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Hassan Alhaji Zikrullah Kunle Hassan is the Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). He has rich and intimidating academic and Islamic credentials in addition to on-the-job experience on Hajj Operations. He was the Amir, Muslim Student Society of Nigeria (MSSN), Lagos Area Unit, the National President of MSSN, Secretary Africa Secretariat of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), He once served Chairman/Amir Hajj of Osun State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board. A member of the Nigerian bar Association, Hassan attended several conferences and seminars on Hajj in London and Malaysia. In this interview with Abdulfattah Abdussalam and Abubakar Sadiq, in Abuja, he provides deep insight on the activities of the Board, the 2022 Hajj and plans for the 2023 Hajj.

How hot is your seat and how much pressure have you soaked while sitting on it?

Well, the seat is hot, but I am okay. I am an activist and Hajj management is an extension of Islamic activism and Dawah which I have been doing for four decades. In my youthful days, I was a firebrand of the MSSN and student struggles. So the hotness of the seat is bearable. And for the pressure, they are of different dimensions and from everywhere. Many Nigerians want their children, wards and godsons to be employed by the National Hajj Commission. In addition, there are pressures from Muslims who love to go to Hajj and are ready to go by all means. In Shaa Allah, Allah is in control. You have done 2 years already, what are the innovations in these two years?Well, you should have asked me what we have not done. The fact is that in those 2 years the world had a global pandemic. So for 2 years, the world could not do Hajj, and that came with consequences, which we are still managing. It was disappointing but as Muslims, we believe anything Allah does is the right thing. Having said that, in two years we have done a lot despite the challenges some have been crystallized but a number of them are still in their infancy. On the Hajj Savings Scheme (HSS), we have made a breakthrough. What do we mean by the Hajj savings scheme? We are trying to tell Nigerians that for Hajj you do not need to seek sponsorships to embark on a pilgrimage. Instead one can save for it with dignity and while savings, one is indirectly investing which will yield profits and he or she can take away the profit or leave it to accrue as part of savings for the Hajj. The scheme is also to encourage Muslims to understand the queuing system, as done in other countries because allotted seats from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Nigeria are becoming inadequate. Very soon, NAHCON shall hold an International workshop on the Hajj scheme inviting experts from countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to share their successful experiences on the scheme. Furthermore, I am happy to tell you about the establishment of the Hajj Institute. We are the only country in the world that understands the need for a training school on Hajj matters because Hajj is a multi-billion dollar industry and such should not be left in the hands of non-professionals and quacks. Hajj management is becoming sophisticated and technology-driven; the era of e-Hajj is here. The institute is licensed by appropriate authorities in Nigeria and shall take off soon. The aspiration is to make the Hajj institute a resource centre for capacity-building not for only hajj organisations in Nigeria but English-speaking countries in the world. Another success story for the board is our determination to make ourselves fully independent and self-funding, which we have achieved. This year’s Hajj operation was wholly self-funded through internally generated revenue of the board. We have gotten approval from the Federal Executive Council (FEC) to go into Public Private Partnerships to shove our revenue generation. We are turning NAHCON’s idle properties into money-spinning ventures. For people’s understanding, there are a lot of our properties laying fallow in most states, particularly in the Hajj camps. Soon the PPP shall be delivering about 250 units of shop complex with a banking hall and a police post on our Kano property. We are already trying to replicate that in Lagos, Adamawa, Maiduguri and Ilorin. Our plan is when we leave after our tenure; we want to leave the Hajj commission with viable economic assets that can make Hajj operations sustainable and self-funding. And with that success, we intend to increase the staff enrollments, emolument, capacity-building and a comfortable workspace that is befitting. We are Hajj managers and the commission is now beyond a clerical institution.

Who are the students of the Hajj Institute?

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I would be a student and anyone that has business to do with Hajj operations must be one. The institute will come up with different programs that may include online lectures. A diploma certificate would be issued after the schooling and soon, if you are not a certified operator, you will no longer be allowed to operate in the industry. The idea is to develop the capacity of young and vibrant people because it is a multi-billion industry that needs to involve younger minds.

Sir, you mentioned the HSS but there was a call for its suspension. What is the update?

There was no official directive on that. We only had a concern raised and we have since responded to the concern and the matter is closed. I am sure the international conference coming up soon will help many people to have a further understanding of the scheme. Indonesia in the last Hajj subsidized the fare of her citizens with profits made on the savings, to the extent that no single Hajj pilgrim paid more than what was paid in 2019.

From the public perception, the performance of NAHCON was average in the last Hajj, what went wrong?

I am not sure everybody agrees with that view. But I can tell you what went wrong. Why I said I do not agree with that is that from our records 95% of those who registered for the last Hajj went. The allocation given to us was 43,000 and over 41,000 pilgrims travelled for the pilgrimage. The shortfall was due to three fundamental reasons. First, the host country, Saudi Arabia was not quick at getting ready for Hajj, thus the information got to us late. I remember we called the last Hajj “Emergency Hajj”. Secondly, we were supposed to transfer money for the Hajj expenses of some private tour operators in a dedicated account in Saudi Arabia but without explainable reasons, the money could not reflect in their accounts and because the money did not get into their accounts, they could not get visas and their pilgrims could not travel. The third reason was the last-minute hitch on the aircraft flight because when they finally got the Visa there was no aircraft to carry them. So at that time, there was hardly anything anyone could have done. What could have saved the situation was if there was more time. All in all, we felt bad about it. .

What caused the aircraft hitches?

The aircraft hitch is regrettable. However, we must agree as a country and people, we lack the capacity in terms of aircraft business. Going back in time, many airlines that operated in past Hajj operations in the country are now moribund and the few left are still struggling with the issue of fuel and the impact of the pandemic which caused the hitch witnessed during the last operations. We had a pact with all the airlines and they were supposed to position two aircrafts for the operations but they could not and that caused the dislocation. Furthermore, at the start of the operations, some of the states’ pilgrim boards were haphazard, thus some flights departed with half, empty seats.

Would NAHCON have done better if there were aircrafts?

Yes, we could! Let me give you an example. AZMAN Air did not start the outward flights until ten days after the operations had started. Saudi Arabia Hajj authorities said AZMAN needed to bring a bank guarantee and it took 10 days after the flight operations started before we succeeded to get the bank guarantee. The commission had to loan AZMAN the money and asked the Nigerian ambassador in Saudi Arabia to write an undertaking on behalf of the NAHCON that we would procure the bank guarantee for it to fly which we did. I mentioned earlier, that Nigeria could not perform credibly well in the aircraft business. The Commission was not aware that AZMAN did not have the existing bank guarantee to fly into Saudi Arabia until it came up. But we have learnt our lessons and we are already preparing for the next Hajj which gives us enough time.

The private Hajj operators alleged that NAHCON is not fair to them in manners of approach and service delivery.What do you have to say about this?

Well, they are business people. The two years of non-hajj due to the pandemic would have been a challenge. So, what they want in the operation was profit to bridge the two years of inactivity. I empathize with them on that ground. But some of them that are raising issues have no facts to back up their points, they are ranting on sentiments. They appealed to us, to use our vantage status to help them transfer their money through the Central Bank which we did, a thankless job because it was not our duty to do so. So when we got to Saudi, we found out that only about 75% received their money while the rest did not and without the money, there was no way they could process Visas. Consequently, some of the affected tours company’s pilgrims could not travel. Their money has been refunded. The accounts department did a wonderful job on the matter. What fate befalls those pilgrims that missed the last Hajj despite the huge financial sacrifices?They have the liberty to seek a refund of the money paid. We have already refunded money to some who wanted theirs, but those who wished to turn in their money for the next hajj can do so. The operations department of NAHCON would soon hold an audit exercise to ascertain their numbers.

Concerning the Visa, we learnt there were issues, sir, is it true?

I do not know of any substantial issue as far as the Visa was concerned other than the fact that there was more demand than supply. For example in 2019, we were allotted 95,000 slots, but the people that went were less than 70,000. Do Saudi Arabia Hajj Authorities make the operations difficult for Nigerians? There are no biases against Nigeria. The standard is universal. What, they have admitted is that this Hajj was experimental. So they are always looking for a way to make Hajj better. Like in the case of catering in MUNA which is exclusive to them, we wrote a letter to them that we were not satisfied; we told them not to pay the caterer. At the time we left Saudi Arabia, they did not pay.What is your take home from last Hajj?What I learnt is can we do better? Yes, we can. The last Hajj was a test for us and we came back more knowledgeable about e-Hajj, we look forward to a better Hajj next year in Sha Allah.

Thank you for the time

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