23 November 2012

Nigeria: Why Not Deregulate Hajj?


During the last year's Hajj, my elder sister sold five mighty cows in order to raise the over 600,000 naira required for a Hajj seat. After the normal selection and interview, my sister could not secure the seat she paid for six months earlier!

Explanations and even threats followed in order to frighten her to abandon her mission. To cut the story short, her desire to perform Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam did not materialise and, worst her money could not be refunded until after another five months.

Worst again, the cows had gone, and you know what a cow is to a Fulani! I am very sure that this story is not new to those who are familiar with the way and manner unscrupulous government officials and corrupt agents are using the annual ritual as a money-making venture.

Some officials of states Pilgrims Welfare Boards have become stupendously rich through this racketeering and rip-offs and they have grown so thick that they are untouchable. Who knows, maybe they remit something to their superiors!

I recently observed that the amount of money we spend for a Hajj seat in Nigeria is too exorbitant and that actually the government is not subsidising anything as far as Hajj is concerned at all! Perhaps, ours is the most exorbitant Hajj exercise in the whole world as well as the most unorganised! Countries with higher number of pilgrims, and which happen to be at the remotest areas to the Holy Land, airlift their pilgrims to and from Saudi on schedule, requiring no extension of time.

For instance, there was a year when the Republic of Indonesia had about 250,000 pilgrims and they were all airlifted in two to three days! But Nigeria with fewer pilgrims, less than a 100,000, 'evacuated' its pilgrims in more than a month! And worst is that the pilgrims were abandoned without food or money. In fact, it is the norm, rather than the exception, now that each year Nigerian pilgrims are the last to leave the holy land and the only country to require extension of time! Year-in year-out the story is the same. I used the word 'evacuated' because in almost all the times it is the host government that used to airlift our 'left-over' pilgrims back.

The accommodation being provided by the pilgrim's board is not comparable to the huge amount of money they charge the pilgrims! Imagine a pilgrim paying 600,000 Naira or more just for air fare, visa, low class accommodation and BTA! I want to be educated where is the subsidy government is paying to the pilgrims. Please do not mislead yourself into believing that the accommodation covers the duration of the exercise, as most times the Saudi landlords have to eject Nigerian pilgrims from the rented apartments because the hire expires!

This opprobrium and ridicule that Nigerian pilgrims are subjected to every year and the national embarrassment that our country suffer made me to start asking some pertinent questions: why not deregulate and liberalise Hajj operations? Why not scrap the states pilgrim welfare boards? Why not allow private entities take over the operations and welfare of the pilgrims? Why not open-up this huge market and allow investors come in? It is my view that government at the state level should hands off this issue and allow players to come in and invest in managing Hajj affairs. Government should only come in at the federal level in areas of regulating and overseeing the affairs of the players and, where necessary, in diplomatic relations with the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Private airlines and tour operators should be issued licences and allowed to participate in the conduct of Hajj every year. Allow the operators to collect payments from intending pilgrims, process their passports and visas, arrange their airlifting to the holy land, provide accommodation for them, arrange for their local transportation, transport their luggage back home and airlift them back within the time frame provided. Any operator fond wanting or unable to discharge any of the above duties, should be sanctioned appropriately, be made to make a refund commensurate with his inaction and, where necessary, forfeit his stake in the business. Appropriate measures and safe-guards should be put in place in order to ensure efficiency and compliance with the laid down rules.

Some sceptics may raise a point that government, through the states pilgrim boards, are doing these duties and therefore should continue. Well, as I pointed earlier in the opening part, government has failed in discharging these duties and the trend may not change. But private operators, mindful of their business and driven by their quest to maximise profit and capture more markets, will have to undertake these responsibilities if they want to remain in business. This is more so in that there is a regulatory body that will check their excesses and apply necessary measures for efficiency. Unlike states pilgrims' boards, where nobody will sanction them and whatever excesses they commit nothing will happen to them. And I believe this is the reason why all these problems keep recurring every year unabated because nobody is regulating them. The National Hajj Commission is handicapped in this regard as the law did not give it the power it requires to sanction states that are found wanting.

On the issue of subsidising of Hajj matters, my understanding is that government is not subsidising anything. In fact, it is the government that benefits more than the pilgrims! The prospective pilgrim pays full airfare and unsubsidized accommodation, processing of visa and everything. Considering the number of pilgrims every year, it is my view that Hajj fares should be drastically reduced and, considering the nature of accommodation being given to the pilgrims, at most times seven people in a room, the type of airlines being chartered (some not airworthy in other climes) and the abandonment that the pilgrims suffer every year, it will certainly be in the best interest of the pilgrims and the country at large to open-up and deregulate this sector. I am confident that the services to be provided by the new would-be investors will be world class and the airfare will definitely come down especially if there are a considerable number of players in the field.

On a final note, I am sure deregulating or liberalisation of this huge market will certainly bring the desired results and Nigerian pilgrims would regain their lost prestige and standing among the comity of nations and, more importantly, villagers, like my sister, will not have to lose their seats after payment, despite selling their cows!

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