The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, (NAHCON) is yet to pay airlines that airlifted Nigerian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the 2023 Hajj, two weeks after the end of the holy pilgrimage.
The commission had contracted five airlines — Max Air, Flynas, Air Peace, Aero Contractors and Azman Air — to airlift 75,000 state pilgrims to 2023 hajj.
It also approved Arik Air and Value Jet to participate in the airlift of 20,000 pilgrims allocated to licensed private tour operators.
On 31 July, 2023, the last batch of Nigerian pilgrims were ferried back home, officially ending the 2023 hajj operations.
Investigations revealed that two weeks after the end of the hajj operations, majority of the approved airlines are still being owed by NAHCON, a clear breach of the 2023 Hajj Airlift Agreement.
Article 4.2 of the 2023 Hajj Airlift Agreement provides that NAHCON shall pay the air carriers 50% of the total agreed sum after signing of the airlift agreement and presentation of a bank guarantee.
The commission would pay another 35% upon completion of the outbound airlift to Saudi Arabia.
The article also provides that the airlines would be paid 10% after evacuation of 50% of inbound pilgrims back to Nigeria; while the remaining 5% would be paid to the airlines after reconciliation.
In clear violations of the agreement, this newspaper revealed that the commission only paid some of the airlines the second tranche after the commencement of the inbound journey.
One of the airlines’ officials who spoke to our reporter in confidence said that his company got its second tranche of 35% a day after the commencement of the outbound journey in the first week of July.
“This has over-stretched our finances and threatened our obligations to our financiers,” the official who was not authorized to speak told this newspaper at the weekend.
It was also gathered that the commission’s violations of the airlift agreement by not releasing funds had almost crippled the airlift during the outbound operations as many airlines couldn’t position aircraft for the operation.
Thousands of pilgrims also risked missing the hajj because of the delay in visa processing occasioned by NAHCON’s late remittance of funds to the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN.
Consequently, the CBN couldn’t remit the funds to the pilgrims’ agencies and tour operators’ bank accounts in Saudi Arabia for the payment of hajj services.
In its reaction, NAHCON through its spokesperson, Mousa Ubandawaki, said that the visa issuance suspension was due to “technical hitches,” blaming a “federal government policy” that bar CBN from remitting funds to foreign-based accounts. A claim that was found not be true.
The commission, later in a statement by one of its spokesperson, Fatima Sanda Usara, admitted that NAHCON had breached the airlift agreement by not releasing funds as expected while reacting to the protest by thousands of tour operators pilgrims stranded in Lagos.
She said: “In fairness to both Arik (which was assigned to airlift 7,000 tour operators pilgrims) and its partner, funds that were supposed to be advanced for the engagement are yet to be released at the time of transporting the pilgrims.
“This is due to certain financial restrictions, a development that crippled the agreement despite NAHCON’s assurances.”
Vice President Kashim Shettima had had cause to intervened and directed CBN to process the payment despite the late remittance by NAHCON.
However, instead of admitting its failure to transfer funds to CBN in time, the commission ended up blaming President Bola Tinubu for creating the challenge. The commission revealed this while seeking for three-day extension from Saudi Arabian authorities.
In a letter dated 21 June, 2023, with Reference No: NAHCON/AN/43/, the commission blamed President Tinubu for the causing the financial hiccups that marred 2023 operations.
Addressed to Saudi’s Vice Minister of Hail and Umrah, Dr. Abdel Fattah Mishaat, titled: “Request for Extension of Deadline,” NAHCON Chairman, Zikirullah Kunle Hassan specifically blamed President Tinubu for halting transfer of funds abroad.
The letter, signed by Hassan read: “There was a change of government in Nigeria and the new government directed a halt in transfer of government funds which caused serious delay in the transfer of funds into the International Bank Accounts (BAN) and this delayed our processing of pilgrims’ visa.”
Meanwhile, about 29,000 pilgrims from Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Niger, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi states have asked NAHCON to refund the $100 deducted from their BTA ahead of the 2023 hajj.
The commission had deducted the BTA of the 75,000 pilgrims and share to the four local airlines – Max Air, Air Peace, Azman Air and Aero Contractors.- that refused to sign the airlift agreement because of the Sudan conflict.
The local air carriers had earlier demanded an increase per pilgrim as additional cost occasioned by additional flight time to Saudi Arabia because of the closure of the Sudan air space.
The Saudi Arabian -designated airline Flynas, which was the only carrier that signed the agreement despite the conflict in Sudan, was surprisingly excluded from the sharing even though it had over 29,000 pilgrims.
The Flynas pilgrims and their state officials, it was gathered, have already concluded arrangements to officially write NAHCON for the refund through a team of lawyers.
“We’ll first write the hajj commission for the refund of the $100 deducted from our BTA. That is the first stage.
“The response we get will determine our next line of action. Our team of lawyers have been briefed,” one of the pilgrims leading the refund campaign, Muhammad Idris Yusuf, said.
When contacted on the delay in the payment to the airliners, Ubandawaki said the delay was a result of the discrepancy in the exchange rate.
According to him, the exchange rate at the time the MoU was signed was around N400 to $1, adding that at the conclusion of the exercise, the exchange rate skyrocketed to about N700 to $1.
Mousa, however, promised that the airliners would be paid from now to this month’s end.
Source: Daily Nigerian.