A response to allegations of corruption against chairman of National Hajj Commission Of Nigeria

FILE PHOTO: Many deportees went to Saudi Arabia as pilgrims
FILE PHOTO: Many deportees went to Saudi Arabia as pilgrims

Every coin has two sides, so does a story. The online media has been awash recently with a ‘petition’ to President Muhammadu Buhari over alleged corrupt practices in the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). The said petition on alleged “Cancer of Corruption” started making rounds in some WhatsApp groups of journalists and media practitioners about a month ago and was signed by one Umar Khalid Maru who, in the ‘petition’ seemed to indicate he is a staff of NAHCON. Attempts to reach the petitioner by many after a response was made by a staff of the Commission proved abortive. Yet, the ‘petition’ kept surfacing on different media platforms.

It would help to tackle corruption if petitions are properly authored and backed with supporting documents both of which the petition lacks. To begin with, One should always be weary of write-ups filled with more adjectives than necessary as the petition is laden with. Terms like ‘corruption personified’, ‘top ranking officials’, ‘power play’, monumental scam’, ‘phantom project’, etc, all appeal more to the emotions than intellect of readers and say a lot about the intentions of the author. Now to the allegations made.

The ‘power play’ that led to “some top ranking officials” who supposedly “threatened” going public, is at best, a figment of the petitioner’s imagination. Otherwise, he should provide proof of such threat. Hajj 2015 was the first conducted under the Chairmanship of Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar and it is also the first that refunds for such un-rendered services, in such magnitude, in the year immediately following the operations were made.

The allegation that there was“..an attempt to short change pilgrims as commonly done before..” is an attempt to taint the good image of the preceding board headed by the present Minister of the FCT, Mal Muhammad Musa Bello, who is known for being forthright and incorruptible. If this faceless petitioner has grudges with the current leadership of the Commission, he should not drag the former leadership into it.

It is important to mention that Barr Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad joined the Commission in 2011 and was the Commissioner in charge of Operations Inspectorate and Licensing between 2011 and 2015. During the period, he initiated and perfected a system of reconciliation of accounts for many services enjoyed by pilgrims through the Inspectorate and Compliance Unit under his Department. Various service tracking tools were put in place as a result of which services such as airlift, pilgrims’ accommodation, services to Tour Operators pilgrims, were not only guided by executable agreements but were monitored using such tools. The introduction and gradual enforcement of these, which were aimed at ensuring pilgrims get value for money, gathered momentum in 2011. The culmination is what the public is witnessing today.

One would wonder why the petitioner seems concerned with the publicity given to the refunds. The transparency exhibited by the Commission should be appreciated and not condemned. The Commission published details of the refunds on national dailies, television and radio stations to notify affected pilgrims and mandated State Pilgrims Welfare Boards to make such refunds and report back to it with details of how such refunds were made. It also formally invited the relevant Government Agencies to monitor the refunds. Condemnations by the petitioner or any other person will not cajole NAHCON into doing otherwise.

Interestingly, another saving made by the Commission which was not mentioned to the media was the sum of $ 2,376,908.89 from the Commission’s off-shore operation of the 2015 Hajj. If Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar was what the petitioner portrayed him to be, he would have devised methods and reasons under the stampede to siphon funds and not protect them as he did. For the avoidance of doubt, in about 20 years that Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar spent in Public service, he has never been found guilty of corruption despite being investigated by many government security agencies including legislators as a result of similar petitions in the past.

The ‘petitioner’ is right that the e-wristband was a project introduced by the Chairman especially in view of the 2015 stampede. The reason was to be able to know the whereabouts and also address problems of missing pilgrims. What the ‘petitioner’ does not know is that this idea of introducing the wristband was adopted by Commission’s Executive Committee Members, ratified by its Board and approved by Government. Records of meetings and the decisions taken have been fully documented with the Commission. One would then wonder, which management opposed and rejected the initiative.

At a certain point, the Saudi Authorities mentioned their intention to do something similar. However, at the occasion of the meeting to discuss the M.O.U. for Hajj 2016, held in February, the Chairman specifically asked the then Saudi Minister of Hajj if they would introduce the wristband as announced earlier because NAHCON planned on introducing same. The Minister said it was not certain at that time that they would but Nigeria could go ahead with its project.

It was only after going through the whole procurement process and award letters issued to successful companies and the whole acquisition process had been in full swing that the Saudi announcement came on the 29th of June, 2016. The formal communication on the Saudi wristband was signed by the present Minister of Hajj and Umrah on the 28/10/1437 equivalent to 2nd August 2016 and was received by the Commission on the 3rd of August 2016! Obviously, Nigeria does not need to wait for another country to solve a problem it is very capable of solving for itself.

Among other things, the petitioner told a blatant lie that each pilgrim was charged N25,000 instead of N14,350. The actual cost of the wristband is $43 (N8,741) as contained in the breakdown of Hajj fares by announced by NAHCON. The details are public documents available on NAHCON’s website for all to see.

The claim that the selected companies were fronts for the SGF, the Chairman and NAHCON Director Procurement is laughable. The petitioner may avail himself the instruments of the Freedom of Information Act and the law to establish his claims of the ownership or fronting of the approved companies as alleged. Until that is done, his claims remain as good as beer-palour rantings. Anybody who knows the structure of the Commission and how open the entire bids and procurement process were carried out, will find the petitioner’s allegations highly improbable. Bids were opened in public with observers from NGO’s such as the Centre for Transparency Watch and the Chartered Institute for Purchasing and supply.

The cost for the device was appropriately done by a Committee comprised of membership from the Commission and State Pilgrims Welfare Boards. Verifications were sought and obtained from relevant government agencies like, CAC, FIRS and PenCom, after which the report was presented to NAHCON Tenders Board, received and recommended by NAHCON Executive Committee, and Board. The contracts involving sums above the approval threshold of the Commission’s Tenders Board were approved by the Ministerial Tenders Board. How then, could an individual single-handedly beat all these processes?

The petitioner also alleged that the Saudi bracelet is a better version of NAHCON’s e-wristband. A little comparison of the two bracelets will be in order at this point. While the NAHCON e-wristband is a waterproof electronic device with a GPS tracker, sim card, USB access / charging port with call reception capabilities, the Saudi wristband is a plastic apparel with a barcode and pilgrims data printed on it. In terms of functions, while the NAHCON wristband contains all personal, passport, medical, next-of-kin and contact data of pilgrims that is accessible to Hajj officials, the Saudi wristband contains the basic pilgrim’s personal and passport and Hajj group data, part of which is visible but most of which may only be accessible to Saudi officials. Again, While pilgrims can use the device to call the attention and even communicate with the NAHCON Control Room, the Saudi wristband does not have that capability. In addition, the Saudi wristbands need to be printed with special printers that are not available in Nigeria at the moment. Below are pictures of both wristbands:

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How the writer came to the conclusion that (1) The Chairman saw an opportunity to make hundreds of millions, (2) NAHCON management rejected the project, (3) various companies were fronts for the SGF, the Chairman and the Director of Procurement, (4) the companies accepted to do the job at N14,350 while N25,000 was charged and (5) That the Saudi wristbands are better, are allegations best left for the writer to prove.

Interestingly, The EFCC invited officials of NAHCON as a result of the petition to which they responded and visited the EFCC office on the 4th of August, 2016 but were told to leave as the petitioner(s) did not show up or forward any evidence in support of their allegation. The Commission is of the view that the allegation be thoroughly investigated by any Agency of Government as it is ever ready for any probe on this and other activities it carries out. However, it strongly believes that there should be consequences for peddlers of frivolous allegations and petitions.

It is pertinent to mention here that supporting documents mentioned above were sighted by groups of Investigative reporters from The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Leadership and Blueprint Newspapers, Premium Times and Liberty Radio/TV and other organizations when they visited the Commission recently in an attempt to balance their stories. Similarly, on the 16th of August 2016, the Chairman granted audience to a civil society group, Civil Society Group for Good Governance, which formally requested for the meeting in exercise its Freedom of Information (FOI) rights. The Chairman and some of his management staff engaged the group in a thorough discussion on the allegations where all facts mentioned above were presented and samples of the wristband in question was sighted and its use practically demonstrated.

The day the Chairman (for the first time) and his management team met with the four companies which was covered on video, he announced that, He (Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad) has not mandated, sent, discussed or requested anybody to meet any company and discuss anything on his behalf. He also warns that if it came to his knowledge that any of the companies did such, he would not hesitate to ensure that the contract is revoked but will also institute criminal proceedings against it.

The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria hopes that this clarification puts to rest the unfounded controversy and deliberate attempt to smear the good image of its past and present leadership. This faceless petitioner by all intent and purpose seems bent on distracting the Commission from consolidating and improving on its modest achievements since its inception in 2007.

Ishaq Ibrahim Jae

Special Assistant to the Chairman/CEO

17th August, 2016

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