For stopping the sponsorship of religious pilgrimages, the Lagos State Government saved N4.5 billion in the past three years. The money is being deployed to road construction and the provision of other social amenities for the benefit of all. This is a laudable step, as religion is decidedly a personal affair, which the state should not be involved in.
The Lagos example gives an insight into how much has been wasted over the years by the 36 states in the country, especially those in the North, and the Federal Government, which had before now, erroneously taken sponsorship of pilgrims to Mecca and Jerusalem as one of the canons of governance.
According to its Commissioner for Home Affairs, Abdulhakeem Abdullateef, the Lagos State Government spent N1.5 billion annually on pilgrimages. Now, its role is limited to giving the pilgrims medical tips and supporting them with clerics, who would guide them to ensure that they do not lose focus of the spiritual objectives of their journey. The state took the decision to extricate itself from this morass in the wake of the economic recession in mid 2014, when global crude oil prices crashed from an average of $100 to $26 in 2016. Other states had pledged to also stop. Kaduna, Kano and Niger states were among them.
Kano State said it was backing out in 2016 after the government said it spent N3 billion on Hajj that year alone. But clerics and medical personnel continue to travel at public expense; while Niger State spent a staggering N5.1 billion on the scheme in the five years to 2013. Kaduna State not only ended such waste, it moved a notch further to stop the feeding of Muslims during Ramadan.
Apparently, states’ use of public funds for pilgrimages is an abuse of the 1999 Constitution, given its express disapproval in Section 10, which declares that “the Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as a State Religion.”
However, it is worrisome that despite this constitutional imperative and austere economic conditions that have turned many states into chronic salary debtors to civil servants, the abuse thrives. Some of the governors indulge in self-adulation for defying the odds to sustain the practice. Governor Mohammed Abubakar of Bauchi State is one of them. In a farewell message to the 3,090 pilgrims from the state in 2017, he said the government had continued to fund the operations of the state pilgrims’ welfare board, both at home and abroad, “despite the economic hardship.” Each pilgrim was given N85,000. For Katsina State, the Governor, Aminu Masari, said it had been subsidising Hajj with N1 billion annually. According to him, pilgrimage to Mecca is “neither a picnic nor a holiday, but an act of worship.” But public funds should not be used for it because Nigeria is a secular state.
Unfortunately, the Federal Government’s avowal of disengagement is one of double standards. In 2016, it influenced the Central Bank of Nigeria to direct banks and authorised forex dealers to pay Pilgrims Travelling Allowance to intending pilgrims at a concessionary exchange rate of N197 to $1; and in 2017 for N305 to $1; very much at variance with the prevailing rate of N360 to $1. According to the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria statistics, 81,000 persons out of the 95,000 slots approved by the Saudi Arabian authorities performed the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2017. The slot ranks Nigeria as the fifth highest globally.
This partly explains why Nigeria remains a poor country. In January 2017, the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, declared that there would be no discriminatory foreign exchange allocation to intending pilgrims to either Saudi Arabia or Israel in 2017. Just in August, the Senate directed the CBN to provide forex to Muslims undertaking pilgrimage to Mecca at N200 per dollar. In 2015, the Federal Government had approved the purchase of a maximum of $1,000 at a concessionary rate of N160 to the dollar by each intending pilgrim as personal travel allowance.
But Nigeria’s loss is gain for Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both see pilgrimage as serious business. Saudi Arabia has listed tourism as one of the most important economic sectors in its post-oil Vision 2030, expecting revenue from religious tourism to rise from $27.9 billion in 2015 to $46.6 billion in 2020. When Israeli tourism hit an all-time high in 2017, earning 20 billion shekels in revenue from a total of 3.6 million tourists, Yariv Levin, Israel’s Minister of Tourism said, “We have implemented several significant initiatives, including reaching out to new and focused markets, building sub-brands and launching new campaigns, collaborations with large online travel agents, giving financial incentives to airline companies that open new routes to Israel and continued marketing throughout the world.”
It is obvious that the country is the big loser for meddling in religious matters. Many of the states that flaunt the sponsorship of pilgrims and building of mosques as achievement rank among those with the worst indices in education, child and maternal mortality and economic development. A recent Oxford University Human Development Initiative, Multidimensional Poverty Index Data Bank, 2017, revealed very much so, when it classified Zamfara State as the poorest with 92 per cent poverty rate; Jigawa State 88 per cent; Bauchi 87 per cent; Kebbi, 86 per cent; and Katsina 82 per cent, among others.
Performances of these states in public examinations, including the common entrance to the 104 Federal Unity Colleges, are nothing to write home about. Embarrassingly, pupils from some of the states could be admitted for scoring just two marks out of 200, whereas pupils from other states of the country are required to score 139 marks to be enrolled. The almajiris, and the over 10.5 million out-of-school pupils, sprung from this ironic policy of the state placing more premium on religion than education. Therefore, governors who are still misguided should get the message: state sponsorship of pilgrimages does not promote development; but education and infrastructure provision do.
The so-called “presidential order” to grant special and preferential exchange rate to Muslim and Christian pilgrimages is primitive and must be discontinued. Nigerians should start demanding respect for the country’s constitution. Many countries have constitutional barricades between the state and religion in protection of their secularity. Among them are the United States, Canada, Brazil, Singapore, Australia and India. Nigeria’s inclusion in this group is only nominal because of its flagrant violation of the constitution on the matter. It is a choice that has burnt her fingers with the plague of religious extremism that has now morphed into terrorism. This mess requires taxpayers to embrace robust interrogation of the system and legally challenge wrongful expenditure of public funds for personal interest such as pilgrimage sponsorship.