By Fatima Sanda Usara
National Hajj Commission of Nigeria’s (NAHCON) inspection tour is not the leisurely visit where inspectors take brisk walks round a facility, sometimes sipping tea, or juice, throwing banters, gazing from one angle to the other and then lastly sit in the comfort of an administrator’s or manager’s office for final entertainment. NAHCON’s inspection tour is the type that makes one sweat despite the air conditioner. It is one that makes a person shed excess fat from the body due to the hilly, sloppy and flat terrains you traverse in a bid to present first-hand information and with pictorial evidence to a team of negotiators waiting to strike the best deals in the interest of the Nigerian pilgrim. It is one that makes you reject what looks like a charitable cup of tea offered to you by your Arab friendly host, not because you do not need it but because you have over a dozen houses to inspect before day break and of course, so that your heart may not be tamed to compromise your job: this is NAHCON chairman’s standing order before dispatching his inspection team to Saudi Arabia.
A pre hajj inspection team visited Makkah to determine that NAHCON’s regulations concerning accommodation are adhered to and to negotiate reasonable discounts on state chosen lodgings for their respective pilgrims. The team, led by commissioner of Policy, Personnel Management and Finance, Dr. Yusuf Adebayo Ibrahim, arrived Makkah on 26th of March 2018 to fast track the accommodation booking process in order to meet up with Saudi Arabia’s deadline for formal notification of booked lodgings by countries participating in the year’s Hajj. This is to allow the Kingdom to also carry out its own suitability assessment of such houses before final approval is granted prior to arrival of pilgrims.
Three groups were created to inspect over 50 houses with the instruction that each house should reflect its value from whence bargaining shall be done based on individual merit. The chairman, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, advised the team to take advantage of Nigeria’s large number of pilgrims and utilize it as a bargaining chip. The required standards that qualify a house as taken include; that the house must be licensed for lease by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj; a building of 10 years and below gets an A grade rating; it should have not less than 500 bed spaces (except where the house is to make up for allocated number); each room should preferably hold four to five beds only or less, should be en suite with thick curtains, functional air conditioners, befitting mattresses, beds and blankets. Other prequalification conditions are: availability of in-house restaurants, spacious lobbies, in-house or nearby mosques, accessibility to major routes, proximity to Haram mosque (Ka’aba mosque should not be more than two kilometers away but if farther, the SPWB must provide shuttle buses to convey their pilgrims to and from the holy mosque) and the house should have wide enough elevators to facilitate quick movement of many pilgrims at a time, availability of fire escape routes, fire alarms, functional fire extinguishers, first aid boxes among others. Although these are the major requirements, other added advantages include flatness of the terrain, proximity to other Nigerian hotel accommodations, availability of security cameras, gender sensitive arrangements etcetera.
Apart from NAHCON inspectors on whose shoulder the ultimate responsibility squarely lies, other observers among the team were drawn from Nigerian foreign mission in Saudi Arabia and from Nigeria’s National Assembly Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. Others present among the inspection crew comprised representatives of State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards (SPWBs), a representative from the office of the Secretary to the Federal Government and representatives of the home owners in Saudi Arabia.
These inspection squads carried out their assignments no matter time of day or night and so did the negotiation team. There were no cases of staff abandoning their responsibility for the advantage of praying in the holy mosque nor for embarking on shopping sprees. Their task was to see the job completed within the stipulated days. This writer recalls how while still on the field, one of the exhausted persons from among the observation team members asked whether this was how NAHCON carried out this inspection yearly and the response was that it used to be worse. It was explained to him that time back when there were no strict regulations on minimum number of bed spaces to a lodging, a single state would hire 20 houses and above and NAHCON staff were expected to visit each before such houses were cleared for hiring. Back then, some of the booked lodgings could be big enough for not more than a few number of pilgrims thus most inspection visits could only be concluded around dawn when it was already time for Subhi prayer. Fortunately for this team, the latest our team stayed up on the field was 2: am. And this was not to say other paper works do not continue within office confines thereafter.
One significant milestone which this trip achieved among others is a drop in cost of accommodation compared to previous years, how this will impact on final fare is yet to be seen. True, composition of the inspection team proofs that NAHCON’s activities are not shrouded in secrecy nor does the commission exclude relevant government organs from making input in its assignments. Indeed the commission embraces constructive criticisms.
With the benefit of hindsight, the commendations which NAHCON receives annually from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is indicative of the magnitude of exploits the commission undergoes in its bid to discharge its responsibility to its clients earnestly. Who, knowing what NAHCON has accomplished since its creation would still wish to depict it as an indolent and wasteful agency? For analogy’s sake, bring to mind the kind of rigors some parents go through in trying to organize a three day wedding program for about 1,000 guests only. Compare these rigors to a commission that plans an average of 30 days trip inclusive of feeding, transportation, accommodation, health care for over 80, 000 pilgrims across country. It is the opinion of this writer that the successes so far recorded outweighs any letdown.
Fatima Sanda Usara is a Public Policy Analyst.