By Usama Dandare
With regard to federal government’s decision of August 4, 2016, instructing Nigerian banks to provide forex to the country’s intending Hajj pilgrims at N197 per Dollar.
This follows after the government ordered similar forex reduction for Christian pilgrims going to Jerusalem at N160 per Dollar earlier this year.
It’s disgusting and bitter to comprehend that the Buhari Administration of all is meddling in measures that would not by any means make impact on the well-being of the ordinary citizens and which could portray the regime as one without focus nor priorities.
It’s also disturbing that at this critical moment of fiscal difficulties in our nation’s history, a time when the country is heading into recession and a time when economic hardships bites harder, the government is going on with an unnecessary subsidy for less than a million pilgrims at the detriment of about 200 million citizens.
This is one insensitivity that ought to have gone with the insensitive past regimes of corruption and recklessness.
Basically, this decision should not have been taken by a government such as Buhari’s regime that wants Nigerians to seriously have faith in it much publicised promise of change.
This means Muslims going on holy pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia this year would enjoy a lower exchange rate because of President Buhari’s concession and of course, the same was enjoyed by Christian pilgrims that went to Israel some months back. The official exchange rate of the Naira to Dollar remains N319 while the rate hovered at the parallel market between N400 and above.
This government’s intervention to subsidise the exchange rate just for religious purposes is highly unacceptable and an affront to the secularity of the country as Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution declares that “the government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion,” therefore any serious government would take off its hands in religious matters.
As this decision only highlights government failure to understand the real issues of national importance on which it urgent intervention should be highly extended to, at a time the nation is faced with monumental economic crisis and a time when all efforts should be geared toward conserving foreign exchange and limiting government spending.
If there is one sector that need urgently presidential intervention is the power industry not pilgrimage. Nigeria is undoubtedly in its longest period of power shortage in history, which as a result the nation’s epileptic industrial sector continue to fare very low and may lead to a massive job loss as many of these industries may shut down. Just of recent, the government of Nigeria placed a ban on the importation of several items to boost local manufacturing and protect the nation’s currency and conserve foreign exchange. If the federal government could place ban on importers whose businesses are of relevance to the nation economy, then it has no reason whatsoever to fund pilgrimage which has no relevance to either the people or their country. President Buhari should have subsidised forex for local manufacturers to import equipment and materials for production instead of given it out to pilgrims.
On the religious aspect, pilgrimage is mandatory to only the financially able persons and no compulsion to those unable to conveniently finance their pilgrimage journey. I don’t know of Christianity but Islam: before a person is considered ‘able’ to go to Hajj, he must afford to transport himself to and fro to Mecca. As well, he must worth an amount of wealth that exceeds his debts if any, (even if they are not due yet, or if they are pertaining to rights of Allah, such as an unpaid expiation or Zakah), he must also have appropriate lodging and clothing for himself, and must have and left at home what he is obligated to spend on those whom he must support (such as his wife, children, slaves, poor parents, and all those under his care) from the date of his departure until the day he will return.
In this case, why would any government subsidise pilgrimage to anybody who is not financially fit to embark on such a religious journey? An intending pilgrim is religiously assumed to be ready for pilgrimage both mentally and financially, therefore, he is assumed to seek no financial assistance from anybody.
The way and manner in which our governments both past and present are meddling in religious matters is un-arguably inappropriate. Religion is and has always been a tool of division in Nigeria, and for the purpose of national unity, the government must at all times be mindful when indulging in religious matters within the society.
Now that government has provided forex for Christians and Muslims pilgrims, what does the government have in plans for adherents of other religions to balance the score-sheet? Since the funds for these religious jamboree were sourced from public coffers belonging to all and sundry not only Muslims and Christians.
Nigeria will only enjoy peace, unity, and religious tolerance only when religion is strictly considered a personal affair. Whoever wants to go for any religious practice should do so under his own care while public resources should be spent judiciously to touch the lives of all, but not in the form of a jamboree that will neither contribute to the development of the people, nor contribute in nation building.
The effects of this pilgrimage subsidy is that it opened the door for state governments to replicate at the state and local government level, they would also follow suit the Federal Government in spending billions of naira to fund religious activities that add zero value to the development of the states.
For President Buhari to get government meddling in religious matters that would only strengthen the economy of foreign nations, it’s only logical if he begin to look at the possibility of scrapping the entire Christian and Muslim pilgrims’ boards, and make sure that his government distance itself from patronising religious tourism at the expense of the nation’s economy.
Even the Saudi and Israeli governments were dismayed at how Nigerians and their government are taking pilgrimage above all things unlike other countries in the world, a reason why Saudi authorities at a time tried to reduce the number of Nigerians going to Mecca by proposing a law that any Nigerian who had performed pilgrimage five times should not be allowed to go again, but the lack of cooperation they got from Nigerian authorities helped forced this proposal to collapsed.
As a way of strengthening the trust and confidence in Nigerians that the present day leadership will deliver the change it promised, President Muhammadu Buhari should desist from using public wealth to fund religious activities.
Instead, he should divert such billions to revitalise some critical sectors of the economy – job creation, power, infrastructure, and education to mention just a few. As only this would make Nigerians believe that the good governance for which they elected President Buhari for is well on track.