Hajj stakeholders in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia were not surprised when President Bola Tinubu, recently sacked Mr Zikirullah Kunle Hassan as Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), and dissolved his board. The sack was long overdue due to the damage he inflicted on the commission and the unprecedented embarrassment he exposed Nigeria to when he conducted the 2022 and 2023 hajj. For the nearly four years he steered the affairs of the commission, he successfully reversed the achievements recorded by his predecessors for decades. Below are the highlights of some of how Mr Zikirullah almost brought the commission to its knees, by grossly failing to achieve any of the promises he made during and after his screening. In this article, I will chronicle some of the major negative milestones that Mr Zikirullah unprecedentedly achieved in his four years as NAHCON chief executive. Some of these “milestones” have far-reaching horrible consequences on the hajj ecosystem.
Hajj fare: From his screening at the National Assembly to visitations to former President Muhammadu Buhari and other engagements, the only “vision and mission” of Mr Zikirullah’s regime was “reduction of hajj fare.” This wild goose chase, he religiously followed, without recourse to the facts at his disposal (through hajj fare breakdown and foreign exchange) was why the hajj fare rose to N1.5 million in 2019. What transpired at the 2022 and 2023 hajj was the opposite of all he promised. Hajj fare rose to N2.5 million in 2022, instead of N1.5 million. It also skyrocketed to N3 million in 2023 and is now going to N5 million in 2024 except Mr Arabi comes up with a quick reform that will arrest the skyrocketing hajj fare.
Reducing the number of days: In an interview with BBC Hausa in 2022, the then Commissioner PPMF Yakasai said: “Hajj is done within five days.” He questioned why Nigerian pilgrims must stay over 30 days in Saudi Arabia. They promised to reduce the number of days. However, for the first time in recent history, in 2023 Nigerian first-flight pilgrims from Nasarawa state spent 45 days in Saudi Arabia. This is the highest number of days ever spent by any Nigerian pilgrim in Saudi Arabia in the last decade. In 2022, it was on record that the Inaugural Flight from Borno State departed on June 9, 2022, and returned to Nigeria on July 16, 2022. This means that the pilgrims spent 38 long days which exceeded even the NAHCON–approved 35 days stipulated in its hajj fare breakdown. Before 2022, the average number of days spent in hajj was 22-27 days. However, Zikirullah extended the average days to 37- 40 days.
Hajj Saving Scheme: Mr Zikirullah is bent on claiming credit for introducing the Hajj Saving Scheme (HSS). This is far from the truth because the scheme is older than their leadership. The fact is Mr Musa Bello’s board initiated it, Abdullahi Mukhtar’s administration provided it with infrastructure and Zikirullah attempted to execute it – albeit wrongly, therefore bastardizing it, by hijacking its implementation instead of allowing the states to do it as provided by the law. That is why the scheme failed. He operated it illegally without the board of trustees which the law said is a sine qua non. Due to the gross violation of the extant laws, the then Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator Adamu Bulkachuwa, had directed that all HSS funds be domiciled with CBN until the board of trustees is properly constituted. He further said the HSS executed by Mr Zikirullah and its operation was illegal.
Blame Tinubu for his woes: In an unprecedented move, Mr Zikirullah, in a letter dated, dated 21 June 2023, with Reference No: NAHCON/AN/43/, blamed President Bola Tinubu for “causing the financial hiccups” that marred 2023 operations. He blamed Tinubu (for his failure to transfer funds to CBN in time), even though the president was sworn in five days after the commencement of the 2023 hajj airlift. The letter signed by Mr Zikirullah 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.” This is the height of diplomatic volte face in Nigeria’s history. Insiders said Mr Zikirullah was carrying out the orders of his political godfather, Rauf Aregbesola, who declared an open war with President Tinubu.
Non-payment of airlines: Zikirullah’s headed the first board in the history of the commission that is still talking about the second, third and fourth tranches of airlines’ payment over four months after the hajj was concluded. This action is contrary to the MoU signed with the airlines.
Deduction of pilgrims BTA: Zikirullah had deducted the BTA of 75,000 pilgrims who performed the 2023 hajj and shared it with 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. It was surprising that over 29,000 pilgrims BTA from nine states allocated to Flynas were also deducted even though their assigned carrier didn’t demand for pay rise due to the Sudan crisis as others did. This is unprecedentedly amazing. Insiders described this case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. How can one justify this glaring fraud?
Abandoned Hajj Levy projects: Mr Zikirullah’s leadership truncated and abandoned dozen ongoing projects awarded by the commission and funded through the Hajj Development Levy (HDL). The projects are in ruins and the N2.4 billion earmarked for their completion remain unaccounted for. He couldn’t defend it when a newspaper did an investigative expose on the fraud. By this, he denied the commission a golden opportunity to expand its asset base and spur its revenue generation apertures. This is sheer wickedness.
Hajj Institute: NAHCON under his leadership inherited land, plans and resources for a Hajj Institute that will train hajj stakeholders from African countries. ABU Zaria, Bayero University Kano and Ummul Qura University in Madinah, were the centres of excellence that will collaborate with the institute. Four years later, the institute was launched in an office space, with no permanent site, and no clear-cut curricula. Recently, I stumbled on the video clips of the handing over of Mr Abdullahi Mukhtar to Mr Zikirullah on February 10, 2020. I watched with excitement how Mr Mukhtar handed over structural and architectural designs and drawings of the Hajj institute, the designs and drawings of the remodeled Hajj House and mosque. Mr Mukhtar said, “There is land, designs, drawings and enough fund to enable you build a Hajj Institute, and fully remodel the Hajj House to international standard.” Insiders said over N2 billion was left for Mr Zikirullah, and about half of it was enough to build the Hajj Institute from scratch to finish (as at that time). It is regrettable that the Hajj institute concept was also bastardized. And we are waiting to hear from what happens to the funds left.
Mashaer crisis: For the first time in recent history, more than 45,000 Nigerian pilgrims were stranded in the Tent city of Muna without bed spaces, food, water, drugs or sanitation during 2023 hajj. Under Zikirullah’s watch, 95,000 Nigerian pilgrims were allocated spaces for only 45,000 pilgrims. This triggered outrage from pilgrims, monarchs, governors, and lawmakers, among others. Nigeria was subjected to global embarrassment. Mr Zikirullah, as usual, played to the gallery by engaging in a shouting match with some Mu’assasah officials even though he earlier told the world that he had inspected the Masha’er tents and services before the pilgrims movement and it was superb. This is still puzzling. We can recall that in 2022 hajj, a paltry sum of 500,000 Saudi Riyals was refunded for poor or services not rendered, while insiders said the actual expected refund was about 12 million Saudi Riyals. We hope anti-graft agencies will not leave the case of paltry refund of 2022 to go like that. Justice must be done to the 2022 pilgrims.
Pilgrims protest in Lagos: In 2023, thousands of Nigerian intending pilgrims stranded at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, protested. The stranded pilgrims, who spent a week sleeping at the airport were private tour operators. Protests in Abuja, Kaduna and Kano. Pilgrims protested before hajj had became a norm. It was on record that in 2022, there was a similar protests in Kaduna, Kano, Oyo, Lagos.
Mr Zikirullah carved a niche for himself for leading the first NAHCON board that triggered pilgrims protest over hajj fare in Lagos on 26 April 2022. The protesters, who converged on the Alausa mosque before marching towards the Lagos State House of Assembly, asked the state Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, and the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Mudashiru Obasa, to reduce the fare. They complained that they paid N1.3 million in 2019, but a message made rounds that the hajj fee had been increased and N1.340 million has been added to the initial payment, making it a total package of N2.640 million, more than 100 percent increment.
Poor feeding: Pilgrims from Osun, the home state of Mr Zikirullah protested in Madinah, Saudi Arabia over bad food during the 2023 hajj. The pilgrims were seen in a video clip dumping their food in front of Room 211, said to be occupied by the state Amirul Hajj, Dr. Maroof Ishola. The pilgrims protested on Saturday evening in Madinah after the caterers served them food they said was bad, tasteless, and very poor in hygiene.
Despite this, Mr Zikirullah looked the other way. Saudi Arabia queried Nahcon over poor feeding. History of poor feeding has been a recurring decimal under Mr Zikirullah. This will never change even if he stays for eight years.
On July 6, 2022, Mr Zikirullah became the first NAHCON chairman to be blocked from boarding a plane to Saudi Arabia, causing untold embarrassment to the commission. The Executive Secretary Niger State Pilgrims Welfare Board, Umar Makun Lapai, blocked Zikirullah from boarding the plane stopped the chairman from boarding the plane at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. Mr Makun said, “I cannot allow the Chairman National Hajj Commission of Nigeria NAHCON to leave for hajj while 50 percent of intending pilgrims from Niger state and other states in Nigeria are still stranded.”
On June 8, 2023, Mr Zikirullah, in another unprecedented move, arbitrarily reduced the number of days pilgrims stay in Madinah to five days before Arafat, citing overcrowding. The number of days was further slashed to three, two and one after Arafat. This generated outrage because before 2023 hajj all Nigerian pilgrims spent eight days in Madinah before and after Arafat. NAHCON, surprisingly, gave three contradictory reasons for the slash: overcrowding, Saudi policy, and to enable 100 percent pilgrims arrival to Madinah. Yet the Madinah operation was a failure and adjudged the most embarrassing outing in the history of Nigeria.
Also, it was Mr Zikirullah that introduced giving pilgrims food in takeaway packs right from Makkah on their way to Jeddah airport, instead of feeding pilgrims with fresh meal on arrival at Jeddah. NAHCON staff are usually on ground to supervise the entire processes – to ensure quality and quantity. More worrisome was the fact that less than one-thirds of the pilgrims were giving that food, whereas the contractor was paid 100 percent. No staff of the commission can tell where and how the food was prepared, nor explained how the food vendor was engaged.
In another fresh move, Mr Zikirullah became the first chairman that couldn’t make publication calling for pilgrims complaints over 2022 and 2023 hajj operations. This denied the pilgrims opportunity to lodge their complaints to the hajj regulatory and also shielded the commission from getting real feedback.
It was Mr Zikirullah that like never before, transported a bloated adhoc staff of 600 to 2023 hajj without needs assessment and adherence to budgetary provision. The adhoc staff seats, just like those of the spouses, were alleged to be sold at exorbitant rates. He broke world records of traveling to hajj with the highest number of officials – beating Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and India – yet ended up with failed operations.
Mr Zikirullah was the first chairman to share refunds for poor services or services not-rendered to pilgrims without the publication of the breakdown on national dailies. Before he came, the general public are told through these publications the details of the refund, and what each state gets and the number of pilgrims affected. He also jettisoned the mechanisms of monitoring how the states share these refunds to the affected pilgrims.
It was on records that Mr Zikirullah had failed to airlift over 5,000 pilgrims to hajj in 2022 despite the lower number of 43,000 of Nigerian contingents to the holy land, and also despite the fact these pilgrims fully paid the hajj fare that was pegged at N2.5 million.
In yet another unprecedented move, Mr Zikirullah made headlines by requesting the Saudi authorities to extend the deadline for Jeddah airport closure three times in 2022 and 2023. Another record-breaking request to GACA.
Mr Zikirullah failed to penalize approved airlines contracted for pilgrims airlift. Many of them openly failed to deploy aircraft, couldn’t acquire slots from Saudi Arabia’s GACA, diverted aircraft to tour operators pilgrims or neighboring countries, among others. Despite these apparent beaches, Mr Zikirullah was incapable of applying the required sanctions during 2022 and 2023 hajj. This is not surprising because he was also said to be complicit in breaching the MoU signed with the airlines.
He also broke the records of being the most-travelled chairman in NAHCON’s history. Despite spending huge resources on these jamborees, there was no commensurate value and it also didn’t avert his gross failure in steering the affairs of the commission.
Mr Zikirullah was the first chairman whose tenure was truncated since the establishment of the commission in 2006. He was sacked about four months to the end of his first tenure in February 2024.
He also sets the record of being the first chairman to exit the commission without having the opportunity to handover to his successor. His sack caught him unawares as he was said to be in Canada when he was given the boot.
Another unprecedented records was that Mr Zikirullah was the first NAHCON boss whose exit was celebrated by hajj stakeholders both at home and abroad.
He carved a niche for himself by being the chairman who inherited a financially vibrant commission, but left it bankrupt. Weeks before his sack, Mr Zikirullah had to write the Presidency requesting a N24 billion bailout to settle the balances of the airlines.
Mr Zikirullah was the first chairman to insert fresh budget lines of N300 million, and N200 million as “hajj support” he could neither defend nor account for it. He also spent N100 million in buying “constituency vehicles” for some federal lawmakers, which is an aberration to financial regulations of the commission. This budget lines must be investigated by EFCC and ICPC. The new boss must stop this fraud.
Mr Zikirullah conducted 2022 and 2023 hajj without any written guidelines on feeding, accommodation, medicals, among others. He jettisoned the instead of improving on the ones he met at the commission. This triggered the chaos that became of pilgrims accommodation and feeding during the two hajj operations.
Mr Zikirulah was so Lilly-liveried that his Commissioner PPMF overruled his directives. This ugly development created chaos and stalled financial processes at the commission. In some instances, there was hit exchanges with the commissioners in front of staff during meetings.
Despite spending nearly four years and conducted two hall operations, Mr Zikirullah didn’t conclude internal and external audit of the commission accounts, thereby entrenching lack of transparency and corporate governance in the fiscal affairs of the commission.
His tenure recorded the first time NAHCON will embark on a media war with states pilgrims agencies. In 2023, the commission fought a bitter war on the pages of newspapers and airwaves with Kaduna pilgrims agency’s boss Yusuf Al-Rigasiyyu. He also fought the Lagos pilgrims board over hajj fare. In 2022, the commission fought similar war with Kano’s Abba Danbatta over hajj matters.
In 2022, Mr Zikirullah’s refusal to remit many tour operators fund to CBN in time resulted to the bankruptcy of some of them. While many others were dragged to EFCC, police, courts or simply run to exile.
He was the first to bastardize the licensing grading of tour operators. He reduced the licensing to “who you know”. Individuals and brief case companies were allocated hajj slots who later sold it at exorbitant rates.
Mr Zikirullah became the first NAHCON chairman to mislead a sitting president. On March 20, 2020, Mr Zikirullah, during a visit to President Muhammadu Buhari, said they have secured a between 10 to 15 percent reduction on hajj fare. He told the president this at a time no single hajj contact was signed. Like he has a premonition of what would come, Buhari said “I hope the reduction won’t affect the quality of services our pilgrims are enjoying now.” What happens thereafter is now history. Hajj fare more than doubled and services to pilgrims deteriorated.
Mr Zikirullah acted as a Father Christmas in 2022 when he added US$40 to appointed hajj airlines unsolicited. This was a flagrant abuse of procurement law.
In 2022, he lied that only three Nigerian pilgrims were deported from Saudi Arabia for entering the kingdom without valid visa. However, Daily Trust countered him in a lead story where it reported that seven pilgrims were actually deported by the kingdom over the visa issue.
Mr Zikirullah also failed to publish the breakdown of hajj fare for public consumption as was the case before he came on board. This further created ambiguity and deepened lack of transparency in the entire process.
The former chairman was the first in NAHCON’s history whose board members, after getting tired of his inefficiency, petitioned him to the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF).
Not only that, Mr Zikirullah had succeeded in accommodating Nigerian pilgrims outside the Markaziyya highbrow areas in Madinah in 2023. He approved deplorable and abandoned accommodations located in hilly and areas far-away from the Haram in Makkah for pilgrims. He also contracted brief case Saudi service providers who were hitherto officially blacklisted by the commission for various offenses.
He reintroduced benchmark on the cost of accommodations, thereby inflating rates for poor and substandard residences to be used by pilgrims in Makkah. This benchmark created, served as an aperture for some of the service providers and officials to feed fat at the detriment of the pilgrims. He destroyed the legacy of picking accommodation on their merits.
With this scorecard, it is only time will tell whether some people will still be free in the next coming months or end up in jail after being investigated and prosecuted.
While I pray for the new chairman Alhaji Jalal Ahmed Arabi, I hope he will learn from the mistakes of Mr Zikirullah. Mr Arabi should consult widely and wisely, and make pilgrim interest above any other individual or group’s interest. He should also plan within his budget and understand the dynamics and challenges in the management of time in hajj operations.
It is instructive to say that having a lean team with federal character reflection, based on pilgrims distribution, will give him a better result. He needs to pray fervently, as well as embark on aggressive staff de-orientation. This is important because most of the staff in the commission have lost their sense of honesty, patriotism and selflessness due to bad leadership they experienced. We only pray they will be back on tract.
For Mr Zikirullah, it is not late to seek Allah’s forgiveness, and do the needful. There is a golden adage which has been proven over the years: One can’t defraud the guests of Allah and ends well. Stay blessed as we meet in the next part of this article.
Ọgbẹni Zikirullah, iwọ ko ṣe aṣoju emi ati Iwọ oorun guusu daradara.
And to board members, you have equally failed and you are part of the blame. And we hope the next board will do better. I will dwell on the three commissioners in my next article.
Mr Raheem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org