by Albert Afeso Akanbi
On July 30, vice president Yemi Osibanjo 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 participating in this year’s ceremony. And not less than N136.5B, 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, although 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 sponsorship from all the states.
For example, Katsina state governor Mr Masari said his government spends not less than N1B 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 an issue and the numbers of participants, especially from Nigeria, would continue to grow.
The question however is, should the 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 the government to end 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 the 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 a state religion. In fact, our government has to 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 himself, has made it clear that ‘hajj was enjoined on Muslims faithful ones in a life time if they can afford it…and umrah –lesser hajj- is not compulsory’. If Hajj is compulsory for the financially buoyant and physically fit Muslims ones in their life time, and we know for the Christians, visit to Jerusalem is not compulsory, why then do our governments continue to sponsor those intending to embark on journeys which they clearly expect to get some type of personal spiritual epiphany from?
This is because according to the professor, ‘politicians have hijacked the process, and are now sponsoring all manner of people, even thugs and prostitutes as another way of syphoning money.’
According to reports, 98 per cent of the services rendered by 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 whom were sponsored by government because they could not afford it. If we are told “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 question is, of what economic value and benefit are those who receive the largesse from government to attend these pilgrimages to the Nigerian economy when they return? What benefit is their trip to the common man on the street?
According to reports, more than 1.7 million pilgrims are participating in this year’s hajj to Saudi Arabia to fulfil this one of the pillars 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 because they have decided that was the new safe haven to keep stolen wealth. If our politicians, in their kleptomaniac tendencies, continue to enrich other economies, must we the masses join them in exhibiting our wastefulness by jumping at every opportunity of adding to the FOREX of other economies?
I am sure that many of those who made the trip to this year’s hajj have no reason whatever for doing so. Personally, I know of more than two people, under government sponsorship who have been embarking on hajj for the last 3 years. Why are we always so keen on 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 stampede that happened in the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. That disaster, one of the deadliest in the history of the annual pilgrimage, claimed 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, and they would have travelled for that umpteenth time because they may have been able to manoeuvre their way into getting government sponsorship.
Because President Buhari has made anti-corruption one of the focal point 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 sponsorship of pilgrimages, and a cessation of this unwarranted use of tax payers’ money in funding religious faithful in their evidently private spiritual endeavors.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Albert Afeso Akanbi is a Novelist, Researcher, Columnist and Humanitarian. He lives in Abuja, FCT, Nigeria. He tweets @afeso82 and blogs at akanbiafeso.wordpress.com