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Afeso Albert Akanbi: Time for Nigeria to End Sponsorship of Pilgrimages

Afeso Albert Akanbi: Time for Nigeria to End Sponsorship of Pilgrimages

Afeso Albert Akanbi: Time for Nigeria to End Sponsorship of Pilgrimages

On July 30, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo oversaw the official flag-off of the ceremony marking the departure of the first batch of Nigerian pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia for the 2017
Hajj.
According to the National Hajj Commission, not less than 91,000 Nigerians later joined pilgrims from around the world in participating in this year’s ceremony. And not less than N136.5 billion, a large chunk of it contributed by government, went into this exercise.
Although Dr. Lukman of the Muslim Congress of Nigeria has described the continued government sponsorship of pilgrimages as fraudulent – even when some states like Kano, Lagos, and Niger have alluded to ending their sponsorship of religious pilgrimages over the years – we have continued to see a steady increase in the sponsorship of these exercises by all the states.
For example, Katsina State governor, Mr. Masari said his government spends not less than N1 billion on Hajj annually! It is surprising to note that this was coming from the governor of a State that, according to all statistical data available, remains one of the poorest in Nigeria.
Religious pilgrimages are not new to man, and as a matter of fact, as long as religion remains a central focus in the affairs of man, pilgrimages will continue to be carried out and the numbers of participants, especially from Nigeria, would continue to grow.
The question however is, should government continue to fund pilgrimages? The answer is an unequivocal and a resounding NO.
This is because over the years, many informed Nigerians have called for government to end the sponsorship of religious pilgrimages, not just because of the corruption that has taken over the process, but because it is totally unnecessary. I wonder why government should involve itself in a thing that is clearly personal and private. Religion is a thing of the mind, as it is a call to serve God and the worshiper must go that path alone.
I have made the point here before that according to section 10 of our constitution, Nigeria is a secular state, and as such no government at any level, should adopt any religion as the state religion. In fact, our government has no business taking sides with any religion, either by way of building places of worship or sponsoring religious excursions.
Professor Ishaq Akintola, a renowned Islamic cleric, made it clear that “hajj is enjoined on the Muslim faithful once in a life time, if they can afford it…and umrah – lesser hajj – is not compulsory”. If Hajj is compulsory for financially buoyant and physically fit Muslims once in their life times, and we know that the Christian visit to Jerusalem is not compulsory, why then do our governments continue to sponsor those intending to embark on journeys, which they expect to get some type of very personal spiritual epiphany from?
This is because, according to the professor, “politicians have hijacked the process, and are now sponsoring all manners of people, even thugs and prostitutes, as another way of syphoning money”.
According to reports, 98 percent of the services rendered by National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) in Saudi Arabia are determined in U.S. dollars. That “is why NAHCON pegged the 2017 hajj fare at N1.5 million” for each participant, many of who were sponsored by government because they could not afford the full fare on their own. If we are told that “hajj is not mandatory on those who do not have the money to perform it”, is it not time for all well-meaning Nigerians to join voices and call for the stoppage of this waste of resources in the name of religious pilgrimages?
The crucial questions are: Of what economic value and benefit are those who receive the largesse from government to attend these pilgrimages to the Nigerian estate when they return? What benefits do their trips hold for the average Nigeria on the streets?
According to reports, more than 1.7 million pilgrims are participating in this year’s hajj to Saudi Arabia to fulfill this pillar of Islam. I am trying to imagine the economic benefits that will come with the visitors for the host country, because there are those who believe Saudi Arabia desperately needs to find other sources of income beyond oil, and boosting tourism is high up on the agenda of their government.
Recently, our government entered a bilateral agreement with the UAE with the intention of thwarting the activities of the thieves among us who continue to parade themselves as leaders, and who have decided on the Emirate as the new safe haven to stash stolen wealth. If our politicians, with their kleptomaniac tendencies continue to enrich other economies, must we the masses join them in deepening our wastefulness by jumping at every opportunity to boost other economies?
I am sure that many of those who made the trip on this year’s hajj have no reason whatever of doing so. Personally, I know of more than two people who have been embarking on hajj in the past three years on government sponsorship. Why are we always so keen in putting ego, greed and self-interest before common sense and doing what is right and needful in this country?
In 2015, over 2,177 pilgrims were crushed to death due to a stampede that occurred during the Hajj. That disaster, one of the deadliest in the history of the annual pilgrimage, claimed the lives of 199 Nigerian pilgrims, according to the official reports. I am almost certain that for many of the dead, God rest their souls, it would not have been their second or even third hajj pilgrimages, and they would have travelled for that umpteenth time only because they might have been able to maneuver their way into getting government sponsorship.

Because President Buhari has made the anti-corruption fight one of the focal points of his government, I am calling on this administration to see to an immediate end to this misappropriation of funds badly needed to meet other needs in this times of biting recession in the name of the sponsorship of pilgrimages, and a cessation of this unwarranted use of tax payers’ money in funding the religious faithful in their evidently private spiritual endeavours.

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