Just as we thought that the dumb idea of subsidising pilgrimages has ended in 2015 after the suggestion was roundly condemned, the Senate, on Thursday, brought it up again by urging the federal government to give N200 to a dollar concession to both the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) and the Nigeria Christian Pilgrims Commission (NCPC) once every year. This was part of the recommendations by the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs chaired by Sen. Monsurat Sunmonu. The committee recommended the concession or subsidy to bring down the cost of the pilgrimages to bearable level.
Like we argued in 2015 when it was first proposed, this idea is fraught with many difficulties and dangers for the Nigerian state on many fronts. First, it goes against the current efforts of government to revamp the economy, public finance, manage the exchange rate and inflation, and conserve foreign exchange. For a country struggling to survive the recession amidst dwindling revenues, shortage of foreign exchange, pressure on the naira and inflation, this is not the time to by giving subsidy to pilgrims.
Second, we believe the suggested concession/subsidy is exclusionary as it ignores those who do not belong to either of the religions.
Third, at a time when the general sentiment is in favour of removal of subsidies from even essential commodities like petrol, the state should not be seen to be reintroducing subsidy to a non-essential commodity like pilgrimages meant only for a privileged few. This is the classic case of the poor subsidising the rich and does not speak well of a government that claims to be pro-poor and pro-people.
Fourth, it violates the secular status of Nigeria. Religion is, and should be left in the private realm and the state must not be seen to meddle in it. We know this is an ideal that is not yet accepted in most parts of country especially in the north where state governments usually make provisions for religion and regularly build mosques as part of government’s responsibility to the people. This is a practice that should be discouraged and the federal government must not be seen to be plunging into it especially after government had finally gotten rid of the practice of sponsoring people on pilgrimages.
We recall that in the past religion in Nigeria used to be a private, or at best, a regional affair. Federal government interferences began during the Obasanjo military regime of 1976 – 1979 when buoyed by oil wealth – when Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend the money, the government began to centralise most functions and duties that had hitherto belonged to the states and regions. That was the period roads, schools, hospitals, universities etc that belonged to the states where taken over by the Federal Government. Not satisfied, the Obasanjo administration began to organise, subsidise and subsequently sponsor pilgrimages. That kind of posturing led to the general impression that the national cake was at the federal level and states and ethnic formations compete to get their cuts from. This led to the culture of unbridled corruption and theft of government funds which has plunged us into the mess we currently find ourselves in.
We believe that for a party that contested an election on the platform of change; change from the culture of impunity, corruption and misuse of government funds, this is an unwise move and we urge the National Assembly to jettison the idea, or in the case it is forwarded to the executive, it should be ignored. We expect the government to channel all its efforts and resources towards revamping the economy and not subsidising pilgrimages.