Dear Nigerian Government, Please Stop Sponsoring Pilgrims. – by Ashton Dagana

There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed. – Woodrow Wilson

Pilgrimage, according to Merriam Webster, is defined as a journey of a pilgrim, especially one to a shrine or a sacred place. Wikipedia defines it as a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey into someone’s own beliefs.

In 2016, it was recorded that over 65,167 Nigerians of the Islamic faith embarked on the pilgrimage to Mecca. However, pilgrimage is a global phenomenon. In the same year cited previously, the General Authority for Statistics in Saudi Arabia said that a total of 1,862,909 pilgrims came for Hajj, of whom 1,325,372 pilgrims came from outside Saudi Arabia, while the total pilgrims inside totaled 537,537 pilgrims.

As lofty as this holy endeavour may sound, it has sparked a hot debate among the citizens and the members of the government. Clerics of both major religions whose worshippers are beneficiaries of the government’s sponsorship of this scheme take different sides concerning the matter. While some believe pilgrimage to be a personal affair and should not be funded by the government, others take the view of encouraging the sponsorship as it helps to better the citizenry which in turn makes the nation better.

The Nigerian Christian Pilgrim Commission (NCPC) is the body responsible for managing the pilgrimage process of Nigerian Christians to visit the holy places of their religion. Last year, the cost for an individual Nigerian making pilgrimage via the NCPC was 473,940 Naira for the General Pilgrimage and 461,440 Naira for the Easter Pilgrimage. If someone were to make this trip independently, the cost would be over the roof, hence, their need to do so via the government agency.

According to a story on The Vanguard last year, the FG spent up to N7.9 Billion in subsidising the trip of 65,167 Hajj pilgrims. While the economy struggled to grow under a nefarious recession, these pilgrims enjoyed a total foreign exchange which amounted to sixty-five million, one hundred and sixty-seven thousand dollars ($65,167,000) at a maximum of $1000 per pilgrim.

If these funds had been put to good use in speeding up the repairs of the Lagos-Ibadan expressway or any of the roads in need of repairs or creating more public infrastructures which will increase the ease of doing business, Nigeria would be better for it. It is a no-brainer that the sponsorship of pilgrims out of state coffers is wasteful. It adds no value whatsoever to the betterment of the country as a whole.

Although the Hajj to Makkah is the fifth pillar of Islam, it is stated in the Quran that only those who have the financial and physical capacity to do so should embark on the trip. Why then should the government be involved in such trivial affairs? It makes no practical sense.

Section 10 of the Nigerian 1999 Constitution says, “The government of the Federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion.” When the same government then takes the money paid by hardworking taxpayers and uses it to sponsor pilgrims, there is a conflict of the constitutional provision. It is therefore foolish for the government to continue to subsidize pilgrims journey to their sacred places.

Another cogent reason for discontinuing the funding of pilgrimages by the government is how well the nations and economies of the benefiting countries are doing because of the influx of thousands of Nigerians. There is a massive inflow of foreign exchange from Nigeria to Israel and Saudi Arabia, which will be used to foster living conditions of their citizens after the pilgrims have returned to their respective countries. Not that pilgrimage is in effect bad, but fortunately for these holy lands, they also stand to benefit immensely from it all. But when the government seeks to look inwards and divert these large sums of money to more befitting projects such as education, the impact will be well felt.

Should we examine it judiciously, sponsorship of pilgrims is in itself an act of corruption. It is the willful diversion of public funds to personal needs – needs of a small set of the population. What should benefit the whole citizenry is used to unconstitutionally enrich a privileged few. Therefore those government officials who continue to subsidize pilgrimages should be charged with corruption. They are willfully disobeying the law. If the government is ever to be involved in this endeavour, it should be to only sponsor a few health and security officials who will attend to Nigerians at their destinations. Alternatively, making the commute easier by ensuring the airport and airline facilities are in good working conditions are not beyond the government to act upon. These are better approaches which will be of benefit to all and sundry.

For us to build a Nigeria that will be pleasing to us and future generations, we need to do more than we are doing right now, taking into cognizance the need for smart governance that anticipates, recognises and fixes the real issues the people face. Then shall we make Nigeria great again and make all our princes return home to prosper our land even more. You and I shall see a better Nigeria!

Ashton Dagana, a Quantity Surveyor writes from Port Harcourt. (