’t remit the funds to the pilgrims agencies and tour operators bank accounts in Saudi Arabia for payment of hajj services.

State pilgrims officials and private tour operators have confirmed that throughout last week and through this week, no pilgrim visa was approved because of NAHCON’s delay in remitting hajj funds to CBN to credit the pilgrims International Bank Account Number (IBAN).

The non-remittance has made it impossible for tour operators and state pilgrims boards to log onto their various pilgrims portals to pay for hajj services that include accommodation, feeding, transports, tents, before finally securing visa.

Insiders at CBN said before now, the hajj commission remits hajj fares to the apex bank two to three months before hajj airlift. The officials who said they were not authorized to speak over the matter, said this time the commission remitted the fund to CBN barely two weeks before the inaugural flight on May 25, 2023.

The ongoing transition and probes of the hajj commission by anti-graft agencies “have fueled CBN’s suspicion of NAHCON foreign transactions. CBN has to be very meticulous in funding these foreign accounts,” a top official of the bank said.

A staff of the CBN told this newspaper that the apex bank was alarmed by the hajj commission’s transactions “when it tried to move about 400 million US Dollars to Saudi Arabia in one tranche. This single incident forced CBN to be more cautious.”

Findings revealed that apart from the visa issue, the commission has not mobilized the five approved airlines for the hajj operations two weeks after the commencement of the airlift. “The airlines are complaining. They have not been paid a dime two weeks into the airlift operation,” an official of the commission told this newspaper.

At this rate, it is not surprising if the airlines fail to airlift all the pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. The commission has airlifted little over 30,000 pilgrims as of Wednesday, leaving behind 45,000 others.

Supremacy battle between NAHCON Chairman Zikirullah Kunle Hassan and the Commissioner in charge of Finance Nura Hassan Yakasai, is one factor that slow the operations. “Mr Yakasai disregards Chairman Zikirullah’s order for making payments. He does it with open audacity even though he has zero experience in hajj operations. He deliberately slows the system,” a NAHCON official confided in this newspaper.

There are fears that many pilgrims may miss the hajj, bearing in mind that the commission has only 16 days to evacuate the premaining 45,000 pilgrims to the holy land. For NAHCON to meet up the deadline, it must henceforth airlift an average of 2,812 pilgrims daily, which requires at least six Boeing 747 – 500 passenger capacity aircraft, which will operate daily for the remaining 16 days.

Sources at the State House Abuja told this newspaper that Vice President Kashim Shettima has intervened so that CBN can fast track the funds transfer.

A tour operator said the development may further worsen the precarious conditions of many tour operators. “NAHCON did same thing last year. We paid money to it but it failed to remit it to CBN in time. Majority of tour operators’ pilgrims missed 2022 hajj. Many of our members are either bankrupt or are facing litigations and probes by EFCC and police,” the tour operator who declined being named for fear of backlash, said.

Saudi Arabia has granted Nigeria 95,000 slots for 2023 hajj pilgrimage, 75,000 for state state pilgrims, and 20,000 for private tour operators.

NAHCON spokesperson, Mousa Ubandawaki, however told journalists that the visa suspension was due “technical hitches” on the part of the CBN.

Mr Ubandawaki blamed a federal government’s directive that bar CBN from remitting funds to foreign accounts for the visa stalling.

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