It is 2016 and Nigeria, apparently the world’s most pious country made up of the largest number of saintly and heaven-bound humans is about to shell out billions of naira, hard-to-get resources, to fund and subsidise thousands of its citizens to travel for pilgrimage. This giant stride by the federal government must be in line with the country’s strategic plans to get out of the economic woes it is going through in the face of dwindling revenues. The strategy is called prayer-based approach to development. It is purely a Nigerian thing. It is more noticeable in private life, but is now transported to our public life. We do all the wrong things; break the rules of conduct, engagement and of living but at the critical and sometimes breaking point, we simply pray to God to help us.
An example of our prayer-based approach to development is in our failing economy which often forces us, not to right the wrongs but to pray the right things into our wrong space or life. The economic misfortune is brought upon Nigeria by falling oil prices, a nearly collapsed oil production capacity due to increased acts of destruction of oil facilities by criminals masquerading as freedom fighters. It is also caused by humongous corruption and outright stealing of mind-boggling magnitude as well as a rabid taste for wastefulness.
Those with the uncommon wisdom that only Nigeria’s ruling class is endowed with would therefore understand the careful thought that preceded this commendable decision of the Federal Government to subsidise people who go for prayers rather than subsidise those who import critical materials and machinery for industries. It seems our governments have since seen beyond the rest of us into the future. They know or believe that the future of the country lies in our religiosity, not our careful planning for economic recovery.
The Nigerian government is always setting its eyes on treasures above. In furtherance of that, last week, it decided to assist prospective pilgrims with cheap dollars at the fictional exchange rate of N197 to $1. That was a few weeks after the same government had “floated” the naira and allowed it to flutter on its own weight (or weightlessness) against international currencies. When the 197-1 decision was taken last week, the naira was already trading at the official rate of anything from N310 to the dollar while the rate at the parallel market had crossed N400.
What this means is that for every prospective pilgrim to Mecca and Medina, the country would be spending a “paltry” N120 for every dollar purchased by each pilgrim, up to a maximum of $1000. That comes to N120,000 per pilgrim (at the official rate) or more than N200 per dollar purchased up to a maximum of $1000 per pilgrim. In 2015, Nigerians who travelled for the Islamic pilgrimage (Hajj) numbered 67,000. Assuming we have the same number of pilgrims this year, Nigeria would spend, lose or pay a subsidy of N8.04bn at the official rate or N13.4bn at the parallel market rate.
Anybody who means well for this country must agree with the superior wisdom of our government that such an amount is nothing too much for the acclaimed ‘giant of Africa” to spend on its superbly pious citizens to go seek the face of God and pray for the turnaround of our misfortunes. We are after all Africans. And where we come from, we send people to go consult the oracles or make appeasements to cleanse the land. So, why shouldn’t we be eternally grateful to our current government for helping us seek the Almighty’s intervention in our affairs, and that through as many Nigerians as are ready to make themselves available?
It must be shocking to many people how a government managing a recession feels it is a priority to invest about N10bn for activities totally unconnected with economic recovery. Yet, in the same country, citizens who seek urgent medical treatment abroad or those who wish to study abroad cannot buy foreign currencies at a discounted rate; not even the official rate. They must struggle and buy dollars at the parallel market. Imagine therefore that two Nigerians need to travel, one for urgent medical treatment and another for pilgrimage. It means government is more interested to support the pilgrim than the person whose life is at risk.
And all those people who are complaining that the government is providing the largesse only to the Muslim pilgrims must have dropped from outer space. They forget that in 2015, the same government sold dollars to Christian pilgrims for N160 per dollar when the exchange rate was about N200. You can bet it that this same concessionary rate would extend to Christian pilgrims this year. Truth is that every Nigerian government in recent history has been sponsoring or subsidising the cost of some Christian and Muslim pilgrims each year, at colossal cost to our common wealth. But to many Nigerians, once some people have been taken care of among the two religions, the world is fair. But that is far from the truth.
In case some Nigerians conveniently forget, we should remind them that ours is a multi-cultural and multi-religious state. The Nigerian Constitution recognises freedom of worship and stops the government from adopting any religion as state religion. That means there is no law restricting Nigerians from adherence to any faith or no faith at all. Religion belongs to the realm of a person’s private life and should on no account be shoved into the faces of others or of the state. That a majority of citizens adhere to any or either of the two major religions of Christianity and Islam cannot stop others from believing in other faiths or none at all.
The involvement of the Nigerian state in Christian and Muslim pilgrimages, to the extent of sponsoring or subsidising their costs is a breach of the constitutional guarantee to freedom of thought and religion. This is to the extent that government does not provide such support to believers in other faiths from carrying out whatever they deem as fundamental to their faith. Even among the Christian and Muslim communities, some denominations and sects are involved in other or different pilgrimages such as to the birthplace or headquarters of their groups, even here in Nigeria. How come the state doesn’t get involved in sponsoring or supporting pilgrims to those places?
My view is in fact not unpopular. In 2014, the Catholic Bishop of Ekiti Diocese, Felix Ajakaye, urged government to stop spending money to sponsor people for pilgrimages. Similarly, the Committee on Religion at the last National Conference, co-chaired by Ajakaye and Nurudeen Lemu, a renowned Muslim leader, proposed government’s withdrawal from pilgrimage sponsorship. This position was adopted by the National Conference.
I am compelled to re-echo a position I submitted in a 2014 article thus. Religion, no doubt, is a very passionate issue in Nigeria, and discussions around it often make adherents of concerned faiths go sentimental and giddy. I expect this proposition to bring that out in citizens. But truth be told, we cannot continue to spend public funds whimsically in funding usually privileged citizens or their cronies for what is at best “religious tourism”. All those talks about supporting pilgrims to go to “Holy lands” to pray for the peace and progress of the country are merely appealing to sentiments. They take advantage of citizen’s, sometimes mistaken, passion about their faiths.
My greater disappointment with the decision of the Buhari government on this matter is not that they are doing anything unusual in Nigeria. My disappointment is that having irresponsibly given away our common wealth last year to some privileged Christians and Muslims, the President failed to cut this rubbish this year. The travails befalling the country’s economy this year provided a good escape route for the government to build an exit strategy upon. Unfortunately, President Muhammadu Buhari and his touted “Change” government have failed to seize the moment and in such failure, they are signing away another bit of our national wealth.
Obo Effanga is a political analyst. Connect with him on Twitter @obobef.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.