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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Probe Hajj 2000

Probe Hajj 2000

If I were Mr. President, I will be curious to know why my programs fail worse than those of my predecessors. Why is it that shortage of power is more acute since I assumed office despite sending Uncle Bola to Mines and Power? As far as electricity is concerned, Nigerians were better of during Abacha. Not satisfied even with the performance of the minister, the President, in a move very similar to what he did to other programs, transferred NEPA management to his office. Last week we said that it was a dangerous move for Mr. President. He is the last shot of the regime; once he fails, we have nobody to entrust with our hopes. And we have many of them. So, we would not like him to fail. Abi?
Now, another scenario of failure has presented itself. The just concluded Hajj will go down into history as the worst in 42 years, since the Nigerian Pilgrims Mission was set up in 1958. I hope the President will not rush to say that the enemies of this regime caused the failure, those afraid of ‘probe’. Why should anyone be afraid of probe into sins committed in the past while greater ones are committed today, right here before our eyes? If the president is interested in one, let him probe Hajj 2000, the operation that has brought shame and difficulty to this nation perhaps more than any other overseas, so far. Let him go ahead, we are behind him, solidly.

The suffering
One only needs to speak to pilgrims to know the extent of difficulty, irresponsibility and corruption that bedeviled this year’s Hajj operation. We have learnt how pilgrims were tossed around before leaving Nigeria; some had already left their homes with no definite knowledge of which airport they were to be lifted from. There was almost no pilgrim that was air lifted on schedule. When they were in the Holy Land, they had to contend with poor facilities and logistics. Most of them were lodged in poor and distant houses; transportation was inadequate, all in the effort of pilgrim officials to save dollars for themselves.
Then came the blackout, when the airlines left pilgrims at Jeddah airport for days under terrible conditions after they have exhausted their BTA. Suddenly, the rich that could afford to pay for Hajj became a beggar, a destitute in a hostile foreign land. The situation was so bad that some lost their lives and decent women almost compromised their morality. It was difficult to imagine how our pilgrims survived six to ten days on a tarmac of a desert country, amidst excessive heat, congestion, hunger and lack of sanitary facilities. Then, five riyals (a hundred naira) fetched incessant gratitude from the mouth that did not taste food for two days.

The President is blame-free
Where does the blame lie? What I am certain is that the President has no hand in this failure, absolutely. One, as a Christian, we do not expect him to meddle with Hajj affairs because of its obvious political implications. Two, it is the office of the Vice-President that handles it, as I reliably learnt. What do you expect Obasanjo to do apart from providing the funds needed for a successful operation and entrusting everything in the hands of his deputy who is expected to know and recruit the competent hands to handle it?
Having entrusted it in the office of the Vice-President, the President is absolved of all blame. But would the Vice-President be absolved of blame too? Yes, though only to some extent, in that he is expected to rely on the expert advice of his staff. There will only be an area where our vice-precedent could be implicated before the public, i.e. if he has ignored such good advice. For example, what criterion was followed in the appointment of members of the commission? Was it political patronage or competence?
Whatever transpired at the presidency is best known to them, up, up there. However, in an operation like Hajj, we expected that both Vice-President and his advisers would have taken the shortest and surest route possible toward a smooth operation, and any choice of people to handle it was, fisabilillahi, based on merit only. Merit here must result from two things: competence and the fear of God. Political patronage that often stands in the place of merit should have never been tolerated especially in occasions like this.
Going by the list of members of the committee, there is little to show that merit was considered. Who is to blame for this, the Vice-President or his advisers? I am raising this question because the problem pilgrims had this year had to do mainly with logistics and this was deposited in a commission formed by the presidency. Now, the pilgrims are pointing fingers at members of the commission who in turn are accusing the airlines.

It could be that the Vice-President and his advisers did make the best choice to the best of their judgment, for some of the members have, until now, had a strong record of performance in ‘religious’ activity. Their failure nevertheless has made nonsense of such record. If they were competent and suitable, they would have focused on designing a successful operation without yielding to their personal interests or those of the airlines. If strong officials were chosen, they could have stood their guns, resisting the influence of the presidency above and the corrupt advances of the airlines below. They would have seen their appointments as a duty to serve God and their nation. The fear for power or the hunger for wealth would not have compromised them.
Any interested investigator can approach enlightened pilgrims and learn about the ruthlessness of many Hajj officials. The allegations are serious and they need to be thoroughly investigated. How did Kabo and Transair win the bidding for the airlifting, to the extent that Nigerian Airways announced that it lost a profit N500million by its failure to secure it? Would this be the profit of Kabo and Transair from the ‘transaction’? How did the two airlines come to breach agreements on schedule of lifting the pilgrims to and from the Holy Land? Did they give the officials and governors free seats as was openly alleged? If so, why? If by doing so, they were not bribing them, then what were they trying to prove? That they are the Father Christmas of Hajj ko? Is it true that the commission officials including those in charge of operations abandoned the pilgrims and returned to Nigeria, with their numerous luggage and families? Otherwise, did they feel the responsibility to remain behind and return with the last pilgrim?

One wonders that why, of all nations in the world, Nigeria that has consistently had the poorest Hajj operations. Someone will argue that suffering is consistent with Hajj. Another will argue that it is part of the collapse of government and the only solution is complete privatization of Hajj. Why can’t the passages of pilgrims be left to travel agencies or religious organizations, like the JNI? This idea is rapidly gaining followers among Muslims, particularly among the enlightened.
I absolutely disagree with both arguments. What I will prefer is for the present administration to investigate thoroughly and dispassionately the causes of the failure. If, for example, it is corruption and ineptitude of officials, then how certain are we that religious organizations and travel agencies are not corrupt or inept? The moral account of religious organizations in this country, as far as I am concerned, is in the red, deep red in fact. They are the same people that have been serving as government officials, and enjoy the privilege of being on its entourage, free of charge, every year. What will become the fate of the common man when everything is placed in their hands is anybody’s guess.
Think of the travel agencies. My experience with them on Hajj was not the best. When the chips were down, I had to secure my boarding pass. The guy disappeared. These people are Nigerians looking for money. If a government official, who is answerable to someone, will abandon a pilgrim and return home, do you expect something better from a Shylock, especially in a country replete with fraud?
An operation like Hajj that involves the movement of thousands of people within a short time, together with pilgrims from other countries, must involve government, in one form or another. People talk about the efficiency of Malaysia or Indonesia, but they forget that we are Nigerians. And that is the difference, a great one for that matter. The Saudis themselves will not prefer that.
Without preempting the investigation, the best model so far suggested is to decentralize Hajj. Let the federal government concede passages to state governments. Let them have the power to hire and fire; at least they are the devils we know. They live nearer. I will suggest our governor to contract it to the Americans. All I need is to reach the Holy Land on schedule and return therefrom on time, not exceeding an hour. Nigeria, my home, is the best country!

The solution
Managers should be employed to do this investigation, not clerics or bureaucrats. They should not restrict themselves to the corruption of our bureaucracy or the incapacity of our airline industry. Since our experience with Nigeria Airways was also bad, and our private airlines, like the notorious two – Kabo and Transair, have failed woefully, the managers will have no option but to explore the endless horizon of world aviation market.
The next thing is to design an operation model that will plug all the loopholes in the present system. And when it comes to implementation, government should be honest and God-fearing to appoint management staff that will operate effectively, based on their professional competence and past record. Religious figures should be involved only in areas they are competent to handle, like guiding pilgrims and preaching ‘peace’. We often forget that passages are managerial functions, not religious. It is the ritual of Hajj that is religious, and I believe we have enough preachers to prepare our pilgrims for that.
If lifting pilgrims is seen from its correct ‘secular’ perspective, then anybody can handle it; proficiency in Arabic could then be thrown away through the window. The Saudis deal with thousands of non-Arabic speaking pilgrims from America, Europe, Asia and Africa. In fact they consider anything English sacred, thanks to their Americanization!
Lastly, apart from removing the responsibility of Hajj passages from the clerics who have proved to be no less drowned in the struggle for the worldly than we are, government must possess the discipline and resolute to de-politicize Hajj. I will doff my hat for any government that will henceforth prohibit government sponsorship for Hajj forever. Let people interested in Hajj, including the vice-president, governors and the Amirul Hajj, go on their own. I wish Obasanjo has the guts to do just that. If previous governments were dictatorships and did require buying people, this government derives its legitimacy from democracy, if I am not mistaken. It does not need to buy anybody.

If the president is looking for another area to probe, Hajj 2000 should be added to the list. We are not really interested in punishments but we will be very glad if our pilgrims will be better of next year. If on the other hand the problem appears intractable, he is free to call in the World Bank. For now, HAJJ in Nigeria has become “have a jouncing journey” just as the Lagosians dubbed NEPA “never expect power again.”

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