Saturday, July 11, 2009

The State and Religious Pilgrimage

Hopefully as we begin to move forward as a nation, we can start to challenge the rationale of certain actions and policies carried out by the government – both at the state and federal level. Whilst some of these policies are totally at odds with our constitution, taxpayers’ money is still being wasted implementing such policies.

One of such policies is state sponsorship of religious pilgrimage. For me, we do not operate a theocratic government and therefore it is important that there is a clear delineation between religion and state. It is common knowledge that Nigeria has a long history of sponsoring pilgrims to Israel and Saudi Arabia every year on “holy pilgrimage”. Every year, colossal amount of money is budgeted for this exercise. The business of airlifting pilgrims to the holy land has also become big business. It is so lucrative that the contracts are only awarded to government cronies, who are feeding fat on taxpayers money. Section 10 of 1999 Constitution states “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion”. However, the federal and state government spend billions of naira every year sponsoring people on “holy pilgrimage”. We may probably need to remind ourselves how we got into this mess in the first place.

Former the Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, in 1975 established a Pilgrims Board funded by the State for the exclusive use of Muslims. In 1979, President Shehu Shagari, being unable to restrain himself from active participation in the promotion of religion, adopted a "balancing act strategy". Thus, in 1980, he established a Christian Pilgrims Board to make up for the existing Muslim Pilgrims Board.

As a Christian, I appreciate what it could mean for a Christian to travel on pilgrimage to the holy land in Jerusalem. I do also appreciate the fact that one of the fundamental tenets of Islam is the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. However, I do not agree that it is right for any government in a secular nation like Nigeria to get involved sponsoring such an activity. The way and manner anyone chooses to practice their religious beliefs should be independent of the state. The cost of engaging in a religious activity should not be foisted on the nation. The money spent annually on sponsoring a few pilgrims to the holy land can be used for the providing services for the benefit of the wider populace.

Some will argue that some Christians or Muslims would never have had the opportunity to visit the holy land if they had not been sponsored by the federal or state government. Yes I agree with such argument. And in fact, I will be quick to point out the writer’s parents were beneficiaries of state sponsorship to Jerusalem. But that doesn’t mean if the opportunity never existed, they wouldn’t have looked for alternative means of funding their trips. The most disappointing thing about the state sponsorship is the fact that most of the pilgrims are people who are very well off and are capable of sponsoring themselves.

Unfortunately, sponsoring religious pilgrimage is another hole the nation has dug itself into. Just like the issue of “Federal Character”, we need to ask ourselves where it is going to stop. Very soon we will see traditional worshippers asking to be sponsored for Ogun festival. But can they be blamed? The constitution does not recognise any religion, and no religion can be seen to be superior to the other. If I’m a Sango worshipper, I will not be happy for my tax to be used to sponsor a Christian or Muslim to the holy land.

For me the way forward is this. It is either the access to funds for religious pilgrimage is opened to all and not just Christians or Muslims. This might mean establishment of a pilgrims board for all religions. The second option, which is preference, is for the government to do away with the policy of sponsoring pilgrims in its entirety.

But, if the government feels an obligation to be involved in religious activities – which I don’t think is right - it can instead offer interest-free loans to prospective pilgrims. Such loans should be “means-tested”, i.e. made available only to people who cannot afford the cost of travel, accommodation etc. And being a secular nation, such loans will have to be made available to everyone irrespective of their religious beliefs.

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