The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) was be 10 years on 25th May, 2017. It celebrated the occasion on 1st and 2nd July, 2017 in Abuja by gathering experts in the field to review the past and chart the way forward. It has been a wonderful experience being in an establishment saddled with the responsibility of serving the guests of Allah, a responsibility that is herculean, tempting, yet spiritually compelling and rewarding.

The history of Hajj administration in Nigeria calls for reflections. In contemporary times, I can unarguably assert, the history are in two parts: between 1975 and 2007 and between 2007 and 2017. The first era was when the spiritual journeys were subjected to diverse challenging hiccups and run under different bodies. The nomenclature of the Hajj organizing body changed from era to another. Before 1975, pilgrims’ affairs were administered by regional governments, private organizations and individuals. At the beginning of the new era, precisely in 1975, it was named Nigerian Pilgrims’ Board (NPB).

Late Sheikh Abubakar Mahmoud Gummi, of blessed memory, was the pioneer chairman of federal government’s Hajj administrative body. He chaired the NPB from 1975 to 1980. It remained NPB under different leaderships until 1989 when it transformed to Nigerian Pilgrims’ Commission (NPC). In 1991, the body was relegated to a mere department in the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was called Directorate of Pilgrims Affairs (DPA).

In 1995, apparently due to inefficiency and difficulties in operations, the body was turned into a Presidential Committee on Hajj (PCH), named Office of Pilgrims’ Affairs under the Presidency. From the year 2000 to 2004, Hajj operations were organized by a National Committee on Hajj (NCH) under the Presidency. Between 2004 and 2006, the DPA of the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs came on board again due to claims and counterclaims that foreign trips by Nigerians, under whatever guise, fall within the purview of the ministry. I recall that, as a field journalist then with the Daily Trust in Port Harcourt, no single pilgrim was airlifted from the Port Harcourt zone of the then DPA during the December 2005/January 2006 Hajj. That year was probably the worst experience in Hajj operations during the period under review.

The journey of Hajj management to such greatness and stability is simple. In 2006, the National Assembly enacted a law that established a full-fledged body, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). For the 2006 Hajj, probably to forestall reoccurrence of the very ugly experiences witnessed in the past, especially during the previous year’s Hajj, a Presidential Committee on Hajj resurfaced. This time, it was put under the chairmanship of one egalitarian administrator, Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello. Methinks, sincerely, that the coming of Muhammad Bello into Hajj management and his successor, Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, MON, has stabilized Hajj operations in Nigeria. In the contemporary Hajj experiences in Nigeria, nothing can be more manifest than the achievements the duo has made for the Nigerian Muslim Ummah in general and the yearly teeming Umrah and Hajj pilgrims in particular. The past years of “Hajj with tears” were gradually turned to “Hajj with ease”. In that year’s Hajj, despite some insurmountable challenges that were quite natural and some bed-ridden from the past, the overall assessment was simply “Hajj with very little tears”.

The achievements of the Commission speak for themselves as those who embarked on the spiritual trip before 2006 and those who are conscious of contemporary happenings and developments will attest to this fact. Hajj will continue to the end of the world, God willing. So the management of Hajj in Nigeria should never be subjected to any form of hazardous arrangements as it was between 1975 and 2006. No Nigerian Muslim should be fooled into believing that Hajj can be managed better without NAHCON of today.

NAHCON was set up to regulate and organize Hajj and umrah operations in Nigeria, in such a manner that the pilgrim should obtain Hajj mabrur with ease or with the barest unavoidable challenges. NAHCON was born by an Act of the National Assembly (NASS), endorsed by the then President Obasanjo and the then clerk of the NASS, Nasir Ibrahim Arab. This followed the constitution of a Governing Board for the Commission and the transfer of staff of the former Directorate of Pilgrims’ Affairs (DPA) to the new establishment. As mentioned, DPA was then a department in the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

To achieve this target for the Nigerian pilgrim, the Commission gathered its board members, management and senior staff and other highly placed personalities in Hajj affairs to analyze the NAHCON’s Act 2006 and the inherent challenges in its implementation; sensitize the board and staff members on the Federal Government’s procedures and financial regulations; and develop a strategic plan that would guide the Commission’s operations. One of the architects of the NAHCON Act 2006 and former member of the House of Representatives, Dr. Usman Bugaje, stirred the assemblage, harping on the grey areas in the Act, dealing particularly with Sections 7 and 11 which provide for the enlightenment of pilgrims, biometric matters and improving the general health of the pilgrims, Hajj Savings Scheme, among others. Late Professor Abubakar Gwandu showcased the relationship between an employer and an employee with special emphasis on the Islamic perspective.

“NAHCON staff must work with a focus, trust one another and in perfect harmony in a complementary manner that would depict them as being Allah-conscious at all times. They must see themselves as employees of the pilgrims for whose reasons they have earned the job and also gotten benefits. In addition, they must serve to attain Allah’s abundant mercy as promised those who facilitate any good deed”, the university don summed up.

Muhammad Bello was very lucky to have wonderful and dedicated board members despite individualistic shortcomings. The board of reputable representatives each from the six geopolitical zones of the federation, some from Federal Ministries and agencies including Foreign Affairs, Finance, Health, Aviation, Interior (Immigration), Central Bank of Nigeria, and the two apex Islamic organizations in Nigeria: Jama’atu Nasril-Islam (JNI) and the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) worked with him. He was described by the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhhamad Sa’ad Abubakar III, as “small but mighty”. And he was exceptionally intelligent, frugal and forbearing, indeed.

The Board served its two tenures and bowed out. It was a painful exit especially because they touched the lives of the staff and the pilgrims most of whom they encountered for the first time in life. Many of the members, led by Bello made indelible prints on the path of Hajj management and transformation in Nigeria. No doubt, they have sown sadaqatul-jariyah (ceaseless charity) that will outlive them. This is the type of good deeds every believer in Allah and in the Day of Resurrection strives to attain.

But alas, such a very interesting job! Such a very compelling and rewarding assignment! O, what a very dangerous duty! What a very enticing but risky religious opportunity! And what a pitiful end for those who struggle for such perilous Islamic assignment for mere worldly praise and gratification! Imagine the rewards for those who have sincerely served nearly one million guests of Allah. And imagine the opposite.

I recall my encounters with some of these Nigerian Hajj managers. As the Port Harcourt zonal coordinator, I encountered an experience with the Chairman/CEO that encouraged me. With that anxiety to deliver, I felt that contacting him for clearance was the best option. He allowed me for some time and then one day told me boldly “Mr. Man, we sent you there to represent the Commission and solve the problem that may arise from the states under you. Unless otherwise, then you contact the commissioners in charge. Thank you.”

Another time was when I wrote an article on Hajj transformation in Nigeria in the Leadership Newspapers which used his portrait. In that article, there was an accolade to his effort in the transformation story of Hajj administration in the country. Rather than thank me for a publication well written, the Chairman was very angry with me. He called me into his office and rattled me for quarter of an hour. At first, I felt bad. My crime was that the revolution in Hajj management in Nigeria was ascribed to him and the use of his picture for that story. However, as part of his characteristics, he later called me, advised me and apologized.

One other time was very personal. The talk among the staff of the Commission about Bello was that he was so frugal that he hardly approved any financial transaction without backings by federal government financial regulations. They would ask many times: Why does the chairman prefer to return huge sums of money to the federal government every year? And at many fora with the staff, the chairman would repeat: “I cannot generate memos. If you cannot utilize the funds genuinely, then they have to be returned to the government”.

The board of the commission was made of very hard working Nigerian citizens. The Commissioner for Policy, Personnel Management and Finance (PPMF), Alhaji Ibrahim Yusuf Adebayo is “money preserver”. He would always say, “This is government money and we have to account for it. You must retire advances made to you appropriately.” He took over from Alhaji Liad Tella who resigned his appointment in 2011 to pursue a political ambition in his state, Osun. Alhaji Tella was the man for all staff who often believed in “Give every worker his entitlement”. The then Commissioner Operations, Barr. Muhammad Abdullahi Mukhtar, now the Chairman/CEO, was “the rule of law”. Many of the transformational indices in the Commission were initiated by him even when he was a commissioner. He took over from Prof. Badmos Lanre Yusuf who resigned his appointment in 2011 to pursue his professorship degree at the University of Ilorin. Dr. Badmus was a silent but stringent mover of the operations. Barr. Mukhtar took over from Mallam Bello as the Chairman/CEO in May 2014.

The Commissioner for Planning, Research, Statistics, Information and Library Services (PRSILS), Sheikh Dr. Saleh Okenwa was a quiet but “man of due diligence”. His concern was “my work first” and he would never compromise his duty. He earned the admiration of all the Board members and staff. It suffices to describe him as a “non-materialistic, frank and trustworthy citizen.” I learnt two simple sentences from him. Number one was: “It’s okay”. Sheikh would repeat this sentence as many times as possible when his explanations on a matter are not understood and the listener prefers to put up an argument. As far as I knew him, he would ensure that he doesn’t regret his action. I often thought he was the proponent of the proverb that says: “Think twice before you leap.” The second sentence is “Where are you?” This statement reveals that the person questioned is not available at that particular time. And Sheikh, always time-conscious, dislikes absence when presence was needed. Another big thing about Sheikh is his reluctance in approving government financial transaction.

The six geopolitical board members in reminiscence were: Northwest – Alhaji Ado Shinkafi (Bunun Katsina) was replaced by Hajiya Aisha Maidubu Muhammad, North-Central – Sheikh Musa Isa who I call the ‘General’ being the strong man who coordinated the Madinah operations for many years. He was replaced by Hajiya Rahmatu Bala Usman. Southeast – Sheikh Abdullah Adam Idoko who was the Commandant of Hijra Operations in Madinah throughout his service to the Nigerian pilgrims in that capacity was replaced by Chief Alhaji Ibrahim Ezeani. South-South – Ahmad C. Efebeli who would always demand for record of every event in his zone and follow up the activities of the states he represented was succeeded by Alhaji Abdurrahman Zikeyi popularly called the “Sultan of the Niger Delta”; Southwest – Hajiya Fatimah Oyekan, who I refer to as the protector of Nigerian female pilgrims was succeeded by the humble Islamic scholar and Imam, Alhaji Fuad A. Adeyemi of the renowned Alhabibiyyah Islamic Society; Northeast – Hajiya Hannatu S. Birma, who I describe as the mother of Nigerian pilgrims. She would always ask when she worked in Madinah: “How are our pilgrims today? She was replaced by Alhaji Danjuma Salihu Usman. The representative of Jama’atu Nasril-Islam (JNI) – Dr. Sheikh Haroun Ogbonnia Ajah championed the National Reception Team (NRT), an innovation that tremendously turned around the Hajj operations during arrival and departure of pilgrims at Saudi airports in Jeddah and Madinah. He was replaced by Professor Abubakar Mustapha.

Others were Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) – Professor K. K. Olosho who took over from Ambassador Ibrahim Gusau whose predecessor was Ambassador Mamu Sanusi; the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) – Abubakar Isa who took over from Muhammad Nda; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – MJZ Abubakar Waziri who took over from Mahdi Jibir; the Ministry of Aviation – Dr. Ibrahim Idris who was succeeded by Alhaji Wakil Adamu; the Ministry of Health – Dr. Ibrahim Kana who took over from Dr. Abdurrazzaq Badamasi whose predecessor was Professor Abdussalam A. Nasidi OON; the Ministry of Finance – Suleiman Minna who took over from Abdurrazzaq Salau; the Ministry of Interior (Immigration) – Aminu Bako Yarima who took over from Muhammad Babandede now Comptroller-General of the Immigration. He took over from Isa Bukar. Others were the representatives of the Presidency – Ambassador Arab A. Yadam who took over from Capt. Shehu Usman Iyal.

The Amirul Hajj for 2006 was former Senate leader, Senator Taslim Folarin; that of 2007 and 2008 Hajj was former Speaker of the House of Representative, Rt. Hon. Dimeji Bankole; and that of 2009 Hajj was Senator Kanti Bello. In 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan made the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’adu Abubakar, mni, CFR, the permanent Amirul-Hajj and Leader of the Federal Government Delegation on Hajj. In 2015, President Muhammad Buhari abolished the Amirul-Hajj position and the federal government’s delegation on Hajj, a prelude to gradual hands-off of government from Hajj matters. However, the emir of Kano, HRH, Alhaji Dr. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi in company of some few Muslim leaders went Saudi Arabia that year as a volunteer body on Hajj under the auspices of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA). In 2016 Hajj, the Estu Nupe, Alhaji Yahya Abubakar also went as the leader of a delegation set up by the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) on Hajj.

NAHCON has zonal offices and staff. The main function of the zonal offices is to serve as a link between the states of the federation and the national headquarters of the Commission. It coordinates all airlift operations of pilgrims to and from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, coordinating state activities at the Holy Land among others. The zones are also often referred to as departure centers.

The Commission had eleven zonal offices before 2014 Hajj. The eleven zones are: Abuja/Minna, Maiduguri, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Lagos, Ibadan, Ilorin, Sokoto, Yola, Port Harcourt and Gombe which used to operate on adhoc basis. In 2014 Hajj, four new departure centers were created: Dutse in Jigawa state where the inaugural flight for 2014 Hajj was flagged off on 6th September, 2014; Birnin-Kebbi of Kebbi state, Enugu of Enugu state for South Eastern states and Bauchi of Bauchi state. These departure centers are being restructured and may be reduced on the accounts of vibrancy and frugality in the management of Hajj funds.

Interestingly, a major challenge that was encountered by the Commission after its birth was the stabilization of pilgrims’ airlift to and from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This key component constitutes over seventy percent of the entire Hajj operations. There was the use of e-passport by the Nigerian pilgrims. Three years into its establishment, precisely in 2009, the Saudi Arabian authorities banned globally the use of the then conventional Hajj passports. The Commission immediately visited the Comptroller General of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) in Abuja to discuss the matter. Request for proper arrangements for e-passports for all the 95,000 Nigerian pilgrims across the Federation for that year’s Hajj was made. In March 2009, officials of State Muslim Pilgrims’ Boards/Agencies/Commissions were summoned to Abuja to discuss the matter and agree on modalities to pursue it at their various state levels. It also demanded serious orientation for the intending pilgrims. NAHCON sent a team led by the Commissioner in charge of planning, research, statistics, nformation and library services (PRSILS), Sheikh Dr. Saleh Okenwa, to the Kingdom to meet with the Saudi Ministry of Hajj, the Muassassah and the United Agents on the e-passport.

Another serious challenge the Commission faced was that of Mahram in 2012 Hajj. That was the first time in the history of Hajj operations in Nigeria that the Saudi authorities denied many Nigerian female pilgrims entrance into the Kingdom on the basis of Mahram. Over 1,500 female pilgrims were initially refused entry by the Saudi Immigration, though most of them were brought back to Nigeria and reissued visas with proper Mahram. However, Nigerians were taken unawares because right from the preparations for 2012 Hajj which was officially launched in February 2012 with the signing of the 2012 Hajj Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Saudi Arabia and Nigerian, there was no mention of the Mahram issue either verbally or in written document.

Yes, the Saudi authorities in Nigeria were also taken unawares because several meetings were held between NAHCON and the Saudi Embassy and Consulate in Abuja and Kano respectively during the preparatory stages and before the issuance of Hajj visa began. There was no mention of the matter. I argued that the Saudi Embassy in Abuja and its consulate in Kano couldn’t have done Nigerian female pilgrims any good by issuing them visas, knowing that they cannot enter their country with the visas. Added to that, the process of acquiring a Hajj visa is such that the data and all relevant information of the intending pilgrim are posted online to the visa portal of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). The posted information is viewed by all relevant Saudi authorities before approval is granted for issuance of the visa via the Saudi Embassy and its Consulate.

In a related issue, there was a case of 4,000 additional Hajj slots granted to Nigeria at the end of 2011 Hajj preparations by the Saudi Government which insisted it must be completely utilized by Nigeria if it must continue to have it. Nigeria complied and it was distributed to the states that requested for additional allocations. But when NAHCON signed the 2012 Hajj agreement, the 4,000 slots were not included, and on enquiry, the Commission was told that it was only a bonus for 2011 Hajj. This was after the Commission had distributed the 2012 Hajj seats to the State Boards and agencies based on the 4,000 additional slots of 2011.

Under NAHCON of today, all issues concerning accommodations and airlift of pilgrims are often concluded few months before the airlift operations commence. NAHCON has made air transport for the Nigerian pilgrims more formidable, comfortable and affordable. Some portfolio air carriers which used to fail pilgrims have been phased out. Accommodation arrangement for Nigerian pilgrims in Makkah and Madinah used to be characterized by controversies and inadequacies. The Nigerian pilgrims were before the birth of NAHCON left to the mercies of the accommodation providers who give the same services to pilgrims from all other countries of the world. Nigerian pilgrims’ accommodations in Madinah have changed. Pilgrims are now accommodated at the Markaziyyah hotels around the Prophet’s Mosque, though they have to pay more for the accommodation. Feeding arrangements for Nigerian pilgrims have improved and extended to Madinah; not only at the holy sites of Mina and Arafat. Caterers who render the service are subjected to thorough screening and prequalification exercise by NAHCON. These are unlike before ten years ago.

In the past, the inefficiency in airlifting Nigerian pilgrims to the Holy Land because of lack of a national carrier gave private airlines the ample opportunities to salvage the situation in most times. Many Nigerian airliners like Kabo, Meridian, Medview, Belleview and Mangal now Max Air, among others came into the scene. It is worthy to note that some of them, especially Max Air, Medview and Flynas of recent have maintained consistency and shown the ability to deliver at different levels and capacities. However, airlifting of pilgrims is associated sometimes with hitches that are beyond the control of human powers. Departure and arrival points for Nigerian pilgrims are many but there are only two arrival points in Saudi Arabia; Jeddah and Madinah. There is only one departure point for Nigerian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia which is the King Abdul-Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. Simple arithmetic reveals the impossibility of matching the Saudi-bound airlifts and the Nigeria-bound.

In February, 2016, the commission issued guidelines for better Hajj management as follows:
guidelines for the provision of accommodation for Nigerian pilgrims in Makkah and Madinah; guidelines for the provision of feeding services to Nigerian pilgrims; guidelines for pilgrims’ registration; and licensing of states Muslim pilgrims welfare boards/agencies/commissions.

NAHCON’s success stories are simply understandable. The Commission is an autonomous corporate establishment which has the whole time of the year to plan, strategize and carry out the activities which used to be discharged within two to three months by ad-hoc committees formerly constituted every year during Hajj operations. NAHCON is made up of citizens selected to man this important agency. NAHCON has received tremendous support from the Presidency under which the agency operates. All the relevant ministries and government agencies have given the Commission the necessary support. Also, the support from both chambers of the National Assembly – the Senate and House Committees on Foreign Affairs – has added weight to the balance the Commission needs to push forward. Airliners, suitcase providers/suppliers, caterers and accommodation providers are thoroughly prequalified and screened, full time inspections are carried out on the services provided by the certified companies and all matters related to tour operators have been addressed and periodically reviewed. NAHCON has also taken full control of umrah operations.

Meetings with State Muslim Pilgrims’ Boards/Agencies/Commission are regularly held, pre-hajj visits to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to secure suitable and adequate accommodations for the pilgrims and to conclude other contractual agreements with the Saudi authorities, matters related to accommodations and airlift of pilgrims and other logistics arrangements are concluded in good times. Distribution of hajj slots to 36 States, the FCT and the Armed Forces as well as the slots to tour operators, announcement of hajj fares, the printing and distribution of passport appendices used in conjunction with the e-passports to the State Pilgrims’ Boards/Agencies/Commissions, all health issues including vaccines against CSM, yellow fever and precautionary measures against airborne diseases and others are carried out in conjunction with the Federal Ministry of Health. Aggressive pilgrims’ enlightenment programmes are equally undertaken with all seriousness.

In the 2016 Hajj, NAHCON recorded milestone achievements for the first time in the history of Hajj operations in Nigeria by accommodating all the Nigerian pilgrims in high rising buildings around the Prophet’s Mosque. Also, the Commission made sure that all the Nigerian pilgrims visited Madinah during the pre-Arafah operations. Over 80% of the flights from Nigeria were direct into the Prince Muhammad Abdul-Aziz International Airport, Madinah while only 44 flights undertaken by Max Air landed in the King Abdul-Aziz International Airport, Jeddah. The pilgrims were therefore transported from Jeddah to Madinah by road before proceeding to Makkah, thus completely overcoming the Miqat palaver that often raise some dust among the Nigeria ulama. Feeding of Nigerian pilgrims in Makkah and Madinah to guard against hazardous food vendors around pilgrims’ accommodations has been successful. And the introduction of national medical team as well as national media team has been very fruitful and wonderful.

The management of NAHCON since 2007 to 2017, the State Hajj administrators at their various times of service, the tour operator companies, all government agencies involved in Hajj activities as well as volunteer groups have done well. Almost all arrangements for 2017 Hajj have been concluded and expectations are very high for a greater success. In the simplest summary, before the Commission was born, hajj administration and operations were a nightmare. But today, as confirmed by many national and international groups and individuals, including the host country – Saudi Arabia and His Eminence the Sultan of Sokoto and President-General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) and the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), Nigerian hajj operations under NAHCON are now hitch-free, easier and ultimately commendable.

It has not been easy to achieve this lot. It demanded selflessness, dedication, honesty, commitment, focus, integrity, broadmindedness, self-restraint, patience, forbearance and above all the fear of Allah. I pray that Allah grant Hajj managers in Nigeria more ample opportunities to do more good and be rewarded by Allah with Jannatul Firdaus on the Day of Judgment. Ameen. Happy anniversary to the NAHCON family!

By Muhammad AjahMuhammad Ajah is an advocate of humanity, peace and good governance in Abuja. E-mail [email protected]

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