Beyond Covid, New Perspectives on Hajj Management (1) – By Ahmad Muazu

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The Hajj or Pilgrimage to Makkah is one of the fifth pillars of Islam, each adult Muslim who is able is expected to make once in his or her lifetime, with this  each year in Nigeria, nearly 70,000 Hajjis heed the call one or more time. 

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These Hajjis come from every corner of the country and from all classes of society. They bring with them many different customs and habits, speak many different languages, and are often not literate. Adding to the problems of administration, the Hajj rites are conducted in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where after leaving the country, these Hajjis must be supplied with sufficient food, water, shelter, health and sanitation facilities, and transportation for a period  spanning several weeks or more. Many of these services are supplied by the Hajj service industry; others are supplied by the Saudi government.

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Given the size and scope of the modem Hajj, it is regulated by the Hajj commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) and being operated by the States Pilgrims Board, Agencies and Commissions alongside the Tour Operators.

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 The task of Managing the Hajj Affairs of the country is currently saddled with the board under the leadership of Alhaji Zikrullah Kunle Hassan,which has been striving to build on  the foundations  laid by his predecessors – Muhammadu Musa Bello who brought stability to the Hajj affairs  and Abdullahi Mukthar Muhammad who brought value, set standards to service delivery to the Hajj Industry.

The fourth board is therefore left with no absolute choice  than to provide new innovation and keying into global best practices in the Hajj Management which I will elaborate later.

 They came in with brilliant and great perspective but were stopped in their stride by the breakout of Covid-19 pandemic. As the Commissioner of operations Alhaji Abudllahi Magaji Hardawa usually lament “covid has prevented us from proving our worthiness to Mr. president whom has reposed his trust in us”.

They have a clean start with high hopes and expectations of delivering and proving to the C-in-C that he has made the right choice in giving them this task, but unfortunately the pandemic halted everything, it scattered the old ways of doing things globally and brought about the new normal of doing things, this affected the Hajj operations dearly, hence did not give chance and opportunity for the board to showcase what they can do.

 Finding opportunities in Crisis.
An ancient sage once said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Throughout the existence of men in the world, most of the greatest achievements achieved so far are one way or the other related to finding lasting solutions to status quo. hence this triggers the awakening of the genius in solution finders which started as a flick.

There has never been a time where the NAHCON management have got the opportunity of ample time to implement a long overdue project that needs attention than the time the Hajj and Umrah is suspended due to Corona virus.

 The new management saw the opportunity to implement the Hajj Savings Scheme which will bring about financial stability to the pilgrims and also encourage the financial inclusion of Muslims as well as cultivate the act of savings. Throughout history of the Hajj managers in Nigeria they often look for ways to curve out a space that will shrink the pay as you go system which consistently comes with problems to them, they all settled for the savings scheme, gladly this board took the bull by its horn and brought it to life, this achievement only is enough for commendation.

 Managing millions of pilgrims from all over the world gathering for Hajj event at Makkah is a daunting task. The Hajj crowd is diversified in terms of language, age, race and culture, and requires an adaptive set of services for better performance of Hajj rituals. Organizers are working at their best to ensure the smooth organization of the Hajj event and allow researchers to explore modern methods and apply latest technology techniques to improve the level of available services.

Covid-19 has reshaped the way and manner almost everything with crowd is being done, unlike before Nigerian Hajj managers plan on Hajj in the areas of Transportation, accommodation, feeding and logistics but now the major areas that even the Saudi authorities are concern and concentrating on are Healthcare, mobility and crowd management.

 These three are key in success of each year’s hajj.

The use of technology cannot be overemphasized where the authorities resort to using technology to ease the way and manner things are done, in the same vein the Nigerian authorities are also delving into the ways that they won’t be left out, with the current NAHCON managements vision to digitize the Hajj management in Nigeria it will only be complimented by what the Saudi Authorities have put in place.

Technology as the Saviour of the situationWith the changes in place where all permits and regulations in place are implemented the use of technology is a must, as it stands today, some places and things that have access control and one can only access them via the applications provided by the Saudi authorities vis a vis Etmarna and Tawakkalna applications, what this means is that whoever is going to perform Umrah needs to an internet enabled smart phone which he can book the permits to the two holy Sites. 

Although the restrictions have been lifted, the way and manner the conducts of Umrah is currently going, one can be assured it will spill over to some part of the Hajj operations. Having said the above, the NAHCON  board has already keyed into the technological revolution whereby they digitized the accounts section of the commission and also on the verge of making the hajj and umrah operations digital hence reducing the human contact an interaction.

Thinking Privatization: In order to leave a unique legacy of credible performance, one must think out of the box and bring in lasting solution to temporary problems,  , to this effect, the  board has started a beautiful and unique partnership with the private sector in  developing some of the properties for commercial purpose, this we see through the FEC approvals of PPP to develop one of NAHCON’s land situated in kano, to further strengthen the drive the board is considering some of the following states for the PPP projects which are Borno, Lagos and Kwara.

The Hajj Institute of Nigeria is another yet project that will set the ball rolling in standardizing Hajj activities in the country, the has gotten the nod from NBTE to kickstart the activities of the institution, this will encourage participation of more learned and educated Hajj managers in Nigeria and other countries.

 The Tour Operators who have been most hit by the pandemic are starting to see the clouds of hope and some of them have already returned to operations after a long break caused by the Omicron variant of Covid 19.

With  the new regulations in place by the Saudi authorities, the visa processing has already changed from the old status of obtaining visa only, now it has to be a package which consist of transport and accommodation before departing, this is a change that we really do not know when or whether it will go back to normal like before.

Also, the exchange rate phenomenal that has shifted is another development that one needs to critically thinker at, as it stands commercial banks through CBN now offer PTA to pilgrims travelling to Hajj as a considerate rate than that of the black market, rather than the normal sourcing of cash from the black-market pilgrims now enjoy that benefit.

To cap it here, I wish to draw the attention of the reader that the Saudi authorities as of the time of writing this piece, are yet to invite any country for any MOU signing or quota allocation, but sources from the Ministry of Hajj have confirmed that “There will be significant number of International pilgrims whom will be allowed to perform Hajj this year”. 

With this I believe there may be a shift from traditional way Hajj was been  handled in the past. No one can ever tell or predict what manner or dimension the divine journey of a life time nay take until perhaps the host unveils the guidelines But until then  readers should keep their fingers crossed .

*Ahmad Muazu writes from the Public Affairs Unit of National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).

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