Sunday, 28th May 2023

Hajj 2023: Preparations in top gear as NAHCON commences pilgrims airlift May 25

By Murtala Adewale (Kano), Sodiq Omolaoye (Abuja) and Shakirah Adunola (Lagos)
14 May 2023   |   3:11 am
Barring any last-minute hitches, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) will on May 25, commence airlift of intending pilgrims to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform this year’s ritual exercise.

Kunle Hassan

• Commission, airlines agree on $250 increase in Hajj fare
• Assures Pilgrims won’t bear additional cost
• Hosts Saudi delegation on Hajj management

Barring any last-minute hitches, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) will on May 25, commence airlift of intending pilgrims to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform this year’s ritual exercise.

Prior to pilgrims’ departure, an advance team for the 2023 pilgrimage, including some staff of the commission, medical team and other critical stakeholders, is expected to leave the country for Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2023.

Besides, NAHCON has allayed the brewing anxiety of possible increase in the Hajj fare. According to NAHCON Chairman/CEO, Zikrullah Hassan, a lawyer, despite the increase of about $313 (N141, 476) in the cost of this year’s Hajj pilgrimage, the commission will not ask intending pilgrims to make additional payments.

The board had confirmed the demand of four airlines of additional $250 charge per pilgrim for flight ticket to cover the extra cost that would be incurred for additional nautical miles following the closure of Sudan airspace.

Before the seal of agreement with the commission, the approved carriers Azman Air, Max Air, Air Peace, Aero Contractor, excluding the Saudi Arabia-based Flynas, refused to sign agreement for the exercise.

NAHCON has also facilitated smooth engagement of the airlines and NNPC with a view to averting bottlenecks with access to aviation fuel. With the direct involvement of NAHCON, the airlines are now guaranteed availability and timely access to Jet A during the Hajj exercise.

NAHCON Chairman, Hassan unveiled the 25-day strategic airlift plans and other development yesterday while hosting the Director General and Consultant to the Saudi Arabia Deputy Minister for Hajj and Umurah, Dr. Badr Alsolami to a capacity-building programme in Abuja, where he declared the readiness of the commission to execute a seamless exercise this year.

The management of the annual pilgrimage elicits intensive diplomatic engagements with different agencies as well as comprehensive interface with various stakeholders in Nigeria to perfect safety plan. Nevertheless, the affirmation of readiness of the Hassan-led commission underscores the commitment and deployment of ideas for successful outing.

No sooner than the Saudi authority signaled the green light with the restoration of pre-COVID-19 allocation to Nigeria in December 2022, NAHCON under the able leadership of Hassan swung into action with impeccable ideas and innovation to attain a hitch-free exercise.

By implication, Nigeria is now granted the privilege of conveying up to 95,000 pilgrims for the pilgrimage with the right of choice of package for pilgrims’ services from the Mutawwiffs of African non-Arab countries. With the return of a full allocation, NAHCON adopted a sharing ratio of 75,000 seats to 36 states and Federal Capital Territory and Armed Forces contingent while 20,000 seats were reserved for private tour operators.

In a bid to further concretise the pre-hajj arrangement, the Saudi Arabia authority invited the Nigeria Hajj mission to the Kingdom in January 2023 where all bilateral agreement and exigencies, including accommodation, transportation, feeding and other welfare plans were sealed.

Leading the Nigeria delegation to the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, Chairman of the Commission, Hassan expressed satisfaction with the privilege afforded Nigeria to join other participating countries for Hajj 2023.

Understanding the significance of diplomatic relations and partnership to a successful pilgrimage, the leadership of NAHCON held fruitful economic ties with the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and Indonesia Hajj Mission as part of pre-hajj preparation.

According to Hassan, the NAHCON sought a variable collaboration between Nigeria and IsDB essentially in the yearly management of animal slaughtering, capacity building toward full establishment of Hajj Institution of Nigeria (HIN) and supply of medical equipment during Hajj.

“Ahead of the preparation for 2023 Hajj, NAHCON is exploring a partnership arrangement with the Indonesian Hajj Mission to develop and strengthen the Information technology and financing for enhanced service delivery during this year’s Hajj.

ICT and Hajj funding are crucial to the success of any Hajj arrangement and therefore need to be pursued and strengthened. For us to ensure the health and wellbeing of Nigerian Pilgrims, we don’t have alternative but to seek for sustenance of our ICT programmes from the world’s best, in order to ensure better service delivery,” Hassan noted.

Hajj fare, among other critical components of the pilgrimage, soon took centre stage as the date of the real exercise drew nearer. The passion of NAHCON to ease the economic difficulties and its attendant impact on intending pilgrims was not in doubt. However, the compelling necessity that gave raise to the cost of Hajj fare globally has not excluded Nigeria.

The increase in the 2023 hajj fare globally was mainly due to exchange rates (the rising power of dollar vs the hajj participating countries’ currencies), and the universal rise in air tickets because of the high cost of aviation fuel. But most essentially, the peculiar strength of local currencies against the dollar tells much since Hajj business is dollar-based.

Again, Saudi Arabia government’s introduction of new charges and increase in existing payment are part of the reason pilgrims globally pay more. For instance, the increase of Value Added Tax (VAT) by 15 per cent from 5 per cent, the high cost of accommodation especially in Makkah, increase in cost of service in holy sites like Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat, increase in the number of pilgrims from 1 million last year to over 3 million expected to perform this year’s hajj cannot be isolated from the increase of Hajj fare.

After due consultation and engagement of stakeholders, NAHCON finally fixed N2,999 million as Hajj fare. Although, the release was greeted by mixed reactions, the commission was vindicated by the cost of Hajj in other African countries.

As if the energy dissipated before reaching final Hajj fare was not enough, the subsequent closure of the Sudan airspace owing to the internal crisis ravaging the country, led to another cost implication to Hajj fare.

Although, the whole disagreement between the pilgrims’ carriers and NAHCON had been lay to rest, it took the intervention of the Federal government that earlier announced 65 per cent waiver on aviation charges and NAHCON’s leadership prowess to avert a major hiccup that would have obstructed the entire exercise.

Nevertheless, NAHCON has since gone ahead in the area of medical and aviation arrangements for a hitch-free exercise. About 230 medical personnel out of over 10,000 applicants were randomly selected for provision of medical care for Nigerian pilgrims during Hajj.

During the induction exercise held recently, the NAHCON boss cautioned the few privilege personnel include doctors, nurses and pharmacists to abide by the standard rules of engagement and adhere to diplomatic condition set by the Saudi authority.

The leadership of the commission has also facilitated series of capacity building for Hajj managers and other stakeholders to improve knowledge on innovation and technological development. The Saudi ministry of Hajj and Umurah was on hand to train Nigerian Hajj managers on crowd control and management, communication skills, information and awareness campaign.

Speaking on the training, Hassan expressed delight that Nigeria was chosen for the workshop. “The information we have is that Nigeria is the only beneficiary of this type of workshop among countries from black Africa. We feel honored to be recognized and be part of this training,” he said.

The NAHCON boss added that Nigeria is being known for constant training of all its official in all aspects of Hajj management, adding that Nigeria is among few nations that has so far established a Hajj training institute anywhere outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with a former University Vice Chancellor as it’s Rector.

“Training is a fundamental part of NAHCON because Hajj requires professionalism in the areas of ICT, Hajj Management,  Electronic ticketing, catering and the like, hence the establishment of the Hajj Training Institute,” he added.

The Director General and Consultant to the Deputy Minister for Hajj and Umrah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Dr Badr Alsolami while thanking NAHCON for hosting the workshop said the ministry decided to organise the training because of the seriousness that Nigerian Hajj officials attach to the success of each year’s Hajj pilgrimage.

He declared that Nigeria operates one of the best Hajj operations during the annual Hajj exercise.

He said: “Nigeria is one of the best organising countries that come for Hajj every year. That is why we are here to make sure they continue doing well. I sincerely hope NAHCON wins this year’s award for the best Hajj Affairs office, they deserve it.

“Our goal is to reach every pilgrim for them to understand the services that will be rendered to them and what is expected of them as well.”

He added that the impact of the workshop will be measured during the forthcoming Hajj exercise and the outcome will also be shared with other Hajj participating countries.

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