Worried by the recent controversies over air transport arising from the recent Dana plane crash, the clampdown on terrorist activities internationally and the indiscriminate way unknown Tour Operators conduct Umrah activities during Ramadan without recourse to the federal constituted authorities, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) in conjunction with the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) gathered with all concerned stakeholders to find solutions to all related matters in the interest of the nation and Nigerian pilgrims.
The one-day meeting which was held at the NICON Luxury Hotel, Abuja had in attendance the leadership of NAHCON, the Director-General of NCAA, Dr. Harold O. Demuren, the Senior Special Adviser to the President on Aviation Matters, Capt. Shehu U. Iyal OON, representative of the Chairman, Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator (Barr) Ibrahim Musa, Chairman of NAHCON Security Committee, Alhaji Balarabe M. Rano, Licensed Tour Operators, Chief Executives of Air Carriers, Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUON), National Association of Nigeria Travels Agents (NANTA), aviation experts and resource persons.
The meeting was critical in its deliberations and brainstorming session, as it discussed the growing number of Nigerians who embark on the lesser pilgrimage – Umrah – to Makkah during the month of Ramadan and the strategy that must be instituted to ensure their safety.
Umrah, the discussants threw up, has grown to be so significant in Nigeria. The number of pilgrims for this yearly holy journeys was in the past not captured, neither by NAHCON because a lot of illegal operators conducted the business nor by the NCAA and other relevant authorities because many of the pilgrims had no defined knowledge of who were the legitimate organizers.
Some people believed that the number of Umrah pilgrims used to be more than that of Hajj because Umrah is not a time-specific, place-specific and manner-specific exercise. Throughout the month of Ramadan, and especially the last ten days of Ramadan, thousands of Nigerian Muslims join their counterparts from across the world to observe fasting, iftar and tarawih (night prayers) in the Holy Ka'abah in Makkah or Prophet Muhammad's Mosque in Madinah.
This year, with Ramadan just few days away, there was a revelation that the number of expectant Umrah pilgrims who had secured their entry visas into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was over 60,000. The issuance of Umrah visas had not stopped, though it was basically secured through Tour Operators. Based on that fact that the pilgrim population was high, it was a consensus that the business should no longer be allowed to be conducted freely by inexperienced, unlicensed and incapable tour companies.
The Director-General of NCAA, Dr. Harold O. Demuren, was as blunt as he is always known. "There will be zero tolerance on any things that is capable of causing insecurity during the Umrah operations. We must ensure safety for the air carriers and security for the pilgrims," he repeated many times.
To achieve this, according to the NCAA boss, there will be total security screening for all the pilgrims before boarding with due respect to their privacy in terms of religious and health backgrounds. To that effect, male security personnel will screen the male pilgrims while the female will screen the female.
He said there will be continuous safety checks on the airworthiness of all aircrafts used in the operations. To that effect, no aircraft will be allowed to move passengers from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia without being certified airworthy by all the relevant aviation regulatory agencies particularly the NCAA, even as he revealed that about 20 signatories were required to certify the worthiness of an aircraft before flying.
While noting that airlines must ensure enough rest period for their crew teams as internationally established, he related the powers of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), adding that only Tour Operators approved and licensed by the Commission will be allowed to participate in Umrah operations in line with the extant regulations of NAHCON Act 2006. Hence, NCAA will not deal with any company not cleared by NAHCON.
Asserting that the age of aircraft was not important in ascertaining its airworthiness, he identified three things that differentiated the aviation industry in Nigeria from other developed nations: they have enough time to plan; they have a lot of money and they are ready to die for the cause they believe in.
On his own part, the Commissioner in charge of operations in the Commission, Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad MON, enumerated the guidelines for Umrah operations, as laid down by the NAHCON Act 2006.
He said the ultimate aims and objectives of regulating Umrah was to ensure that pilgrims got the value for their money during their journeys which NAHCON was established to ensure compliance. He sought the enhanced cooperation of NCAA especially in the areas of ensuring that only airports certified by NCAA would be used for airlift of Umrah pilgrims, even while protecting the rights of the air carriers in Saudi Arabia.
To bring sanity to the system, he said, NAHCON can grant operational permits to smaller companies, which would only operate as agents to duly licensed Tour Operators. By this, an agent will be entitled to work for only one licensed Tour Operator both of which must sign a binding agreement to be supervised by the NAHCON.
He urged the Tour Operators to ensure proper education, sensitization and orientation of their pilgrims especially on operational and security matters, and to develop an e-ticketing system in such a way that approved air carriers by NAHCON would be made to indicate date of return on pilgrims' tickets.
On their parts, NANTA and AHOUN expressed support and cooperation with NAHCON for the various policies and efforts aimed at uplifting the standard in the Umrah and Hajj industry in Nigeria.
Both bodies appealed to NAHCON to always come to their aid in adjudication of legal matters with Saudi service providers and cases arising from their operations. They made an appeal to the Federal Government to intervene on scheduled air carriers who have indiscriminately hiked their fares in anticipation of the Umrah and Hajj operations. To this, the NCAA boss promised to investigate.
At the end of the meeting, participants called on the Federal Government not to scrap the NAHCON or subjugate it under any Ministry, but rather to support the Commission in view of the achievements it has recorded especially in the areas of bringing sanity to Hajj management and the conduct of Umrah operations in Nigeria.