A direct threat to the success of an event is not necessarily lack of planning, late planning is as bad. Its effect in Hajj planning is far more profound than one can think. The best but limited Hajj resources are scrambled for by the early planners. Hajj conduct is time bound in compliance with Islamic sharia. If at all there is any country to wait for on Hajj, it would have been the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Thankfully, Saudi Arabia has proven that no country would have to wait for it, at least not on 2024 Hajj. That country had released its preparatory timeline for the Hajj next season the moment it dropped the last page of its 2023 Hajj itinerary.
Should any country choose to delay planning, its malaise is generally irreversible because what is gone, is gone. This much, the revered Chairman of the Mutawwif Company of African Non-Arab Countries, Dr Ahmad Abbas Sindi, connoted during his visit to Nigeria. The visit was a paradigm shift, giving NAHCON the upper hand to wield its soft power for better bargain for its pilgrims. Yet, there was one caveat to all the beautifully promised deals, plan early.
It would be remembered that during the closing ceremony of 2023 Hajj, the Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah had revealed that there would not be reservation of any specific location for any country in the Holy Sites during 2024 Hajj. Instead, priority will be given to those countries that fulfill the terms and conditions and provisions of bilateral agreements early and complete all the preparations for the Hajj early. The ministry then went ahead and released a 2024 Hajj timetable to guide all participating countries of the world. Deadlines were set earlier than before. Unfortunately because Hajj planning in Nigeria relies on several wings to fly, late planning has been Nigeria’s perplexing albatross.
From Saudi Arabia’s calendar of activities, Hajj participating countries should by now be on the 3rd item on the list of preparatory programs for 2024 Hajj, that is after having concluded preparatory meetings that would determine the types of packages available to pilgrims to choose from. In Nigeria’s own case for instance, preparatory program cannot move without a number to plan for. This statement has turned into a cliché’ in Nigeria’s Hajj parlance.
For countries like Indonesia and Malaysia-the big two in modern Hajj management structure- getting the best sites is a given. They have Hajj systems that work, statutorily guarded against interference by any level of government. Pilgrims’ deposits go straight into the central Hajj management purse which provides the Fund Managers an instrument to sift eligible pilgrims and organize Hajj five years in advance. Their digitalized systems enable them to ascertain those that would be eligible in 30 years’ time. In Malaysia, it is the Tabung Hajji, in Indonesia, it is BPKH. These institutions have grown to become international moneylenders and investors. They utilize proceeds from investment to subsidize Hajj for the subscribers, they carry out community development projects from the profits, provide social safety net for citizens, and still have surplus to lend to willing borrowers. Malaysia’s Tabung Hajji with only 30,000 Hajj slot allocation registers its presence in domestic and international marketplace with more than RM88.9 billion funds (excluding assets). That is about 19 billion Dollars or N15 trillion Naira. This figure is intimidating to the Nigerian Hajj industry, a country with the fifth largest Hajj contingent in the world yet cannot translate this asset to wealth. Unfortunately, we have the equivalent of the Malaysian/Indonesian model in the Hajj Savings Scheme which sadly, endures as a dwarf, resulting from targeted frustration.
Nigeria’s place in the world Hajj corridor is fundamental. This is evident from the effect NAHCON’s threat to severe business ties with its long-standing ally the Mu’assasa elicited. Nigeria exhibited its superiority to be wooed with an offer of better services for its pilgrims. Among other concessions, Mr Sindi had apologized for the suffering Nigerian pilgrims and their handlers encountered during the last season with a promise to offer redress as well as to improve on all services at impressive rates for the 2024 Hajj. Plus, scouting for best chefs from all Nigeria’s regional divides that will prepare customary meals for pilgrims. Mr Sindi vowed to engage only persons with proven integrity to superintend his company’s computerized meal delivery system for 2024 Hajj while demanding NAHCON’s attaché in the arrangement to be the Commission’s eyes. He made a solemn declaration to make this year’s service delivery transparent and examinable by all parties. This way, every side will identify and hold defaulters responsible if it so happens. The move to cement this agreement is expected to happen soon.
The dilemma is, would these advantages materialize for Nigeria’s 2024 Hajj contingent to enjoy an upgrade? Where are we in the calendar of Hajj planning?
We may still have the grace of little time to get it right depending on how quick we respond to the milestones at sight. If Hajj handlers work ahead with a 2024 deadline to beat in the interest of intending pilgrims, we may still have the hope of enjoying the cost-effective deals that followed us to our domain. Then moving forward, until we adjust with the changing times and entrench a system that allows Nigeria’s apex Hajj organizer to plan years ahead, we may yearly review what went wrong with the preceding Hajj but still get it wrong in the succeeding year. There is no avoiding this since it will remain the same rigmarole producing the same results; an endless wait for pilgrims to pay and a gradual remittance for services to be secured.
Though if the Nigerian Hajj industry is averse to change, NAHCON may set early deadlines and wield the big stick to work with only the compliant. Do that and the Commission would be drowned in unimaginable pressure from even the guilty and their unit leaders.
That picture we conjure in our minds of a beautiful Hajj experience may still be a mirage until all Hajj units in the country accord the Commission the unalloyed respect/cooperation that the founders of a central coordinating Hajj Commission in Nigeria envisaged for it to plan well. A scheme that offers NAHCON and its counterparts a window to prospectively determine qualified candidates for next Hajj is a saving grace. We may falter as we learn to operate the Hajj Savings Scheme, but we should not remain stagnantly licking our wounds every year. Without the full compliance of all Hajj units in Nigeria to this scheme, the Commission would remain handicapped in planning ahead.
Then again, until we actualize our national pledge to be faithful, loyal, and honest for sake of our pilgrims, our odds for getting it right may remain unfavorable. Serving pilgrims with fear of Almighty, aligning to what is in their interest, is a trust whose weight we must allow to sink in our hearts. Self interest should come last in the work of Hajj. Most of these pilgrims are naïve, relying on their officials to decide what is best for them, these are same people that entrust their lives and their wealth to their officials; they do not deserve manipulation. Neither would the Almighty they serve allow their manipulators to relish their deeds for long.
To lace it up, we must begin (continue) to see Hajj industry beyond a religious sphere. If we sincerely want to plan well, control the annual spiraling of Hajj fare, we need to begin to explore the economic benefits of Hajj. Indonesia recently landed a deal to export foodstuff to Saudi Arabia to feed its pilgrims and by extension, reduce its cost of feeding. If Nigeria’s Hajj circle is to be similarly industrious, ours would be a full commercial venture that would earn the country the much-needed foreign exchange, considering the multitudes of Nigerians that “japa” to Saudi Arabia for livelihood. We have prospects in shipping our sacrificial rams, how about producing our own ihrams and probably branding them with state codes? How about constructing our own hotels in Makkah and Madinah thereby cutting cost of accommodation by more than half the present rate? Then lease them out during out of season to generate more income. These can only happen with the right liquidity to invest with, and the willing mindset to work with.
Finally, Hajj is a spiritual journey, we need to beg the Almighty to exorcise Nigeria’s Hajj industry of any unfaithful infestation derailing it from reaching its predestined peak. May this be the last year that Hajj will be planned only one year in advance, may this also be the last year that NAHCON will be begging for Hajj remittances well after deadline. Hajj today is a competitive endeavour, may we not come last.
Usara is Assistant Director Public Affairs, NAHCON
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