Profligacy in the Name of Religion

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Reports put funds spent by both the federal and state governments to sponsor pilgrims for the last hajj exercise ‎at N136.5 billion. Davidson Iriekpen questions the rationale for government committing tax payers’ money in religious activities

With the return of Nigerian pilgrims who went on hajj exercise, indications have emerged that over N136.5 billion, a large chunk of it contributed by both the federal and state governments, went into this year’s exercise.

This huge amount which could have been ploughed into education or physical infrastructure, has reopened the debate on whether or not governments should continue to use taxpayers’ money to sponsor few individuals on pilgrimage.

A Presidential Committee on the Restructuring and Rationalisation of Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies had in its report on April 16, 2012 recommended that government should stop sponsoring pilgrims. The committee headed by a 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 rejected that proposal.

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.

Even the 2014 National Conference adopted the recommendation of its Committee on Religion asking government to hands off all religious matters, including the sponsorship of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem. It, however, resolved that religious bodies in the country should be given the mandate to handle all religious matters relating to pilgrimage through pilgrims commissions duly managed by them under a law passed by the National Assembly to regulate their functions and protect pilgrims. It ecommended that in performing its oversight responsibilities to Nigerians, government should provide normal consular services for the pilgrims through the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the country’s foreign missions.

The committee, chaired by Felix Ajakaiye and Nurudeen Lemu had recommended that in order to distance government from involvement in religious matters, henceforth, no government, at any level, should use public funds to sponsor of any religious programme, especially pilgrimages for any category of citizens, including government functionaries. 

When President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015, one of his major policies on noticing an empty treasury was the discontinuation of state sponsorship of both Muslim and Christian pilgrimages as a cost cutting measure. He made it clear that stopping state funding of pilgrimages would save some money that could be used for development. But many were surprised when afterwards, the government made a U-turn, announcing that it would subsidise this year’s hajj.

The federal government may well be the worst culprit, throwing in massive forex waiver every year. Last year, while official rate was N318.9 to a dollar, it, in a profligate bonanza, handed funds to pilgrims at a concessionary rate of N197 per dollar. The loss to the country in this singular transaction was the difference of N121.9 multiplied by 65,167 pilgrims (at $1,000 per pilgrim). This comes to tens of billions of naira. While we may consider Abuja’s participation in this illicit disbursal of state funds subtle, nearly all the states have been brazen if not wanton in applying state’s funds in what is after all, no more than another private trip or holiday abroad. 

This is why over the years, many informed Nigerians have called on government to end the sponsorship of religious pilgrimages, not just because of the corruption that has taken over the process, but because it is totally unnecessary. They wondered why a country which is backward in infrastructure, social amenities, health facilities and education,  should continue spend huge money on religious expedition.

 Those who spoke with THISDAY wondered why the government was involved in religion, a private matter. 

Besides, the 1999 Constitution recognises Nigeria as a secular state. Indeed, Section 10, Chapter 1 of the cconstitution states that “The government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion.” Observers have concluded that it is a breach of the constitution for any government to spend taxpayers’ money to feed the private spiritual needs of selected individuals.

Recently the Lagos State Government announced that it had saved N2.4 billion with the stoppage of annual sponsorship of pilgrims to Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia. The state’s Commissioner for Home Affairs, Dr. Abdulhakeem Abdullateef, said the saving was ploughed back to finance infrastructural projects and other developmental programmes in the state. But other states which promised to do same, have not been able to follow their words with action.

Even though many observers have described the continued government sponsorship of pilgrimages as fraudulent, some states which have announced a stop to the exercise have continued to see a steady increase in the sponsorship of the exercise.

For example, recently, the Katsina State governor, Aminu Bello Masari said his government spends not less than N1billion on hajj annually, a state which according to all statistical data, remains one of the poorest in Nigeria.

Many others have argued that why governments do not want stop the exercise is because it has become an industry of corruption, with millions of naira siphoned into private pockets and accounts.

“When they say that Nigeria or our leaders have not gotten their priority right, sponsorship of pilgrims is one way to demonstrate that. How can they year in, year out spend multi billions of naira on what is not necessary?,” wondered Okon Bassey, a Lagos-based legal practitioner.

On his part, Amadi Igwe wondered why some Nigerians think that the government is justified by subsidising religious pilgrimages. “Theologically, pilgrimage makes no sense, because after all God or Allah is supposed to be everywhere. So why travel to the holy land? Why? To go and do what? In that case, pilgrimage is just like travelling to ‘meet’ in Mecca or Jerusalem somebody who is already in Nigeria. Is that not absurd? Why embark on this patently futile venture? Why engage in such a self-ridiculing undertaking that, going by recent events, exposes you to the risk of losing your life?

“State sponsorship of pilgrims makes no economic sense for a poor country with distressed economy such as Nigeria. Going to pilgrimage to Mecca or Jerusalem does not contribute to the economy of the country. In fact, state funding of pilgrimages depletes the nation’s resources and to see a government that blames the prevalent economic hardship in the country on reckless spending by the former regime embark on the luxury of subsidising pilgrimages is shocking. Worse is seeing many Nigerians laud such a scheme as a mark of sterling leadership.

“First, the economies of the destination countries of these pilgrimages – Saudi Arabia and Israel – are far better than that of Nigeria, and pilgrimages benefit them and their economies because these religious tours bring in foreign exchange earnings. Without state subsidy, many Nigerian religious tourists would definitely travel for pilgrimages and contribute to these economies. So giving state subsidy is making additional contributions to the economies of the destinations countries at the expense of our own distressed economy. Is that not a shame? Which reasonable government does that?

“Those who govern Nigeria at this point in time should be utterly ashamed of themselves for making this country a laughing stock. Look at the situation throughout the country. There is hyperinflation, scarcity of food, lack of jobs, violent crimes, limited power supply, decaying infrastructure, among others. And here we are talking about subsidising Hajj and Christian pilgrims. Why can’t Nigerians read in between the lines? Why can’t Nigerians understand that state sponsorship of pilgrimages is impoverishing and under developing their economy? Is subsidising pilgrimages a way of tackling poverty and addressing economic marginalisation in Northern Nigeria?”

Also, Islamic scholar and a lecturer at the University of Ilorin, Sheikh Mohammed Sani Ninche, added his voice to the call on government to stop sponsoring pilgrims to the annual hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

According to him, the practice of sponsoring people from state coffers for hajj was un-Islamic and therefore cannot be accepted.

Rather, he proposed that all individuals who want to partake in hajj should be made to pay for the trip from their own resources and not from state coffers which belong to all. He explains that performing hajj was an individual religious issue and does not bring any direct benefit to the state as compared to for instance sponsoring the education of an engineering or medical student who would, in turn, become an asset to the country in a form of a direct benefit.

Also the Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of Lagos and Diocesan Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Lagos Mainland, Most Revd. Adebayo Akinde, cautioned the federal and state governments against spending public funds on pilgrimages. The clergyman stated that Nigeria, being a secular state, had no reason to be involved in the sponsorship of pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia.

He said: “President Buhari, if I remember correctly, even said he was going to stop it (sponsoring pilgrimages). So, I am shocked that in 2016, government is still sponsoring people to Jerusalem or Mecca for pilgrimage. People should spend their hard earned money to promote the advancement of their religion. What government is doing is totally dishonest and a misdirection of national wealth. What if tomorrow, pagan worshippers say they want to go to Haiti? Would government start sponsoring them to go there?

“If tomorrow, the Ifa people say they want to start going to Brazil, will the government sponsor them? Or if a sizeable number of Nigerians are becoming Hare Krishna, would we start sponsoring them to go to India? We don’t have just two religions in Nigeria. These are contentious, explosive issues that government should have nothing to do with. Anybody who believes he must go to Jerusalem should talk to God. If God wants you to go, he will give you money. The same goes for anyone who wants to go to Mecca.”

Equally, the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), an NGO,  advised the federal and state governments to stop sponsoring Muslims on hajj as it would be counterproductive on the long run. The MURIC Director, Prof. Ishaq Akintola, in a statement issued in Lagos recently, said that Muslim Ummah should determine their destiny by taking care of their hajj fare.

“Every intending pilgrim must be compelled to pay a particular amount to the coffers of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) before they leave for hajj. Those going for ‘Umrah’ should pay something higher. As we round up, we reaffirm our belief that it is time to correct misconceptions about hajj among Muslims.

“Hajj is once in a life time; but we ignore this principle and rush to Saudi Arabia almost every year. ‘Umrah’ (lesser hajj) is not compulsory but we force it on ourselves as an annual ritual. We must open a new leaf. Gone are the days when anything goes. We must do what is right at all times. Politicians have hijacked it. They sponsor political thugs, hoodlums, riffraffs, mistresses and prostitutes, who may not even be Muslims.”