Nigeria is one country that never ceases to amaze me. Every day is filled with dramatic events powered by actors that would make movie legends like Mel Gibson go green in envy; if not how do you explain a gigantic naval ship disappearing into the blue sea like a needle in hay? Or the cassava bread launched by the government last year, a snack that has never again been seen or eaten by anyone except the President himself. During the launch, he held the poorly packaged bread, brandished it in the air with that trademark smile (you know that smile don’t you?) and then reluctantly slipped a piece of the thing into his mouth amidst thunderous applause from his cabinet members (who like me and you haven’t tasted nor even seen the bread after that day). It’s been almost a year now and nothing has been heard about that Cassava bread.
Recently I was thinking about the many dramas and comical events that have played out in Nigeria and one came to my mind- ‘Government sponsored pilgrimages’.
Every year, the Nigerian government sponsors thousands of Christians and Muslims to pilgrimages in Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively, with the aim of ‘producing Nigerians that will contribute to national transformation.’ It has even gone ahead to establish national and state pilgrims boards across the country, but these organizations have ironically come to epitomize nepotism and corruption in the discharge of their duties. Heads of pilgrim boards very often include names of friends, family members and even people of very questionable character on the list of pilgrims who, upon their return from the ‘Holy Land’ (that is when they don’t escape while on the trip) attach several appellations to their names like Alhaji, Alhaja, J.P etc. And they do earn themselves a good dose of respect from friends and family alike who see them as privileged individuals that have had a rare encounter with God.
You see some years back, I didn’t see anything wrong with this but having recently analysed the government’s involvement in the exercise, its economic effect and its failure to impact positively on National transformation, I find this practice (of sponsoring pilgrims) not only irrelevant but as yet another conduit through which our national resources is being drained.
First, we have to ask ‘Is pilgrimage a compulsory exercise?’ and the answer is ‘Yes’ for the Muslims and well… ‘Not quite’ for the Christians. In Islam I understand it is one of the five pillars of the religion but should the government be financially responsible for people’s religious expeditions like this one? As a Christian I do not even find anywhere in the Holy Scriptures where a command is given to adherents to embark on a pilgrimage, failure of which they stand guilty of transgressing the law.
In the 60’s the government began to sponsor Muslims who had the yearning to fulfil their religious obligation (Hajj) in Saudi Arabia but couldn’t meet the financial demands. Though this was not supposed to be part of the government’s responsibilities, it continued for a long time until around the 70’s when the Christians, worried about what they perceived to be segregation and an attempt by the government to create tension between Christians and Muslims, demanded to be equally sponsored to their own holy Land. They too wanted to dine inside the national cafeteria, so it became a legal battle between the State and the Christian Association which was won by the latter, giving rise to the Christian Pilgrims’ Board and that marked the beginning of the government sponsored Christian pilgrimage. Finally ‘justice’ was served and ‘what was good for the goose eventually was good for the gander.’
From that time till now, billions have been spent to send different batches of pilgrims to either Saudi or Israel, yet the resultant socioeconomic impact of this effort remains to be seen.
In the 2012 budget, the National Hajj commission got a total allocation of N765,654,846, while the Christian pilgrim commission (NCPC) got N576,707,504. This means that the government spent N1.34 billion on pilgrimage last year alone. When you add that to the amount spent in previous years then you get tens of billions gone on what may be deemed a tourist adventure and mere sightseeing or even an escape route to ‘greener pastures.’
The thing about government sponsored pilgrimage is that it is not the business of government to be involved in what is supposed to be a person’s own religious exercise. It is like Christians asking the government to subsidise or possibly pay for the cost of their bibles and religious literature or that their crusades and workshops be sponsored yearly by the government. Now, this is not to suggest that the government may never identify with religious activities as occasional support from government is vital, however to take over the entire cost of pilgrimages year in year out is an outright misplacement of priorities and yet another way to dispense the famed ‘national cake.’
What I’m trying to advocate for isn’t that Christians and Muslims should not exercise their religious duties. They should and in fact I myself, I do but I am saying that the government shouldn’t be financially responsible for these exercises. In Islam after all, a person is required to make the Hajj at least “ONCE in his/her lifetime IF HE/SHE IS ABLE TO DO SO,” suggesting therefore that while it is important and necessary, it is still not a do or die affair and that people who can’t make it due to financial reasons are no less believers than Hajj pilgrims. In Christianity, it is not even a matter of law to go to Israel, Prague, Lourdes or Rome for any pilgrimage. People who deem the journey to Israel or Rome spiritually rewarding for them should make effort to embark on such journeys on their own account but those who can’t go should remain where they are and offer their worship to God who is Omnipresent.
Jesus the Christ in fact debunked any idea of a compulsory spiritual voyage to a particular location with the intention of deriving extra blessings when he declared ebulliently in Jn. 4:21 “…The hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the father.” In fact he went on to say in verse 24 of that same chapter “…but the hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the father in spirit and in truth…”
If the government does not put an end to this age long trend NOW, it may very well go down in history as Nigeria’s most expensive government. This same government is spending billions monthly on salaries of politicians and their long list of aides, it is funding Ministries, Departments and agencies (MDA’s) who mostly perform the same functions, it servicing the hundreds of committees set up by the President, the same government is also paying salaries of ex militants as part of the amnesty deal (and may soon be spending more billions on amnesty for Boko Haram), in addition to that, it is spending billions yearly to send its citizens on pilgrims! It is all a bit too much isn’t it?