Despite several assurances, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has not paid the airlines that transported over 73,000 Nigerian pilgrims to 2023 hajj nearly three months after the end of the operation.
Nigeria completed the 2023 hajj operation on July 31 when the last batch of the Nigerian pilgrims were airlifted back home.
The airlines who confided on this newspaper said the hajj commission had promised to pay their outstanding balance “in two weeks time” during a meeting held on September 6, 2023.
“It is over six weeks now since the NAHCON’s last promise. But no airline was paid. I can tell you that Max Air, Flynas, Air Peace, Aero Contractors and Azman Air were not paid,” an official of one of the airlines told this newspaper at the weekend.
It was learnt that the hajj commission, in a letter dated September 4, with reference number NAHCON/AI/78/1, had invited the airlines to a meeting scheduled for September 6, 2023.
At the meeting, the commission appealed to the airlines representatives to be patient, and promised to pay them their outstanding in two weeks time. However, nearly four weeks after the expiration of the last deadline and over six weeks after the meeting, the airlines are still not paid.
An official of one of the airlines who spoke in confidence for fear of backlash said, “this is 11 weeks after the end of 2023 hajj, but the commission has not pay our outstanding payment. This is unprecedented,” he said.
Findings inside the commission, however, revealed that NAHCON is broke that is why it couldn’t settle the airlines three months after the end of the hajj operation.
“The financial situation (of the commission) is scary,” he said. “Truth is: NAHCON is broke. We don’t have the money to pay the airlines. That is just the bitter truth,” the official who sought anonymity told this newspaper at the weekend.
Investigations have shown that the Barrister Zikirullah Kunle Hassan -led management has written to the federal government seeking for “intervention of over N20 billion.”
It is not clear whether President Bola Tinubu’s administration which is grappling with more germane issues that requires funding “would spare over N20 billion for hajj – a strictly private affair of Muslims,” another staff of the commission said.
A lawyer, who has been monitoring hajj operations for over two decades, Mr Muhammad Ahmad Mustapha, said this move by NAHCON is uncalled for. “The request for over N20 billion from the federal government coffers to fund hajj is uncalled for. That practice was abandoned since the creation of NAHCON in 2006,” he said.
The lawyer said hajj is a private affair, and NAHCON has been self-sustaining in funding its operations. “It will be difficult for President Tinubu to grant that request, if not for anything, because of other pressing national issues like salary increment for workers, among others,” Mr Mustapha said.
This newspaper has learned that the request for over N20 billion has not go down well with some staff of the commission. “As I am talking to you now, some staff have already petitioned the Presidency over the request. They said the request was padded and replete with lies. The staff are calling for the Presidency to order forensic audit of the commission’s accounts,” a staff of the commission said.
It was also gathered that some members of the NAHCON’s current board “have started distancing themselves from the ‘ongoing mess’ in the hajj commission. They are afraid of EFCC, ICPC, DSS probe,” the staff who spoke in confidence, said.
It will be recalled that the commission had contracted five airlines to airlift 73,000 state pilgrims, and also approved Arik Air and Value Jet to participate in the airlift of 20,000 pilgrims allocated to licensed private tour operators.
However, the airlines are still being owed in clear breach of the 2023 Hajj Airlift Agreement by NAHCON.
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 bank guarantee. The commission will pay another 35% upon completion of outbound airlift to Saudi Arabia. The article also provides that the airlines will be paid 10% after evacuation of 50% of inbound pilgrims back to Nigeria; while the remaining 5% will be paid to the airlines after reconciliation.
NAHCON spokesperson Mr Mousa Ubandawaki had earlier explained to journalists that the delay was caused by the discrepancy in the exchange rate.
He said the official exchange rate at the time the MoU with the airlines was signed was around N400 to $1, adding that but at the conclusion of the hajj operation, the exchange rate had climbed to over N700 to $1.
However, a source at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has faulted Mr Ubandawaki’s exchange rate excuses. “It was NAHCON that didn’t fund its dollar account in time even though pilgrims have paid and state pilgrims boards have remitted the funds to the commission,” the source said.
The apex bank official said if the commission had funded its domiciliary accounts in CBN, the issue of exchange rate fluctuation wouldn’t have arisen in the first place.