Savings scheme

THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY AND THE HAJJ SAVINGS PLAN

Usman Aliyu Buba pleads against the suspension of the regime

If every Muslim had their way, they would visit Makkah at least once in their lifetime to perform the spiritual duty of Hajj in fulfillment of one of the five pillars of Islam. But of all the duties that the religion of Islam has obligated Muslims to perform, going to hajj requires much more than mere wishes. It involves a lot of funds, which only the wealthy can comfortably afford, and which the average Nigerian has generally been unable to raise – except by relying on the benevolence of the state, a wealthy family or parents.

The fact remains that the prices of the hajj are relatively high, in particular due to the global economic realities which have contributed to the increase in the rate of inflation. During the hajj operations of 2019, the fare was set at 1.5 million naira, but in 2022 the fare increased to 2.5 million naira. You are sure that the rates will skyrocket in the years to come.

Perhaps, mindful of these realities and to facilitate the chances of average Nigerian pilgrims to perform the hajj, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), whose statutory responsibility is to organize and coordinate the movement of people from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia for the performance of the pilgrimage or Ummra, has come up with a plan, known as the Hajj savings plan.

With the program launching in Kano in 2020, and expected to become fully operational in 2022 after presidential approval is granted, prospective pilgrims, especially from states, would no longer have to struggle too hard to pay money. Instant, but work steadily and save to go to Makkah.

Because it brings with it long-awaited relief, support for this program has been overwhelming – evident in the encouraging interests and contributions of some potential pilgrims in some states to the JAIZ Bank which has become the program’s co-sponsor.

In fact, as of March 2022, there were over 4,000 registered in the program, and all of them have had their accounts steadily credited with proceeds accrued in just one year, while those who had their initial deposits for Hajj 2020 and 2021 with the State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards (SPWPBs), which incidentally had been adamant against NAHCON guidelines and existing laws to turn over their savings to the JAIZ bank, have yet to make such a profit. More than ever since the start of the program, registrants expect to perform the hajj soon.

But this heartwarming story of support and encouragement from ordinary Nigerian Muslims intent on embarking on the hajj may soon be truncated. Last week, the Senate passed on second reading a bill sponsored by Senator Ibrahim Danbaba (Sokoto South), for the suspension of the regime, and the possible domicile of its savings at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Earlier, the House of Representatives did the same through a motion by Aminu Ashiru-Mani of Katsina State, who argued without any evidence that NAHCON’s recent guidance to councils, agencies and commissions State pilgrim welfare to migrate Hajj deposits made by the intention of pilgrims on the Hajj Savings Scheme platform with Jaiz Bank could lead to corruption and lack of accountability in the system.

If you were surprised by these measures taken by the National Assembly, you would not be alone, especially considering the delightful work that NAHCON has done to save future Muslim pilgrims from the financial pressures that compel them to perform the hajj and also the national economy of the colossal sums of the government sink, each year, in the sponsorship of the hajj for the political patronage.

One would also think that these moves alleged by lawmakers were informed by the facts arising from their eventual reading of NAHCON and JAIZ bank books and records, and uncovering clear and compelling evidence of mismanagement and embezzlement. But no, there is no such evidence, what we read was rather a simple expression of possible corruption “if the development (of authorizing the accounts of future pilgrims or bank subscribers) is not addressed”.

The questions then arise: how does the management of the account of future pilgrims by the JAIZ bank give rise to possible corruption? Are there genuine complaints from plan subscribers about the loss of their contributions? Now if you end up suspending the program or transferring subscriber dues to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), what do future pilgrims have to gain, especially since they also won’t be able to receiving halal (interest free) profit alerts by the bank and increasing their accounts to the level where they can be financially stable to embark on this journey? Will future pilgrims/subscribers be able to log in to check the status of their accounts as usual?

You see, when you have an institution that has come up with a valuable plan for some struggling souls to elevate their faith, and you have no gratitude to offer for such an initiative, I think the least you can do is to shut up. But this is Nigeria, where often pecuniary interests rather than altruistic fervors give impetus to certain vocalized actions.

At this time, the relevant stakeholders must take a decisive stand against this unnecessary legislative adventure before it is too late, because if the National Assembly finally succeeds, it will kill the dreams of many indigent and struggling subscribers who have taken this plan as a boon, a plan that is supposed to create a robust and healthy economy around Hajj, anyway.

It is instructive that the Council of Imams and Ulemas have already expressed their reservations about the way the National Assembly is addressing this issue. Ulemas led by Shaykh Ibrahim Nakaka and Dr. Yusuf Yakubu Arrigasiyyu, respectively President and Secretary General of the Council, in a recent statement expressed concern that the scheme was inspired by the Malaysian Tabung Hajj which had become a point of reference for the Southeast Asian country’s national economy, was about to be shut down.

Additionally, the Independent Hajj Reporters, a civil society organization (CSO), called on the National Assembly to suspend ongoing moves to amend the NAHCON law, even as they questioned whether the curiously sudden interest lawmakers for the Hajj savings scheme would not pose a danger to Nigerians intending to perform the 2022 hajj.

It is high time for other actors to sound the alarm. The pressures must be mounted on this assembly enough to see the reason for leaving this scheme alone, for at the moment there are no clear and convincing facts for their misguided actions, except that the current cohort of legislators deliberately undermines the scheme either through mischief or ignorance of its background, philosophy, goals, and even how it works. It may also not be wrong to point the finger at the undue influence exerted on the assembly by the SMPWBs, whose body language demonstrates their distaste for the full implementation of the program due to their unfounded fears that it possibly render them ineffective.

Buba writes from Abuja


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