One of the notorious aberrations into which Nigeria stumbled and has largely failed to extricate herself from is the practice of state-sponsored pilgrimages to Mecca, Rome or Jerusalem. Using public funds for what is absolutely a private choice is unacceptable. Sadly, both the Federal and State governments have been enmeshed in this corrupt and resource-frittering exercise in spite of repeated calls by conscionable individuals over the years that the practice should cease. The only good news on this matter is that one state, Lagos, has finally put a stop to the practice and this is worthy of commendation and emulation. For added measure, Lagos State announced the other day that the government had saved about two billion naira (N2 billion) from putting an end to state-sponsored pilgrimages.
Religion is a private matter. It is an act between an individual and his or her chosen deity, using a particular religious platform of choice. Besides, the 1999 Federal Constitution recognizes Nigeria as a secular state. Indeed, Section 10, Chapter 1 of the Constitution states that ‘The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State religion.’ It is therefore a fundamental distortion of the letter and spirit of the constitution for any government to spend taxpayers’ money to feed the private spiritual needs of selected individuals. It is also to be noted that there are some citizens who swear allegiance to and worship Almighty God through traditional channels. Conceding for a moment that perhaps the practice is healthy for the nation, it is to be noted that traditionalists are therefore automatically excluded from this ill-conceived policy of state sponsored pilgrimages.
A cursory view of the practice would reveal that it is riddled with sharp practices. It has become a honey-pot for some groups and persons. The air-charter companies see it as a plum contract. Money changes hands through graft and the ‘scratch-my-back-I –scratch-your-back’ unethical culture. Sometimes the arrangements are sloppy. Pilgrims spend nights at the airports waiting for flights to arrive. At the Holy Land, the tour guides and some officials work hand-in-hand to milk the governments and give the pilgrims a raw deal. The charter companies sometimes complain about shoddy arrangements and delayed payments, leading to pilgrims being stranded. Some citizens have been known to travel on pilgrimage more than once at state expense. Also, some persons who are elderly or too advanced in age cheat the system and travel only to die abroad in the belief that death in the Holy Land is an automatic visa to paradise. All these acts of fraud should end.
Indeed, the political class has come to perceive state-sponsored pilgrimages as a form of political largesse and patronage. The names of cronies and family members routinely feature on the lists of pilgrims even when these are people who do not serve the state directly. They are parasites who feed fat on the ill-conceived policies of government. They are so lavishly treated by governments in order to court their support against future elections. This certainly is not the way to go. If it was tolerated before, it is time to let go as Lagos State has so courageously and properly done.
Individuals who wish to perform holy assignments on pilgrimage should raise funds on their own to do so. Also, rich patrons can sponsor indigent pious persons as part of charity which all the great religions preach.
It would be instructive to have statistical data on how much the different tiers of government have spent on pilgrimages since the practice was adopted by governments. Certainly, it would run into billions of naira as the example of Lagos State has shown. These are funds that could have been ploughed into education or physical infrastructure. Indeed, it is on record that during the periods of pilgrimages, some state governments virtually close shop as all State officials find one reason or the other to leave their desks. Governance grinds to a halt and the people are the losers for it.
Finally, the Federal Government led by President Muhammadu Buhari should set the example of abolishing sponsored trips in line with its declared objective of cutting wastes. Buhari came to power on a platform of social change and financial prudence. This is a yawning opportunity to demonstrate the spirit of change at a time when the poor people of the country are groaning under the weight of a stinging economic recession. State governments should also take a cue from the Lagos example. To concretize this, the Houses of Assembly in the states should pass laws prohibiting the use of State resources to sponsor citizens on pilgrimage.