Hmmmm!!! Na our monei ooo. 

THE recent
pilgrimage jamboree embarked on by President Goodluck Jonathan and some
governors is a sad reminder that our public officials are not ready to push
religion into the private sphere where it rightly belongs. It is also another
high point of an unwarranted waste of public funds; a deepening of the culture
of profligacy more than being an exercise in piety. It is a wrong step to
continue to spend public funds on jaunts, especially at a time when the
government is claiming to be short of cash. Staging an ostentatious show at a
time that calls for sobriety, the President turned a purely personal religious
affair into a state matter, taking with him several governors, cabinet members
and other government officials. This is definitely not the answer to successful
governance.
The argument
that Nigeria signed a Bilateral Air Services Agreement with Israel during the
trip is puerile and insulting. BASA is an assignment that a minister can
discharge on behalf of the country; and in this case, it was actually the
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Viola Onwuliri, that signed on Nigeria’s behalf. A
deputy foreign affairs minister signed on Israel’s behalf. The public deserve
to know how much of taxpayers’ money was committed to the trip.  It is time our public officials stopped
unnecessary religious jamborees at public expense.
Instead of
observing our religious diversity, the federal, state and local governments
have been serially violating the 1999 Constitution by committing public funds
to the building of worship centres for just two religions and subsidising the
costs of their pilgrimages. Since the defunct Western Region under the late
Obafemi Awolowo as Premier initiated a welfare board to help out Muslims with
consular and welfare services when they travelled for the hajj, other tiers of
government have keyed into the programme. However, successive federal and state
governments have bastardised the concept, which was not meant to sponsor
pilgrims with state funds or spend so much time and money on a purely religious
activity. Indeed, all the states in the North and some in the South are guilty
of committing huge public funds to sponsor pilgrimages and other religious
activities every year at the expense of critical social services.
To start
with, Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution states that “the Government of the
Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State religion,” and
Section 38 affirms “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Taken together, it is therefore unlawful and morally reprehensible for
individuals in government to turn their personal religious activities into
veritable public affairs.  There is a
tendency to suspend critical thinking and reality when religion is brought into
politics. Religion does not drive development, but rational/innovative thinking
and transparent leadership do. Since it is evident that infusion of religion
into public affairs is not a guarantee of good governance anywhere in the
world, it is time we rolled back religion from government.
Truly, many
civilised countries know the danger of mixing religion with state affairs. In
the United States, the Supreme Court rulings interpreting the First Amendment’s
prohibition against establishment of religion have long barred the direct use
of tax money to build, repair or maintain buildings devoted to religious services
or other religious activities.  Courts
have also outlawed prayer in public schools and religious displays on public
property. But here in Nigeria, governors spend furiously on religious
activities even in states where people are at the lowest level of human
development. This is absurd.
The Katsina
State Government has just awarded a N359.4 million contract for the
construction of 34 mosques. In Niger State, it was claimed in May that the
government spent about N5.1 billion to subsidise both Muslim and Christian
pilgrims from the state during the last six years. It was reported that in the
2012 Budget, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria got a total allocation of
N765.65 million, while the Nigeria Christian Pilgrim Commission received N576
million. Put together, the Federal Government must have spent N1.34 billion on
pilgrimages for the year. In 2012, President Jonathan was severely criticised
for accepting the donation of a multimillion naira church building from an
Italian construction firm. Result? A more corrupt society.
The level of
sponsorship of private religious obligations has assumed a shocking dimension.
The entire exercise reeks of corruption, with the nation losing billions of
naira annually to graft-ridden pilgrims’ welfare board officials. We have
advised before that government at all levels should stop sponsoring pilgrimages
– whether to Israel, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, and whether it is a government
official, President or governor that is involved. It is a sheer waste of
precious resources that should have been directed to better use.
The
President will do well to heed the May 2012 advice of the Stephen Oronsaye-led
Presidential Committee on Rationalisation of Federal Ministries and Agencies
that the Federal Government should scrap the two pilgrims’ welfare commissions
in the country. It also recommended that the government should stop granting
concessions in foreign exchange to pilgrims. For this year’s pilgrimage,
Jonathan and the Central Bank of Nigeria had approved a concessionary rate of
N144 to $1 when the prevailing market rate has been an average of N158 to $1
for more than six months now. According to the Oronsaye committee, Nigeria
wasted N6.5 billion on pilgrims-related issues between 2007 and 2011. The
government also expended N4.07 billion on the emoluments of the Christian and
Muslim welfare agencies’ employees between 2009 and 2011. How many millions of
classrooms or boreholes could these funds have provided. This is appalling.

The best
service Jonathan and the governors can offer the country at this time is to
concentrate on its huge human development challenges. The Constitution is clear
on the role of government in the society. In line with best global practices, a
few states, including Kano and Edo States, have stopped subsidising pilgrimages
earlier this year. Kano State’s Rabiu Kwankwaso actually described it as an
avenue for stealing public funds. Other states of the federation should follow
this progressive example.
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