Abimbola Adelakun: Time to scrap state-sponsored pilgrimages

by Abimbola Adelakun

 

pilgrims-meccaThere is no logic to government sponsoring people on something as personal as pilgrimages. I consider the beneficiaries no different from those who pay tithe from stolen wealth.

Nigerian governors are fond of calling attention to their own prudence by insisting they run their states on shoestring budgets. They say the states they run are permanently broke, that they can barely pay salaries because their revenue is gulped by recurring expenditure — such as salaries. A certain South-West governor even blamed his inability to pay the five-month salaries of the states’ employees on reduced monthly federal allocations. But what governors never say is that they contribute to their state’s lack by non-judicious use of income.

Recently, Oyo State’s re-elected governor, Abiola Ajimobi, at a Fidau in Ibadan, was reported to have tasked the presiding Alfa on providing 10 “Alfas” that would be sponsored by the state to join him to perform the lesser Hajj (Umrah). Ajimobi wishes to thank Allah, it was said, for His mercies on him and the state.

First, Ajimobi narrated what I consider an amusing account of spiritual attacks against him prior to the election. His is an illustration of the simultaneity of existence between pre-modern sensibilities and modern realities. In 2015, our leaders still clutch at Fadeyi Oloro stories of evil plots because they see sacrificial items on the road. Elsewhere, scientists and society are debating whether artificial intelligence will lead machines to developing a consciousness of their own and whether, with our own hands, we would have created a “God” that we will not be able to control. Sometimes, you just wonder whether Africa will ever catch up with the rest of the world at the rate we hold on to retrogressive narratives.

Then, the governor, grateful to have miraculously won the election, gratuitously announces that he will send people on Umrah! Since the governor did not indicate that the money will come from his own personal funds, I am right to assume Oyo State will pay for it. What gives him the moral right to cream off public resources to send people on Umrah considering that Oyo is not a theocratic state? And whose purpose does this trip serve apart from the governor’s?

By the way, is Ajimobi not part of the party preaching “change” just a few weeks ago? Has he not received the “change” memo from his party? Is this kind of abuse of office not one of the things we criticised President Goodluck Jonathan for — an imprudent mix of religion and politics to manipulate the public?

Last year, I was in Ibadan and paid a visit to a public secondary school. The state of infrastructure was so embarrassing that I wonder how children manage to learn anything in such conditions. I wonder if anyone of Ajimobi’s household attends public schools that have fallen on hard times. If they do, maybe schools’ uplift would be a higher priority than religious tourism.

Thanks to Ajimobi anyway, methinks it is time Nigeria scrapped state-sponsored pilgrimages at all levels. Some of these governors — like Adebayo Alao-Akala, Ajimobi’s predecessor — never hide the political intentions behind these pilgrimages. Alao-Akala publicly stated that he was using the sponsorship of 1,000 pilgrims to woo “Christian’ votes in the state.

It has got to stop and the best person to do it is the incoming president, Muhammadu Buhari. He should prove to the public that he can put fiscal discipline above religious considerations by putting a final stop to state-sponsored pilgrimages. Hopefully, state governors will eventually follow suit. Edo State did it and the earth of Benin did not cave in; so, why can’t others do the same?

The National Conference also advocated a scrapping of government sponsored pilgrimages; although if Jonathan had won his re-election, that is one of their recommendations he would definitely have ignored. In 2014, he overruled the proposal of a Presidential Committee on Restructuring and Rationalisation of Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies along that line. We know why Jonathan would toe that line — he needed religion for his own ends. He even once complained that northern governments were excluding Christians from pilgrimages to promote Muslims as if that made either one more sensible. The President himself visited Israel with an entourage for mindless junkets in the name of pilgrimage.

There is no logic to government sponsoring people on something as personal as pilgrimages. I consider the beneficiaries no different from those who pay tithe from stolen wealth. If people cannot use their own money to fund their own religious inclinations, they can as well forget it. Tourism is a culture of privilege and adventure, not a reward that you have to rob other people to award. Nigeria can barely afford this luxury. Saudi Arabia, last year, made US$18.6bn from pilgrimages and US$213bn from oil exports. They are doing everything humanly possible to increase their revenue from pilgrimages. Why should a poorer country like Nigeria deprive itself of resources to help boost Saudi Arabia’s revenue?

There have been arguments about the merits of the state sponsorship of religious tourism, all of them a desperate claw at reason. These trips have no impact whatsoever on public morality. The more Nigeria holds on to religion, and even deploys public resources to cultivate it, the more our pretext betrays us.

On the Nigerian Pilgrim Christian Commission website, it has a “testimony” page where a couple of people talked about miracles that occurred as a result of their trips to the holy land. These testimonies are mundane happenings yet are being used to justify the capital flight involved in these projects.

Take away the myth these sacred places have cultivated about themselves and we will find there is nothing “holy” about “holy lands.” They are fallible human societies who need the revenue from religious tourism. Israel is an openly racist society that will not touch black people with antiseptic gloves, and Saudi Arabia adds sexism to its shortcomings. So, what is it about these places that justify the argument about the necessity of pilgrimages for spiritual rejuvenation and a boost of the society? Anybody who wants to see where the faith he practises originated, whether for spiritual or educational purposes will do well to fund it personally. It is the right thing to do.

If Oyo State is experiencing a fiscal surplus, I plead with Governor Ajimobi to embark on an urgent renovation of schools. Oyo State schools need libraries and laboratories, and students sincerely deserve better. Schools need to be upgraded to stem the depth of illiteracy in that society. If the children of today are better educated, they will — hopefully — grow up more enlightened and will do better than place sacrificial items around government houses. The good thing is that even the governor will not have to run away from the Government House, solicit Alfas and reward them with pilgrimages paid for from the state coffers.

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