The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) would like to draw the attention of the editor and publishers of The Guardian Newspaper to a report with the above headline published in its 24th July 2020 edition where unfounded claims were made.
The report avers that N150 billion belonging to Nigerian pilgrims is hanging in the balance following cancellation of international pilgrimage.
According to the report, this amount represents a payment made to service providers by “Nigerians” for this year’s pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
The alleged trapped amount is said to be the “total paid to airlines, hoteliers, transporters, hajj operators and states’ pilgrims’ boards among others”.
How the writer arrived at this total amount and who made the payments remains a puzzle considering the following facts.
First, cancellation of Hajj itself was only finalized on 22nd of June, 2020 but prior to that date, Saudi Arabia had already suspended Umrah visit since 27th of February 2020 and directed Hajj arrangement to be put on hold until further notice on 31st of March 2020.
The latter directive especially warned against making any financial commitments or confirming bookings in the Kingdom until instructed to do so. Therefore, at which stage the alleged payments were made to service providers remains a question requiring an answer from the writer.
Secondly, it is pertinent to note that since the directive by Saudi Arabia for suspension of Hajj arrangements, NAHCON had not issued any Hajj licence neither to State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards nor to Private Tour Operators pending the outcome of Saudi Arabia’s decision.
Nonetheless, the Commission had received applications and carried out an in-house screening of eligible candidates for licensing, awaiting the time when a go-ahead notification will be issued by the Saudi authorities. Yet, license for Hajj was never issued for 2020 pilgrimage.
It would be recalled that the NAHCON Chairman, Alhaji Zikrullah Kunle Hassan had informed the general public in several interviews that no financial commitment was made to service providers in Saudi Arabia or in Nigeria for 2020 Hajj.
It is also a fact that it was while the 4th board was carrying out accommodation and catering negotiations in Saudi Arabia that the doubts on Hajj and Umrah first emerged in the Kingdom, therefore Hajj arrangements had never gone beyond negotiations.
True, NAHCON had approved collection of Hajj fares by State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards and Private Tour Operators in readiness for any eventualities; with the caveat that if Hajj does not hold, depositors will be refunded their monies if they so wish.
Hajj fare collection, however, does not translate to payments being made to service providers anywhere in the world. As a matter of fact, some state pilgrims’ boards and private tour agencies had already commenced refund of Hajj fares to pilgrims who desire for such.
As for Licensed Tour Operators, their Umrah license fees and caution deposits were actually returned to them by the Commission. Besides, bearing in mind that Hajj license had not been issued to the Tour Operators, coupled with the fact that the hosts themselves had instructed the world Hajj operators to halt any financial commitment on Hajj preparations, it is an injustice to the private operators for the reporter to insinuate that all of them had gone ahead to make payments despite the ban.
And if anyone among them had done so prior to the official statement by Saudi Arabia, any operator so involved knows that Saudi authorities have systems in place for them to recover their deposits without collision. NAHCON will always safeguard the rights of pilgrims whether under private or state quota.
Again in the report, it was stated that “no fewer than 80, 000 Nigerians were on the trip list out of 95,000 slots given to Nigeria by Saudi authorities”.
The Commission is interested in knowing how the reporter arrived at this figure because as the apex body in charge of Hajj in Nigeria, NAHCON has not disclosed this figure anywhere nor do we claim to have recorded such a number.
Due to apprehension associated with COVID-19 pandemic and Hajj, many intending pilgrims were reluctant in making deposits. Total of registered pilgrims for 2020 Hajj on the Commission’s e-Hajj portal is 13, 457.
Journalism should be about reporting facts rather than fiction. It is unfortunate that while the Commission is always ready to support any researcher with data when required, any writer would abandon professionalism for spurious allegations.
Fatima Sanda Usara, Head, Public Affairs, NAHCON.