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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hajj 2001; A Dawo Lafiya

Hajj 2001, A dawo laaafiya.

Recently, the Federal Government announced the dissolution of the one-year-old board of the National Hajj Commission. We had a wind of the decision when, months ago, the Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, hinted that the Federal Government will withdraw its participation in future Hajj operations. What exactly the Federal Government has in mind as at the time I wrote this article is unknown. It is in this regard that I wish to reiterate my earlier suggestions on the matter.
The decision is a popular one, undoubtedly. It will be welcome by most pilgrims that felt the crunch. Many are yet to receive their luggage. They should better give up. It is painful, I know. But what can they do. Intending pilgrims also have cause to rejoice. At least the announcement has assured them that they will not be subject to the vagaries of an ineffective arrangement. The larger Muslim community, and indeed other Nigerians, would share the delight that their pride that was marred by the failure of the last operation will possibly be restored, should the government be brave enough to do the right thing. We pray that God gives Mr. Government the audacity to do so. Amen.
Before we present our suggestions, it is important to recast the problems confronted in Hajj 2000. A number of reviews have been published in the print media, including this weekly. It can easily be concluded from the reviews that the major obstacle confronted then was the delay in airlifting pilgrims to and from the holy land. Schedules of the return trips especially were delayed to an awful limit. It resulted in an immeasurable hardship that will hardly be forgotten. All other problems highlighted like those bordering on the attitude of pilgrims, their accommodation, and so on, were perennial problems not peculiar to the operation and not within the jurisdiction of the Federal Government.
From the reviews, it appears that the delays were caused by a number of factors. The crucial ones were the centralization of the airlifting operation, the choice of airlines, and fuel scarcity. These may appear simple, but each of them was a determining factor at given stages of the operation.
The Federal Government has over the years monopolized the decision making process of hajj operations. It suggests its mode, especially the airlifting component. It has always argued that it is a national operation. Its apologists add that it is security risk to allow it run unmonitored at that level. Yes, it is undoubtedly a national engagement. But it is not a national problem, begging for a solution from the Federal government.
From all indications and from the little we could gather from some members of the defunct commission, the decision on centralizing airlifting operations and choice of airlines was imposed on the commission from the ‘top’. This was the first problem. Anybody accepting an appointment into a public office today must be ready to tolerate, or know how to deal with, the nuisance of the ‘top’. Such positions are not free. Whenever a decision crucial to the success of his assignment is about to be taken, the ‘top’ will send a directive saying ‘do so and so’. Many a times, members of committees start becoming frustrated by this burden right from the beginning of their assignment. I believe that if the commission was freely allowed to screen the airlines and evaluate their capacities objectively, something I consider many of its members had the discipline to do, the airlines that were contracted the airlifting exercise would not have won it. I doubt very much if they were so free.
I also doubt whether it was their decision to centralize the airlifting operation in the first place. Way back in the early nineties, states enjoyed the freedom of choosing the airlines that would lift their pilgrims. Then, the airline industry has not deteriorated to its present state. That was the arrangement in 1993 for example and few problems, if any, were encountered.
Last year, the weakness of the airline industry was underestimated or even ignored. Apart from the incapacity of the airlines that competed for the award, stories were told about how Kabo Air outsmarted other airlines by an unfair discount. The federal government had to circumvent it later. These are details that we expect will be included in the report of the commission, if they have prepared any.
What is essential to note here is that for centralization to work, the center must both have the space as well as the efficiency to carry out its task. Last year, both requirements were not met. Three airlines were chosen. One of them, dropped out early. The second had only two aircrafts; one of them got spoilt early in the operation. Kabo, which from all indications was the favorite, was struggling with aging aircrafts. Some pilgrims told us how breathe-taking it was to board its aircrafts. Prayers were inevitable. The airtime between Kano and Jeddah is four hours. Kabo, on many occasions, took five. And so on.
One of the reviewers has indicated that the choice of airlines last year was dictated by the desire of the Federal Government to bring down hajj fares to a bearable minimum. What a kind gesture! But since the airlines that offered the discount have failed to perform creditably, we are safe to say that the government was penny wise, pound foolish.
Another problem regarding centralization is how its inefficiency affects every unit of the system. If a wrong decision is taken for example at the center, for whatever reason, the whole system fails. In contrast, whenever decision-making is distributed between organs, then the failure of one would hardly affect the rest. In Hajj 2000, we put our eggs in one basket. The basket fell from the hilltop. Not a single egg survived.
There were rumors also, as I indicated in my earlier article, about how the airlines became “Father Christmas” to many government functionaries and members of the commission. They know best what transpired between them. And God is a witness over all things. The allegation could be denied. But there is no way the orders of a public servant will be obeyed once he has collected favors from his subject. It is a pity that this is happening in a country that has filled its waveband with the chorus of shariah. I wish the shariah-compliant governors had the moral courage to reject the largesse.
Lastly, the scarcity of aviation fuel might have exacerbated the failure as others suggested. The fault lies squarely with the Federal Government. It would have envisaged that hiking the cost of the fuel would undoubtedly foment trouble for the industry, and for the hajj operation in particular. It should have delayed the increase, or if it had to do it at that material time, consideration should have been given to airlines involved in the transportation of pilgrims. But this country is grossly blessed with insensitive public servants and governments. Decisions are taken without regard given to the hardship they will bring.

Suggestion I: Privatization
Some people with sufficient interest in the airline industry are suggesting that the government should rather give approval to some private agencies to conduct the hajj operations entirely on its behalf. I strongly object to this. Sam. It should neither be contracted to a religious organization. This will end in a disaster.
My reason is simple. The bulk of our pilgrims are gullible, I doubt if they will be able to claim their rights if violated. And their rights will surely be violated. The headache that we, as elites, get from travel agencies right now is enough to make our rural brothers go berserk.
The only concession that government will permit here is to allow, as it used to do once, the gates open to whoever wants to go through ‘international’ route to do so. This will shorten the list of pilgrims under the care of government and limit the amount of troublemakers. The problem is that, according to my experience, a mix-up cannot be avoided because the Saudis officially treat pilgrims based on their nationalities, not on the routes they followed. Anyway, that can be sorted out.

Suggestions II. Status quo
The options before the Federal government regarding the bulk of Nigerian pilgrims are very limited. In fact, they are only two. The first is to maintain the status quo by appointing a new board for the commission and give it new ‘guidelines’. The second is to minimize its involvement in Hajj operations, limiting it only to monitoring. Whichever choice it takes, it must remember that it is dangerous for a civilian government to continuously court the wrath of the electorate. It should work towards healing the wounds of last year. I believe it knows this very well, hence its decision to dissolve the board of the commission. That is more the reason why we are advising that it goes the whole hog to do the correct thing this time.
If it chooses the maintain its present level of involvement in Hajj, for whatever reason, then it must be prepared to take all the necessary precautions to make it successful. This can be achieved by suppressing the penchant for political patronage in the appointment of the new board. Nothing kills the good ambitions of a good-willing civilian administration like political patronage. The governments experience in the defunct Interim Management Committee of the PTF and board of Hajj commission are enough illustrations. If it wants to ‘assist’ someone or compensate him for his role in bringing the government to power, it should please look elsewhere, not in the direction of Hajj. This is a religious duty. It belongs to God. He has declared the pilgrims His guests. Doing something deliberately that will end up in inflicting untold hardship on them will surely attract His wrath.
More importantly however, the hands of the board must not be chained. The public servant that announced the dissolution of the last board accused it of failure despite the resources put at its disposal by government. But how could they have used the resources, when their hands were tied together, from arm to fingertips?
The board itself must be guided by the fear of God at every stage of its assignment. Receiving ‘alheri’of any kind, even if it were a seat to Mecca, is not only a crime but also a sin. I hope our governors also will note this, especially the ‘shariah compliant’ ones. They should for example forget about patronizing our ‘nascent airlines’ once they do not have the capacity to lift all our pilgrims within a week. The problems that the airlines are facing have nothing to do with Hajj contract, but with general policies of government regarding the industry and the economy.

Suggestion III: Deregulation
Given how corruption has ridden our public sector, I personally find the above conditions too demanding. If I were in the position of the Federal government, I would have embarked on the ‘deregulation of Hajj”. I would choose to return to the earlier practice of leaving state governments to ‘hire and fire’ airlines of their choice. The involvement of the Federal government would be limited to monitoring. Happily, its able personnel in the immigration department and its embassy in Jeddah can carry out this function comfortably.
No one should expect that all the states would do the right thing. No. They could be vulnerable too, especially when they choose to be. However, if any governor will behave irresponsibly, the failure that will result from his shortcoming will be limited to his people, and he will have himself to blame. It will not be a national embarrassment, to be suffered by all.
Here also, the Federal Government should not dictate narrow the spectrum of their choice. They must be left to hire aircrafts from anywhere in the world. They can also workout details of flight schedules at their level without dictation from Abuja. Their pilgrims can takeoff from the closest airport among the dozens existing in the country. But that is possible only if they put politics and selfishness aside.

Before closing this discussion, I would like to passionately plead with all governments to please stop the bad practice of sponsoring pilgrims, whether to Mecca or to Jerusalem. If a governor is going on Hajj, let him go at his expense; the same thing with any public servant or politician. Many of us detest it, not out of envy but because it is a waste and an offense to the collective psyche of Muslims. If previous dictatorships needed to bribe clerics to pray for stability of their regimes, this government, in our understanding, was democratically elected into power. It does not need to survive on bribery, no matter how holy they may appear. Bribe is bribe. Period.
At the state level, I see no reason why funds meant for development will be used to sponsor pilgrims, no matter their social status. Hajj is compulsory only once, and on those that can afford it. If we cannot be prudent and breakaway from the bad practices of the past, then our call for shariah will not be justified. Islam is clean. We must keep it so, or leave it alone.
With this note, I pray that God will give our policy makers on Hajj the nerve to take the right decisions. I also hope that a situation will not arise for revisiting Hajj as a critic. I will prefer to visit it as a praise-singer for the government that is able to make Hajj 2001 smooth-running its indigenes.
Manu, A dawo laaafiya.

29th September 2000

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