Of state sponsorship of pilgrimages

T HE reactions that have trailed the decision by the Muhammadu Buhari government to subsidise this year’s Hajj, despite the fact that the Nigerian economy is in recession, underscores the necessity of separating religion and state. Last year, the Federal Government announced the discontinuation of state sponsorship of both Muslim and Christian pilgrimages as a cost cutting measure. Government made it clear that stopping state funding of pilgrimages would save some money that could be devoted to development programmes.

Unfortunately, government has refused to make good this pledge and it has continued to subsidise pilgrimages and engage in these wasteful schemes. Now, instead of seeing how state subsidisation of pilgrimages, whether Christian or Muslim, is impoverishing the country and further destroying an economy that is already in doldrums, many segments of the Nigerian population, particularly those who feel that their religion is favoured by this current decision of government, are tendering flimsy reasons and excuses to justify what is clearly a policy blunder, and a mark of governmental ineptitude.

From their comments and reactions, Nigerians who are in support of state subsidisation of Hajj have made it seem as if those who are opposed to this decision are Christians who did not protest when such subsidy was extended to them last year by the same government. In fact, many Nigerians who are pro-Hajj subsidy think that those who are protesting are pro-Jonathans who could not speak out against such measures when Dr Goodluck Jonathan was in power and who have yet to get over the pain of defeat at last year’s election.

Unfortunately, these misplaced and mistaken persuasions continue to re-echo in the discussions of both illiterate and semi-illiterate Nigerians, as well as in the debates by so-called educated and apparently enlightened persons in the country whom one thinks should know better. Many people across the country are still trapped in their ethnic and religious cocoons, and find it difficult to rise and reason beyond their parochial, tribal, clannish and sectarian interests, and begin to appreciate and embrace collective and common supra-ethnic and supra-religious decencies by rallying against divisive, authoritarian, oppressive, dogmatic and exploitative religious policies, as in this case.

Hence, I would like to reiterate that this author is not a Christian or a Muslim, and one needs not be before speaking out for, or against a policy that negatively affects us all. Again, it is not all Nigerians who are Christians or Muslims who support state subsidisation of religious pilgrimages. There are millions of Nigerians who are traditional religious worshippers and adherents of other faiths, religions or philosophies. In fact, a proper census would actually reveal the millions of Nigerians who are non-religious – including atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.

Having said that, the issue remains: Why do some Nigerians think that the government is justified by subsidising religious pilgrimages, in this case, I mean both Christian and Muslim 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?

That leads me to the penultimate point, 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 to 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?

Unfortunately, people who think that this recent decision favours their religion are of the view that those protesting the decision are doing so because they are angry that the subsidy benefits Muslims. Pro-subsidy Nigerians, whether they are Muslims or Christians, should bear in mind that if the Nigerian economy is good, it is good for everyone, whether one is a Christian, Muslim or non-religious.

  • Igwe lives in Ibadan.