Monday, 11th December 2023

Tears, complaints trail Nigeria’s N304 billion capital flight to Mecca

By Shakirah Adunola
21 July 2023   |   3:45 am
This year’s pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca is one of the most expensive in recent times. Yet, also one of the most disappointing for several faithful.

This year’s pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca is one of the most expensive in recent times. Yet, also one of the most disappointing for several faithful. And from the sob stories of pilgrims, it was a logistic nightmare from start to finish. But beyond the Saudi authorities’ pledge to refund as compensation, stakeholders are unanimous that the entire value-chain of preparation, pilgrimaging and return-to-base is due for regulatory overhaul, SHAKIRAH ADUNOLA reports.

Year 2023 Hajj exercise will linger in the minds of all pilgrims for a long time to come. But for several, it would be for the raw deal.

Besides scores that were left behind after weeks of arduous preparation at various Hajj camps nationwide, it was also not an epic joy ride for a section that made it to the holy city, in fulfillment of one of the major pillars of Islam.

The ordeal began with paying exorbitant fees that have increased by an average of 200 per cent (compared to 2019/2020) benchmark. Apparently out of desperation, quite a number of intending pilgrims got swindled by scammers masquerading as agents.

For those lucky, then came the routine near dead-end delays by operating airlines, especially those ferrying pilgrims of the private operators. It didn’t end there; some state contingents got to Mecca to find that there was no adequate provision for menu and other upkeeps. And perhaps for the underestimated large turnout of over two million pilgrims in Mecca this year, the Saudi authorities also fell short in adequate care and comfort for visitors.

Both the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) and its licensed operators agreed that there is a lot more to be done for stress-free religious tourism generally and getting value for money.

Pilgrims on protest
Friday, June 23, was an unsettling eyesore at the entry gates of Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. Scores of elderly citizens, all cladded in ankara apparels, were seated on bare floors – waiting for their flight to Mecca!

In their midst were seething confusion and uncertainty of making it to Saudi Arabia, just days to the deadline. None was sure the operating carrier would show up. And as the sun hit its summit above, tempers began to flare.

The Guardian learnt that they had been stranded in Lagos for days, waiting for Arik Air that was designated to airlift 10,000 pilgrims of the private operators in Lagos, Kano and Abuja.

Unknown to the pilgrims, the airline suspended its Hajj special flights due to funding challenges and unpaid “mobilisation fee” by NAHCON. NAHCON on its part was battling the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for the disbursement of the funds due to the airlines. In the mix, the pilgrims suffered endlessly.

For about a week, the pilgrims, both male and female, completely took over the Central Mosque near the international wing of the airport.

“Many of the women cried and wailed after days of waiting for their airlift despite paying millions of naira, doubling what those under the government quota through the various state pilgrims’ boards,” one of the stranded pilgrims said.

Among the stranded were over 10 intending pilgrims, who travelled to Nigeria from the United Kingdom and U.S. to participate in the exercise with Nigerian agents only to be disappointed.

One of the intending pilgrims, a female, said she arrived in Lagos from Ilorin after paying N6 million for the exercise. She was a victim of a similar delay and cancellation last year. This time, she changed her agent but without much relief.

She said: “I just don’t understand how these people manage to promise so much and fail to keep any. I was meant to travel the following day but here we are on the seventh day. In the process, I have finished all the money I was meant to spend in Saudi Arabia.

“It is not a peculiar case. Just go inside the mosque and see how we have been living for the past seven days. There is even no partition for males and females. We were practically sleeping in the open after paying N6 million.

“I paid double of what others who travelled through the state pilgrims’ welfare boards paid. I am aware that the Hajj Commission has completed their airlift and yet those of us who made our private arrangement are still here. Why?”

Another intending pilgrim, Ademola Adediran, had flown in from the United Kingdom to be a part of the Nigerian contingent to Hajj. Adediran soon regretted the route taken. He said his experience has been horrible.

Adediran said: “The plan was to come home and from here, go to Hajj. But I cannot tell you the stress that we have gone through because of wanting to be patriotic enough to do things in Nigeria.

“I have been here at a hotel close to the airport waiting endlessly. I don’t even know whether we will be able to make it or not.”

Adediran said it was unfortunate that Nigeria is yet to perfect the Hajj system, noting the same problem had continued to rear its ugly head.

All pilgrims are not equal
For some that made it on schedule, the exercise in Saudi Arabia was also not as seamless.

The contingent from Osun state protested the poor quality of food they were served by the State Pilgrims Welfare Board. In a video clip that went viral, the pilgrims were seen dumping food packs given to them in front of room 211, said to be occupied by the state Amirul Hajj, Dr. Maroof Ishola.

According to sources, pilgrims have been complaining about the poor quality of food they were being served by the caterers hired by the Board since they arrived in Saudi Arabia. It was also learnt that the rising tension about the welfare of the pilgrims became aggravated when some of them visited Lagos camp and discovered those in the camp were getting better food.

Similarly, going on Arafat presented its own challenges. Recall that quite symbolic was Mount Arafat during the pilgrimage. It is a day so significant the Prophet Muhammad stated, “Hajj IS Arafat”. Muslims believe that any prayer a pilgrim makes with utmost sincerity at Arafat will be accepted. And forgiveness, that desperately sought-after grant from Allah, Al-Ghafoor – “The most forgiving”, awaits a pilgrim at Arafat.

So, all pilgrims looked forward to the bus drive from the tent city of Mina to Arafat, where pilgrims spend the daylight hours at the plains surrounding Mount Arafat, before moving on.

While most of the other pilgrims were safely in their tents, some entitled to “special services” tents with high quality air-conditioning, free soft drinks and meals and the relative comfort of fewer pilgrims per tent – those on the streets clearly had nowhere to stay despite the blistering heat.

A Nigerian pilgrim, Saheed Adetu, said they were abandoned to their fate. “We were treated like illegal squatters, had no tent and slept under the bridge near the dustbin. It was that bad. I paid N4.5 million for this exercise and was assured of a total package. It was at the point of departing that the story started changing.”

The scarcity of tents left a lot of pilgrims stranded under the bridge, adding to their already challenging pilgrimage experience.

The Guardian observed an acute shortage of makeshift tents at Kano, Kaduna, and Katsina, Adamawa camps. Similarly, cases of food shortage were noticeable at several camps, especially at Muna, as pilgrims rationed the available portion.

In the video with the caption “Nigeria pilgrims stranded under the bridge over shortage of tents in Saudi”, a significant number of pilgrims can be seen lying on the ground, their only barrier against the elements being the hard concrete beneath them. The scenes depict the grim reality faced by these individuals, who embarked on a spiritual journey only to find themselves in desperate circumstances.

Yusuf Akinsola, who just returned from Mecca, confirmed that the experience was not different from others of the past.

“Hajj or Umrah has always been a stressful adventure and a lot of efforts have been made to improve the experience. What is most annoying here is that the more expensive the journey becomes, the more unpleasant it gets. Beside the spiritual satisfaction, the service should also be commensurate with the cost,” Akinsola said.

An expensive ride
Nigeria had 95,000 pilgrims in Mecca this year, spread across three categories of federal, state and private operators. The category determines the fee paid by each pilgrim. Comparatively, this year’s pilgrimage turns out to be the most expensive across the board.

A cursory look at the price variation, since 2014 to date, showed a steady spike, partly due to the foreign exchange surge against the naira.

According to the records of NAHCON, the cost of going to Hajj, which was N700,000 in 2015, has spiked to N2.9 million in 2023. The 2016 cost was N800, 000, which almost doubled (N1.5 million) in 2019. Following the 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 break, Hajj resumed in 2022 at the cost of N2.5 million per pilgrim.

The cost takes care of airfare, accommodation, logistics, BTA and sacrificial lamb.

In the State-operated category, the cost is marginally subsidised. In 2015, the cost was pegged at N650, 000 per pilgrim. A year later, it rose to N720, 000, and N960, 000 in 2017. By 2018, it was already a million naira, and N1.2 million in 2019. The cost was N2.65 million and N3.2 million in 2022 and 2023, in that order.

The private tour operators are not for the faint-hearted. In 2020, the licensed operators ferried pilgrims at the cost of the average of N2.2 million, N2.5 million in 2021, N3 million in 2022 and an average of N4 million for the just concluded pilgrimage.

Cumulatively, and at the average of N3.2 million (charged by states), the 95,000-pilgrim quota allotted to Nigeria did cost N304 billion in capital flight.

The Vice President, Association of Hajj and Umrah Organisations in Nigeria (AHUON), Southwest, Alhaji Qasim Alabi, told The Guardian, that logistics and poor treatment of pilgrims were the major challenges that impeded the operations of tour operators at the just-concluded Hajj rites.

Alabi, who is also the Managing Director of Habdat Xpress, noted that during the phases of the challenges, NAHCON made a spirited effort to arrest the challenges.

On the logistic bottleneck on the 2023 Hajj exercise, he said, regarding the airlift of pilgrims of tour operators, “the Hajj commission is not in charge, they only came to our rescue and they were able to provide us with another aircraft and about 99 per cent of pilgrims of tour operators, who fully paid to tour operators in Nigeria, were airlifted to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the holy exercise.”

“The fact about the logistic bottleneck is that tour operators who are able to book scheduled flights had no issue as regards airlifting their passengers from Nigeria.

Operators, who book flights with Qatar Airlines, Egypt Airlines, Ethiopia Airlines and Turkish Airlines had no issue whatsoever on airlifting their passengers from Nigeria.

Those that have issues are tour operators who book flights with Arik Air.

“Basically, Arik was chosen to airlift pilgrims of private tour operators, this was in conjunction with NAHCON even though the flight in question is basically for tour operators, the Hajj commission only came in to regulate the process in case there is any issue.

“As Allah will have it, when we started operation the first Arik plane came, though it did not come at the time, they said it would come. It came very much later, so when it did, we were able to airlift about 264 passengers or there about. After that, we waited for the second flight all to no avail.  Arik claims that they couldn’t come because of some issue that has to do with finance among others. Nevertheless, NAHCON came to our rescue,” he said.

As regards fake operators swindling intending pilgrims, he said this has been going on for a long time now and AHOUN always tried to ensure that they did not scam people. But unfortunately, a lot of people still fall into the trap.

He advised pilgrims to do a lot of due diligence on any operator of choice. “There have been instances of people who paid money to scammers, and they couldn’t travel eventually. You can verify from AHOUN and NAHCON to ascertain that the company you want to pay to is licensed with the Hajj Commission.

“Of course, there are some good companies too who are not licensed but are partnering with licensed tour operators. They will tell you, ‘I don’t have a license, but I am partnering with a licensed tour operator’. That is understandable; you already know that you are paying the right person.

“Everybody knows that there used to be logistic problems in Mecca, most especially from Mecca to Mina, but this particular year, it is a different ball game entirely.

“In the past tour operators would be allotted their own tents at Mina. A tent per tour operator. But this particular year, they put like six or seven tour operators in one tent; no distinction whatsoever, and they couldn’t operate at all. There was no space to even pray; no chance to give a sermon. The toilet facility was nothing to write home about. It was so bad, and it was by Allah’s grace that we survived at Mina.

“For your information, we equally had some people who couldn’t travel from Mecca to Mina. Because, at the time we got to Mina, the place was full. Other people that were left behind in Mecca were transported to Arafah the second day. When they arrived in Mina, many of them eventually stayed under a bridge. No accommodation whatsoever, it was like maybe the Saudi government was biting more than it can chew.

“Eventually, NAHCON came to rescue pilgrims after Arafah. They were able to move pilgrims to a Turkish tent and to a bit of relief. It was not palatable at all; it was a terrible experience, even in VIP tent A where people paid a huge amount of money, there was a scarcity of beds in those places as well,” he said.

It was still a success despite glitches – NAHCON   
NAHCON, the agency responsible for the coordination of Hajj exercises in the country, acknowledged some of the challenges recorded, without obscuring its success.

The Hajj mission insisted the success so far attained in 2023 operation would stand the test of time, especially in the areas of “timely completion” of pilgrims’ airlift, accommodation of pilgrims at five stars hotel in Medinah and feeding exercise.

NAHCON Chairman, Zikrullah Kunle Hassan, said airlift of 73,000 pilgrims across the 35 states, FCT, Armed forces as well as officials of the commission were completed in record time.

Hassan added that NAHCON has also ensured quick rescue of non-conventional pilgrims from private tour agencies, who shared over 20,000 slots, to ensure that pilgrims were not stranded.   He, however, debunked allegations of any stranded pilgrims.

A private tour operator reckoned that NAHCON was able to fulfil its promises and obligation to Nigeria pilgrims this year.

“Though, there are dubious people out there who are trying to sabotage the effort. They paraded as Hajj operators, yet they have no connection with the exercise. There is no big deal to be a racketeer; they can connect with those who are licensed tour operators so that their pilgrims can follow through the right channel, and they get a good percentage of profit. Among them are the ones giving everybody a bad name.

“The regulator also needs to be firm in enforcing its rules to have a seamless operation. We have too many loose ends, though not peculiar to Nigeria, but also in Saudi. We need to learn from the past mistakes and improve on the system going forward,” he said.

In response to the issues raised concerning logistics and poor treatment of pilgrims at the holy land, NAHCON Deputy Director, Information and Publication, Mousa Ubandawaki, said NAHCON is not in charge of the logistics for tour operators: they organise their airlift operation through either scheduled or chartered flight.”

“Many times, due to lateness in securing visas for their pilgrims, they lose or forfeit their ticket through No Show. On the issue of illegal tour operators, the commission has in place machinery to weed them out,” he said.

He said NAHCON has set up an eight-man committee to review the services offered to Nigerian pilgrims at the Masha’ir during the 2023 hajj and develop a recommendation and position paper.

“The decision was part of the resolution adopted at the end of a meeting between NAHCON, State Muslim pilgrims’ welfare boards and Tour Operators, which was held at the Commission Ummul-Judd office in Makkah and was attended by the Executive Secretaries/Chairmen or Amirul Hajj of the 36 states, FCT, the Armed forces and members of AHOUN,” he said.