By Fatima Sanda Usara_
Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, is to me like the Sardauna of Hajj in Nigeria. He fought many battles during his time in Nigerian Hajj industry to take pilgrimage out of the dungeon. He continued fighting forces from within and without for him to achieve the many manifest feats he had done through the years. Of course, he could not have done it alone, but he was a leader among a team of few loyal lieutenants ready to reach the last frontier along with him.
For any one who has known and worked with Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammad, he has remained consistent in his character and philosophy of life. He encourages initiatives, pursues dreams and remains audacious. His decisiveness, as well as integrity, his ability to go out of his way to get things done; to deprive himself of sleep for fulfilment of his assignment; his wisdom and eagle eyed ability to peruse all subjects on his table, are some of those qualities that one admires in him as well as respect. He has an aura that makes those around him wake up to their responsibilities, whether they appreciate this or not. When he plans to achieve, he remains undaunted until he is convinced that what he is doing is wrong. Indeed, working with Mr Mukhtar under the Public Affairs Unit was an easy task. It was easy because one did not have to lie; the facts are there to be verified.
From his stint as Executive Secretary of Kaduna State Pilgrims’ Welfare Board, Barrister Mukhtar raised the standards of the states services to greater heights that Kaduna state became a multiple times recipient of award of excellence from the Saudi government. He introduced policies to which his staff as well as ad-hoc staff had to comply. Kaduna state accommodation has since then been ranked among the best. He had set a pace upon which the state welfare board continued to build. The pilgrims were always well organized, with an instruction to the state officials to remain in their uniforms throughout the period in order that pilgrims would recognize them and approach them for any assistance. He ended ticket racketeering in Kaduna state, which brought sanity and availability of seats to genuine buyers. A few pilgrims’ officers that dared this resolve were handed over to the financial crimes commission from where victims were able to reclaim their entitlements. At that time, he operated a system of paying pilgrims their Basic Traveling Allowances (BTA) directly and in batches, from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia. Though hectic, yet it checked the painful experience of some pilgrims losing total BTA to swindlers. And also checked charlatans who sponsored hundreds of pilgrims for the benefit of collecting their dollar BTAs from the sponsored pilgrms only to offer them pittance barely sufficient to sustain them in the holy land. The trick then was, due to the dollar being subsidized for pilgrims, these foully smart ones make more money from the dollars they collect from their sponsored pilgrims compared to what they spend sponsoring them. When he left Kaduna pilgrims’ board, he left with adorers and adversaries; depending on which side of the reforms one is fitted.
Coming to National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, the now outgoing NAHCON Chairman performed no less. From the moment he stepped into the shoes of former Chairman, Mallam Musa Bello, it was with a resolve to battle all forces of criminality in the holy industry. And this group were the mainstream. Mukhtar and his team were on a head-on collision with accommodation crooks in Makkah and Madinah who used to feed fat on pilgrims’ innocence. Pilgrims were at that time, made to pay, for example, up 7,000 Saudi Riyals for rooms that cost less than 3,000 Riyals. Government used to augment pilgrims’ accommodation fees with obscene amounts of money that ended up in the pockets of the agents. He ended the obnoxious trade through commanding direct inspection of accommodations and direct negotiation with homeowners, in the presence of both NAHCON and state welfare board staff. No wonder that with fewer Riyals, pilgrims today enjoy competitive lodgements.
The team also fought down dollar racketeering. It is so annoying the number of persons that used to turn profanely rich bourgeois with each turn of the Hajj season. From dollar dealings in banks and state boards to Hadaya fakers; tour operator touts waiting to prey on pilgrims’ devotion to their Lord, to state boards introducing bizarre charges on pilgrims in order to accommodate emirs and their entourage to participate in the Hajj exercise; halting the trend was not a war for the feeble hearted. The pilgrim was then like the milk cow that must be fleeced mercilessly. To top it all, the pilgrims would be dumped in the airports waiting endlessly for unavailable aircraft to convey them to Saudi Arabia, while their parasites fight over sharing formula of their spoils. There were reports that pilgrims were issued with petrol station receipts as Hajj seat tickets. To the glory of the Almighty, Mukhtar ended this battle that others before him had started. This was achieved through introduction of and enforcing policies blindly, no matter who was at the receiving end. They were policies that earned him friends and foes.
Mukhtar is one that believes in the court as an arbiter. He is not shy of instituting legal action wherever the demand arises. He did this to some Saudi hoteliers in their own country and triumphed. Today, Hajj House is a standing ovation from the proceeds of those NAHCON dues, which he chased in the interest of the industry.
Sanity was restored in the tour operators sector. NAHCON staff, in the company of law enforcement agents, traversed the country, closing down all identified illegal tour operator shops. Some genuine operators were forced to merge due to insufficient caution deposit policy introduced to safeguard pilgrims from being abandoned in the holy land, or accommodated in shanty lodges.
The Hajj Development Levy Projects started by him across the country’s Hajj transit camps include construction of hotel-like accommodation for pilgrims, construction of clinics to be used by pilgrims free-of-charge during Hajj airlift and by the community at a subsidized rates. Others are construction of event centres for revenue generation, construction of mosques and other amenities in pilgrims’ camps. Some of these projects have been completed and handed over to the state welfare boards and some are in different stages of development.
Barrister Mukhtar pursued staff perfection with the same vigour. Staff were constantly sent for trainings. He encouraged each department to come up with ideas on staff capacity building and other initiatives. He promoted staff welfare packages. He would admonish, coax staff, and wielded the big stick at indolence that refuses to give way. He would even employ open bashing to get things done. He would scrutinize every file and seems to know everything of every department. He ran an open door policy allowing each department in the Commission to nominate participants in each activity. He liaised with sister agencies in committee activities, wooed international organisations and embassies to partner in NAHCON’s developmental projects, which have borne fruits.
To continue recounting Mr Mukhtar’s achievements in the Hajj arena will turn boring. Suffice me to believe that the change some Nigerians yearn for has always been on a crossroad; and we seem to be far from it. Barrister Mukhtar is not the last best option for the Commission but he is certainly among the rare ones. For a Commission still in its infancy, our prayer is that the Almighty will give the incoming board the fortitude to keep the battle lines drawn while they never lose sleep. Certainly, the hounds are very much around the corridors of NAHCON and would wish to throw another salvo, may the Almighty give the new board the strength to collectively sustain the fight. Who knows, it may be one down, four up.
By Fatima Sanda Usara_