Hajj pilgrims grumble over failed promise, Board pleads forbearance

BY: Isaac Yeboah
Sheikh I.C. Quaye, Hajj Board Chairman
Sheikh I.C. Quaye, Hajj Board Chairman

Over 2,000 prospective Hajj pilgrims have been grumbling since they were asked to fork out additional GH¢7,000 in Hajj fees within one week or forfeit their slots for the 2022 annual pilgrimage.

These are pilgrims who had completed processes to embark on the Hajj in 2020, including paying the required GH¢19,500 fees then, until Saudi authorities cancelled the annual pilgrimage owing to the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Following the cancellation, the Hajj Board led by Chairman Sheikh I.C. Quaye, arranged and agreed with the pilgrims through the Ghana Hajj Agents Association that those who would keep their deposits with the Hajj Board, would not be made to pay any extra fees in the future when the pilgrimage next opened.

While others took back their monies, some 2,025 pilgrims agreed not to seek refund but to keep the deposits as proposed by the Hajj Board.

But only last week, the Hajj Board requested the affected Hajj candidates to pay an additional GH¢7,000 each within one week to complete travel arrangements, failing which their slots could be offered to others.

According to the Board, new developments, including the sudden yet substantial rise in the cost of services associated with the pilgrimage such as flight and accommodation, as well as the weakening value of the Ghanaian cedi, have ensured that the pilgrims accommodate the adjustments or the Hajj would have to be cancelled altogether for this year.

While the would-be pilgrims, led by the agents association are unhappy and bitter about the sudden development, the HaJJ Board says there is really no other alternative.

The Hajj fees for 2022, as announced by the Hajj Board is GH¢39,000 per each prospective new pilgrim. However the Board says given the new challenges and for the good faith of the over 2,000 pilgrims whose 2020 deposits remain with the Board, they would be required to top up the GH¢19,500 they paid each in 2020 with the GH¢7,000.

Hajj Agents

Public Relations Officer of the Ghana Hajj Agents Association, Seth Ibrahim Ayi, said the demand for those promised exemption from further fees to now pay top-ups came as a surprise to the agents and their clients together.

He told Graphic Online the news of the request had first come as rumours, following which the association followed up to the Board, to be told then that each prospective pilgrim from the 2020 group would be requested to pay GH¢2,000, only for the Board to announce GH¢7,000 as the top-up at a follow up meeting.

“We started hearing speculations, so we said let’s approach the Hajj Board especially the Chairman, and then find out from him. To our surprise he told us that the pilgrims would add some 2,000 and we told him that there was an agreement that these people would not add, but he was telling us about the situation.

“So as a body we agreed that GH¢2,000 is nothing even though it is something, but for us to have a smooth hajj, or if we want to take the matter up which might probably stop the hajj from happening, so we said OK, we will confer with our pilgrims and plead with them that they should add the top-up of GH¢2,000, and then to our surprise again when we were having a general meeting to announce the price, again they asked those who left their money that they should pay GH¢7,000. That means they are adding 5,000 to the 2,000 that we had discussed and agreed. So we were surprised, and we told them that no, this is not what we agreed upon, and if that is what they are saying then they should communicate with the pilgrims, we cannot communicate with the pilgrims.

“At the meeting, the day Sheikh I.C. Quaye announced the price, a Board member (Hajj Board) stood up and said yes, we are right, but the truth is that if we are going to drag issues back and forth, then we cease, not to have hajj this year because as it stands, nothing has been paid for the Hajj to commence for Ghana; in terms of accommodation, in terms of transportation, in terms of airline.”

Originally the first flight for Ghanaian pilgrims was scheduled for June 17, 2022, from Tamale.

Things are hard

The Director of Finance and Administration of the Hajj Board, Alhaji Farouk, said the pledge to exempt the prospective pilgrims who kept their deposits with the Board for all this while, was done with the best of intentions.

He said at the time the Board Chairman made the commitment, it was not anticipated that things would change so dramatically, “to the extent that the fare as it stands now has more than doubled due to factors some from within and some from outside our jurisdiction.”

“For instance in Saudi, there have been increases in tariffs there, and even VAT has been increased by 200 per cent. Some of these variables were not anticipated that they would happen, there was the assumption that there would be some largely stable tariffs across the service providers, but that has not been the case.”

He said another issue has to do with the strength of the Ghanaian cedi, where “nobody anticipated that the cedi would depreciate from 5.2 (to the dollar) at the time to 8 or 8+ currently.”

He said the sharp erosion of the value of the cedi has negatively impacted hajj operations, which concerns the Board shared with the Hajj Agents.

Alhaji Farouk said in spite of the top-up being demanded of the pilgrims, government was also heavily subsidizing the fees, both for the existing pilgrims and new, prospective ones, and it would be unfair to go back to government for more.

“The Board certainly tried very hard to keep to its promise by ensuring that as much as possible, Board and government would discuss and absorb these increases, but it is just too high for government to absorb everything… Because government is still providing more than GH¢10,000 to subsidize for each pilgrim who left their money in 2020, so they are only made to top up with 7,000 so we would be able to organize the hajj and take them successfully.”

He said without the government subsidy, the hajj would have cost each pilgrim about GH¢45,000 cedis, but even for new prospective pilgrims who are paying for the first time, government is taking up GH¢6,000 as subsidy for each.

“There was an opportunity to say that refund their monies, give people (their monies), because now the quota has been substantially reduced, the quota which was 6,000 is now 3,000, so there are far more people willing and ready to pay even the full fare of 45,000, but the decision was that you don’t keep these people’s monies for two years, and now because some people are ready to pay top dollar for it, you pander to the new people. But at the same time we are also not in position to absorb the full increases.”