DOLLAR SUBSIDY FOR PILGRIMS

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The government’s decision is perplexing, as it carries a big economic cost

Everyone understands that the country’s economy is being squeezed by falling revenue as a result of the sharp decline in oil prices. Everyone also understands that with the destruction of pipelines and other oil installations in the Niger Delta, oil and electricity output have slumped considerably in recent months. What is difficult to understand is the response of President Muhammadu Buhari to these challenges that threaten the livelihoods of many of our citizens.

At a time most Nigerians expected that the government would begin to take decisions to strengthen the economy, what obtains today are whimsical and politically motivated decisions that can worsen an already bad situation. Pegging the dollar at N197 for intending pilgrims at a time the currency is selling for about N400 on the black market is one of such decisions.

That all the defence is coming from the presidency rather than the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is in itself very telling about the management of our economy today. A public commentator, Mr Kayode Samuel, perhaps captured it rather aptly on his Facebook page: “Why does a government that daily claims to be fighting corruption always seem to leave a window open for the burglar?”

Like most Nigerians have already done, we want to register our displeasure and disapproval of this political decision. The clarification by the presidency that Muslims and Christians enjoy the largesse in equal measure begs the issue. This is not about one religion over another but rather about economic sabotage. It is all the more unfortunate that this subsidy-for-pilgrims is coming just when investors were getting to believe sanity had returned following the introduction of the flexible foreign exchange policy which literally removed all such rent-seeking arrangements that were depleting the foreign reserves.

The idea that pilgrims (whether Christians or Muslims) could purchase between $750 and $1000 per person at N197 per dollar at another window opened for that purpose when the administration would not do that for the education or the health care of its citizens is beyond belief. First, how did the government come about the rate which does not exist anywhere? It could only have been arbitrary.

Why would a government in dire straits be giving away over N200 to the dollar to those who do not need it or deserve it since pilgrimage is a private affair? Definitely, anyone who can afford the trip to the holyland does not need the subsidy. Why is the government deliberately encouraging round tripping considering that, given our experience, the same dollars will find their way back to the black market at N400 and above?

There are just too many questions begging for answers. But while it is important that this administration should stop sending conflicting signals to Nigerians and the investing public, we call on CBN to stand up to its responsibility by speaking the truth to power. Being dictated to by the presidency on issues within its remit erodes the credibility of the central bank. And that also erodes the confidence of prospective investors in our economy.

It is in the same light that we must condemn states, some of which cannot pay workers’ salaries, but expend humongous sums of money annually on pilgrimages. What this means is a diversion of public funds to serve what is essentially a private affair. It is indeed very sad that for too long, our leaders at federal and state levels have violated the secular essence of the constitution to meet political exigencies and sometimes to cobble their dodgy legitimacy. Until we return religion to the private domain of individual life by separating the Church/Mosque from the state, we are not likely to develop as a nation.