Ending the Unnecessary State Sponsorship of Pilgrimages

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Government at all levels should stop funding journeys undertaken for religious reasons to save needless expenditure, writes Vincent Obia

Is it right for government to spend millions of naira annually on sponsoring religious trips by individuals when majority of the people live in poverty and government complains about inadequate funds to provide basic amenities? Or, is it fair on the people and the country to make them pay for journeys to holy places undertaken for religious reasons when the constitution prohibits state religion?

The answer can be gleaned from experience and the constitution. The economic downturn is causing individuals and governments to think again about the practice of sponsoring pilgrims of the two main religions in the country, Islam and Christianity, to their holy lands in Saudi Arabia and Israel, respectively. Many feel it is unfair to make the citizens pay for the religious journeys, which the constitution designates as personal. This is more so when the country is in dire straits.

Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, has suggested that pilgrimages should be independent of government funding, saying government’s involvement should be limited to provision of diplomatic and other ancillary services.

“I am in support of government’s decision not to sponsor people for hajj,” Sanusi was quoted as saying during last year’s Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. “We must, however, find a way of making it independent of government… But we need government to provide other services in the Holy Land.”
Bishop Goodluck Akpere of Christ Temple Ministry International, Benin City, was quoted as saying, “I have always made my position known on this and want to reiterate again that I see sponsoring of Christians or Muslims to Israel or Mecca as wasteful.

“Government has many things to do and not sponsor few Nigerians to religious pilgrimage. There are roads and schools to be built, hospital are there; people need water and good transport system.

“Whether we like it or not, I see this yearly spending as having an adverse effect on the country and generality of the people.”
Already, the federal government is trying to end its sponsorship of pilgrimages. Last year, there was no federal government delegation to the hajj pilgrimage. That decision was said to have saved the government an estimated $1 million and another N30 million in local expenses.

Some state governments have also stared to discontinue government sponsorship of pilgrimages. Last week, the Bayelsa State governor, Seriake Dickson, announced that his administration would no longer sponsor pilgrims, who want to fulfil the religious obligation of visiting their holy lands. Dickson, who spoke in Yenagoa at the inauguration of the state’s Pilgrims Welfare Board, said, “The circumstances of our national economy and the realities of our state economy do not support the practice of the state sponsorship anymore. But, we are going to encourage pilgrims from all faiths to be alive to their responsibilities.”

Those are steps in the right direction.
Yet, there are states and elements within governments who insist on state sponsorship of pilgrimages.

A Presidential Committee on the Restructuring and Rationalisation of Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies had in its report on April 16, 2012 recommended that the government should stop sponsoring pilgrims and pilgrimages. The committee headed by former Head of Civil Service of the Federation, Stephen Oronsaye, said such sponsorship should be discontinued with effect from the 2012 fiscal year.

But the government of then President Goodluck Jonathan had rejected that proposal. And today, the federal government is still engaged in the practice of concessional exchange rate for pilgrimage operations – which is uncalled for at a time manufacturers are finding it difficult to assess foreign exchange to import badly needed machinery.

Besides the economic imperative of ending the state sponsorship of pilgrimages, there is also a constitutional inconsistency in such funding. Section 10 of the constitution says, “The government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion.” Spending taxpayers’ money on sponsorship of pilgrimages seems to be in conflict with this constitutional provision.

The federal, state, and local governments should end all financial involvements in the trips of individuals who are fulfilling personal religious obligations.