THE recent pilgrimage jamboree embarked on by President Goodluck Jonathan and some governors is a sad reminder that our public officials are not ready to push religion into the private sphere where it rightly belongs. It is also another high point of an unwarranted waste of public funds; a deepening of the culture of profligacy more than being an exercise in piety. It is a wrong step to continue to spend public funds on jaunts, especially at a time when the government is claiming to be short of cash. Staging an ostentatious show at a time that calls for sobriety, the President turned a purely personal religious affair into a state matter, taking with him several governors, cabinet members and other government officials. This is definitely not the answer to successful governance.
The argument that Nigeria signed a Bilateral Air Services Agreement with Israel during the trip is puerile and insulting. BASA is an assignment that a minister can discharge on behalf of the country; and in this case, it was actually the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Viola Onwuliri, that signed on Nigeria’s behalf. A deputy foreign affairs minister signed on Israel’s behalf. The public deserve to know how much of taxpayers’ money was committed to the trip. It is time our public officials stopped unnecessary religious jamborees at public expense.
Instead of observing our religious diversity, the federal, state and local governments have been serially violating the 1999 Constitution by committing public funds to the building of worship centres for just two religions and subsidising the costs of their pilgrimages. Since the defunct Western Region under the late Obafemi Awolowo as Premier initiated a welfare board to help out Muslims with consular and welfare services when they travelled for the hajj, other tiers of government have keyed into the programme. However, successive federal and state governments have bastardised the concept, which was not meant to sponsor pilgrims with state funds or spend so much time and money on a purely religious activity. Indeed, all the states in the North and some in the South are guilty of committing huge public funds to sponsor pilgrimages and other religious activities every year at the expense of critical social services.
To start with, Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution states that “the Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State religion,” and Section 38 affirms “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Taken together, it is therefore unlawful and morally reprehensible for individuals in government to turn their personal religious activities into veritable public affairs. There is a tendency to suspend critical thinking and reality when religion is brought into politics. Religion does not drive development, but rational/innovative thinking and transparent leadership do. Since it is evident that infusion of religion into public affairs is not a guarantee of good governance anywhere in the world, it is time we rolled back religion from government.
Truly, many civilised countries know the danger of mixing religion with state affairs. In the United States, the Supreme Court rulings interpreting the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishment of religion have long barred the direct use of tax money to build, repair or maintain buildings devoted to religious services or other religious activities. Courts have also outlawed prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property. But here in Nigeria, governors spend furiously on religious activities even in states where people are at the lowest level of human development. This is absurd.
The Katsina State Government has just awarded a N359.4 million contract for the construction of 34 mosques. In Niger State, it was claimed in May that the government spent about N5.1 billion to subsidise both Muslim and Christian pilgrims from the state during the last six years. It was reported that in the 2012 Budget, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria got a total allocation of N765.65 million, while the Nigeria Christian Pilgrim Commission received N576 million. Put together, the Federal Government must have spent N1.34 billion on pilgrimages for the year. In 2012, President Jonathan was severely criticised for accepting the donation of a multimillion naira church building from an Italian construction firm. Result? A more corrupt society.
The level of sponsorship of private religious obligations has assumed a shocking dimension. The entire exercise reeks of corruption, with the nation losing billions of naira annually to graft-ridden pilgrims’ welfare board officials. We have advised before that government at all levels should stop sponsoring pilgrimages – whether to Israel, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, and whether it is a government official, President or governor that is involved. It is a sheer waste of precious resources that should have been directed to better use.
The President will do well to heed the May 2012 advice of the Stephen Oronsaye-led Presidential Committee on Rationalisation of Federal Ministries and Agencies that the Federal Government should scrap the two pilgrims’ welfare commissions in the country. It also recommended that the government should stop granting concessions in foreign exchange to pilgrims. For this year’s pilgrimage, Jonathan and the Central Bank of Nigeria had approved a concessionary rate of N144 to $1 when the prevailing market rate has been an average of N158 to $1 for more than six months now. According to the Oronsaye committee, Nigeria wasted N6.5 billion on pilgrims-related issues between 2007 and 2011. The government also expended N4.07 billion on the emoluments of the Christian and Muslim welfare agencies’ employees between 2009 and 2011. How many millions of classrooms or boreholes could these funds have provided. This is appalling.
The best service Jonathan and the governors can offer the country at this time is to concentrate on its huge human development challenges. The Constitution is clear on the role of government in the society. In line with best global practices, a few states, including Kano and Edo States, have stopped subsidising pilgrimages earlier this year. Kano State’s Rabiu Kwankwaso actually described it as an avenue for stealing public funds. Other states of the federation should follow this progressive example.